It’s Back Day But I Have No Pull-Up Bar: 5 No-Equipment Back-Building Moves

Keep your back strong and steady so you're ready when you get back to the gym.

I can figure out easy ways to work out most of my body without any equipment: hit me up with pushups (all kinds of grips), all sorts of squat and lunge variations. Hell, give me the corner of my kitchen cabinet and I can give you dips.

But back workouts?

While I’m stuck in my apartment with no equipment, no pull-up bar or kettlebell to speak of? A lot of things can send me into a panic spiral, and that is definitely one of them.

Whether it’s because of gym isolation from COVID-19, because you’re traveling, or because you’re crashing at a friend’s house who really needs to reevaluate their nonexistent relationship with pull-up bars, finding yourself craving back day with no equipment can be a nightmare. But it doesn’t have to have a terrible ending.

True, you might have to readjust your expectations when it’s back day and you’re separated from your beloved barbells. You’re not likely to be tugging a 400-pound barbell off the ground at home, and even rows leave something to be desired when your implements of choice range from stuffed animals to the longest Harry Potter book (it’s The Order of the Phoenix, of course). 

But you can still make decent back gains with no equipment at home. Think of it as an opportunity to train your weak spots (everybody’s got them) and really focus on honing in your form and cues. For example: do you have trouble cueing yourself to engage your lats during your big three lifts? Some literal home-work can be game-changing with that.

So what moves are you supposed to do for your back at home, anyway? Well, here we go.

Supermans

You know how Kara Danvers and Clark Kent (and Carol Danvers, for that matter) look when they crack through the sound barrier? Arms straight out in front of them, feet right behind them, core engaged? These superhumans (or Kryptonians, as it were) know more than a little something about aerodynamics: arms out in front and legs straight behind you makes you, well, faster than a speeding bullet. And they know more than a little something about building a strong back.

  • Lay on your stomach with enough room to fully extend your arms in front of you and your legs unbent behind you. If you live in a shoebox-sized NYC apartment, you might have to move some things around.
  • With your arms extended in front of you and your legs stretched out behind, take a solid belly breath.
  • Squeeze your glutes and use that breath to guide you to gently — slow and controlled — lift your arms and legs toward the ceiling simultaneously.
  • Shoot for 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps, with arms and legs raising in unison.

Because your belly is full of breath and your glutes are squeezed, your low back will be protected from any dangerous movement, but your thoracic spine (upper spine, but below your neck) will get one hell of an awesome engagement. 

And that’s really what you’re going for here: engagement. Slow and controlled reps will help your body learn what it feels like to really engage your lats. That will come in handy when you’re about to deadlift and you know you need to engage your lats but you’re not really sure what that feels like. 

In addition to building that mind-muscle connection, getting through four or five sets of 8-12 will definitely be a decent back engagement in and of itself.

[Related: 3 benefits of supermans exercises]

Reverse Snow Angels

Remember when you were a kid, fell backward in the snow (especially when your mom told you not to), and made snow angel after snow angel? Well, you’re going to do that again, except without snow and on your stomach instead of on your back.

  • Let your forehead rest on the ground the entire time to keep your neck safe, 
  • Raise your arms up in front of you — like a superman, but your toes can stay planted on the ground — and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Imagine someone’s placed their hand between your shoulder blades, and you’re trying to squeeze their hand.
  • Keeping that tension and straight (but not necessarily locked) elbows, “snow angel” your arms back down to your sides.
  • When your pinkies touch your sides (or when you’re out of range of motion), “snow angel” your arms back up in front of your face.
  • When you reach the top, imagine someone is pulling on your fingertips, just to make the motion that much more muscularly engaged.
  • Try for 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps.

Make sure there’s no shoulder pain as you’re going through these motion.

Cat-Cows

A lot of people use cat-cows for warmups, but they are also excellent for training your back. Want to be more likely to keep your back strong and in a neutral position through heavy squats and deadlifts? Want to avoid the dreaded “good morning” squat? Cat-cows are your new best friend.

  • Set up on all fours, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  • With a solid, slow inhale, drop your belly toward the ground, simultaneously tilting your chin up toward the ceiling and opening up (raising) your chest. Don’t be tempted to squeeze your shoulders up toward your ears; drop them away from your ears instead.
  • When you’re ready to exhale, do so into “cat” position (you know, when they’re pissed off and arch their backs at you). To become feline-like, draw your belly into your spine and gently round your back up toward the ceiling.
  • Don’t let your head drop toward the ground all willy-nilly, by do allow your cervical spine to relax such that the crown of your head dips toward the ground.
  • Repeat — remembering the breathing pattern! — anywhere between 10 and 20 times, with 3 sets being a great place to start.

Inch Worms

  • This time, you’re going to start in a standing position.
  • Slowly drop until your fingertips touch the ground (you can bend your knees if need be)
  • Once your palms have made contact with the ground, walk yourself out, hand by hand, into plank position.
  • When you’ve achieved plank position, well… walk it back with your hands.
  • Your feet should stay stationary the whole time, and of course — breathe.
  • Keep your core tight and your back neutral, and have fun being an inch worm.
  • 3 sets of 5-10 (depending on how steady the movement feels for you) should have you good to go.

Wall Walks

If you have wall space (or… make some wall space for yourself), you can use inch worms to make like Miles Morales and climb the wall. Sort of. Your feet won’t actually become sticky like Spider-man. But, you will be pretty badass.

  • Start with your palms planted a few feet in front of the wall.
  • Brace your core and get in a solid breath.
  • Slowly and carefully, start inch worming your way up the wall with your feet. (Make sure they’re clean, please!)
  • As your feet get higher, you can inch worm your hands closer to the wall to try and get as upright as possible.
  • Especially if the movement feels shaky, a couple of sets of 2-3 attempts will be more than enough — you can work your way up from there.

Don’t push yourself too far beyond what you’re used to — gradual progress is key. 

You’re working your way up to a wall-assisted handstand, but don’t make that your goal at first. Make it your goal to feel stable throughout the entire process.

Gradually, you can get your hands closer and closer to the wall, as your feet are able to calmly and stably climb higher. Your core and upper back will thank you quite a lot for working at it, but not pushing it.

To get down, you can either reverse the inch worm (your hands gradually walk away from the wall as your feet gradually walk down the wall), or when you get your hands in a comfortable place and if your legs and hips are suitably flexible, you can hop on down.

 

You Can Work Out Your Back At Home Sans Equipment

It might not feel the same as pulling heavy barbells, but it’ll still solidify your strength.

The stabilizers you need for all your big lifts will thank you, and it’ll translate into some super solid gains. So don’t despair if it’s back day and you’re stuck at home — you can still build yourself a stronger back.

Featured image via CrossFit® on YouTube.

Jay Polish

Jay Polish

Dr. Jay Polish is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer, and holds an additional certification in Kettlebell Athletics. A competitive powerlifter, their personal training practice focuses on empowering both new and experienced lifters with body positive training methods of strength and circuit training.

They teach Theater and English in the CUNY system, where they received their PhD in English. They live in California with their wife and their fantasies of having multiple puppies. Their website is here. You can train with them through Trainerize.

When they're not in the gym, they moonlight as the author of two young adult books, LUNAV and LOST BOY, FOUND BOY (March 2018, NineStar Press).

Their debut novel, LUNAV, a lesbian enemies-to-lovers faerie tale, features dragons that grow on trees and friendship amongst rebellion. Their debut novella, LOST BOY, FOUND BOY, is a scifi re-telling of Peter Pan in which Neverland is a holomatrix, Hook is a bisexual cyborg, and Tink is an asexual lesbian computer interface.

Leave a Comment