Work out to attack your back.
The middle back is one of the most often forgotten training points during a heavy back day.
It’s a shame because mid-back exercises are some of the best you can do to get even volume along the back for a more balanced body.
This article will cover a few of the best moves you can do to build up the middle of your back.
Follow along as we walk through the best mid-back exercises for building a stronger physique.
Why Should I Work Out My Mid Back?
Exercises that target the middle of your back can be a great way to build up your posture and support the adjacent muscles of your back and core.
Some people’s backs are too mobile and not strong enough. Although it’s great to have a flexible back, hypermobility— what happens when your back has too much range of motion— is also associated with pain in your back.
For more information, see Symptomatic Joint Hypermobility Is Associated with Low Back Pain.
Better Spinal Health
Along the mid-back sits your thoracic spine. This central section of your spine is responsible for helping your torso to twist and bend in the middle.
A healthy thoracic spine ensures that your body can perform this type of functional movement effectively.
The cervical spine wors together with the cervical (upper, running down your neck) and lumbar spine (from the mid-back down to your sacrum) to form your spinal column.
Having a strong thoracic spine will make sure that your back is strong enough to support your body and help with exercising.
Especially for your pull days which focus on the back, good thoracic spine health and mobility are some of the best things you can work towards in your body.
Getting developed back muscles is a great way to ensure you look better. In weightlifting, it’s common to focus on certain muscle groups and neglect others.
This has to do with stereotypes on what foundational building blocks help to make up a “nice body.” We often don’t think about the back because, well, it’s literally behind us.
Men are often more focused on perfecting multiple chest exercises per workout to get stronger chests, or V-lines on their abs as opposed to a strong back. Women, on the other hand, tend to focus on getting round butts or smaller waists with ab exercises.
Strengthening the back is one of the most missed opportunities for training, but it can be a key part of ensuring a more balanced shape. Working on muscles like the latissimus dorsi, which taper in around the back of your waist can give you the appearance of tighter abs and a more toned midsection.
This aesthetic can help increase your confidence and boost the way your body looks and performs.
Moving along, let’s take a deeper look at the anatomy of the mid back. Understanding your muscles will help you engage the mind-muscle connection when it comes to planning your next mid-back workout.
Less Back Pain
Although most back pain studies have been performed around pain in the lower back, neuroscientists are increasingly working towards looking at pain studied around the thoracic spine.
This pain can be attributed to trauma like fractured ribs or scar tissue, but persistent chronic pain can also be neurological. For more information, see Chronic pain and the thoracic spine.
Children and teenagers seem to be more likely to develop pain in the thoracic spine. For more information on thoracic spinal pain in young populations, you can see Thoracic spine pain in the general population: Prevalence, incidence and associated factors in children, adolescents and adults.
The middle back is an area that often needs to be addressed, even by avid gymgoers who train by muscle group.
Aka your lats, the latissimus dorsi is a large panel of muscle that sits at the sides of your torso in the middle of your back. This paired muscle is the largest in your back.
The lats are key when it comes to the pulling motion that your body makes. You can also get a mean lat spread if you train the lats properly and are looking to show these muscles off.
Strong lats can help you do things like lat pulldowns, climbing, and swimming.
The trapezius muscle or traps connect from your neck and continue to spread down the middle of your back.
They’re named for their shape: the trapezius muscles are shaped like trapezoids. These muscles are responsible for helping to stabilize your shoulder joints.
The upper trapezius muscles can help you to extend your neck, while the lower traps that sit along your back help to move your scapula (shoulder blades).
You need healthy and functional scapulae for a variety of movements. Think about any time a fitness instructor has ever told you to pull in, engage your shoulder blades, or “SQUEEEEZE!”.
Squeezing the scapula together is important in back-building moves like rows, pulldowns, or even tricep push-ups.
As we’ll see, many of the mid-back exercises that we are exploring work heavily into the muscles surrounding the scapula.
The spinal erectors sit between your middle and low back. These muscles help you keep your spine straight and stay standing upright.
What is the Thoracic Spine?
