Many people want to know exactly how to build muscle in the upper back.
For some, it’s about aesthetics: They want to add size and definition to their trapezius muscles, latissimus dorsi, deltoids and rhomboids. Other people want to prevent or rehab injuries by building up the muscles of the rotator cuff: the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis.
And then there are those who are focused on the upper back for “performance,” whether that means improved posture in daily life or sporting success.
Here, we’ll tell you how to train your upper back with compound and isolation exercises.
Sets and Reps
First, remember that “building muscle” means different things to different people and a coach can provide the best plan based on your goals.
For example, for those who want increased muscle size, 3 sets of 8-12 reps with medium loads will often do the trick. For those who are looking only for increased strength, the prescription might be 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with heavier loads. If your goal is greater muscular endurance, your plan might be 3 sets of 12-20 reps with lighter loads.
Remember, these are generalizations only. An expert coach will tailor a plan to your exact goals and fitness level after a consultation. That plan will also include rest breaks, notes on intensity, recovery protocols and even nutrition advice.
With that in mind, let’s get to some of the best exercises you can use to build muscle in your upper back
Best Exercises for Building the Upper Back
We’ll include both isolation exercises and compound movements here. Isolation exercises are designed to target only very specific muscles and you’ll often see bodybuilders doing them. Compound movements train a host of muscles at the same time and involve many joints.
Neither style of training is better. Isolation exercises are great for focused work and compound movements pack an incredible full-body punch. We recommend you use both kinds of movements.
Below, we’ll give you a brief description of some top back-building movements and explain why they work so well. For detailed instructions on how to perform these exercises, head to YouTube or consult with an expert coach who can monitor your form and give you instant feedback.
Pull-ups are an outstanding compound exercise to build the back—and you’ll work the shoulders and arms, too! Pull-ups can be done strict or with momentum (kipping), depending on your goals. Or you can grab the bar with your palms facing you to perform chin-ups. Strong people can add weight with a vest or belt, and the movement can be modified with a cable station, fitness band or “gravitron machine” if you can’t move your entire body weight just yet.
Bent-Over Barbell Rows
This movement packs a punch! You have to lift the barbell off the ground (a deadlift; see below), then use your legs and core to brace yourself and hold your torso approximately parallel to the floor. From there, your arms and back work to pull the bar to your chest or abdomen. A variation: lock a bar in a squat rack, grab it and lie back to face the ceiling. Then pull your body to the bar—this is a body row. Another variation: Use a bench for support and use a dumbbell for one-arm rows. One more: Use a cable station and a seat to perform a similar movement with your torso held perpendicular to the floor.
As mentioned above, you’re picking something off the floor in a deadlift. The object could be a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell or even a rock. While the deadlift works your entire body hard—especially the legs—people will often feel a “sweet soreness” in the upper-back muscles the day after a deadlift session. Your upper back has to work very hard to keep the spine stable in a deadlift, so this compound movement should be high on your list.
You can do shrugs with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even an attachment and an adjustable cable station. Standing tall while holding a load, you simply bring your shoulders toward your ears. This isolation movement has a very small range of motion and involves just one joint, but it’s a great way to work the traps hard.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Flys
This movement requires you to assume the same position you used in the bent-over row. Except now you’re going to hold lighter dumbbells below your shoulders and move them to the sides by swinging your hands out to bring your arms parallel to the floor. Your rear delts are going to burn with this one!
Bonus Secret Upper-Back Movement: Front Squats
You might not think squats will build the upper-back muscles, but front squats do just that. By holding a load in front of you—either “goblet style” or with a barbell “racked” on the shoulders—you’ll force your upper back to work very hard to keep your chest upright. In fact, many people find that their legs can handle loads their upper backs can’t. If that’s you, don’t get sloppy and let your upper-back round. Reduce the load and keep your chest proud for perfect reps. That will work your upper back and help you build amazing stability.
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