Back Muscles

Your back muscles help you move your body, bend over, rotate your trunk and stand up straight. They also support your spine and play a critical role in helping you breathe.


What are your back muscles?

Your back has many different muscles. Some muscles support your spine and trunk. Others help you move your body, stand up straight and assist with breathing.

Because your back muscles support so much of your weight and are responsible for so many movements, injuries to these muscles are common. These injuries can cause low back pain. To avoid injury and keep your back muscles healthy, you should warm up before physical activity and keep other muscles in your body strong.


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What is the purpose of your back muscles?

Your back muscles are the main structural support for your trunk (torso). These muscles help you move your body, including your head, neck, shoulders, arms and legs. Your back muscles work together to allow you to bend over, twist, turn your head and extend your back.

These muscles also help you sit and stand up straight. They play an essential role in supporting your spine and helping you breathe. Their jobs include:

Superficial muscles: These muscles help you move your arms, shrug your shoulders and keep your spine straight. Superficial muscles include:

  • Latissimus dorsi (lats), which helps you extend and rotate your shoulder and arm.
  • Levator scapulae, which raises your scapula (shoulder blade).
  • Rhomboids, two muscles (the rhomboid major and minor) that work together to pull the scapula inward toward the spine.
  • Trapezius (traps), which helps you move your body, raise your arms and have good posture.

Intermediate: The intermediate muscles assist with breathing. They attach to the ribs and help your chest expand and contract when you inhale and exhale.

Intrinsic: These muscles stabilize your spine and help you bend, rotate, flex and extend your back. They also help you control your trunk, neck and head.


Where are your back muscles?

Your back muscles start just under your skull, extend across your shoulders and down to your lower back just above your hips. These muscles attach to your ribs, vertebrae (bones in your spine), shoulder blades and neck.

You have three groups of muscles in your back. They are:

Superficial: Healthcare providers also call these the extrinsic back muscles as they are close to the surface of your skin. They make up your upper back muscle anatomy, although some of them also extend to your lower back. The superficial muscles include:

  • Latissimus dorsi (lats), the largest muscle in the upper part of your body. It starts below your shoulder blades and extends to your spine in the lower part of your back.
  • Levator scapulae, a smaller muscle that starts at the side of your neck and extends to the scapula (shoulder blade).
  • Rhomboids, two muscles that connect the scapula to the spine.
  • Trapezius (traps), which start at your neck, go across your shoulders and extend to a “V” in your lower back.

Intermediate: The intermediate muscles include the serratus posterior inferior and serratus posterior superior. They sit in the shoulder girdle, which is between your shoulder blades.

Intrinsic: There are two groups of intrinsic muscles in the back. These muscles sit deep under your skin. The intrinsic muscles include the erector spinae group and the transversospinalis group. These muscles go up and down along your spine on either side of your spinal column. There are several muscles in each group, including the multifidus muscles in the lower back muscle anatomy.


What do back muscles look like?

They are a type of muscle called skeletal muscle. As part of your musculoskeletal system, these muscles provide a framework for bones and other soft tissues. Many individual fibers make up skeletal muscles. These fibers bundle together to create a striated, or striped, appearance.

Conditions and Disorders

What conditions affect your back muscles?

Most commonly, injuries affect how the back muscles work. Problems affecting the back include:

  • Muscle strains: Muscles in the back can stretch or tear. These common injuries usually result from lifting a heavy object (or lifting the wrong way), exercise, overuse or an accident. Back strains can lead to muscle cramps or muscle spasms. In severe injuries, the back muscles can be paralyzed.
  • Pain, tightness and stiffness: Chronic pain in the back is extremely common. Pain can lead to stiffness and decreased mobility (difficulty moving). Tense muscles and back muscle pain can also result from depression, stress and anxiety. Pain in the neck and upper back can lead to headaches.

What are some common signs or symptoms of things that could affect your back muscles?

An injury to your back muscles can cause:

  • Muscle pain and stiffness anywhere in your back.
  • Muscle weakness, decreased mobility and limited range of motion.
  • Spasms, which can be extremely painful.
  • Swelling, bruising or tenderness.


How can I keep my back muscles healthy?

To keep your back muscles strong, you should stay healthy overall. You’re less likely to have back muscle injuries when you:

  • Improve your flexibility: Talk to your provider about yoga and stretches that increase flexibility in your back muscles. Staying flexible can help you relax tight muscles and avoid an injury.
  • Lift objects properly: To avoid injuries, lift with your legs (not your back). While you’re lifting, don’t twist your trunk. Try to hold heavy items close to your body.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Carrying extra pounds increases your risk of muscle strain in your back. If you have obesity or carry extra weight, talk to your provider about the most appropriate weight for your body and lifestyle.
  • Strengthen your core: Pilates exercises focus on strengthening core muscles (the muscles on the sides of your trunk and in your upper, middle and lower abdomen). Strong core muscles support your spine and reduce your risk of a back injury.
  • Warm up before you exercise: Take time to stretch and warm up properly before you exercise. You’re less likely to injure warm, flexible muscles. Listen to your body when you’re exercising. Stop and rest if you feel pain.

Additional Common Questions

When should I call my doctor about my back muscles?

If you have back pain that doesn’t getter better with pain relievers and rest, call your provider. Get help right away if you have:

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Your back muscles play an essential role in helping you move, stand up straight and breathe. They also stabilize your spine and torso. Because these muscles work so hard and have many important jobs, back muscle injuries are very common. To prevent an injury and avoid back muscle pain, you should maintain a healthy weight, stay physically active and strengthen your core muscles. Lift objects properly, and take time to warm up your muscles before exercise. By staying healthy overall, you’ll keep your back muscles strong so they can support your body.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/23/2021.

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