“Your upper back is largely responsible for the pulling movement, and is the opposing muscle group to your chest, which is responsible for most pushing actions,” says Brianna Bernard, CPT, Isopure athlete. “These functional movements are used frequently in everyday life, and while we tend to push more than pull most days—like when we push shopping carts or strollers—we need to train the opposing back muscles equally in order to create balance in our bodies and avoid injuries.”
Keep reading to find out how, exactly, to use upper back exercises to keep those muscles pulling at peak capacity all day long.
Why it’s important to strengthen your muscles with upper back exercises
When trainers talk about the “upper back,” they’re really referring to a set of five muscles, each of which serves a different function. “The latissimus dorsi moves the shoulders and arms; the deltoid muscles rotate and turn your arms; and the teres major and minor help to externally and internally rotate the arms,” says Lee Jimenez of YogaSix GO.
Throughout the day, these muscles work both individually and together to help you with pulling motions, and are also important to helping you maintain proper posture. “The upper back acts as a support or foundation to our shoulder girdle, head, and neck,” adds Jimenez. “Regularly strengthening our upper backs are a key preventative method against lower back pain, poor posture, and maintaining overall body composition.” In other words? If you’re skipping back day, your entire upper body may start to suffer.
Upper back exercises to try
“Superman” is a great way to start off your upper back routine, because it helps to warm up and prepare the area for any heavy lifting. “It completely activates all the intrinsic muscles in the upper back preventing injury when performing heavier overload,” says Jimenez. Start by laying on your stomach with your head in a neutral position and your arms extended over your head—think about creating a straight line from the tips of your fingers all the way down to your toes. Slowly lift your arms and legs off of the ground at the same time, squeezing the muscles in your butt as you lift. Hold for one to two seconds at the top of the move, then slowly lower back down to the floor.
2. Banded pull apart
“The banded pull apart enhances your shoulder health while also stabilizing your rhomboids, trapezius, and rear delts,” says Jimenez, which means that it gives you a whole lot of bang for your buck. Start standing up holding one end of a resistance band in each hand with your arms straight out in front of your body. Keeping your arms on an even plane, pull the band apart to extend them as far as you can out to the side of your body, then resist the band as you move them slowly back to start.
3. I.Y.T Raises
Jimenez calls this move a “one-size-fits-all exercise,” thanks to the fact that it works your entire back, with a focus on the rotator cuff, shoulders, teres major, and rhomboids of the upper back. Grab a set of dumbbells (one in each hand) and start by raising them straight up above your head to form an “I” shape with your body. Lower your weights, then raise them above your head again at a slight angle to create a “Y” shape above your head. Finally, repeat the same motion, raising the weights to shoulder height to create a “T’ shape. If your upper back needs some stretching in addition to strengthening, simply drop the weights and cycle through the same series of moves.
Don’t let pull-ups intimidation factor scare you away from trying the move: They can be modified so anyone can reap their back muscle-building benefits. “They work all of the upper back muscles together and a simple change of hand position can isolate and round out different sections of the upper back all in the same movement with minimal equipment,” says Bernard. For this exercise, you’ll need some sort of overhead bar that can support your bodyweight. For the full version, start in a dead hang with your palms facing away from you, and drop your shoulders down away from your ears while keeping your elbows locked. Tighten your abs and legs, and pull your chest up to the bar while keeping these muscles engaged. Slowly release the tension and descend slowly and controlled, remembering to keep your shoulders down for the entirety of the move. To make things slightly more simple, start from a seated position or use a band to assist the pull.
5. Single-arm bent-over dumbbell rows
Work your lats—aka the muscles responsible for moving your shoulders and arms—with single-arm bent-over rows, which target one side of your back at a time. Lean your upper body forward while holding a set of dumbbells so that your arms are perpendicular to the floor, then bend your elbows to pull the weights one at a time toward your body. As you move, think about squeezing your shoulders and keep your back straight by engaging your abdominal muscles as you move through each rep. If you really want a challenge, Bernard suggests grabbing a few different sized dumbbells and doing six repetitions on each arm with each weight before leveling up. “It’s an excellent finisher on back day, and really fires up your lats,” she says.
Want to work the rest of your back, too? Grab a resistance band and follow along with the 13-minute series, below.
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