Upper Back Muscle Exercises - Easy Workout Examples to Follow

Upper Back Muscles

Learn the Basics to Advanced Training Principles

Virtually everyone who trains-young, old, male, female, recreational, competitive- wants to build his or her upper back to its fullest potential. That's because upper- back development gives your physique a pleasing taper, and it's one way to balance a relatively wide lower body Most clothing styles accentuate a tapered loot so a developed upper back lets you display your physique in your day-to-day life.

Upper-back training presents some problems, however, including the fact that you can't really see the area when you're exercising it. Other difficulties are due to the complexity and size of this bodypart and the paramount need to focus and concentrate when training it. When I say "upper back," I mean the middle of the upper back, not the lats. If we could watch this bodypart move when we trained it, most of us would have more development.

The lack of visual feedback means that the feel of the movement-that is, the stretching and contracting of the upper back is most critical. Almost any upper-back exercise becomes a moderately effective biceps and forearm movement and a minimally effective upper-back movement if you don't concentrate and focus on the target muscles.

Because it's a large bodypart, the upper back won't get sufficient work if you use only one or two exercises. Performing a variety of movements seems to facilitate more development even though in reality there's considerable overlap. The most difficult lesson about upper-back training I've had to learn is that relying on brute force undermines your efforts. Powering your way through the exercises often fails to involve the upper back adequately and, worse, can lead to some serious injuries. My experience with two basic movements illustrates this point.

Barbell rows is the traditional exercise for working the entire upper back area. Many of us can eventually use some pretty impressive weights on this movement, but it's a mistake to focus only on piling on the plates. If you don't fully control the bar, your upper- back involvement will be minimized. A heavy weight will probably force you into a fully stretched position but will probably also prevent you from really contracting your upper-back muscles. When you think about that for a moment it makes the usual hardcore gym approach to barbell rows-that you should stand on a block or bench nonsensical.

Unless you have incredibly long arms, you'll easily reach the full stretch position. Most of us have experienced difficulty in the fully contracted position, which has more to do with remaining stable-feet planted, knees slightly bent-and using a reasonable weight. If a weight is too heavy, you compromise the movement by shortening it when you thrust your legs or lower back and move your upper body down to meet the bar. I've used all these tricks over the years, and they all negate effective barbell rowing. Furthermore, while you can perform this movement safely with even moderately heavy weights, using excessive poundages and compensating movements to propel the weight sets the stage for serious lower-back problems.

Close-grip pulldowns performed on a triangular bar, with the palms facing each other, have taught me a similar lesson. If you're very secure in the seat on a pulldown machine that is, there's a brace for your knees and you just power the weight stack down, it's comparatively easy to use a lot of weight, meaning more than 150 to 170 percent of your bodyweight. Those large poundages are sure to spark your ego and impress training partners and gym regulars. Unfortunately, the results will often be some biceps and forearm development, minimum upper-back development and shoulder injuries.

While it's still important to be secure and stable in the seat, you must think of your arms as links only, connections to your upper back. By focusing on the target muscles, you can ensure that a good deal more of the work is supplied by your upper back, Of course, it's impossible to eliminate your arms From the action altogether, but by focusing this way, you can go a long way toward making the exercise more effective. Leaning back as you go into this movement, with your upper body at a 60 degree angle at the bottom when your hands are at your upper chest-can further emphasize the upper back, depending on how you do it.

It you hold your torso steady and aim for a full contraction rather than swinging into it and creating momentum, the lean will do the trick. Once again, the key is to use moderately heavy weights that you can control. Moderately heavy' in this case can include son-re considerable poundages. Correct upper-back training is quite simply hard work. Over the years I've found myself doing it at a slower and slower pace taking more dine between sets. This pace enables me to concentrate better, lifting respectable weights in good form.

Over the years I've also experimented with different movements and various combinations of exercises for upper back. The following routine, I believe, is organized logically for a modified pre-exhaustion, working the target area from top to bottom. Perform the following movements for the designated number of warmup sets and one hard work set, taking an average of 2 1/2 minutes between sets. Your reps may depend on your training cycle, but I've found that 12 to 15 works especially well for upper back. In addition, I do a lot of stretching between sets.

Machine pullovers

This is a tremendous exercise because of the great range of motion and because you can push from the elbow pads. If there's no pullover machine available, substitute a virtually straight-arm pulldown on a pulley machine. Because this is my first movement, I typically do four to five warmup sets from eight reps with a light weight on tile first to one or two reps on the last. I especially like machine pullovers because they are unique and because you can use the following technique at the end of a training cycle to pre-exhaust your upper back without tiring your arms and get a great pump Finish your warmup and work sets and then immediately do one or two three-quarter reps, one or two half-reps and one or two quarter-reps.

Close-grip pulldowns

These are described above. I do two warmup sets of two to three reps.

Barbell rows

This one was discussed above as well. I do one or two warmup sets of one to two reps.

Seated low-cable rows

Once again, position and feel are critical. The best form is to bend your knees slightly to reduce the risk of lower- back problems, lean slightly forward at the full stretch position and slightly backward at full contraction. I do no warmups on this one but go right to the work set. Concentrate so that the feel of the movement is in your back, with your arms acting only as links. This is a good exercise for the pumping technique described above.

Chins with weight

There's something special and dramatic about chins, probably because you're balancing and pulling up your own weight. It's also an exercise that everybody knows and even the non-training world appreciates, especially since most adults can't chin themselves once. Even longtime trainees and people who are strong in other movements often have trouble with chins. If you cant perform four or five full reps easily, you'll do better to stick with front pulldowns using a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip.

You do chins last in this routine so that you only need one or two warmup sets of one or two reps and also to counter the obsession some people have about putting excessive weight on the weight belt. If you use too much weight, you won't effectively hit the target bodypart. Here's a tip to help you focus and concentrate: Instead of pulling up, a movement that involves mostly arms, think of your upper back contracting and almost pushing you up. I also perform two other movements to work the complete upper back.


I prefer a trap bar, hut dumbbells work as well if not better. At one point I got up to some ponderous weights on this exercise, but noticed I was doing a shortened movement with too much arm involvement. The form is straight up and down-don't roll your shoulders-and try to pause for a second at the top.

Bent-over lateral raises

Since you work the rear delts with the rows, it makes sense to include this rear- deft isolation movement in your upper-back routine rather than your shoulder routine. You can do it while lying facedown on a bench that's angled at 20 to 30 degrees or while standing, bent over, in virtually the same position as you use for barbell rows, if you use too much weight, almost invariably you'll just swing the dumbbells.

Keep them forward, on the same plane as your shoulders or slightly in front. Don't let them drift backward, in addition, try to pause slightly at the top, contracted position. Within the limits of good form, don't he afraid to work up to credible poundages over time. You won't get much development by limiting yourself to light dumbbells.

The above is my upper-back row tine for a hard session. When I do an easy workout, I perform only pullovers, pulldowns, rows and, occasionally, cable rows or chins. As a rule I don't do shrugs or bent-over laterals. Using a lighter weight meaning 75 to 85 percent of maximum, I try to focus even more on the feel of the movement, and as a result I sometimes experience a greater pump from this easier workout than I do from the harder sessions.

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