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Back Exercises to Build Muscle and Strength for CrossFit Athletes

A strong back is absolutely essential if you want to be a decent CrossFit athlete and think seriously about your long-term health and well-being.

Back exercises are a great way to build muscle. It is difficult to think of a functional exercise where having a strong back will not give you an advantage. In CrossFit, a powerful back will help you to:

  • Control and execute gymnastic movements such as muscle ups
  • Improve the pulling phases of the Olympic Lifts
  • Help stabilise all overhead pressing and balancing movements
  • Support your spine and protect you from injury
  • Maintain good posture
  • Enable you to lift more (and thus get stronger) on the most important basic strength exercises
  • Work with your core to control and stabilise movements

WARM UP

Whether you choose to train with several exercises that specifically target your back together (a “back day” so to speak), or you want to add a few of the following into a workout, make sure you warm up with movements that mimic those that you are about to perform. 

Upper-Back-Muscles back exercises build muscle
Upper back muscles

A decent warm-up should always include (at minimum) some kind of work to elevate your heart rate and involve movements that are specific to what you will do in your workout. For example, if you about to work on strict presses and overhead strength, it makes sense to select warm-up exercises that will mirror these movements.

Your back is comprised of many large muscle groups and is a powerful part of your body, so take the time to warm up properly when you know it will be stressed and worked hard in a training session. Learn more about your thoracic spine and posterior chain to understand how these function together.

It is also important to think about your scapula and shoulders when warming up for any of these back exercises. Try these exercises to get prepped for these types of workouts:

Scapular Health: 4 Banded Mobility Exercises to Bulletproof Your Shoulders

If you still aren’t sure about exactly where to start, your coach should be the first point of contact. This banded drill from Sam Dancer is also an excellent starting point.

BACK WARM UP FROM SAM DANCER

“Stay smooth, always push out against band and keep band off your back. Did it for about 2-3min. Loved the rotation of the scap, activation of pec and lat, and a surprising amount of stability involved in both trunk and shoulder.. nothing quite like it from my experience. Some relatives might be like a contralateral carry or TGU but there isn’t anything as dynamic with tension.”

Once you are warmed up properly, get into your workout! The following seven exercises are all excellent ways to strengthen your back and improve your performance for Crossfit, life and general long-term health.

BACK EXERCISES – BUILD MUSCLE WITH PRONE ROWS

“This is an easy way to set this up if you don’t have a proper Prone Row and bent bar set up. Great way to teach upper back pulling. Widen the grip to remove even more of the arm flexors.”

DEADLIFT – BACK EXERCISES

“There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do DEADLIFT” John Pall Sigmarsson: 4x winner of the World’s Strongest Man Competition.

Deadlifts are one of the most important exercises in the Crossfit Spectrum, and in strength and conditioning in general.

Correctly done they will help you to build massive strength in your posterior chain and you will need that for all your weightlifting. It is also the exercise that allows your body to move the most weight. But as with every heavy lift, progress and avoiding injury lies in great technique.

BACK EXERCISES – WIDE GRIP STRICT PULL UPS

Strict pull-ups are an excellent exercise for building strength in general. Widen your grip and you make the movement even harder. This will force your traps, delts, lats, tris, teres major and core to work even more and strengthen your back. If you struggle with strict pull-ups, then check out the video below. 

This video shows progression exercises to help you build up to strict pull-ups. If you are already fairly confident with this strict movement then simply add it into your training when you want to specifically develop your back strength. For pure strength, work in sets of no more than five reps, and you want to be close to failure by the last rep. Add a weight vest if necessary. If your goal is more towards hypertrophy, work in sets of 8-12 reps and maintain a high intensity with short rest times between working sets.

If you can manage three sets of ten full wide grip pull-ups (back to a neutral hanging position with every rep) then that’s a very respectable milestone in your training and back strength. 

BACK EXERCISES – THE BARBELL ROW

A stable for many lifters and athletes, this is a vital exercise that should be included in every athletes strength and conditioning work. Keep your core tight and squeeze your glutes and grip in order to maintain good form and tension throughout every rep.

This informative video from Alan Thrall gives you everything you need to correctly perform barbell rows.

BUILD MUSCLE – DUAL KB RACK CARRY

This is a terrific upper back and scapular developer. It combines trunk and core strength and stability. The shoulders get a massive dose and you can do these alone or in longer grinder pieces. Keep the elbows pointed down and shoulder blades packed. Try to resist shrugging up.

ONE ARM DUMBBELL ROW

This exercise is especially good for strengthening your lats and traps. Make sure you pull with your back and don’t hoist the weight up with your arm. Keep the movement slow and controlled and concentrate on contracting the muscles that are involved. Stronger lats and traps will help you with other exercises such as pull ups, deadlifts and explosive movements such as dumbbell snatches.  

One_Arm_Dumbbell_Row1 back exercises
The movement

SUMO STANCE GOOD MORNING – BACK EXERCISES

“Wide Stance with toes trained out and knees remaining as straight as possible. Slow down the eccentric and the adductor and hamstring activation is intense.”

Get more out of your training:

8 Functional Exercises to build a Solid Core & Abs of Steel

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