For veteran gym rats, traps are the new abs. (Having abs is still nice, though) That’s because big traps, which are a primary upper back muscle, signals that you have your priorities straight. Your upper back muscles not only help support healthy posture by keeping your head and neck in place, but they also provide a place to rest a loaded barbell and translate to more overall pulling strength.
Below are the six best upper back exercises for overall back development, strength, and aesthetics. There’s a mix of old school exercises like the barbell bent over row to new school exercise like the TRX row. In the list below you’ll find exercises that target all your major upper back muscles like your rhomboid, trapezius, and rear deltoids, We’ll also get into the anatomy and functions of the upper back and why it’s important to train, and the benefits of training the upper back.
Best Upper Back Exercises
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The barbell bent over row strengthens your upper back, shoulders, biceps, grip and, it’s the perfect accessory exercise for improving your deadlift. The bent over row mimics the hip hinge and holding the hip hinge under load for time will help improve your lower and upper back endurance.
Benefits of the Bent Over Barbell Row
- Adds strength and mass to your upper back, lats, and erector spinae
- Reinforces good hip hinge mechanics, which will have a direct carryover to your deadlift.
- Helps improve your posture through a stronger muscular support system.
How to Do the Bent Over Barbell Row
Hinge at your hips and grab a loaded barbell with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and row the barbell until it’s touching your stomach. You want your elbows to be angled at about 45 degrees throughout the movement. Hold the top position of the row for a beat and then slowly lower the weight back down.
There’s a multitude of variations to choose from with the single-arm dumbbell row. Single-arm dumbbell rows are perfect for ironing out strength imbalances that often exist between sides and you’ll get some extra core work in the form of lateral stability. With the dead stop row, you’ll go through a longer range of motion and because of the pause on the floor to rest your grip, you’ll be able to go heavy for more muscle growth.
Benefits of the Singel-Arm Dead Stop Row
- The pause on the floor gives your joints a quick break and allows you to use a heavier weight.
- Stopping and pausing on the floor takes away the stretch reflex of the muscle, so your muscles work harder on the concentric part of the lift.
How to Do the Single-Arm Dead Stop Row
It’s better to use a workout bench for support than the dumbbell rack because you’ll be getting in the way of the other lifters. Get into a good hinge position and feel the stress in your hamstrings, not your low back with the dumbbell on the floor. Pull up towards your hip keeping your shoulders down and chest up and lower it with control until it reaches the floor. Pause and repeat
The beauty of the TRX is you can increase or decrease the intensity simply by adjusting the foot position closer or further away from the anchor point, which is great for beginners and advanced lifters alike. This exercise when performed for higher reps will have you feeling your upper back muscles more than ever before. It’s also a great option for beginners who want work up to weight training, and/or people who want to avoid loading up their joints with weights. Because this is a bodyweight exercise, it’s generally easier on your joints.
Benefits of the TRX Row
- Can easily adjust the intensity allowing you to more or fewer reps depending on your strength goals.
- Strengthens the shoulder stabilizers, spinal erectors, and deep abdominal muscles due to the instability of the TRX.
- Accessible to all levels of lifters.
How to Do the TRX Row
Hold the strap with one or two hands by your hips and walk feet towards the anchor point until you feel you have the right level of difficulty. Keeping your shoulders down and chest up, pull yourself towards the anchor point until you feel a contraction in your upper back. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
The single-arm landmine row is a unilateral exercise, meaning you work one side of your body at a time. This allows your weaker side to catch up to your dominant side, which, in the long run, will result in more overall strength. Also, rowing a barbell that’s front-loaded with weight shifts the tension for a different feel — which some lifters may or may not like. But how is it better for your upper back? Mainly because you can more easily control the angle and positioning of your body in relation to the load — essentially rowing the weight right to your shoulder.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Landmine Row
- This row is done in a variety of positions which is great for hitting your upper back from a variety of angles.
- Adds size and strength to your upper back muscles.
How to Do the Single-Arm Landmine Row
Stand to the side of the barbell, loaded into a landmine apparatus, and hinge your hips back and rest your non-working hand on your knee and grab the barbell. Keeping your chest up and shoulders down, pull towards your hip until you feel a strong contraction in the upper back. Slowly lower down and repeat.
The seal row is a rowing variation that has you lay face down on an elevated workout bench, holding a barbell with both hands so that it’s not touching the floor. This prone position takes any and all momentum out of the movement so that your upper back muscles are doing all of the (literal) heavy liftings. Most lifters go heavy with rows and use more biceps and less scapula retraction which leaves the rhomboids neglected. This exercise solves both of these issues.
Benefits of the Seal Row
- You can get yourself into a true horizontal position to optimally target your lats and middle back muscles.
- The prone position takes away all momentum, so you can really isolate the target area.
- This is another lower-back friendly variation, as it’s not working to support you in any sort of hinge position.
