Your upper back is one of the most important parts of your body. The muscle groups in this area are primarily responsible for keeping you upright, because they work against the core. Without a strong upper back, not only will your posture be affected but back pain will follow shortly after.
In this article, we'll highlight some of the best upper back exercises you can do to keep these muscle groups strong and healthy. Then, we'll leave you with some of our tips for training this area and how you can prevent injury with a proper warmup. Are you ready? Let's get started!
Anatomy of Your Back
Your back consists of several muscles that support and protect the spine, all while facilitating movements of the limbs. Understanding the anatomy of your back will help you to get more from your workouts.
Key muscles include:
- Latissimus dorsi: A large muscle that produces movements on the shoulder joint. It runs from below the armpits down to the back of the ribcage. It’s an important muscle in climbing, rowing and swimming.
- Trapezius: a large muscle that runs from the neck to the middle of your back. This muscle is extremely important for shoulder function
- Rhomboids: two muscles found deep to the trapezius. These are responsible for retraction of your shoulder blades
- Erector spinae: three muscles that control spinal extension and lateral movement
Since we'll be covering various exercises that target the upper back, all four key muscle groups will be targeted. Movements like rows will help build your lats while other exercises like our signature TRX Inverted Row will strengthen your traps.
Benefits of Training Your Upper Back
Your back sometimes suffers from the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” phenomenon. How often have you been short on time and prioritized a quick ab workout over your back?
Are you guilty of only training what you can see in the mirror? Let’s remedy that. The benefits of a strong back go far beyond aesthetics.
Here’s why you shouldn’t skip back day:
- Improved Posture: Modern day life can take its toll on our posture. Sedentary lifestyles and screen time can result in kyphotic postures. A strong back will help you avoid address this.
- Stabilize the Spine: When the muscles around your back are strong, you’ll exert less pressure on your spine.
- Alleviate and Prevent Back Pain: Muscular imbalances pull our joints out of alignment. If you’ve overtraining your core, you may experience back pain.
- Confidence: When was the last time slouching made you look or feel confident? Training your back leaves you standing taller and feeling more sure of how you look.
What You’ll Need for Our Upper Back Exercises
Now that we've covered the anatomy of the back and training benefits, it’s time to look at what you'll need for the upper back exercises we're covering. For most of these exercises, we’ll be dealing with external load. So, you'll need to use Barbells, Dumbbells, or a cable machine.
If you don't have access to a fully-stocked gym, you can put your back to work with bodyweight alone by using a TRX suspension trainer! If you're not familiar with TRX and its exercise products, read our guide on what suspension training is.
Get a suspension trainer today or try out our other TRX gear:
The Best Upper Back Exercises
Now, let's get into the good stuff and take a look at some of the best exercises you can do today for your upper back.
10. Bent Over Barbell Row
This is probably the most common upper back exercise you'll seen done at a gym. The bent over barbell row targets nearly all the muscles in your back, but you need a strong upper back to do this correctly.
To do a bent over barbell row:
- Place your hands on the barbell, slightly wider than shoulder width apart with an overhand grip.
- Soften your knees and keep your back straight as you bend your torso forward until it’s almost perpendicular to the floor.
- Keep your torso still as you pull the barbell towards the lower part of your chest. Pause and squeeze to contract your back
- Slowly lower back to the start position.
9. TRX Row
If you train mainly with bodyweight alone, chances are you’re missing an element of pull in your workouts. The TRX Row is a pull exercise specifically made for utilizing this movement to help build all the major groups.
Using your suspension trainer, here's how to do a TRX Row:
- Facing your anchor point, hold the rubber handles with your palms facing each other
- Lean back, weight in your heels with your tailbone tucked and core engaged • Walk forwards (towards your anchor point) to make your rows heavier, backwards to make it lighter
- Pull your chest through your hands and squeeze your shoulder blades together, keep your neck long and shoulders low
- Lowering with control to return to the start position
Bonus Tip: if you’re sliding, plant your feet on the floor and put a soft bend in the knees and hips to maintain the straight line of your torso
Shrugs are probably the first exercise that comes to mind when you think of training your traps. This is very effective because shrugs help you improve other exercises such as deadlifting, rowing and overhead pressing. Feel free to use a barbell or a pair of dumbbells to do this exercise.
- Stand tall with your feet shoulder width apart. Holding your weight with an overhand grip placing the hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. • Maintain a stable still torso as your raise your shoulders as high as possible, upwards to the ears
- Hold the contraction at the top then lower slowly to the start position.
7. Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows
The benefit of this unilateral row variation is that you can work a larger range of motion compared to the barbell row. You’ll also become aware of any muscular imbalances by working one side at a time. This will help to prevent injury as your stronger side isn’t compensating to aid your weaker side. You’ll have more stability using a bench for this exercise, but it can also be done without.
