For veteran gym rats, traps are the new abs (having abs is still nice, though.) That’s because big traps, 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 10 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 exercises 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, as well as the benefits of training the upper back.
Best Upper Back Exercises
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Bent Over Barbell Row
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
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.
Single-Arm Dead Stop Row
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.
Single-Arm Landmine Row
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.
Nothing against the power clean, which is a staple in most professional weight rooms. But the hang clean has a shorter learning curve, and you can generate power from a lower-back-friendly position. The hang clean still requires a powerful hip drive, a strong pull, and the classic dip-and-catch. The catch in the front rack will help develop a bigger yoke.
Benefits of the Hang Clean
- Develops the powerful hip drive needed for both sports and general lifting.
- Builds strong upper trap muscles with the pull and catch.
- Helps develop neuromuscular power, muscular coordination, and athleticism.
How to Do the Hang Clean
Stand tall with the barbell at arm’s length with an overhand grip, and feet shoulder-width apart. Hinge at the hips until the bar is at your knees. Push your feet into the floor and snap your hips so the bar flies upward. Drop into a squat and catch the bar in the front rack position.
The high pull is almost identical to the hang clean except you omit the catch and squat. This makes it a less technical move with a shorter learning curve while still torching your upper back. You can perform high pulls from either the hang, to get your hips more involved, or off the floor to increase range of motion. Remember that whatever gives you more leverage will mean more weight — and thus more gains.
Benefits of the High Pull
- A less technical move that still trains the muscles of the upper back.
- Strengthens the mid and upper traps for better posture and a bigger yoke.
- Builds hip and core strength simultaneously.
How to Do the High Pull
Grip the barbell with a wider than shoulder-width grip and hinge at the hips until the barbell is around knee height. Powerfully snap your hips forward and extend the knees forcefully while pulling the bar as high as possible. Keep your elbows high while pulling the bar towards your neck.
The TRX YTW is three exercises in one that strengthen the upper back from different angles for better muscle development. This is a great exercise for correcting poor posture and strengthening the muscles surrounding the shoulder, particularly the upper traps and rhomboids. Plus, the W-raise specifically isolates the rear deltoids for better mobility and healthier shoulders.
Benefits of the TRX YTW
- This exercise can be made more or less intense by moving your feet closer or further away from the anchor point.
- Trains the upper back from different angles for better upper back muscle development
- A great way to correct poor posture and for overhead athletes who need to keep their shoulders healthy.
How to Do the TRX YTW
Take a firm grip on the handles below shoulder height and walk your feet into your desired placement. Keeping your shoulders down and chest up, pull your arms into a Y shape overhead and slowly lower down. Then pull into a T shape with your palms facing away from you and slowly return to the starting position. Then perform a face pull and externally rotate the shoulders into the W position. That’s one rep.
TRX Inverted Row
The barbell inverted row is a bodybuilding back staple, but it locks your grip into a specific position. If you need a more fluid grip to get around any shoulder discomfort, enter the TRX. With the TRX inverted row you can go underhand, overhand, neutral, or anything in between to accommodate any potential wrist, elbow, or shoulder issues. The instability of the TRX will improve your core stability and train your stabilizing muscles more than the barbell version.
Benefits of the TRX Inverted Row
- The customizable grip works around joint issues and trains the upper back from different angles.
- The TRX handles help train the core while you’re working your back.
- The padded handles make it easier on your grip, giving you the ability to do more reps.
How to Do the TRX Inverted Row
Grab the handles with your preferred grip and hang down directly under the frame. Then, engage your glutes and upper back to form a straight line with your torso. Pull your body up to the handles just below your chest and lower slowly back down until your arms are straight.
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, 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.
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 turning the movement into a good morning.
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, performing a few low-intensity upper back exercises like the TRX IYT, face pulls, band pull-aparts, and wall slides 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.
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