A weak mid back could be the reason for your poor posture, lack of muscle definition in the back, and even lack of strength in exercises like deadlifts. However, with the right training program, you can target the mid-back muscles and see improvement relatively quickly.
The 10 best back exercise you can do to target the mid-back are:
- Barbell Row
- Reverse Grip Barbell Row
- Incline Dumbbell Row
- Dumbbell Row
- Hammer Iso Row
- Meadow Landmine Row
- Seal Row
- Cable Face Pull
- Inverted Row
- Cable Row
I’ll teach you how to perform these mid-back exercises properly and how to incorporate them in a workout to improve posture, strengthen your pulls, and encourage muscle growth.
If you want to build your back muscles, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.
Mid-Back Anatomy: An Overview
The mid-back comprises a few muscles, each working to keep the shoulders from rounding forward while also helping to pull objects or loads into the body.
The rhomboids are located between the shoulder blades, and their primary role is to retract (pull) the shoulder blazers together. The rhomboids are active in most pulling movements where you emphasize squeezing the shoulder blades together.
If you have weak rhomboids, you will notice your shoulders will tend to round forwards. You will also struggle with pulling movements because of a lack of strength and unfavorable positioning.
You may even notice that you struggle to keep your back set during pressing movements like bench press and overhead press.
The traps are a large muscle group that are located across the shoulders and down the spine forming a large triangle. The traps have three sections (upper, middle, and lower). The middle traps are most relevant for this article as they also retract the shoulder blades and help create definition in the middle back.
Weak middle traps are common in those with weak rhomboids because they perform similar actions. For this reason, your middle traps can be trained at the same time with many of the same exercises as the rhomboids.
4 Benefits Of Mid-Back Exercises
Below are the four main benefits of strengthening your mid-back muscles.
1. Better Posture
The mid-back muscles are important for maintaining good posture because when your middle back muscles are weak, your shoulder blades tend to roll forward and apart, resulting in the shoulders hunching forward, the chest collapsing, and the neck to be arched back (to keep the eyesight forward instead of down).
By strengthening these muscles, you are better able to pull the shoulder blades back into a more neutral position and align the upper spine and neck to minimize poor posture and discount.
2. Stronger Pulls
A stronger mid-back will help you maintain a more rigid and stable upper back during heavy pulls like deadlifts, carries, and rows. When you strengthen your middle back, you’re better able to prevent rounding of your back under heavy loads. Keeping your back flat is important for injury prevention and for stronger pulls.
Additionally, when your shoulders are retracted you can engage your lat muscles (your strongest back muscle) for pulling exercises, but when your shoulders are rounded forward because you lack mid back strength, you won’t be able to engage your lats.
3. Less Neck Pain
If you have a weak middle back you may suffer from neck stiffness and pain. This stiffness and pain happens when you have a weak middle back because your shoulder blades are always spread forward (protraction) resulting in a hunched upper back.
This hunched position will mean that you need to tilt your head up and back to keep your eyes forward (due to your slouched upper spine position). Over time, this can create stiffness in the shoulders and neck which gets exacerbated when using poor posture in daily life and exercise.
This is common in those who work at a desk and those who are used to sitting with a slumped posture for long periods because they spend all day in a posture that doesn’t reinforce the use of the mid back muscles. A classic example of if you don’t use it, you lose it.
By strengthening the mid back muscles you can reduce neck stiffness and pain and improve your quality of life.
4. Better Overhead Performance
When training exercises like shoulder presses and other overhead exercises, your middle back is working to help stabilize the shoulder blades as the arms are overhead. Poor mid-back strength can lead to slouched shoulders (poor posture), which prevents you from lifting your arms overhead without arching the lower back.
As you strengthen the mid-back, you will notice your overhead pressing and ability to reach your hands overhead without arching the lower back will improve, which also reduces your risk of injury.
Common Mistakes Training The Mid Back
Before we dive into the exercises, it’s important to be aware of mistakes that people generally make when training their mid back that prevent them from training these muscles effectively.
Letting the Upper Traps Take Over
When training the mid back, it can be challenging to keep the upper traps out of the movement because the upper traps are much stronger.
The upper traps are responsible for elevating the shoulders (think a “shrugging” motion), so you can tell they are taking over in mid-back movements when your shoulders are shrugged up toward your ears.
When the upper traps take over it diminishes the mid-back benefits of the movement. So when training your mid-back, you need to be very conscious of your form to ensure you keep your shoulders down and away from your ears.
Picking the Wrong Exercises
Sometimes, you just pick the wrong exercise for your goal. While this is a very easy fix (choose the exercises below), it is a common one that many individuals make when working out on their own.
