Build Upper Back (Part 2 of 2)


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 Flyes

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.

Any Questions?

These are just a few of the many movements you can use to build muscle in your upper back. We have dozens more, as well as complete training plans that will help you get the results you want.

If you have any questions about these movements, other exercises or training plans, book a free consultation and we’ll tell you exactly how our expert coaches can help you build your upper-back muscles fast!

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