The thoracic spine is the second column of your spine that sits between the cervical spine in your neck and the lumbar spine at the bottom of your back. Your cervical spine, thoracic spine and lumbar spine work together to define the structure of your body.
Your thoracic spine, along your mid-back, is made up of 12 thoracic vertebrae. Parts of your spine include vertebrae, intervertebral discs, facet joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles.
When we exercise our mid-back, any moves that require a twist or a lateral bend will work the thoracic spine.
Keeping this part of your spine healthy and limber supports your spine’s natural curve. The thoracic spine also encompasses the area where your thoracic cavity sets.
This place is home to organs like your heart, lungs, trachea, thymus, and esophagus.
These organs, as you’ll probably know, are associated with some of the most essential functions of the body. We use our thoracic spinal area when we breathe eat and speak.
Ensure mobility along your mid-back and thoracic spine by performing workouts that focus on this part of the back. This can help your body in processes like easier breath and improved digestion.
Now, let’s look at a few mid-back exercises to help strengthen your back muscles and get a healthier spine.
Barbell Bent-Over Row
- Set-Up: Grab a barbell with an overhand grip. Make sure to keep your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Hinge from your hips and bend your knees slightly to drop your body forward.
Your spine should be in a neutral position. Gaze downwards and about a meter ahead of you.
- Action: Slowly bend your elbows so that your barbell comes in towards your torso. The barbell should hit you at approximately the bottom of your rib cage.
- Muscle Activation: Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the back of this move. Hold at the top for a moment.
- Reverse: Release the tension and slowly straighten your arms and elbows to bring your barbell back down and in front of you. Return to the start of your movement with control.
Single Arm Barbell Row
Single-armed moves are a fantastic way to build up your strength unilaterally. Unilateral exercises mean workouts that activate one side of the body and then the other. These are opposite to bilateral exercises, where you work both sides of the body at once.
Alternating between sides instead of working bilaterally can help you address muscle imbalances that you may be facing. This is one of the best mid-back fat exercises that you can do to burn calories and sculpt your waist on both sides.
For a single arm row:
- Set-Up: Grab a weight bench and a medium-sized dumbbell. Plant one hand firmly on the side of your weight bench to stabilize your body. Make sure your shoulders are even and facing forward. Hold the dumbbell in one hand with an overhand grip.
- Action: Engaging your back, pull the hand with the dumbbell backwards, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Make sure not to twist or thrash your shoulders around through this movement. Focus on staying stable.
- Muscle Activation: Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of this move.
- Reverse: Straighten your elbow to bring your dumbbell back to slowly return to the starting position. Repeat the movement of bending your elbow and pulling your weight up, squeezing your shoulder blades at the top.
- Reps: Aim for three sets of 10 reps per arm. Complete a set with one arm, then switch to the other side.
Pro-Tip: Use this move as one of your essential mid-back fat exercises: By rowing your arm quickly and at higher reps, you help get your heart rate up and ensure a calorie burn.
Face pulls are fantastic upper mid-back exercises. Since they work higher up on your body than rows, face pulls work the muscles in all parts of your mid-back.
- Set-Up: Start by attaching a rope or handle to a cable machine. Your attachment should sit at face height. Adjust the pulley to this level.
Step back to stand a few feet away from your machine. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart. You can also choose to kneel at the same distance away if it’s more comfortable, although you’ll need to adjust your pulley height accordingly.
- Grip and position: Grab your rope or handle with an overhand grip. Keep your hands around shoulder-width apart. Step far enough back to put some tension in your cable. If you’re standing up, keep a slight bend in your knees.
- Movement: Extend your arms all the way. Pull the rope or handle towards your face by bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Your upper arms should stay parallel to the ground. Make sure you’re pulling directly towards your face (this can feel strange at first!). Think about externally rotating your shoulders.
- Return: Slowly reverse your movement. Extend your arms and slowly let the weight pull you back to the starting position. Work against the resistance to control the weight. Your cables should never be jerking your shoulders into position. Focus on engaging your rear delts and upper back muscles the whole time. Keep going for as many reps as you’d like. We’d recommend 3-4 reps of 8-12 reps for new lifters.