- Whether kneeling or standing bring your torso roughly parallel to the floor • Holding your dumbbell with your palm facing towards you, draw your elbow back so the weight moves towards your hip
- Keep the elbow close to the body and squeeze to engage your lats • Return slowly to the start position
6. Single Arm Landmine Row
This exercise has a different strength curve to other free weight exercises. Because one end of the bar is anchored to the ground, this row variation will feel heavier at the bottom of the rep than it does at the top. This helps because the arc of the movement is more natural for the shoulder blades.
- Use a landmine attachment to secure one end of the bar.
- Stand parallel to the bar, hinging at the hips and hold the end of the bar with your inside hand
- Initiate by pulling your shoulder blade back
- Bend the elbow to raise the weight
- Slowly lower and return to the start position
5. Close-Grip Seated Cable Row
While close-grip seated cable rows are not a replacement for barbell and dumbbell rows, this exercise supplements them well and can offer more support. In turn, you can build more control and awareness.
If you suffer from hips or lower back pain, close-grip seated cable rows allow you to really focus on isolating the upper back. This means close-grip seated cable rows have a lower chance of causing a serious injury.
Here's how to do a close-grip seated cable row:
- Grip your chosen attachment so that your palms face one another. • Maintain a neutral spine and bent knee, pull the weight off the stack to set your start position
- Brace your abs and keep your shoulders back and down.
- Maintain your body position and you pull the handle towards your naval • Pause, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Slowly return to your starting position.
If you don’t have access to a cable machine a resistance band can be used instead.
4. Seal Row
Ready to really isolate your back? Try this barbell row variation. Lying on a bench will makes it difficult to generate momentum so you'll really need to use your back muscles to complete this exercise.
Here's how to do a seal row:
- The barbell should ideally rest off the ground so you have sufficient range of motion to pull.
- Grab the bar with an overhand shoulder with grip
- Pull the barbell towards your lower ribs, squeezing your shoulder blades together • Slowly return to the start position and repeat. Straightening your arms with every rep, without the weights touching the ground.
3. Hang Clean
The hang clean is a full-body exercise that will help you develop functional fitness. If you want to be able to do something with great posture like picking up heavy boxes, this is the exercise that you want to do. Starting with the weight at the hips eliminates momentum for the first phase of the lift. This means you’ll need to force production from the hip drive.
You've probably seen weightlifters do hang cleans at your local gym. Here's how to do the exercise yourself:
- Start with feet shoulder width apart
- Initiate the movement by thinking about pushing your butt back. • Then one simultaneous movement, as you extend the hips, shrug, bring the elbows under whilst lowering into a squat position.
- ‘Catch’ the bar in front of your shoulder and stand out of the front squat
2. TRX Inverted Row
What this exercise loses in load it makes up for in range of motion and flexibility in the execution. Using a bar for your inverted row will limit your range because your chest touches the bar. With a TRX suspension trainer, you’re able to pull your chest through the handle and fully retract the shoulder blades.
The straps also allow you to adapt your grip to suit any wrist, elbow or shoulder injuries. Hold the rubber handles and set your body directly under the straps. Here's how to do a TRX inverted row:
- Set a strong plank position, with legs straight or feet placed on the floor and knees bent
- Pull your chest through the rubber handles and squeeze your shoulder blades
- Slowly lower to your start position
1. Face Pulls
Use this exercise to build a stable upper body and build bigger lifts. Face pulls also prevent a variety of injuries and, like many of the upper back exercises here, promote proper posture.
To do a face pull, follow these steps:
- Hold the rope/handles with an overhand grip, palms facing in
- Take a few steps back and full extend your arms.
- Pull the rope towards you to lift the weight from the stack, brace your core and draw your shoulders back and down to set your start position.
- Pull the handles of the rope toward your forehead, squeezing your shoulder blades together and elbows flared wide.
- Slowly return to the start position
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, a resistance band can be used here as well.
Tips for Training Your Back
We've looked at ten exercises that are effective at building your upper back. But, there are some tips that you can utilize to get the most out of each upper body workout. Here are three of the best tips you can use when training your back:
- Be aware of your imbalance by using both bilateral and unilateral exercises.
- Minimize momentum in your lifts to build strength and control.
- Focus on form, reduce the weight until you can nail your technique, then watch your progress sky rocket.
How to Warm Up Your Upper Back Before Exercise
Taking the time to prime your body means you’ll get more out of your workout. Start by increasing your body temperature with some dynamic movements. For example, arm swings will help to increase blood flow and break up tension. Then move onto mobilizing key joint.
Remember, your mobility work is there to prime your muscles, not fatigue them. Back to the wall shoulder flexion and T-spine rotations are two great mobility exercises that’ll prime you to crush your upper body workout.
Train Your Upper Back Today
You now have ten new exercises that you can add to your workout routine. Utilize our tips to make sure you get the most out of each exercise and warm up properly so that you don't hurt your back in the process.