You may be thinking… what’s the difference between upper back exercises and any other movement which targets the muscles of the back?
But one thing you should know if you didn’t before, is that the back consists of several muscles. Now, sure, each one is activated to some degree regardless of the exercise.
However, because the back is equipped with multiple segments (muscles), you have to target each one a little differently for maximum results. And the upper back is a good example of this.
So, allow us to show you the way of utilizing certain exercises to build mass and strength in this part of the back specifically…
Which Muscles Make Up The Upper Back?
There are two upper back muscles the rhomboids and trapezius both of which are responsible for the functions of the scapulae (shoulder blades). But let’s break them down a little further…
The rhomboids consist of a major and minor which sit under the trapezius muscle and help to make up the shoulder girdle.
The major is quadrangular shaped and located inferior to the minor. Both work together to retract the scapula to the vertebral column while also elevating and depressing the scapula.
The trapezius or traps consist of thin fibers that span a wide portion of the upper back.
The main function of the traps is postural which means it supports an upright torso when standing. The middle trapezius is responsible for the upward rotation and scapular retraction, while the lower trap depresses the scapulae, while the descending muscle fibers in the trapezius function to internally rotate the arms.
The levator scapulae is a small muscle that starts from the neck and attaches to the scapula; which functions to elevate the scapula.
10 Best Upper Back Exercises
We’ll first start off by saying that yes… the deadlift will work the upper back amazingly. But it is a full-body movement and we’re just focusing on exercises that are typically utilized for targeting mainly the back muscles (although other muscles will assist as well which is unavoidable).
Note: Links with instructions are provided for each exercise unless we don’t have an exercise in our database, of which we will detail step-by-step instructions with a video example.
1. Inverted Row
Also known as the Australian pull-up, the inverted row is one exercise that we would bet some of you have never seen being performed at your gym or anywhere for that matter.
It may not be a popular movement but that doesn’t make it any less of an effective upper back option.
And what makes it an excellent upper back builder? Well, the setup is ideal for favorably targeting the upper back muscles because when you pull yourself up to the bar, your chest should touch creating a path that optimizes upper back muscle contraction.
Now, this is a bodyweight exercise in its most basic form but for a more advanced version, you can always elevate your feet on a bench to increase the difficulty. But to take things further, you can place a weight plate on your frontside for even more resistance to pull against.
2. Standing One-Arm High Cable Row
The standing one-arm high row may be the best standing cable exercise for targeting the upper back muscles.
It’s unilateral which means you’re working each side at a time which is beneficial for preventing and correcting imbalances. Then you have a huge stretch component during the eccentric.
3. I-Y-T Row
The I-Y-T row is one of the more unconventional back exercises but there has to be something said for the research that shows superior muscle activation in the middle and lower trapezius with this movement.
In fact, this movement beat out many of the most common back exercises during electromyographic testing which determines the degree of muscle activation in a muscle. (1)
And when you actually try this movement you’ll see just how much you’ll feel the tension in your upper back muscles.
Now, there are several different ways to execute the I-Y-T row which include chest-supported, standing, seated, bent-over, TRX, etc. So you may have to do a little experimenting to determine which one you feel best works the target muscles.
Also, you’ll want to use relatively light to moderate dumbbells or weight plates depending on your level of strength because you’ll be raising your arms up while extended for the most part although you can have a slight bend in your elbows.
So, higher rep training is an ideal way to utilize the I-Y-T raise because you’ll be able to really focus on contraction in the upper back muscles.
- In your chosen position while holding a dumbbell or plate in each hand, retract your scapula and raise both arms directly up in front of you until the dumbbells reach just above shoulder height. Lower your arms back down to the starting position.
- Raise both arms to form a ‘Y’ and then lower both back down.
- Raise your arms to form a ‘T’ and return them to the starting position.
