Back Muscles: Anatomy and 3 Strength Exercises

Back muscles can be divided into 3 main groups:

  • Superficial: Associated with shoulder movements
  • Intermediate: Solicited for the movements of the rib cage
  • Deep: Control the movements of the spine

Deep muscles have been developing in the back since embryonic development and are therefore referred to as intrinsic muscles. Superficial and intermediate muscles do not develop in the back and are classified as extrinsic muscles.

It is often difficult to separate the muscles of the back from those of the shoulders, as in the case of the trapezius, the teres major or the rhomboid. This is why you will often find them in the descriptions of these 2 muscle groups.

This article is about the anatomy of the back muscles, their attachments, innervations, and functions. I will then briefly introduce you to the best polyarticular exercises for the back muscles…

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Superficial back muscles

The superficial muscles of the back are located under the skin and connective tissue. They come from the spine and attach to the bones of the shoulder: collarbone, scapula and humerus. All these muscles are therefore associated with movements of the upper limb.

The muscles in this group are the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, levators of the scapula, and rhomboids.

Latissimus Dorsi (latissimus dorsi muscle)

Exercises for the back muscles
Pull-ups develop the latissimus dorsi

The latissimus dorsi muscles come from the lower part of the back, of which they cover two-thirds. They are the ones who give this famous V-shape to the bust and therefore play a big role aesthetically.

Origin : This very large superficial back muscle arises from the spinous processes of the T6 to T12 vertebrae, the thoracolumbar fascia (a fibrous structure found in the posterior lumbar region), the iliac crest and the last 3 lower ribs. The fibers converge into a tendon which attaches to the intertubercular groove of the humerus, at the same level as theinsertion of the pectoralis major. It therefore acts on the shoulder joint.

innervation: Thoraco-dorsal nerve originating from the C6 to C8 cervical vertebrae.

Shares: The latissimus dorsi act on the humerus in extension, adduction, and medial rotation movements.

NOTE : These muscles are particularly stressed by pull-ups in overhand grip and rowing movements.

Trapezes

The trapezius muscle is wide, flat and triangular. Together, the 3 muscle bundles on each side form a kind of diamond shape (hence their name) in the upper back. They are the most superficial of all the back muscles.

Origin : Part of the skull, the neck ligament and the spinous processes of the C7 to T12 vertebrae. The fibers attach to the collarbone, acromion, and scapula spine.

innervation: Originates from the spinal accessory nerve. The trapezius also receive proprioceptive fibers from the C3 and C4 spinal nerves.

Shares: The upper fibers of the trapezius elevate the scapula and rotate it when abducting the arm. The middle fibers retract the scapula and the lower fibers pull the scapula down.

NOTE : The upper bundle of the trapezius is the one that gives volume to the muscles of the cervical region on each side of the neck. We can work on it by doing shrugs, raising the shoulder as if we wanted to bring it back towards the ears.

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Levator muscles of the scapula (shoulder blade)

Upper back muscles

The levator scapulae is a small strap-like muscle, also called the angular muscle of the scapula. It begins in the posterior aspect of the neck and descends to attach to the shoulder blade.

Origin : arises from the transverse processes of the C1-C4 vertebrae and attaches to the medial edge of the scapula.

innervation: Dorsal scapular nerve.

Shares: Raises the scapula.

Rhomboids

There are two: the lesser and the greater rhomboid. The first being located above the second.

Origin of the small rhomboid: It arises from the spinous processes of the C7 to T1 vertebrae. It attaches to the inner edge of the scapula, at the level of the spine.

Origin of the greater rhomboid: It starts from the spinous processes of the T2 to T5 vertebrae and attaches to the medial border of the scapula, between the spine and the inferior angle.

innervation: Dorsal scapular nerve.

Shares: The rhomboids retract and rotate the shoulder blades.

Intermediate back muscles

The middle group contains 2 muscles: serratus posterior superior and serratus posterior inferior. They run from the spine to the rib cage and help raise and lower the ribs. They play a role in respiratory function, especially during significant physical exertion.

Serratus posterior and superior (serratus posterior superior)

It is a fine muscle of rectangular shape. It is found deep within the rhomboid muscles of the upper back.

