5 TRX Exercises to Build a Rock Solid Upper Back

Build a strong upper back with these easy to implement exercises.

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While on the battlefield way back in 1997, Navy SEAL Randy Hetrick came up with the first version of what is now called the TRX®. Because dodging bullets and staying alive wasn’t enough. He wanted to stay in shape also. Now it’s uncommon to walk into a gym and not see one hanging from the rafters because suspension training isn’t a fad anymore. It’s commonplace.

Now lifters may look at the TRX with disdain and think, how is this going to make me stronger?

But the beauty of the TRX is it attacks the upper back muscles from multiple angles and its great tool to train this neglected part of the body, making this area a strength.

Why The Upper Back Is Important to the Big 3

  1. Plays a role in keeping the spine in neutral
  2. Helps keep the bar close to you when you deadlift
  3. Upper back (when engaged) prevents a back squat from turning into a Good morning
  4. Provides a “shelf” for the back squat
  5. An engaged upper back supports and controls the bar path while bench pressing
Best Upper Back Exercises
Photo by tankist276 / Shutterstock

The Upper Back’s Main Muscles

 1. Rhomboids

The rhomboids start from the cervical (neck) vertebra and run diagonally down the back and attach to the inside of the shoulder blades. Their major functions are:

  • Adduction 
  • Inward rotation 
  • Scapula elevation

2. Upper Trapezius

The trapezius is a large flat triangular muscle that sits on both sides of the upper back. It starts from the cervical spine (neck) and attached to all 12 of the thoracic vertebrae. Its major functions are;

  • Scapula adduction
  • Scapula elevation
  • Scapula outward rotation

And while there are plenty of good upper back exercises using machines, dumbbells, barbells and Kettlebells, the TRX provides nice a change of pace and allows you to work against your own bodyweight.

Helping improve your relative strength.

5 TRX Upper Back Exercises

Author’s Note: One of the advantages TRX is you can increase or decrease the intensity by adjusting the foot position closer or further away from the anchor point. Please carefully judge your own intensity. Although training barefoot is great, it’s not advisable for these exercises because of the risk of slipping and falling.

1. TRX Single arm row

When you’ve mastered the bilateral TRX row and you’re looking for more of a challenge, the single arm row fits the bill. This helps correct strength imbalances between sides and provides anti rotation benefits also.  

Tips and Programming Suggestions

Keep yourself front on to the anchor point and the shoulders down and chest up the entire time. Perform this exercise with control because there is no need to hurry. 

  • 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps 

2. TRX Inverted Row

The barbell inverted row locks your grip into an over or under position. But with the TRX Inverted row you can go underhand, overhand, neutral or anything in between. And this is helpful if you have any wrist, elbow or shoulder issues.

Tips and Programming Suggestions

Keeping your body in a straight line is essential. You do this by engaging your glutes. This is made more difficult by elevating the feet on the bench or by adding weight or both.   

  • 3 sets of 8-12 reps 

3. TRX Power Pull

The TRX Power Pull trains unilateral back strength combined with rotational strength and control. And it takes the upper back muscles through a wider range of motion, to help improve your shoulder mobility and flexibility.

Tips and Programming Suggestions

This exercise has a lot of moving parts so make sure you’ve mastered the single arm row variation before doing this one. Let your eyes follow the non-working hand as this makes the rotational part of the exercise more effective.

This is more of a total body move which will get your heart rate up too.

  • 3 sets of 10-15 reps each side

4. TRX Y

This a fantastic exercise for correcting poor posture and strengthening the muscles surrounding the shoulder particularly the upper traps and upward rotators. If you’re an athlete that spends a lot of time going overhead, this is a must do exercise.

 Tips and Programming Suggestions

Don’t fall into the trap of shrugging your upper traps. Prevent this by keeping your shoulders down and chest up and standing tall. If you feel this in your upper traps make these adjustments.

This is a great warmup exercise for 8-10 reps and as an accessory exercise.

  • 3 sets of 8-10 reps

5. TRX Face pull with external rotation

This is a great exercise for strengthening the rear deltoids, the external shoulder rotators (the Infraspinatus), and the rhomboid muscles of the upper back. It’s a catch all exercise for the upper back area.

And it’s a nice change of pace from your usual face pull variations.

Tips and Programming Suggestions

Resist pulling with your upper traps during the face pull portion of this exercise. Again, keep your shoulders down and chest up the entire time. Don’t force the external rotation part. Only go as far as your shoulders will allow.

Do this as part of your warmup for 10 reps.

  • 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps.

 Wrapping up

The upper back strength and mobility is essential for a stronger big 3 and for shoulder health. And although it’s not a mirror muscle, it does help those muscles look and feel better.

You’ll neglect the upper back at your peril.

Shane McLean

Shane McLean

Shane McLean is a Certified Personal Trainer who’s worked with a wide variety of clients, from the general population client all the way to ex-Navy seals and college athletes.

Shane is a big believer in seeing exercise as a gift for the body and never a punishment — exercise should be as enjoyable as possible and never just a “work” out.

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