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The Best Exercises for a Stronger Upper Back

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The upper back is an important enough area to train that many gym rats devote two whole days to it each week—this is what “pull day” really means. With strong lats and other upper back muscles, you can bang out pullup after pullup, if that’s a thing you want to do. You can work toward that upside-down triangle shape that bodybuilders have made famous. A stronger back can even help you improve your posture (although I’ve argued that posture is less important than we tend to think it is). So how do you work your upper back? Read on.

The upper back muscles and what they do

Sometimes, when I write these articles, I can give a straightforward explanation of what muscles we’re working. For example, the hamstrings are a group made of three specific muscles. But the upper back is far more complicated, and it’s hard to say where the upper back ends and the lower back or shoulders begin.

Today, I’ll focus on the muscles we didn’t cover in those other two articles. So no trapezius or multifidus for us today. (You can refer to this overview on physio-pedia for a full rundown of the main muscles in the lower back, if you really want to nerd out.)

When people talk about training their upper back training, the muscles people are probably thinking of are the latissimus dorsi. These, familiarly called your “lats,” are two wide muscles along the sides of your back. They are anchored to your spine and pelvis, and their job is to pull on your upper arm. If you’re pulling your elbows down and back—toward your hips—you’re using your lats to do it. 

The lats are huge muscles, and the way they connect to your arms sometimes reminds people of the “wings” on a flying squirrel. If you’re looking for a “v-taper” shape, lats are a big part of what gives that visual. That said, you have to do a ton of training to make your lats visibly large, so let that fact inspire or reassure you. 

Other upper back muscles include the rhomboids, which pull your shoulder blades together, your trapezius (the upper part shrugs, the lower part pulls your shoulder blades together but in a different way) and arguably even your rear delts, which I covered in the post about shoulder exercises. 

What unites these muscles, both conceptually and in terms of workout design, is that they’re all involved in pulling in some way. As a mnemonic, any exercise with “pull” or “row” in the name is likely to work your upper back. 

Best dumbbell exercise: Kroc rows

I first encountered Kroc rows in Jen Sinkler’s pullup training program, and they’ve been a favorite of mine ever since. Her program was meant for people who can’t do a pullup yet, and the Kroc rows were in there as a way to put on muscle mass on the lats. (I remember being weirded out by that: I need to add mass?) 

They’re a great exercise for everyone, but especially people who need to push the boundaries of their comfort zone to make progress. Sure, you can do dumbbell rows with lighter weights and strict form. But there’s a magic to picking up a dumbbell that is too heavy for strict rows, and rowing it anyway with the help of some body english. Far from cheating you out of gains, this approach means that you are moving the heaviest weight you possibly can, thus actually giving your muscles more work than if you stuck with the smaller dumbbell. 

In any case, Kroc rows worked out great for Janae Kroc, for myself, and plenty of others. If you have access to big ol’ dumbbells, give them a try. 

Best cable exercise: one arm lat pulldown 

For my cable machine pick, I’m going to forgo my personal favorite (I love a seated cable row) and highlight the lat isolation that’s most popular these days: the one arm lat pulldown. You can do this with one arm at a time on a double pulldown machine, as in the video above, or with a single cable machine. If you’re using a single cable—this works great on those “functional trainers” you see in hotel gyms—get down on the floor on one knee.

Best minimalist exercise: pullups/chinups

You don’t need dumbbells or machines to do the classic upper back exercise: pullups. Every pullup variation works your lats and plenty of other muscles in your upper back (and, as a bonus, your biceps, too).

If you can’t do full pullups, bench or jackknife pullups still count. And if pullups are too easy, do them weighted. 

When I say “pullups,” by the way, I’m really talking about the pullup family. Chinups (with your palms facing you) are part of the family. Wide grip pullups, neutral grip, hanging handle pullups, and more—they’re all welcome. While people will argue all day about which is “best” for the lats or for some other back muscle, studies show that lat activation is similar from one variation to another. As with nutrition, variety is good for us, so give all the members of the family a try. 

Best exercise you can do on the go: band pullaparts

With all this focus on the lats, I’d like to highlight one more exercise that works some lesser-known and lesser-appreciated upper back muscles. Your rhomboids, lower traps, and rear delts will get some love from band pullaparts. 

To do band pullaparts, hold the band out in front of you, arms straight, slightly above eye level. Then pull the band apart with straight arms, so that the middle of the band contacts your chest. Other variations of pullaparts are great to do, too: start with the band overhead and pull it down behind your head, or do them at waist level. 

The best thing about this exercise is that you can do it anywhere. If you don’t have a pullup bar but want to do some pulling exercises at home, grab a band. You can also do an easy superset anywhere in the gym by bringing a band with you to the bench press station, or anywhere else you’re doing a pushing exercise. 

Source: LifeHacker.com