I often ask my clients, “Where do you feel this working” or, “What muscles do you feel squeezing and stretching”?
This is a helpful mindset to practice when training any muscle group, as it allows you to choose the right exercises for the muscles you are trying to target.
If you are performing a movement and you are NOT feeling the target muscles working, then you are either picking the wrong exercises, doing the right exercise incorrectly, or not using enough load to challenge the muscles.
Not Making the Mind Muscle Connection
A lot of the time, people are unable to target the mid-back because they have never been able to feel those muscles working. This is a common issue for people who have really poor posture because they are often stuck with their shoulders pulled forward and a rounded upper back.
This is where it is helpful to have someone place their fingers between your shoulder blades as you perform rows and other mid-back exercises.
By having the fingers between your shoulder blades, you get a tactile cue that can help you think about pinching their fingers between your shoulder blades (while also not shrugging the shoulders upwards).
If you train alone and lack body awareness, it can be helpful to use a mirror to see if your shoulder blades are coming together and if your shoulders are rounding forward when you pull.
10 Best Mid-Back Exercises
Below is a list of 10 of the best exercises you should be doing to build your mid-back muscles.
Note: Most of these exercises can be found within the Fitbod app. You don’t need to incorporate all 10 into your training program. You just need to pick 3-5 exercises and rotate them through your program over time. If using Fitbod, you can select the muscle groups you want to work on (i.e., back), and the program will build itself accordingly.
1. Barbell Rows
The barbell row trains the rhomboids, traps, and lats. This is one of the best movements you can do to strengthen the entire backside of the body.
That said, you need to allow the shoulder blades to move apart and then back together as you do the row. Many lifters struggle to do these properly because they pull the bar to them with their arms but fail to squeeze their shoulder blades together.
Focus on form, and squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of every rep to better target the mid back.
How To Do It
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a barbell lined up over your toes.
- Grab the barbell with a double overhand grip (palms facing you) 2-3 inches wider than the shoulders.
- Flatten your back and allow the knees and hips to bend as you bend over with your chest toward the floor.
- Hold the bar with straight arms and have the bar hanging in line with your shoulders. Think about pulling your shoulder blades apart and feeling the stretch across the middle back.
- Initiate the movement by pulling the shoulder blades together and pulling the elbows up and towards your lower back.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top for 2-3 seconds, then slowly (2-3 seconds) lower the weight and repeat.
Keep your wrists relaxed as you pull the weights up, as this will help ensure you are not using your arms to pull the weight. Sometimes I even use lifting straps to take the focus off of my grip and my arms, keeping the focus on pulling my shoulder blades together.
2. Reverse Grip Barbell Row
The reverse grip row is similar to the barbell row but with this variation, you will perform the rows with an underhand grip (palms facing forwards).
With an underhand grip, you can keep the elbows closer to your body and get a better squeeze between the shoulder blades. Some people find it easier to prevent the shoulders from rounding forward with a reverse grip rather than a traditional (overhand) grip.
How To Do It
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a barbell lined up over your toes.
- Grab the barbell with a double underhand grip (palms facing away) shoulder width apart.
- Bend the knees and hips and bend over, keeping the back flat and hips back.
- Allow the shoulder blades to stretch apart before rowing.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades together as you pull the elbows back towards your hips.
- Pause and squeeze the muscles between the shoulder blades for 2-3 seconds at the top, then slowly (2-3 seconds) lower the weights and repeat.
If you’re struggling to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement, think about puffing out your chest toward the floor to get your shoulder blades back instead of rounding forward.
3. Incline Dumbbell Row
The incline dumbbell row is a chest-supported variation that allows you to train the middle back without having to hold yourself in the bent-over position. This is ideal for higher rep training or for those who struggle to maintain good form when bent over.
This is one of my favorite ways to target the mid-back because the slight incline allows you to train a fuller range of motion. The dumbbells also allow you to pull the weights back further past the body to get an even more aggressive squeeze in between the shoulder blades.
How To Do It
- Set an adjustable bench to a 30 degree incline angle.
- Grab two dumbbells and lay your chest on the bench, making sure that your chest and shoulders are hanging off the end of the bench.
- With the arms straight underneath you, pull the elbows back towards your hips and squeeze the shoulder blades together, making sure to keep your head and chest up.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades aggressively at the top for 2-3 seconds, and then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
I like to think about pulling my shoulder blades apart as I reach my hands toward the floor (shoulder protraction) because it gives a nice stretch in the mid back. From there, I will then puff out my chest into the bench and pull my shoulder blades together.
This allows me to train the middle back in the absolute fullest range of motion to help improve upper back mobility and muscle growth.
