The Lean Muscle Series: Back Burner

Just five simple moves stand between you and the rear view you want everyone to notice.

Photo: Getty Images

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We can’t tell you which fashion designer first conceptualized the backless dress — but we can certainly say it was an inspired creation. After all, the human back is a beautiful work of art, a series of elegant lines, rounded edges and striking symmetry well worth showing off, especially when you’ve put in the hard work to build your back.

That hard work, however, doesn’t have to be a chore. Here, we’ve tailored a workout made up of five fabulous exercises that will shape, chisel and perfect every inch of your rear view, helping you rock any outfit — no matter whose name is on the label.

The Back-on-Track Workout

Do the following circuit three to four times through. For weighted moves, choose successively heavier dumbbells or kettlebells from set to set. Catch your breath for one to two minutes between rounds while only resting minimally when switching between exercises within the circuit. 

Exercise Sets Reps
Kettlebell Deadlift 3-4 15, 12, 10, 8
Dumbbell Renegade Row 3-4 10-12
Dumbbell Pullover 3-4 15, 12, 10, 8
Alternating Band Pulldown 3-4 10-12
Lying Superman 3-4 8-10


Kettlebell Deadlift 

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Grasp a kettlebell in each hand with your arms down at your sides. With your chest out and core tight, lower your torso toward the floor by bending your knees and shifting your hips back. The kettlebells should track down your sides until they touch the floor just outside your feet. Stop for a brief one-count, then reverse the motion, extending your hips and knees powerfully as you bring the kettlebells back up along your body until you reach a standing position.

Pro Tip: As with the traditional barbell deadlift, you can alter your stance to “sumo” style, in which you widen your feet out a few inches beyond shoulder width and lower the kettlebells down to the floor between your feet, touching down to the floor directly under your hips. The sumo stance is sometimes more comfortable for lifters with shorter arms and for those coming back from pregnancy.

Dumbbell Renegade Row 

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Assume a modified push-up (four-point) position on the floor — your lower body balanced on your toes behind you with your legs spaced a little wider than hip width for balance, your hands shoulder-width apart. Instead of your palms on the floor as in a traditional push-up, you’ll grip the dumbbell handles that are in turn in contact with the ground, palms facing one another. From this position, you’ll alternately row one dumbbell up to your side and then lower it to the floor. Once with each arm equals one full repetition.

Pro Tip: A devious combination of a plank and a one-arm row, the renegade can be awkward, especially as you’re learning it. But remember this advice and you’ll ace it quickly: You want to maintain flat hips and lower back, keeping your butt level as you rep, without excessive twisting in an effort to hoist the weight up. If you need to generate momentum, your dumbbells are too heavy.

Dumbbell Pullover 

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Lie perpendicular across a bench with your upper back, head and neck supported and your feet flat on the floor and set wide for balance. Hold a dumbbell, cupping the inside of the upper plate, with your elbows extended above your face. Maintaining just a slight bend in your elbows, slowly lower the dumbbell backward until your elbows are aligned with your ears. When you’ve stretched as far as you can with straight elbows, pause for a one-count, then flex your lats to reverse direction and bring the dumbbell in a return arc until it’s overhead.

Pro Tip: The pullover is typically performed with your body perpendicular to the bench, but here’s a secret — if you prefer, you can perform them more comfortably by lying normally on the flat bench. You can either adjust yourself on the bench so that the dumbbell lowers down beyond the edge of the bench above your head or so that the plate comes down to make contact with the padding. The latter is a shorter range of motion, sure, but it strongly engages the lats and still provides a nice stretch throughout the rib cage and torso.

Alternating Band Pulldown 

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Anchor an exercise band to a sturdy overhead object so that the middle is secure and the handles hang down — if you’re in a gym, it could be a pull-up bar or a power rack, but you also can seek out a hook, beam or similar object at home. Kneel below the band so that the handles are above your head and grasp a handle in each hand, palms facing each other in a neutral grip. At this point, the band should be taut but not so tight as to not allow you to pull them downward.

Keeping your torso upright, core tight and eyes focused forward, pull down the right handle, bending your elbow and flexing your right-side lat to bring it down to your side. Once the handle is at shoulder level, slowly retrace the motion, then repeat with your left arm. One pulldown to each side equals one full rep.

Pro Tip: In a hurry? Trade this alternating version for the dual pulldown, pulling both handles down at the same time. While alternating does allow for deeper concentration on each side of your back, which can help attack imbalances in your muscle development and strength, the dual-arm pulldown will still deliver ample results.

Lying Superman 

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Lie facedown on the floor in a “Superman” position — legs extended and together, arms straight overhead with your upper arms running alongside each ear, forehead resting on the floor. Now flex your lower back to simultaneously lift both your legs and arms off the floor a few inches for a three- to five-count, balancing on your stomach for a brief moment, then lower them back to the start.

Pro Tip: The Superman is a perfect opportunity to offer up a challenge to yourself: How long can you hold the top position? Keep written track of your results so you can aim to better your personal best time in future workouts.

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