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In this article, I will introduce 10 seated back exercises and stretches.
These are for people suffering from lower back pain, or office workers looking to get a quick midday refresh right from their chairs.
A few will require extra equipment that you may only find in a gym.
Regardless, if your goal is to stretch or strengthen your back and core muscles, there’s something on this list for you.
Table of Contents
The 10 Seated Back Movements
1. Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is a broad exercise since there are so many ways to do it.
There’s the standard version where the elbows move through flexion and extension, which allows you to use more weight with deeper muscular contractions.
Then there is the straight-arm version.
During this motion, the elbows remain extended and other body parts (the chest and triceps) act as assisters.
You can also do pulldowns with one arm at a time for a greater mind-muscle connection.
If you don’t have access to an actual cable tower, a resistance band can do the job.
No matter which option you choose, your lats will be the primary mover.
For the sake of this article, the steps below are referring to the standard lat pulldown.
- Adjusting the machine’s leg pads to fit snugly over your knees.
- Assume an overhand grip on the bar with your hands 1.5x past shoulder width.
- Sit with your feet flat, core tight, and chest up so that your back is naturally arched.
- Pull the bar using your elbows, until it’s 1-2 inches above your chest.
- Making sure to retract your shoulder blades at the bottom.
- Release the tension to the starting position.
Sets/Reps: 4 x 10-12
Modification: You can grab the bar using a reverse grip for lower lat dominance.
2. Seated Row
You’re in for a treat with the seated row.
Why, you ask?
The answer is that by making slight postural adjustments, you can change the specificity.
For instance, you can lean forward to focus on eccentric stretching.
While leaning slightly backward into spinal extension during the concentric phase adds a degree of lower back strengthening.
If you suffer from lower back pain, I would suggest keeping the lean to a minimum.
And instead focusing on isolation from an upright torso position.
These can be done with a cable machine or a resistance band like the pulldowns.
You could take seated rows a step further if you have access to an actual rowing machine.
Which will turn the movement into a full-body form of cardio.
- Attaching a v-bar to the cable clip.
- Place your feet flat on the platforms.
- Extend your arms to grasp the handle using a neutral grip.
- Position your torso upright at a 90-degree angle to your legs.
- With your shoulder blades protracted, row the cable in a straight line toward your abdomen.
- Retract and flex your back muscles as you go.
- Stop once the bar touches and reverse the motion.
Sets/Reps: 4 x 8-10
Modification: Swap for a straight bar to better engage the upper back muscles.
3. Seated Figure Four Stretch
If you’re someone who works a desk job or just sits for prolonged periods of time you’re probably familiar with the pain that can be associated with it.
What happens is, the glutes and hip become overly tight, forcing pressure onto the spine and knees.
Luckily this stretch is ideal for loosening up these areas without having to get up from your chair.
- Sitting up tall with your left leg crossed over the right knee.
- Grab the top of your left knee with both hands.
- Gently pull in the direction of your right shoulder.
- Hinge your hips forward to deepen the stretch.
- Release and switch sides.
Sets/Reps: 2 x 30-60 seconds on each side
Modification: Instead of pulling your knee toward you, you can push it toward the ground.
This emphasizes the outer hip.
To do so:
- Sit in the chair and cross your right leg over the opposite knee.
- Grab your right ankle with your left hand.
- Place your right hand on top of that same knee.
- Your left elbow will be tucked in, while the right elbow will be flared out.
- Simultaneously pull with your left hand and push with your right.
- Slightly hinge your hips.
- Switch to the other side.
4. Seated Twist
The seated twist is going to help decompress your spine to release pressure causing lower back pain.
This move has many variations with the most common being static twists.
However, we’ll be using a dynamic tempo to really get the blood pumping, while increasing flexibility and range of motion.
- Sitting in a chair while keeping your spine straight.
- Plant your feet shoulder-width apart on the ground.
- Stick your arms straight out to the sides with palms facing down.
- From here, bend forward using a twisting motion to touch your right hand to your left foot.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Sets/Reps: 2 x 10 in each direction
Modification: If you prefer getting a static stretch rather than what’s above, here are the steps:
- Assume the same starting position as you did for the dynamic twist.
- Set your left hand on your right knee.
- Grasp the bottom of the chair with your right hand.
- Inhale to extend your spine.
- Exhale and turn your head toward your right shoulder.
- Hold for 30 seconds and slowly return your head to the front-facing spot.
- Perform the sequence on the left side.
5. Shoulder Blade Squeeze
Misaligned shoulder joints and weak scapular retractors are not something you want.
Unfortunately, many people suffer from one, or both of these problems.
This causes the shoulders to round forward and the chest to become tight.
That’s when neck and back pain tend to kick in.
Luckily shoulder blade squeezes help to strengthen the mid-upper back muscles that are responsible for enhancing stabilization.
- Taking a seat with your elbows tucked close by your sides.
- Make sure to sit tall, maintaining good posture.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Rest them back to their natural position.
Sets/Reps: 3 x 5-10 seconds
Modification: These can also be performed while lying flat on your stomach.
6. Forward Flexion
With forward flexion, it’s important to maintain full control of the movement and only go as far as you feel comfortable.
Nonetheless, this can be a wonderful stretch for reducing lower back pain brought on by things like a herniated disc or spinal stenosis.
Lumbar flexion is not right for everyone.
Speak with your physical therapist before attempting it.
- Sitting in your chair and crossing your arms over your chest.
- Pull your core inwards.
- Gently tip forward with a neutral spine.
