Four exercises to build a stronger back and straighten up your posture

"A friend took my photo and I realised: I have shocking posture," a member at the gym where I worked recently complained to me. "How do I fix it?" 

One path to standing straighter is targeting your back in the gym – a muscle group that's often overlooked because it's tough to 'mire your own back in the mirror. Here are four classic exercises to add to your workouts. 

Pulldown 

The standard exercise is the wide-grip, overhand pulldown on a seated cable machine, aiming for between 8-12 reps per set. To avoid messing up your shoulders, focus on scapular retraction: before you start pulling the bar to your chest, pull your shoulder blades together and downwards. 

Pay attention to what your shoulders do as you pull down the bar – they shouldn't be shrugging up around your ears. Don't be afraid to lighten the weight to improve your form, and take it slow — it gives me the willies watching guys yanking the bar up and down, joint health be damned.

The pull-down is a great way to work up to a… 

Pull-up 

Most people I've trained really want to do a pull-up because, let's face it, it's a damned impressive party trick. 

Start with assisted pull-ups: most gyms have machines for this, or you can hook your feet in a resistance band. Pull your chest all the way up to the bar and lower with control, rather than just dropping straight down. That's how you'll build strength fastest.

Aim to do pull-ups with an overhand grip – that is, palms facing away from you. Underhand pull-ups are a little easier because they recruit your biceps do more of the lifting.

"How many pull-ups should I be able to do?" Even one is an achievement! (Especially for women, who naturally have less upper-body muscle mass than men.) If you can work up to eight pull-ups with strict form, you are basically an everyday Superman. 

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Row 

Confession: Pull-ups and pulldowns have always ranked among my least favourite gym exercises. My body just doesn't like doing them.

But I love rows. The classic is the bent-over barbell row where you're standing upright, hinging at the hips to bend over the bar, and pulling it into your bellybutton for 8-12 reps per set. 

It's key you hold your back strong and flat during this exercise — not hunched over. As a wise PT once told me:  "You walk out of the gym with the posture you train with." If bent-over rows are tough on your lower back, try lowering the weight or bending your knees a little more. 

The row also offers countless variations, so it's hard to get bored of: overhand, underhand or neutral grip; barbell, kettlebell or dumbbell; single- or double-handed; free weights or machines or cables. My new favourite is a variation called the Meadows row, involving a contraption called a landmine (there's likely to be one gathering dust in the corner of your gym). 

Deadlift 

It's not just a leg exercise: the deadlift targets the posterior chain, which is fitness-speak for all those muscles running down the back of your body from your neck to your heels.  

Slouching forward in a chair all day at work – chances are high you're slouching forward as you read this right now! – is just terrible for the posterior chain. Deadlifts, performed correctly, go a long way to undoing some of that damage.

According to Sam Downing, the secret to wellbeing is just to keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also a writer focusing on everyday health.

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