Origin : Originates from the lower part of the neck ligament and the cervical and thoracic spines (usually C7 to T3). The fibers pass in an inferolateral direction, attaching to ribs 2 through 5.

innervation: Intercostal nerves.

Shares: Raise ribs 2 to 5 for heavy inspiration needs. For example, it plays an essential role during the physical efforts associated with sport.

Testoprime

Serratus posterior and inferior (serratus posterior inferior)

The postero-inferior serratus is broad and strong. It is located under the latissimus dorsi.

Origin : Originates from the thoracic and lumbar spines (T11 or T12 to L3). The fibers pass in a superolateral direction, attaching to ribs 9-12.

innervation: Intercostal nerves.

Shares: Its main function is to lower ribs 9 to 12 for exhalation.

NOTE : Don't try to build up the serratus, there's not much you can do for them 😅 But I still wanted to let you know that they exist...

Deep back muscles

Deep back muscles

As mentioned in the introduction, the deep back muscles are referred to as intrinsic muscles. They collectively extend from the sacrum, down the back, to the base of the skull.

They are associated with the movements of the spine and play a vital role in controlling posture. The muscles themselves are covered with deep fascia, which plays a key role in their organization.

Anatomically, the deep back muscles can also be divided into 3 layers:

  • Superficial
  • Intermediate
  • deep

We are going to detail each layer a little more…

1. Surface layer

The superficial muscles are also called transverse spines. There are 2 muscles in this group: the splenius capitis and the splenius cervicis. They are both associated with head and neck movements.

They are located on the posterolateral aspect of the neck, covering the deep muscles of the neck.

Splenius capitis muscle

Origin : Originates from the lower part of the nuchal ligament and the spinous processes of the C7 to T3 or T4 vertebrae. The fibers ascend, attaching to the mastoid process and the occipital bone of the skull.

innervation: Posterior branches of the C3 and C4 spinal nerves.

Shares: Rotation, extension or lateral flexion of the head.

Splenius muscle of the neck

Origin : It is a small muscle that originates from the spinous processes of the T3 to T5 or T6 vertebrae. The fibers ascend, attaching to the transverse processes of the C1 to C3 or C4 cervical vertebrae.

innervation: Posterior branches of the lower cervical spinal nerves.

Shares: Rotation, extension or lateral flexion of the neck.

Note: The two splenius muscles can act together to extend the head and neck.

2. Intermediate layer

There are 3 intermediate intrinsic back muscles:

  • The iliocostal
  • The longissimus (formerly long dorsal)
  • The thorny.

Together they are known as the erector spinae muscles or more colloquially the lumbar muscles. They are all the more important as it is from this lumbar area that most often back pain appears. They often suffer because of poor postures when standing or sitting.

The erector spinae is located posterior to the vertebral column, between the vertebral spinous processes and the costal angle of the ribs.

The 3 muscles of the lumbar region can be subdivided by their upper attachments (into lumbar, thoracic, cervical and capitis). They also all have a common tendinous origin, which stems from:

  • Lower lumbar and thoracic vertebrae
  • Sacrum
  • Posterior aspect of the iliac crest
  • Sacroiliac and supraspinous ligaments

Iliocostal muscle

Located laterally inside the erector spinae, it is associated with the ribs and can be divided into 3 bundles: lumbar, thoracic and cervical.

Origin : Has a common tendinous origin and attaches to the costal angle of 12 ribs and the cervical transverse processes.

innervation: Posterior branches of the spinal nerves.

Shares: Acts unilaterally to flex the spine to one side. Acts bilaterally to extend the spine and head.

Longissimus

The longissimus muscle is located between the iliocostalis and the spinatus. It is the largest of the 3 columns. It can be divided into three parts: thoracic, cervical and capitis (head).

Origin : Has a common tendinous origin and attaches to the lower ribs, transverse processes from C2 to T12, and the mastoid process of the skull.

innervation: Posterior branches of the spinal nerves.

Shares: Acts unilaterally to laterally flex the spine. Acts bilaterally to extend the spine and head.

spinous muscle

It is located medial to the erector spinae, near the vertebral column. It is the smallest of the three muscular columns. It can be divided into the thoracic, cervical, and capitis bundle (although the cervical portion is absent in some individuals).