4. Dumbbell Row
The dumbbell row is a single-arm row exercise that allows you to train one arm at a time. By training one arm at a time, you can place all the emphasis on that side of the middle back, and address any side-to-side muscle imbalances you may have.
When doing dumbbell rows that target the middle back, it’s important to pull the shoulder blades together with every rep. It can be easy to just rotate your hips or body to lift the weight, however, that will not target the mid-back.
Most people will be amazed at how weak their middle back feels when doing these properly, so don’t be afraid to decrease the weight and focus on technique.
How To Do It
- Stand in front of a bench or box with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend over, and push your hip back, allowing the knees and hips to bend.
- Place one hand on the bench/box, and grab a dumbbell with your other hand.
- Your chest should be over the bench. Your knees should be under your hips.
- Without letting the hips rotate, pull the elbow up to the side of the rib cage to lift the weight.
- Pause and squeeze the muscles between the shoulder blades for 2-3 seconds at the top, then slowly (2-3 seconds) lower the dumbbell and repeat.
You can also stagger your feet to make more room for the dumbbell as you pull it up toward your ribcage. The biggest goal with your stance is to find a stance that allows you to keep your back flat, chest puffed, and hips stable.
5. Hammer Iso Row
The hammer iso row is a machine row that allows you to train each arm individually, making it great for addressing muscle imbalances. Unlike dumbbells, the machine has you perform the row on a predetermined path, which is easier because you do not need to coordinate the movement.
The hammer iso row is ideal for beginners who struggle to get the right pulling angles to attack the middle back. It is also great for advanced lifters who want to isolate their middle back and train with a higher intensity.
How To Do It
- Sit down and place your chest on the pad of the hammer iso row machine. You want to make sure that your upper chest and shoulders are above the top of the chest pad.
- Reach forward and grab the handles, and allow your upper and middle back to stretch apart (think about pulling the shoulder blades apart).
- Pull the elbows back towards your hips, making sure they do not flare outwards.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pause at the top for 2-3 seconds.
- Lower the weights back down, getting a full stretch on the middle back, and repeat.
You can also train this one arm at a time, which will allow you to really focus on feeling one side of the body. A lot of more advanced lifters will do this as they are able to make a better mind-muscle connection by training one arm at a time.
6. Meadow Landmine Row
The Meadow landmine row is a barbell row variation that is great because you can train one arm at a time in a well-supported bent-over position, with a large range of motion.
This is a great exercise when training the mid-back because you can pull the end of the barbell past your body, which helps to retract the shoulder blades further than if you were doing a barbell bent row.
It also has you perform the row in a set path (for the most part) whereas a dumbbell row leaves more room for error for some beginners who struggle to pull the weight up and back towards their hips.
How To Do It
- Place the end of the barbell in the landmine holder, and load weight on the other end.
- Stand perpendicular to the barbell, and then bend over with a flat back, keeping your chest in line with the end of the barbell.
- Stagger your feet so that the leg closest to the weight is back 2-3 feet behind the other one (the outside leg should be in line with the end of the barbell).
- Place your outside arm on your front thigh for support, and flatten your back without letting the inside hip rotate upwards.
- Reach down and grab the end of the barbell with your inside arm, and then pull the elbows up to the side of your ribcage, squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top.
- Lower the weight, and repeat.
You may need to adjust your stance to move closer or further away from the end of the barbell if you are not able to pull the end of the barbell past your hip. If you are too far away, you will notice you will have too much space between the end of the barbell and the hip (try to have the end of the barbell as close to the hip as possible without touching the hip).
Related Article: Best Landmine Exercises
7. Seal Row
This is a chest-supported seal row where you are lying parallel to the ground. Unlike the incline row, you are pulling the weight straight up rather than up on an angle. This is a more challenging movement for the back muscles, making it great for increasing middle back strength.
I like incorporating this exercise when I want to train with heavy loads but do not want to have to rely upon the flexibility of my hamstrings or lower back like I would during a barbell row.
How To Do It
- Place a bench up on small boxes, with a barbell running underneath (perpendicular to the bench).
- You want to have the bench elevated enough so that you can lie prone (chest down) on the bench with the arms fully extended under you while holding the barbell.
- Take a double overhead, shoulder-width grip on the barbell, and inhale deeply to fill the stomach with air.
- While keeping the elbows into the body, pull them upwards and back towards your hips, as you squeeze the shoulder blades together.
- Pull the barbell toward the chest as high as you can (which may be until the bar hits the underside of the bench), and then slowly lower the weight back down and repeat.
Make sure that you’re able to squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top of every rep. With this being a more challenging exercise, you may need to go lighter than you think to complete the full range of motion.