Here’s a video example of the I-Y-T row…
4. Bent Over Row
The bent-over row is non-negotiable if you truly desire maximum back development. And there’s actually sufficient evidence that shows the bent-over row is a superior exercise for symmetrically working the back muscles from to bottom. (2, 1)
But… only if done correctly and the lower back is not compromised. Many people perform this movement with way too much weight and technique gets thrown out the window.
But in a perfect scenario and when you’ve built a stronger lower back, a huge benefit of this variation is that you can train with very heavy loads when using a barbell which more muscle and strength gains.
Also, being strong in a bent-over position has carryover to athletic performance which is one huge reason why the person who desires to become strong and functional for sports.
And if you want to step it a step further, you can implement the Pendlay row which requires a more explosive concentric. So, you’ll basically allow the barbell to sit on the floor for a second or two between each rep which takes the stretch reflex out of the equation.
5. Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is a cable exercise that does a great job at targeting the lower trapezius although it’s effective for the latissimus dorsi as well which is why many people include it in their back routine.
But it’s effective for the traps because the bar path is ideally higher up near the mid-chest. So, you’re getting a really good contraction in this area, therefore, emphasizing the fibers located in the lower portion of the trapezius muscle.
6. Seated Row
The seated cable row is another popular exercise and viable option for working the upper back muscles effectively. Not to mention, you can get away with moving a lot of weight to effectively contribute to your mass and strength gains progress.
But, the seated row is also a good exercise for practicing scapular retraction due to the upright position which simulates a proper, erect body position.
7. Seal Row
The seal row is a very useful upper back exercise because it allows you to focus on the rowing movement rather than having to balance or stabilize anything while also preventing lower back stress.
Your body is forced into a neutral position along with your head which makes this variation an excellent movement for targeting more of the back and less of any assisting muscles.
So, you’ll basically lie face down on a bench and then row your choice of training tool (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, etc) from the floor.
But the catch here is that the flat benches you see in most gyms won’t be high enough for you to be able to fully extend your arms during each repetition. Now, some gyms do have benches more specifically for movements like the seal row.
However, many won’t and so what people commonly do is place each end of the bench on an elevated surface like a box or even a few 45-pound plates stacked.
You can use a barbell for maximum overload and dumbbells which are great for the unilateral benefit which is important for identifying and correcting imbalances.
- Lie face down on a bench so that your feet are hanging off of the opposite end.
- Grip the weight so that your hands are wider than shoulder-distance apart from each other.
- Pull the weight to your lower chest (sternum area) and contract your back muscles then return the weight back down until it touches the floor or comes just short. Keep your head slightly up or more neutral based on whichever is more comfortable for you.
Check out the Seal row in action…
If you want to focus on concentric strength, let the weight touch the floor for a second or two between each repetition.
8. Face Pull
You probably already know how much we love the face pull but it really is a necessary addition for maximizing the health of your upper posterior chain.
It strengthens and builds your rear delts, traps, and rhomboid muscles but it also helps improve posture as a result while teaching you to maintain scapular retraction.
It’s very important with the face pull to not use momentum and cheat your reps. Every single repetition needs to count in order to reap the benefits.
The pull-up is truly the best bodyweight exercise for developing the pulling muscles overall. It’s one of the most effective exercises for developing the lats (found to be superior over other back muscles in this case) but it’s right there with the bent-over row for overall best back exercises.
So, it’ll naturally hit the upper back muscles to a pretty good degree.
And if you want to add even more resistance then you can wrap a weight belt around your waist, and another option is to place a dumbbell between your feet.
10. Modified Shrug (Scapular Upward Rotation and Arm Abduction)
The shrug is still undoubtedly the king of trap exercises.
And it makes sense since it’s a movement which allows the traps to perform their natural function most effectively. So with that being said, you’re not only stimulating the traps (although you will for the most part with the information we’re about to provide).
As the rhomboids and levator scapulae muscles will be engaged as well.
Now, when performing the shrug, it’s common to lift your shoulders in a straight line toward the ears which involves more of a focus on scapular elevation.