Origin : Has a common tendinous origin and attaches to the spinous processes of C2, T1-T8 and the occipital bone of the skull.

innervation: Posterior branches of the spinal nerves.

Shares: Acts unilaterally to laterally flex the spine. Acts bilaterally to extend the spine and head.

deep layer

The deep intrinsic muscles are located below the erectors of the spine and are known collectively as the thorny transverses. They are a group of short muscles, associated with the transverse and spinous processes of the spine.

There are 3 main types of muscles in this group:

  • The semi-spinatus in 3 bundles (head, neck and thorax)
  • The multifid
  • The rotators of the neck, thorax and loins

Semi-thorny

It is the most superficial of the deep intrinsic muscles. Just like the intermediate muscles, it can be divided by its superior attachments into thoracic, cervical and capitis.

Origin : Originates from the transverse processes of the C4 to T10 vertebrae. The fibers ascend 4 to 6 vertebral segments, attaching to the spinous processes from C2 to T4 and to the occipital bone of the skull.

innervation: Posterior branches of the spinal nerves.

Shares: Extends and rotates the head and spine by bilateral or unilateral contraction.

spinal multifidus

The multifidus is located below the semispinatus muscle. It is best developed in the lumbar region.

Origin : Arises from the sacrum, the posterior iliac spine, the common tendinous origin of the erector rachis, the mammillary processes at the level of the lumbar vertebrae, the transverse processes of the vertebrae T1 to T3 and the articular processes of C4 to C7. The fibers ascend 2-4 vertebral segments, attaching to the spinous processes of the vertebrae.

innervation: Posterior branches of the spinal nerves.

Shares: Plays an important role in stabilizing the spine.

Rotator muscles

Formerly called submultifidus, they are distributed all along the spine from the C2 cervical vertebra to the sacrum. They can be divided into the rotator muscles of the neck, the thorax at the level of the thoracic vertebrae and the loins at the level of the lower back.

Origin : Arises from the vertebral transverse processes. The fibers ascend and attach to the lamina and spinous processes of the immediately superior vertebrae.

innervation: Posterior branches of the spinal nerves.

Shares: They stabilize the spine and have a proprioceptive function.

Minor deep intrinsic muscles

Interspinous: They extend between adjacent spinous processes to stabilize the spine.

Intertransversal: Extend between adjacent transverse processes to stabilize the spine.

Levator rib muscles: Arises from the transverse processes of the C7 to T11 vertebrae and attaches to the rib immediately below. Their role is to elevate the ribs.

Best exercises for back muscles

As you can see, it's crowded in every part of the back! It is an extremely complex and precise mechanism that requires maintenance. This is why you need to exercise to specifically target the back muscles.

Fortunately, it is enough to target the right exercises to work all the muscles. This article is not intended to really talk about bodybuilding exercises because you will find more complete articles on the subject on this blog. I mentioned some of them to you above, and I want to come back here to those that seem to me the most important to solicit all of these muscles.

pull-ups

Wide grip pull-ups with pronated hands are one of the best movements for developing the lats and lower trapezius muscles. They can be declined in many ways depending on whether you are a beginner or an expert, including exercises with elastic bands.

Here is an example video of pull-ups with or without assistance:

Rowing

Rowing has the advantage of being able to be practiced with a barbell, dumbbells, resistance bands or a TRX strap. Depending on the width of the elbow, you can use the latissimus dorsi, the rhomboids and the trapezius muscles. By keeping your back straight regardless of your position, you also strengthen the spinal erectors.

In the following video, you will see how to do it with a kit of elastic bands:

Superman

This is a great erector spinae exercise that is affordable for most people. It is very effective in reducing back pain linked to the adoption of bad postures or a problem of lumbar lordosis.

As in this video, hold the position for a few seconds, and repeat several times:

Many articles also highlight the deadlift. It is indeed an effective exercise for the back, but I did not choose it as a priority because it focuses on other muscle groups such as the hamstrings and the glutes. However, you can integrate it into your sessions.

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Related words: internal rotation arm extension pectoralis major insertion antagonistic abdominal muscles lumbar lordosis lateral inclination long dorsal spine verticality

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Last updated on 2022-03-03 / Affiliate links / Some images are sourced from the Amazon Product Advertising API

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