- Slowly lift your torso upright.
Sets/Reps: 2 x 5-10
Modification: Lay flat on your back and hug your knees to your chest.
7. Seated Dead Bug
Seated dead bugs are primarily used to strengthen the transverse abdominis.
However, the rotator cuffs and lats will also benefit, since shoulder joint flexion with extension toward the midline is involved.
You might notice quad and hamstring activation too, as you bend and extend the knees.
- Taking a seat.
- Elevate your feet off the ground.
- Extend your arms in front of you.
- Now, flex your left thigh to straighten that knee, but don’t fully lock out.
- At the same time, you’re going to raise your right arm overhead until the upper arm is in line with your ear.
- Slowly lower both limbs to the starting position.
- Repeat this motion with the other arm and leg.
Sets/Reps: 3 x 10-15
Modification: To make this less challenging, you can focus solely on arm movement.
8. Bent-Over Reverse Fly
Bent-over reverse flies are among the best exercises for isolating an underlooked muscle known as the rear delt.
This muscle gives your shoulders a 3D effect, along with improving their mobility.
Since it’s on the posterior of the body, it is considered a back muscle.
These flies can be performed with bodyweight alone, however, I do suggest using light dumbbells after you feel comfortable with the movement.
- Sitting with your feet close together.
- Grasp the dumbbells using a neutral grip.
- Lean forward over your thighs.
- Hold the dumbbells on the underside of your thighs.
- Your arms should remain straight, with a slight bend at the elbows.
- Raise the weights up and out until your arms are roughly parallel to the floor.
- Lower back down under control.
Sets/Reps: 3 x 15-20
Modification: Using a pronated grip is another option if you prefer.
Based on a study from Lehman College, there are no significant differences in muscle activation between the two.
9. Seated Good Mornings
Seated good mornings are highly effective for activating the spinal erectors.
An essential muscle group responsible for the mobility of the vertebral column.
Basically, if you struggle with rotating, flexing, and/or extending the spine, it could be caused by a weakness in these muscles.
Good mornings are also useful for opening up the hips.
Furthermore, this versatile exercise can be performed using a dumbbell, a barbell, or one’s own body weight.
(And from a standing position, if you’re feeling frisky.)
But don’t add any external load, until you’re confident in your form.
- Sitting on a secure bench or chair with your legs bent at 90 degrees and feet flat.
- Your knees should be pointed outward and a bit wider than shoulder width.
- Bend forward by hinging your hips.
- Stop once your chest is even with your thighs.
- Lift your upper body until it’s perpendicular to the floor.
- That’s one rep.
Sets/Reps: 4 x 6-12
Modification: Set up a small box in front of where your chest will be lowered as a guide, so you know when to end the eccentric portion of the movement.
10. Sitting Back Extension
Back extension is the antagonistic movement to flexion.
Like the precedent, it should be performed under control, while avoiding overextending.
These are primarily used to improve flexibility in the lumbar region and achieve greater control over this area.
This way when performing high-impact movements such as squats, pulldowns, or deadlifts, maintaining a neutral spine becomes effortless.
- Interlocking your hands behind your neck for support.
- Slightly round your lower back to create a small arch in your upper back.
- Move your gaze toward the ceiling as you slowly lean backward.
- Release to the starting position.
Sets/Reps: 2-3 x 15-20 seconds
Modification: Increase the amount of core activation by kicking one leg straight out and holding it in a static position during the extension.
Once you complete the rep, switch to the other leg.
Benefits of Seated Exercises for the Back
Seated exercises for the back boast a number of benefits:
- Correcting poor posture
The spine has four natural curves that work in unison to provide support.
Exercising in general helps to ensure these curves remain stable by strengthening and stretching the surrounding muscles.
Resulting in good, or at least improved posture.
- Reducing lower back pain
When all the back muscles are strong and engaged the body is better equipped to absorb the impact of daily activities.
- More stability
In comparison to their standing counterparts, seated exercises don’t require as much leg stabilization.
Instead of worrying about falling too far forward, the focus can be shifted to thoroughly working the back muscles.
Making seated options ideal for individuals who struggle with leg weaknesses or balance issues.
As a whole, these seated exercises are going to target various back muscles:
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Erector Spinae
- Rear Delts
The core muscles are also targeted to a lesser degree for spine stabilization.
Seated Back Exercise FAQ
Can You Exercise While Sitting at Your Desk?
Yes, you can exercise while sitting at your desk.
Even a quick 5-minute exercise routine can get the blood flowing to increase your energy.
Two options are seated bicycles and chair dips to target the upper body and abdominal muscles.
Are Seated Exercises Good?
Yes, seated exercises are good, especially for people who have trouble balancing from a standing position, or for low-impact injury rehabilitation.
What Exercises Can I Do Sitting at My Desk All Day?
Here are 10 exercises you can do if you’re sitting at your desk all day:
1. Shoulder blade squeeze
2. Forward flexion
3. Seated dead bug
4. Sitting back extension
5. Chair dips
6. Seated bicycles
7. Desk push-ups
8. Seated figure four
9. Seated leg extensions
10. Arm circles
Take a Seat and Get Strong!
As someone who spends large chunks of time sitting at a desk, I know how big of an effect it can have on mental and physical well-being.
It’s important to get up and walk around every once in a while, but if that’s difficult, at the very least, get some exercise in your chair to get the blood moving.
For optimal results, pick 2-3 of these back exercises that you enjoy and perform them at least 3 days per week.