Bench Press Upper Back Training Hero Image

A Strong Upper Back: Your Secret Training Weapon

Too many times, beginning trainees do not realize that a crucial element to excelling in their bench press is the strength of their back. Specifically, a solid upper back provides the foundation for balance, stability, and ultimately adding on weight each week.

When lying down on the bench, if a strong support system is not there, it certainly will not help you lift progressively heavier. However, you do not have to continue to struggle with getting stuck at a plateau when you still seem you are just starting out.

Strengthening your upper back is the first step to ensure your bench press goals are attainable.

Whether you are an athlete, bodybuilder, or powerlifter, you might surprise yourself how much of a difference fostering a formidable base can make for this compound movement.

If any of the following exercises resonate with you, put them to the test and you can be sure to watch your bench press personal best steadily rise. 

**Note This is the third and final article in the bench press series.  If you haven’t already be sure to check out part 1 and part 2.  

Bent Over Barbell Rows

Similar to the deadlift, bent over barbell rows can help push your upper back muscles to the next level.

Bench Press Upper Back Training Barbell Rows

To start, line up your feet under the bar just as in a deadlift. Bend over the barbell while it is on the floor and grab the bar using a pronated grip.

Maintain a straight back and core parallel to the floor. Next, row the bar toward your chest. Hold this position for a moment, then slowly lower it back down.

If you cannot lift the bar all the way to your pecs, it may be a sign to work on your scapular flexibility.

However, do not do anything that hurts your joint movement.

Remember to breathe out when contracting, lifting up, and exhale when lowering the weight back down.

Primarily, this compound exercise works your upper back, core, and lower back. Begin using light weight to hone down your form first.

Moreover, it may seem awkward to be in this position, so your nervous system will need time to acclimate being in such a bent over way. 

Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns

As with learning any exercise, do not throw form to the wayside – especially with wide grip lat pulldowns.

Even though this is a cable machine exercise, there is not any excuse to get lazy with it.

Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns

Select a light weight to get accustomed to the movement to start with. Then, snugly place your thighs underneath the machine’s supports so there is not any chance for you to rock side to side or back and forth.

Slightly lean back and with an overhand grip, reach up and grip the bar more than shoulder width apart – this may mean the full length of the bar for some.

Exhale as you pull the bar down just under your collar bone on the top of the chest.

Squeeze your shoulder blades together to complete this movement’s full range of motion for a couple of seconds.

Slowly, release the bar back up until your elbows are in full extension and lats are stretched.

Keep in mind that this exercise is easy to get carried away with by adding too much weight, too soon.

Machines are usually this way since they are specialty lifts. A sure-fire way to avoid this trap is to never compromise your well-developed form – your lats will let you know if you can move up to more weight or not. 

Dumbbell Rows

Highly comparable to the previously mentioned barbell row, dumbbell rows are arguably better suited for a natural hanging grip. Reason being, there is more versatility as how one can row a dumbbell versus a rigid, straight barbell.

Our hand grip and back do not naturally work in such straight lines as barbells, so dumbbells provide the freedom to change the grip to forty-five-degree angles.

Plus, you can target your upper back efficiently by loading more weight since it is less stressful for your lower back.

Bench Press Upper Back Training Dumbbell Rows

Put your right knee and right hand on the bench as if you were going to be on all fours.

Put your left foot on the ground ready to stabilize and your left arm ready to pick up the dumbbell.

As if you were starting a lawnmower, pull the dumbbell toward your chest keeping your elbow close to your midline.

There are many variations of this exercise; but, know the farther away your elbows span out away from your body, the harder this movement is.

This movement is exactly like the barbell row except your grip is not restricted to complete pronation or supination. In addition, you can perform alternating dumbbell rows to focus on one side at a time or both sides at once to pull more or less weight.

Powerful Variation: Seal Rows

To specifically prepare your posture for the bench press, the dumbbell seal row is perfect. It trains you to arch the upper back just as you would during the bench press, but this time you are face down.

Raise a bench off the ground by stacking one or two sets of weight plates underneath the bases – make sure it is stable of course.

The point is to have enough room to lay down on your stomach and chest while being able to lower and lift dumbbells without touching the floor.

Keep your feet raised up in the air, but if that is too difficult try bending your knees towards your glutes. When lifting up, contract your upper back as much as possible. 

Face Pulls

Not an exercise you see every day at the gym, but this may be one of the most concentrated exercises solely for the upper back.

Imagine doing a lat pulldown but standing 4-5 feet back and away from seat.

Then, pull the cable attachment toward and past the sides of your temples.

Depending on your height to the machine, your hands should be at eye level. Otherwise, you can really pull just about anything toward your face – even a straight bar or rope.

Just as the above-mentioned exercises stating to squeeze the scapula together, the same movement applies here at the end of the motion. 

Create Your Foundation

It may be easy to disregard your back when concerned about the bench press, but do not fall into that mistake.

Only when you have built a strong base for your bench press, then your bench press can progress.

Your entire back day does not have to be revolving around these exercises for hopeful bench press development, but they can greatly help if you consistently implement even a couple of them. 


Tony G
Tony G

Anthony is a fan of all things gym related. Growing up very overweight and out of shape, Anthony whipped himself into shape and stunned his entire community becoming a "fitness guru". Tony then set his sights on strength sports (Weightlifting/Powerlifting/Strongman) and learned all about body mechanics, mobility work and injury prevention. Tony found his true love in the strength sports, particularly Olympic Weightlifting. He earned a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree from Fitchburg State University in Exercise and Sports Science. He is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA.

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