Exercises for Mid-Back Pain— Stretches
Ever really needed to crack your back?
A supine twist is one of the best ways to wring your spine out, so to speak.
This move is commonly used in disciplines like yoga but can be a simple warm-up or cool-down move all by itself no matter what exercise you’re trying.
To perform a supine twist:
- Set-Up: Lie flat on your back with your knees tucked in and pointing straight upward and your feet planted on the ground. You may want to use a yoga mat or other comfortable surface to lie on.
- Twisting Motion: Drop the knees down to one side of the body, while twisting your shoulders and upper torso toward the opposite side. Keep your arms straight out to your sides in a T-shape. Plant your palms facing the floor to keep you stable.
- Stretch: Hold this move in place, making sure you inhale and exhale with deep breaths to ease into this twist. This should feel like a very deep stretch, but make sure to ease out of it if it causes you pain. Spinal cracking in this position is normal.
- Reps: Hold here for at least 30 seconds. Repeat the movement on the other side. You can do another rep per side if you feel the need, or hold for longer if the position is comfortable.
- Variation: If you don’t like having your knees tucked in, try this move with your legs fully extended. Aim to get your body and legs into a 90° angle in your twist.
Did You Know?: Some variation of supine twist is commonly prescribed in physical therapy. It’s a great exercise to reintroduce movement into your spine and upper body after an injury.
This is another popular yoga move that helps fully flex and extend your spine to work through your range of motion.
To perform cat-cow:
- Set-Up: Grab a yoga mat or a comfortable surface.
- Body Position: Come to a tabletop or all-fours position on your hands and knees.
- Action: Arch your back and pull your head and chest up and your heart forward. Lift your seat into the air at the same time. Your spine should form an inverted U-shape.
- Reverse: Reverse the motion, bringing your belly button up toward the ceiling lowering your head and shoulders and creating a hollow shape with your front body, bringing your pelvis downward.
- Reps: Continue alternating between cat and cow position as many times as you need. There is no particular set-rep pattern for this move. It’s more a matter of when your spine feels warm and ready to perform other movements.
Working out your mid-back is one of the best ways to show a little love to a much-neglected area of your body.
Building strength throughout your entire back is essential for a strong spine.
It can give you better mobility through your core and the ability to twist and bend without pain. A strong mid-back lets you stand up straight and hold your head high with confidence.
The main muscles in your middle back include your latissimus dorsi, and trapezius muscles. These help you with pulling movements, like swimming, and climbing. They will also help you improve your horizontal pull exercises at the gym like the lat pull-down or a bent-over row.
You can use exercises like bent-over rows, face pulls and single-arm dumbbell rows to build up the muscles of your middle back. Adding these simple strength training moves to your workout routine is a great way to put on muscle mass and improve poor posture.
Remember to stretch. To keep your thoracic spine strong and limber, you can use exercises like the supine twist, and cat-cow exercise to help you improve your mobility through the spine and mid-back.
Since many people suffer from not only weakness but stiffness in the back, getting mobility work in is just as important as performing strengthening moves for your back.
Briggs, A.M., Smith, A.J., Straker, L.M. et al. Thoracic spine pain in the general population: Prevalence, incidence and associated factors in children, adolescents and adults. A systematic review. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 10, 77 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2474-10-77
Hershkovich, O., Gordon, B., Derazne, E., Tzur, D., Afek, A., & Lotan, R. (2022). Symptomatic Joint Hypermobility Is Associated with Low Back Pain: A National Adolescents Cohort Study. Journal of clinical medicine, 11(17), 5105. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm11175105
Jeno SH, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Back, Latissimus Dorsi. [Updated 2023 Mar 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448120/
Knecht, C., Hartnack, S., Sick, B. et al. A prospective observational study on trajectories and prognostic factors of mid back pain. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 21, 554 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-020-03534-5
Louw, A., & Schmidt, S. G. (2015). Chronic pain and the thoracic spine. The Journal of manual & manipulative therapy, 23(3), 162–168. https://doi.org/10.1179/2042618615Y.0000000006