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6 Great Muscle and Strength Building Upper Back Exercises

A strong upper back can have positive carryover to sports performance and the big three!

Fitness professionals know the importance the upper back plays in the big three, but but the general lifting population and those who want to look good naked don’t always fully grasp the upper back’s importance.

However, that usually changes when their shoulders hurt, and they hit Google up for information on what to do about it. And words like Major and Minor Rhomboids, Upper and Lower Trapezius pop up, along with upper back strength.

If these words sound like Greek to you, let me explain.

Main Muscles and Functions of the Upper Back


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)
  • Inward rotation (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.

Best Upper Back Exercises
Photo by tankist276 / Shutterstock

Upper Back and the Squat, Deadlift and Press

Although the traps and the rhomboids are not directly trained with the big three, they play a huge indirect role in setting the table for these lifts. With the squat and the deadlift, contraction of the upper back muscles play a huge role in keeping neutral spine. Upper back tightness keeps the bar close to you when you pull, which is essential for lower back health and a stronger pull.

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 more of 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.

Upper back, the Head, and Posture

There’s research that suggests having a strong and muscular neck (upper trapezius) reduces the incident and severity of concussions. However, there are studies that say the opposite. However, if you’re an athlete in danger of concussions, then it helps (more than hurts) to have a strong neck, upper back area to protect you (1).

Furthermore, in today’s technology-driven world where sitting and looking down at screens is making up a majority of our time, a stronger neck can help prevent poor postural habits.

How you ask?

For every inch your ears are forward from the shoulders, you increase the weight of the head on the spine by an additional 10 pounds (2). This leads to the muscles of the upper back getting stretched, weak, and inhibited. And if left unchecked, shoulder and back injuries could be more prone to occurring.

And it’s an easy fix. Just do more upper back work for injury prevention, better posture and for a stronger big three.  Here are some upper back staples that belong in your routine.

Upper Back Exercises for Strength

1. Barbell Row

Not only does this exercise strengthen your upper back, shoulders, biceps and grip, it’s the perfect accessory exercise for improving your deadlift. The bent over row mimics the hip hinge and holding this for time with help improve your lower/upper back endurance.

  • Programming: When doing this for strength (lower reps 4-6 and more sets 3-5) it will help improve your ability to pull from the floor and to keep a neutral spine under heavy loads.
  • Best Variation: Pendlay (Strict) Barbell Row
  • Full Guide: Barbell Row Guide

Grip the Bar, Set the Back

Grip the barbell with a grip that’s similar in width to your deadlift, or slightly wider. Once you’ve established your grip, lift the bar off the ground and bend over maintaining a strong set back and hip hinge. 

Make sure you start with a weight that is manageable to move with proper back and hip angles. The stance chosen should be similar to what is used in your deadlift, but it may vary. Find the stance that feels most comfortable and allows your to maintain a strong hip hinge and set back.

Initiate the Row

Once your stance, grip, and back/hip angle are established, then it’s time to initiate the row. When beginning the pull, think about bringing the elbows back as if you’re starting a lawnmower, and focus on utilizing the latissimus dorsi to move the weight. 

Coaching Tip: If the weight is causing you to drop your chest or the elbows are flaring, then it may be too heavy and the weight used should be scaled back. 

Squeeze the Back, Begin the Descend

At the top of the movement, squeeze the full upper back and contract the lats without breaking your hip angle and set back. Think about pulling the barbell fully to the body to ensure you’re fully contracting the upper torso’s musculature. 

Coaching Tip: If you’re looking to improve hypertrophy with the barbell by increasing time under tension, then try adding a pause at the top of the movement (full row), or slow down the eccentric (lowering portion). 

2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows

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 additional core work in the form of lateral stability.

  • ProgrammingProgram these for higher reps (8-15 range) and lower sets (2-4) and pair them in a super set with any press variation works well.
  • Best Variation: Barbell Row
  • Full Guide: Dumbbell Row Guide

Grip and Set the Back

Grip the dumbbell with a full grip, one in each hand. Once you are standing erect, push your hips back and load the hamstrings and glutes as you assume a bent over position, similar to that of other bent over rows/deadlifting movements.

Make sure you start with a weight that is manageable to move with proper back and hip angles. The stance chosen should be similar to what is used in your deadlift, but it may vary. Find the stance that feels most comfortable and allows your to maintain a strong hip hinge and set back.

Coach’s Tip: You can rotate your palms (palms forwards, palms facing you, or palms backwards) to place more emphasis on the back vs biceps.

Initiate the Row

With the back set, pull the elbows slightly back towards the hips and upwards, so that the forearm is perpendicular to the floor.

Do not pull the load directly vertical, but rather slightly back and up, which will match the lat muscle fiber’s angle better than pulling straight up.

Coach’s Tip: Be sure not to over row the dumbbell upwards. Many lifters will pull too high and allow the shoulders to collapse forwards as the load is lifted. Rather, be sure to keep the shoulders pulled back the higher the load is lifted.

Squeeze the Back, Lower, and Repeat

Once you have reached the top position, maximally contract the back muscles to increase muscle engagement. This should occur on every repetition. Once you have felt the back contract aggressively, lower the load in the same slightly arching motion it was lifted and repeat.

Work to keep tension on the back throughout the entirety of the set.

Coach’s Tip: When lowering the weight, do not lose tension in the back muscles.

3. TRX Row

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. This makes this exercise accessible to almost everybody.

  • Programming: TRX rows are a great change of pace from weighted rows and training these for higher reps (12-20) and fewer sets (2-4) works best.
  • Best Variation: Inverted Row

4. Single-Arm Landmine Row

Single arm landmine exercises such as the row will help reduce joint stress while maximizing shoulder tension and stabilization because of the gripping required to hold the fat part of the barbell.

The landmine allows you to row from variety of positions and grips which is great for hitting the upper back from different angles.

  • Programming: Use the same programming guidelines as for the dumbbell rows.
  • Best Variation: Dumbbell Row

5. Seal Rows

These are brought to you by strength coach Dan John. Because most lifters go heavy with rows they use more bicep and less scapula retraction which leaves the rhomboids neglected. This exercise solves both issues.

  • Programming: Quality of reps and load are important here. The moment you’re trying to muscle up the weight and not use your rhomboids stop. Pairing this with any single arm row or press exercise in a superset will work well.

6. Face Pulls

Face pulls will help add size, strength and endurance to rear deltoids and upper back. However, like the batwing exercise you don’t want to go to heavy because you want to ‘feel’ those muscles working.

The external rotation at the end of the movement will help pull the shoulders back into proper position for better posture and decreased injury risk.

  • Programming: Using this exercise as a primer exercise before any pressing/deadlift/squat will help exercise positioning and get blood moving through the area. 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps will do the trick.
  • Best Variation: Squatting Face Pull
  • Full Guide: Banded Face Pull Guide

Wrapping Up

It’s common to neglect what you can’t see, and if you neglect the upper back, then you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Showing this area some love can have a big impact on your performance in and out of the gym.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from tankist276 / Shutterstock.


1. Honda, J., Chang, S., & Kim, K. (2018). The effects of vision training, neck musculature strength, and reaction time on concussions in an athletic population. Journal Of Exercise Rehabilitation14(5), 706-712.

2. The Physiology of the Joints. Volume 3. The Trunk and the Vertebral Column. (1975). Postgraduate Medical Journal51(599), 682. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2496196/

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