Upper Back Exercises

Throughout my career of writing posts for Barbell Scholar, I have always focused on the exercises and muscle groups that most other platforms do not mention.  This includes upper back exercises. 

WHY?

Well, before I start to write articles about the muscle groups everybody loves (chest, biceps, triceps, lats, etc.), I would like to lay a foundation of articles that focus on the weak areas first. 

Upper back exercises are part of this foundation.  Many times I see a lifter in the gym trying to perform heavy upper body pressing exercises WITH A WEAK UPPER BACK

I’m no psychic but I can already tell this will lead to disaster. 

So why does the upper back matter so much to upper body training and how on earth can a stronger upper back increase upper body pressing power.  Possibly even the bench press?

Why You Need A Jacked Upper Back

According to Hanvold TN et al., upper back pain was common among technical school students transitioning into occupational life (2009).  Although the causes are still inconclusive as to WHY these students still have back pain, I can take a bold guess.  SITTING!

Upper Back Exercises Thoracic Spine

Dr. J Talbot Sellers, DO mentiones this as well.  The most common causes of upper back pain, according to an article he wrote for spine-health.com, are poor posture, improper lifting technique, overuse and an accident and/or collision.

Obviously, accidents can happen to anybody and are completely unavoidable, but ALL OF THE OTHERS ARE PREVENTABLE!

By having a strong upper back, many of these problems can be prevented.  I know your chest may be visible in the mirror, but it needs to be balanced out. 

As you can see, having a strong upper back will not only make your lifts go up, but it will also improve your spinal health.

How The Upper Back Affects The Lower Back

Before I get into the exercises, I have to mention the relationship between the upper back and lower back. 

The spine may be divided into seperate areas (i.e. thoracic, lumbar, etc.), but it is all part of ONE UNIT.

Having a problem in one area is going to affect all of the other areas. 

Therefore, having a weakness in the upper back will likely increase the risk for injury in the lower back.

The classic example is that guy who lifts heavy weights and bends over with a rounded upper back and picks up a heavy weight. 

His upper back immediately rounds and as a result his lower back will round as well.  This dumps all of that weight onto the lower back. 

We all know what happens next.

The Best Upper Back Exercises

Now onto the good stuff, the exercises.  I have selected these exercises based upon both their functional carryover to everyday life and for increasing your lifts. 

Do be forewarned, these are not simple “easy” exercises.  There is no easy way out to greatness.  Greatness takes work and dedication. 

Try to perform at least one of these with your workouts for 5-6 sets of 10 reps.

Pull-ups/Chin-ups

I have written posts in the past about pull-ups and my stance remains the same, I F**king Love Pull-Ups!  They are awesome for your shoulder health and great for strengthening your upper back. 

Pullups

The only problem with doing pullups is the strength required to do them.  So doing pullups with a resistance band or horizontal pullups might have to do the trick. 

Just be sure to set your shoulders into a good position (external rotation) before each rep.

**Quick Tip**  Setting your shoulders during pull-ups, or any upper back exercises, is very simple.  When you grab the bar, twist the bar like you are trying to break it in half.  This will not only set your shoulders into external rotation, but it will also force your lats to make more gains.  Double Win!

Rows

You knew this one was coming!  Everybody loves doing rows, barbell rows, dumbbell rows, T-bar rows, etc.  Rows are one of the most commonly known upper back exercises. 

Doing rows will dramatically strengthen the musculature of the upper back and as a bonus, pretty much everybody can do them (great news for all you trainers).

Back Rows

So the milion dollar question, which type of rows should I do?  The answer:  ANY AND ALL OF THEM!

Pretty much everytime I set foot into the gym, I always make an effort to perform some type of rowing variation.  The upper back can take a ton of volume so show your fangs and go savage. 

Shrugs

Not only do they build serious traps, but shrugs are also a killer upper back exercise. 

So far the upper back exercises that I have listed have focused on working the musculature of the shoulder girdle.  But what about the actual thoracic spine itself. 

Most trainers try to avoid heavily working the spine with their clientele for fear of injury.  However, learning how to properly load the spine is VITAL to your success as both a lifter and as a human being.

Shrugs allow us to load the spine with very heavy weight and train the upper back to maintain an upright posture with the weight.  This allows the muscles of the spine to gain some serious strength. 

All in all, this helped shrugs make the list for our upper back exercises.   

To Spinal Load Is To Be Human

Whenever you pick up a heavy object in everyday life you are loading your spine.  Athletes moving only their body weight, are loading their spine. 

Spinal loading is how our bodies transfer enregy between the hips and the shoulders, or between the upper body and lower body.  So it is necessary for us to learn how to load properly if we want to lift properly. 

Spinal loading becomes a problem when the spine is doing all of the loading!

When the spine is loaded too much beyond its capacity, we see an injury take place.

Front Squats

**NOTE** When referring to “front squats” as mentioned below, the exercise is intended for an olympic grip front rack position.  NOT the California style with crossed arms.  The California style is not as effective. 

Front Squats

Front squats are typically thought of as a leg exercise, and yes they are, but they are also one of the best upper back exercises. 

In a front squat, the barbell is positioned on the shoulders, thus requiring the lifter to maintain a nearly vertical torso. 

This places a huge amount of work on the upper back.  Even more than shrugs. 

Shrugs are a small movement, front squats are a very big movement.  They require the upper back to remain completely straight when you are shifting your center of gravity. 

Pretty big difference!

Unlike the other upper back exercises, DO NOT perform more than 3 REPS, especially with heavy weight.  Your form will deteriorate very quickly with these and bad form never works out in the end. 

Neck Extensions

Remember how we mentioned that the spine is one mechanism all interlinked?  That means we cannot have any weak areas if we want to have proper spinal health. 

Therefore, we cannot neglect the cervical spine (neck).

Due to our keyboard and seated lifestyles, our neck is being placed in more compromising positions.  Thus human necks are starting to resemble that of a chicken. 

Poor neck posture has disastrous consequences for not only the upper back, but also the shoulders and lower back as well. 

This is the only exercise on the list where you will probably need to purchase some specialty equipment, a.k.a a neck harness.  There are some cheap options, however the one I use is the Head-Strap fit for Hercules by IronMind. 

Simply attach weight to the harness and set your self up as if you are about to do a deadlift.  Only keep your hips stationary and bend your head forward and then extent the neck maximally.  Do not move anything else EXCEPT YOUR NECK.

Honorable Mention

I only wanted to cover 5 exercises in this post for the sake of space, but here are some other awesome exercises that are worth mentioning:

  • Dragon Flags
  • Back Bridges
  • J-curls
  • Ab wheel rollouts
  • Pushups
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press (standing)
  • Hanging Leg Raises
  • Skin The Cats

Final Thoughts

I hope that now you have a better understanding of how the spinal column is not just a bunch of bones that go rogue on each other and somehow work together. 

The spinal column is ONE UNIT!  Having a weakness in one area effects the entire spine. 

The upper back (thoracic spine) is just one area of the spine, but having a weakness here causes disastrous consequences. 

So remember, if you care about your bench press, squat and deadlift.  If you care about getting huge, and if you care about getting lean, do yourself a favor and work on your upper back. 

Besides, upper back exercises are fun!


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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