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As a general rule, you should aim to do workouts that target all the muscles in your body each week in order to function optimally. You don’t have to do full-body workouts daily, but when you plan your training for the week, at some point, you should target all your muscles.
And when it comes to the upper body, incorporating workouts that single out your back and shoulders will set you up for success. After all, these are postural muscles that affect how you move throughout the world. A back and shoulder strength-training session can help you “with your everyday movement, like closing doors, pulling things off of the floor, or maybe even pulling down a suitcase from an overhead bin when you’re on an airplane,” says Alo Moves strength trainer Roxie Jones. “It can prevent future injuries in your shoulders and help you have a really strong back.”
Having a strong back supports and stabilizes your spine, improves your posture, and helps to prevent you from experiencing aches and pains that commonly occur when your muscles are weaker and aren’t being recruited and firing properly.
Why do back and shoulder exercises work so well together? First, doing them together will be more time efficient and you’ll be able to do more exercises that target both muscle groups at once. Second, because your back is a major muscle group and your shoulders are considered “accessory” muscles, they complement one another and you won’t have to worry about overdoing it during your sweat sessions throughout the week.
If you’re not sure where to get started on your back and shoulder journey, Jones has put together a back and shoulder workout routine for Well+Good’s “Good Moves” series that you can do in just 16 minutes. You’ll start with two warm-up exercises meant to lubricate the joints, followed by two supersets that contain two strength moves and an active recovery exercise each. You can check out the video above for the routine, or follow the steps below.
A 16-minute back and shoulder workout
Format: One warm-up set of two moves done twice plus two supersets of three moves, each superset done twice.
Equipment needed: One light and one medium dumbbell or kettlebell.
Who is this for?: This is an all-levels workout for anyone who wants to improve back and shoulder strength and mobility. Adjust the difficulty by increasing or decreasing the weights and/or numbers of reps.
Half-kneeling halo (30 seconds)
- In a half-kneeling position, hold one light weight between your hands.
- Move the weight to the side of your head, behind your head, and then to the other side.
- Reverse the direction between every rotation.
- For the second set, switch the position of your legs.
Scapula push-up (30 seconds)
- Come into a plank position (or knees-down plank).
- Let the chest sink down to the floor as the shoulders detract in the shoulder socket.
- Push the floor away to come back into original plank position.
Repeat the warm-up two times.
1: Single arm bent over row (8 reps)
- Come into a kick stance, with one leg forward and bent, and the other leg behind and bent, but without the knee touching the ground.
- Pick up the medium weight on the side of the back leg. Place the arm on the side of the front leg on your front thigh for support.
- While leaning forward with your arm hanging straight down, engage your back muscles as you bend your elbow and bring up the weight to just about waist height, keeping your elbow tucked into your body (not flared out).
- Slowly, and with control, return your arm to its original elongated position.
- After 8 reps, repeat on the other side.
2: Half-kneeling windmill into a press (5 reps)
- Set your legs up in a T-shape: Get in a half kneeling position, but shift the front leg with the foot on the floor to the side so that it is perpendicular to the back bent leg leg.
- On the side of your front leg, rack your light weight at your shoulder.
- Press the weight up overhead.
- While holding the weight overhead, reach your other hand down and out onto the ground, shifting your hips back behind you.
- Squeeze your glutes and return to the kneeling pose.
- Bring your lifted arm with the weight back down.
- After 5 reps, repeat on the other side.
3: Alternating single-side dead bug (30 seconds of active recovery)
- Come into a Pilates table top position, with your back on the floor, and hips and knees bent at 90-degree angles.
- Lightly place your hands your thighs.
- Extend the arm and leg of the same side, reaching the leg out straight in front of you, and bringing the arm out straight behind you. Keep your core engaged, with your lower back pressing into the floor, at all times.
- Repeat on the other side and continuously alternate.
Repeat superset A two times.
1: Tall kneeling shoulder raises (12 reps)
- Come into a kneeling position, with both knees on the ground. Hold the light weight between your hands.
- With straight arms, raise the weight up to shoulder height, so that your hands and the weight are directly in front of you.
- Lower back down.
- Repeat for 12 reps.
2: Lying down pullovers (10 reps)
- Lie on your back in a Pilates table top position with legs bent and lower back pushed into the floor.
- Hold your medium weight between your hands.
- Lift your arms straight up above your head.
- Keeping your arms as straight as possible, lower your arms towards the ground behind your head.
- Return weight to starting position.
- Repeat for 10 reps.
3: Bear hold (30 seconds)
- Come onto your hands and knees with a neutral spine, toes tucked.
- Keeping your knees in a 90-degree angle, lift your knees one or two inches off the ground. Engage through the shoulders, back, and core.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
Repeat superset B two times.
Other Shoulder and back exercises
Want to put together your own back and shoulder routine? Here are some of our other favorite moves.
Rows are one of the best exercises you can do for your back, and there are so many variations like bent-over rows and single-arm rows.
How to do it: With a slight bend in your knees and your torso tilted at a 45-degree angle, reach a pair of dumbbells to the floor, one in each hand. Your core should be engaged and your back should be in a natural position. With control, drive your elbows back and slightly out. Hold for two seconds, then return your arms to the starting position.
This bodyweight exercise may look easy, but you’ll feel it challenging your muscles after a few reps.
How to do it: Start by lying on the ground on your stomach. With control, engage your glutes and abs as you simultaneously lift your arms and legs off of the ground. Hold for a few seconds and slowly return to the starting position.
3. Glute bridges
Yes, glute bridges are great for your butt, but they also strengthen your lower-back muscles, helping to stabilize your spine.
How to do it: Start by lying on your back with arms fully extended, your palms flat on the ground, and your knees bent and feet about hips-width distance apart. Your knees and ankles should be aligned. Gently squeeze your glutes and drive your heels into the ground as you lift your back up off of the ground. Your spine should be in a neutral position and there should be no arching or rounding of your back. Hold for two to three seconds at the top of the move, then lower back down to the starting position.
4. Kettlebell deadlifts
Deadlifts are another exercise that most people do for the lower body, but that also strengthens your lower-back muscles.
How to do it: Start with your kettlebell lined up in between your ankles. Slightly bend your knees, maintaining a flat back with your chin in a neutral position, and grab the kettlebell with both hands. Think about squeezing your armpits together as you engage your core and your glutes, driving through your feet to come into a standing position as you raise the kettlebell to shoulder height. With control, lower the kettlebell back down to the starting position.
5. Overhead shoulder press
The video above shows how to do an overhead press with resistance bands, which is great for beginners. If you’re ready to progress the move, try doing an overhead press with dumbbells.
How to do it: Start standing with your feet about hips-width distance apart with a dumbbell in each hand. Engage your core and make sure to have a slight bend in your knees. With control, curl your arms up to bring the dumbbells to shoulder height; your palms can face forward or in. Keeping your core engaged and a neutral spine, press both dumbbells overhead until your arms are fully extended. Then lower them back down to your shoulders.
6. Plank with shoulder tap
Planks are great for your abs, but they’re also great for strengthening your back as well.
How to do it: Start by coming into a traditional plank, with your core engaged and your elbows and hands directly underneath your shoulders. Imagine that there is a straight line from your head all the way down to your heels. Once you’re set, lift your right hand up and off the ground and gently tap your left shoulder. Your hips should stay square and be pointing toward the ground throughout the duration of the movement. Place your right hand back on the ground with control, then repeat on the opposite side.
Need more back and shoulder workout inspo? Here’s another routine you can do—this time, with kettlebells!