Move It Monday – Watch Your Back

Happyhappy Monday friends! I am currently unemployed, so you see, I can be happy that it’s a Monday.

This week’s Move It Monday is still on the theme of upper-body strength the Pipes Challenge inspired. We will be moving to lower-body stuff eventually, promise!

Today’s rant was actually inspired by my mother. She was complaining of a sore chest after doing machine rows at the gym. A back exercise. It dawned on me that almost every person I’ve trained has done a back exercise incorrectly the first time. They also continued to need my nagging even after they knew how to do it correctly.

So I am here to show you how to work your back the right way. I want to make sure it’s your back that’s sore the next day, not some mystery body part from doing it wrong.


First we must understand what is happening in your back underneath all that skin. Your muscles are layered all throughout your body, so the right-hand side of the above image are the top-layers and the left-hand side the bottom-layers.

Looking at the above image shows that the back is full of muscles to work! And yet, how many of you zero in to work your rhomboids between bicep sets?

That’s what I thought ;)

I’m going to show you a few exercises to work the above muscles. But just so I don’t have to repeat myself with every one, I want to get one point across right away.

Use your back.

If you’re doing a back exercise like a row or lat pulldown, USE YOUR BACK to move the weight. Don’t use your chest or arms. What is the point of doing a back exercise when you don’t even purposefully use your back to complete it?

The best way to ensure you’re using your back is to keep your shoulders retracted and scapula (“shoulder blades”) locked down. To the point where you feel silly for sticking your chest out. Really focus on what is happening in your back. Start the motion by contracting your back muscles first. Take it slow and go light to make sure you’re really getting in there.



The rhomboids are muscles responsible for moving your shoulder blades. Weak rhomboids are often a source of bad posture because of an inability to hold the scapula back.

One arm bent-over dumbbell row
Straight arm pulldown
Reverse fly 


File:Trapezius Gray409.PNG

Like the rhomboids, your traps control movement of the scapula (shoulder blade) but are also responsible for supporting the arm. Doesn’t sound important now? Just wait until you need to hold your arm up in a plaster cast!

Upright row

Latissimus Dorsi

File:Latissimus dorsi .PNG

Also known as your “lats.” They are the most powerful muscles in your back. They give your back that “V” shape and are responsible for some arm movements.

Lat pulldown
Seated cable row 

Serratus Posterior

File:Serratus posterior.PNG 

This deep muscle assists helps your upper body and ribs twist and bend. Because of this, it is highly susceptible to being strained.

Bird Dog
Cat Cow

Serratus Anterior

File:Serratus anterior.png

Okay, so this muscle creeps out towards your front a little, but it is still really important for moving the scapula in your back. Which means it will help with posture! There aren’t many isolation exercises for this muscle, but here are some that will do the job:

Dumbbell pullover 
Diagonal cable woodchop
Push up plus 

That’s all for now! There are some I purposely left out, including the rotator cuff muscles as those are better left for a post on shoulders some day. For now, concentrate on hitting the above muscles. Reallyreally think about moving them with each rep. Because you can’t see them working in the mirror, you have to imagine what they look like moving during your set. Otherwise you’re just working all the wrong muscles! Remember to always hold that core in too. Firm it up like you’re about to be punched in the gut. It’ll help.

As always, leave questions/concerns/comments below. Happy exercising!


Posted on April 11, 2011, in Move It Monday. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Interesting! I usually do chest and back weights the same workout. I was taught to have that balance so it prevents injury. So if my chest is sore, I don’t know if it’s from the back exercise that I possibly did wrong, or the chest press I did right! How confusing!

    All I know is that last week I did SOMETHING that tweaked my neck and shoulder and was in agony for 4 days. UGH. It was the worst.

  2. Great post! I have all sorts of upper back/shoulder problems and find that if I don’t work on all those muscles consistently the problems rear their ugly head. A strong back is a healthy back (for me, anyway!) For some reason, too–yoga poses seem to be the best balancing exercises to keep the upper back loose–like down dog and forward bends–cat/cow is great too–glad you included it!

    • Yes! I didn’t talk about flexibility, but a lot of yoga poses are AMAZING for your back. Especially for your upper back where most people hold their stress and tension.

  3. Great post! It’s definitely important to read and re-read how to do exercises correctly.

  4. So much good nerdy science information that I adore. Yes girlie YOU need your traps with that arm cast you had!!

    I remember when I first started working out and took a class, the teacher told us to pretend we were squeezing a pencil in between our shoulder blades during lat pull downs- that was ??15 yrs ago? and I still remembered it from that one class! It is as you just said. Funny how things stick in your (my ) head!

    HOpe your arm is healing up quickly!

    • Oooh, I like the pencil trick! When I was training I used to poke my finger between my client’s shoulder blades and tell them to squeeze it :)

      As far as I know the arm is still trying to hold together – so far so good!

  5. I find the same thing happens with chest exercises! I always have to remind my clients to lift up out of their shoulders while doing pushups. If your back is sinking in, then you’re going to feel it!
    Great post:)

  6. This is great stuff Susan, I’m on an off week right now but I’m going to add a bunch of these exercises to mix up my routine when I’m back at the gym.

  7. Good post! It’s totally not a subject I’ve given a lot of thought (I’m sure I’m one of the mindless exercisers doing rows incorrectly) so this is very helpful!

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