8. Cable Face Pull
The face pull is an excellent middle back exercise that is ideal for those who need to work on overhead stability as it also involves external rotation (rotating up and back) at the shoulder joint, which is often a weak point for those with poor posture.
When doing this, you can also use a variety of angles (rope, neutral grip, etc). For best results, I find a neutral grip allows you to pull the shoulder blades together while also keeping the elbows up (see below).
How To Do It
- Stand in front of a cable machine and set the pulley at face level or slightly higher.
- Attach a rope handle or neutral grip handle. You want to make sure your palms are facing one another as you pull.
- Pull the cable directly towards your forehead, making sure to keep the elbows up at a 70-90 degree angle.
- As you pull the weights back, try to think about pulling the arms apart as you do so, and squeeze the shoulder blades together.
- Pause for 2-3 seconds, making sure to feel a good squeeze of the muscle between your shoulder blades, and then lower the weight and repeat.
Be sure not to let your lower back arch as you do this exercise, as many people will arch their lower backs and allow their ribcage to lift and push forwards rather than pulling the shoulder blades apart. I find it helpful to do this kneeling to minimize the ability to lean back and make this even more isolated to the middle back.
9. Inverted Row
The inverted row is a bodyweight row variation that can be trained without any weights, making it ideal for at-home mid-back workouts or when you do not have access to a gym.
You can adjust the difficulty of this exercise by changing the angle at which you pull yourself up. The closer you are to being parallel with the floor, the harder it is.
How To Do It
- Rack a barbell at waist height in a barbell rack. Stand in the opposite direction of the j hooks, this way you do not pull the barbel out of the hooks when you are doing the movement.
- Grab the barbel with a shoulder-width grip, with your palms facing upwards (you can also do these with the palms down, however, I find a supinated grip is best).
- Extend your legs and brace your core to maintain a straight line from your heels to your shoulders.
- Straighten your arms and then pull your chest to the bar, keeping the elbows in. The barbell should touch just below the sternum.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades together, and make sure you are not hunching forwards toward the bar.
If you struggle to do these, you can increase the height of the barbell in the rack, as this will make it less challenging. If you find them too easy, lower the height of the bar and get yourself closer to being parallel with the floor.
10. Cable Row
The cable row is a machine row that allows you to train the middle back at a variety of angles without needing to be bent over. While bent-over rows are great, they can be exhausting as you get more fatigued.
The cable row is a great isolation exercise for the middle back, as it allows you to maintain an upright position and really focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together with every rep against constant tension from the cable.
How To Do It
- Grab hold of the handle attachment (preferably a neutral grip attachment or underhand grip handles) before stepping back 2-3 feet from the stack.
- Sit down on the bench and place your feet on the foot platform. Your knees can be softly bent.
- With your chest up and arms extended in front of you, brace your core by taking a deep breath into the stomach, and then pull the elbows back towards your ribcage.
- Keep the chest up, but do not lean back.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades together, then slowly lengthen your arms and repeat.
As you lengthen your arms, think about pulling the shoulder blades apart and letting the torso lean forward; this will create a bigger stretch across the middle back and bring more awareness to your shoulder blade position throughout the movement.
As you pull, remember to sit upright and resist the urge to lean back.
Sample Workouts For Mid-Back Exercises
Below is a 2-day mid-back workout routine to build a stronger, muscular middle back.
The workouts below use low, moderate, and higher rep ranges to build strength, muscle mass, and muscular endurance.
Note: Although this exact workout cannot be found in the Fitbod app, all the movements below can. You should use this sample routine as an outline to construct your workouts based on the above information.
- Hammer Iso Row: 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Reverse Grip Barbell Row: 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Cable Face Pull: 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Incline Dumbbell Row: 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Meadows Landmine Row: 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Cable Face Pull (turn palms towards each other as you pull back): 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Best Exercise For The Middle Back?
The best exercise for the middle back is any pulling movement that emphasizes pulling the shoulder blades together at the top of the row without the shoulders shrugging upwards towards the ears. Exercises like incline rows, bent-over rows, and cable face pulls are all excellent choices.
How Do I Tone My Middle Back?
The first step is to build the middle back muscles using pulling exercises that allow you to pull the shoulder blades together. Next, you must lose body fat to uncover the muscle you have built. You must train hard with weights and be in a slight and progressive caloric deficit for months.
How Do You Activate Mid-Back Muscles?
Pull your shoulder blades together as if you were pinching something between them. As you do this, ensure you are not shrugging your shoulders upwards or moving your neck. After you have mastered this with no weights, perform mid-back exercises with a pause at the top to squeeze the shoulder blades together.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.