How to Do the Seal Row
The key here is to set up on a bench so that you can fully extend your arms without the barbell touching the ground. Do this by propping up a bench on either two low boxes or a stack of bumper plates. Then, lie face down on the bench with the barbell underneath you and squeeze your glutes and brace abs. Think about pulling your elbows towards the hip as the barbell touches the bench. Lower down to the floor and repeat.
Face pulls will help add size, strength, and endurance to the rear shoulders and upper back. The external rotation at the end of the movement will help pull the shoulders back so you’re really activating the traps and rhomboids, which are primary movers in scapular retraction. Be sure not to go too heavy because you want to ‘feel’ those muscles working and not let your biceps take over. You can also do these anywhere as long as you have a quality resistance band.
Benefits of the Face Pull
- Increases shoulder strength, scapular stability, and strengthens external rotation.
- A great low-intensity exercise that can be paired with strength exercises that need upper back strength and good posture.
- As it directly isolates the upper back and is easy to perform, it is a great exercise to improve posture.
How to Do the Face Pull
Hold the rope with an overhand grip with your thumbs up. Walk back until your arms are outstretched. Get into an athletic stance, activating your core and glutes and with your shoulders down and chest up. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull the rope towards your face. Hold this position for two seconds and return to the starting position.
About the Upper Back
The upper back muscles of the rhomboids and the trapezius are responsible for many of the movements of the scapula which in turn plays a huge role in the stability and mobility of the shoulder. Movements including scapular retraction scapular protraction, scapular upward rotation, scapular downward rotation, and scapular elevation are enabled by your upper back muscles.
If the upper back is either weak or stretched (rounded shoulders) or tight and inhibited (military posture) it will affect the ability to go overhead and other parts of the body will compensate for the lack of shoulder mobility. Simply put: a weak upper back can result in poor form, and poor form can possibly lead to injuries.
As for strength and performance, your upper back muscles are what initiate almost all pulling motions, so a stronger upper back will result in more pulling strength and force. This means that you can do more reps (and more explosive reps) for pulling exercises, which will result in a bigger and stronger back. Also, powerlifters and strongmen need a larger upper back to support a loaded barbell during squats and as a base for when they’re bench-pressing.
Anatomy of the Upper Back
Your upper back has important muscles and understanding what they are and how they work is important in obtaining a stronger, better-looking upper back. Here’s a breakdown of the major upper back muscles.
The rhomboids originate from the cervical (neck) vertebra and run diagonally down the back and attach to the inside of the scapula. Their functions include:
- Adduction (coming together) of the arms.
- Inward rotation of the arms (when you’re bringing your arm down from a lateral raise).
- Scapula elevation (when you’re reaching above your head).
The trapezius is a large flat triangular superficial muscle that sits on both sides of the upper back. It originates from the cervical spine and all 12 of the thoracic vertebrae. The traps main functions include:
- Scapula adduction.
- Scapula elevation and depression (lower fibers).
- Scapula outward rotation.
Both of these muscles play a huge role in shoulder function and health in and out of the gym.
The Benefits of Training Your Upper Back
Upper back strength and size plays a role in posture, strength, and spinal stability. Here are the main benefits you can reap from targeting your upper back muscles.
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A Stable Base
During the squat, the upper back provides a place for the bar to sit, and keeping the upper back tight prevents you from leaning too far forward in the squat and turn the movement into a good morning.
And during the bench press, the upper back provides the foundation on which to press. By keeping the upper back engaged, it supports and controls the bar path, allowing for good technique and hopefully pressing more weight.
The muscles in your upper back are responsible for pulling your shoulder blades together. Because we live in a sit-happy world where we’re consistently hunched, those muscles are weakened over time. It’s a cyclical issue where hunching causes weak muscles and weak muscles enable hunching. Being hunched over for long periods of time can also cause back pain and impede shoulder mobility. And decreased shoulder mobility can lead to poor form and, as a result, injury.
By strengthening the upper back muscles, you’re enabling better posture and therefore better pulling and overhead-pressing form (due to increased shoulder mobility).
How to Warm-up Your Upper Back Before Training
Before doing any exercises that involve the upper back, it’s important to get blood flow there and then mobilize it with a few low-intensity exercises to help get your upper body in good exercise positions.
Starting off with foam rolling the upper back with arms overhead and with the scapula spread apart will drive blood there and work out some tight and sore spots. Then, perform a few low-intensity upper back exercises like the TRX IYT, face pulls, band pull-aparts, and wall slides for eight to 15 reps will have your upper back ready to roll.
More Upper back Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best upper back exercises to strengthen your entire upper back region you can also check out these other helpful back training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- 4 Challenging Pull-Apart Variations For A Stronger Upper Back
- 4 Single Arm Row Variations To Build A Serious Upper Back
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