But research shows that performing a shrug with upward rotation of the scapula actually elicits more muscle activity in the upper and lower trapezius muscles as opposed to when you’re only elevating the scapula. (3)
This also places more of a focus on the traps than the other assisting muscles during the shrug.
And to ensure you’re performing the shrug with optimal scapular upward rotation, your arms should be at about 30 degrees of abduction (lifted away from the body).
Now to get the best possible contraction during this exercise, you want to lean your torso forward just slightly by hinging the hips. Then, of course, you’ll shrug through a full range of motion with optimal elevation, upward rotation, and abduction.
But there should also be slight scapular retraction.
Ok, so the best shrug variations to accomplish what we’ve discussed are the trap bar, dumbbell, and even cable shrug because each allows for a more natural 30 degrees of arm abduction and many people find that they feel the muscle working much better by making this modification.
Although, a standard barbell will do just fine in most cases if proper technique is used.
- Take a hip-width stance and grip the bar just outside of this.
- Unrack the bar while maintaining a neutral spine and look straight ahead.
- Engage a little bit of scapular retraction, then flex your glutes and core muscles.
- Lean just slightly forward (about 10 degrees) by hinging at your hips.
- Shrug the weight while lifting your arms out to the sides at about 30 degrees for optimal upward rotation, and you can even bend your elbows a little bit more to get a bigger contraction in your traps.
- Squeeze your traps for a second and lower the weight while making sure to maintain a good posture with slight retraction of the shoulder blades for optimal movements and safety.
Here’s a good example of how to perform the exercise…
Why Do We Need A Strong Upper Back?
The upper back muscles play a big role in many functions like maintaining good posture, pulling (e.g. deadlift and other movements), scapular stability during pretty much all big lifts; which facilitates proper shoulder movement, throwing, etc, and that’s why incorporating upper back exercises are so valuable for your overall training progress, performance in any aspect, and general day-to-day functions/activities.
So one example is when you deadlift and you have to be able to maintain scapular retraction to not only protect your back but to also effectively assist in the pull upward.
You simply could not pull heavy weight safely and effectively without adequate scapular control and strong upper back muscles.
But having that scapular stability and control is very essential for controlling your big lifts too because if you don’t have a stable base, then you lose the effectiveness of the movement.
And posture is another big reason for why we need to strengthen this area because it’s becoming a huge problem more and more every day due to technology and sedentary lifestyles which go hand-in-hand, hence the reason for all the new information and concern about the undesirable effects of bad posture.
Constantly looking down and moving your neck forward while also having an arched back when engaged in certain activities (or no activities) not only strains the neck and back muscles causing pain, weaker muscles, and increasing your risk for injury but it can also cause a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome.
This results when your nerves and blood vessels between your collarbone and first rib are compressed. And this can cause numbness in your fingers along with pain in your neck and shoulders.
Well, you definitely don’t want to encounter this issue as it’ll severely put a damper on your progress and health. So, take preventative measures while you can especially if you’re someone who normally has bad posture, and who also tends to do a lot of pressing movements without a healthy balance of pulling exercises.
As for the forward head posture issue, the human head can be pretty heavy weighing 10+ pounds so leaning forward all day can place a lot of stress not only on the surrounding muscles but on the spine as well.
But research also shows that it affects respiratory function. (4)
So, utilizing more pulling movements such as the above upper back exercises can be very beneficial for your overall health.
The upper back should be a separate focus if you plan to maximize your lifts and prevent issues associated with the posterior chain.
Although many of the exercises on our list are well-known to work the entire portion of the back to a degree, it’s important to know which ones are best for shifting more of the focus on one area.
Sure, your big lifts are great for strengthening the scapular area and forcing you into good posture. But that’s not the case for everyone and quite frankly, focusing on upper back exercises which are proven to target this area effectively; should be a part of everyone’s back workout routine.