Are you trying to build a bigger, stronger back and are you aiming to get that great-looking V-shaped torso? If so, this one is for you, since, in this article, we’ll show you which upper back exercises you should be doing for a wider and thicker back!
But first, a quick anatomy lesson!
The superficial muscles of the back
Before giving our recommendations for upper back exercises, it’s important to first go over the anatomy of the back musculature.
The main superficial muscles of the back are the following:
- The trapezius (a.k.a. the traps)
- The latissimus dorsi (a.k.a. the lats)
- The teres major (a.k.a. the lats’ little helper)
- The teres minor
- The infraspinatus
- The rhomboid major
- The posterior deltoid (a.k.a. read delt)
Upper back width:
When people think of a “wider” back, they are essentially thinking mainly about the lats (in blue), as well as about the lats’ little helper – the teres major (in green).
Because of their position, fully developing these muscles will help you achieve a v-taper look and will make your waist look smaller.
Upper back thickness:
For a thicker back, what you want to do is to primarily develop your traps as well as the smaller upper back muscles, including the rear delts, teres minor, infraspinatus and rhomboids.
Growing these muscles will add thickness to your back and, in combination with low body fat levels, will create that awesome-looking muscle separation we often see on the backs of physique athletes.
Now that we know which muscles we need to develop, all we have to do is to choose some upper back exercises for each muscle, right?
Well, not so fast. Before selecting exercises, we have to first understand what each of the muscles we listed above actually does.
Biomechanics of upper back muscles
According to the Journal of Biomechanics, “Biomechanics is the study of the structure and function of biological systems… …by means of the methods of mechanics.”
Simply put, biomechanics is the science of how muscles move our body.
“Yeah yeah, get to the point, dammit!”
OK, so here are the main functions of each of the muscles we listed above:
- The trapezius (a.k.a. the traps) The main function of the upper fibers of the traps is scapular elevation. The middle fibers are involved in elevating and retracting the scapula, while the lower fibers perform retraction and depression.
- The latissimus dorsi (a.k.a. the lats) The lats mainly function as shoulder adductors, extensors and transverse extensors.
- The teres major (a.k.a. the lats’ little helper) The teres major assists the lats in shoulder adduction and extension.
- The teres minor The teres minor is part of the rotaror cuff and is involved in external shoulder rotation, transverse abduction and transverse extension.
- The infraspinatus This is also part of the rotator cuff and is also primarily involved in external shoulder rotation, transverse abduction and transverse extension.
- The rhomboid major The rhomboids primarily function as scapular retractors and downward rotators.
- The posterior deltoid (a.k.a. read delt) The rear delt is mainly involved in shoulder extension, transverse abduction, transverse extension and external rotation.
OK, so now that we know which muscles we want to train and what each muscle’s primary functions are, it’s time to select our exercises.
Selecting the best upper back exercises
As we’ve mentioned in Part 1 of our How to Build Muscle series, when choosing exercises, it’s important you make sure that they:
- work the intended muscle group through a full range of motion
- give you the best bang for your buck – this means you should emphasize compound movements
- can be performed and overloaded safely
- give ample room for progressive overload
So, based on the information above as well as on our practical experience, here are what we consider to be the best upper back exercises for a wide and thick back!
Lat pulldowns and pullups involve shoulder adduction as well as scapular downward rotation and depression. Moreover, not only are they two of the best upper back exercises you can do to develop your lats and teres major, but they also hit the rhomboids and lower fibers of the trapezius pretty hard.
Neutral grip lat pulldowns/pullups
The difference between normal grip (a little wider than shoulder width) and neutral grip pulldowns and pullups is that the former involves shoulder adduction, while the latter involves shoulder extension. Since the lats and teres major are heavily involved in these movements, it’s important to perform both of them for maximal results.
As with normal grip pulldowns and pullups, these also involve scapular downward rotation and depression, which means that they hit the rhomboids and lower fibers of the trapezius pretty hard.
Chest supported rows
Chest supported rows involve shoulder extension and scapular retraction. This means that, along with the lats, teres major and posterior delts, they also work the middle and lower fibers of the trapezius as well as the rhomboids. This is one of our favorite upper back exercises, so if we had to choose just one exercise to develop back thickness, this would be it!
There are a few variations of this exercise, so feel free to experiment to find what feels best. The seal row, shown below, is one of our favorite variations!
Wide grip rows
Wide grip rows involve shoulder transverse extension and scapular retraction, which means that they target the posterior delts, teres minor, infraspinatus, the upper fibers of the lats, the middle and lower fibers of the trapezius and the rhomboids.
Again, there are a number of variations you can do for this movement. One of our favorite variations is the wide grip cable row, shown below by Scott Herman.
Rear delt lateral raises
Rear delt lateral raises involve shoulder transverse abduction and scapular retraction. This means that, like wide grip rows, they target the posterior delts, teres minor, infraspinatus, the middle and lower fibers of the trapezius and the rhomboids.. However, these don’t involve the lats.
As mentioned earlier, it’s generally a good idea to train muscles with their different functions in order to fully develop all muscle fibers to a similar extent.
The seated variation of this exercise is shown below.
Shrugs involve scapular elevation, which means that they target the upper fibers of the traps. Again, there are a number of variations you can do for this movement, including barbell shrugs, dumbbell shrugs, smith machine shrugs, etc.
The dumbbell variation is shown in the video below.
Shoulder external rotations
Performing external rotations is, generally, a good idea for preventing shoulder problems associated with strength imbalances between the external and internal rotators of the shoulder.
This means that we care less about rushing to overload this exercise and more about performing it correctly, safely and through a full range of motion.
Available variations include lying external rotations with dumbbells, standing external rotations with cables and bands, and facepulls (although these also involve shoulder transverse extension).
Standing external shoulder rotations with a cable are shown in the video below.
A sample upper back workout
So since we identified what we think are some of the best upper back exercises you can perform to fully develop your upper back, let’s put these into a workout!
Back day workout A
1. Lat pulldowns/pullups – 3 sets x 5-8 reps
2. Dumbbell seal rows – 3 sets x 8-10 reps
3. Seated rear delt lateral raises – 3 sets x 10-12 reps
4. Standing cable external rotations – 3 sets x 12-15 reps
Back day workout B
1. Neutral grip lat pulldowns/pullups – 3 sets x 5-8 reps
2. Wide grip cable rows – 3 sets x 8-10 reps
3. Dumbbell shrugs – 3 sets x 10-12 reps
4. Standing cable external rotations – 3 sets x 12-15 reps
By the way, before people start freaking out over this, the reason we didn’t include any variations of the deadlift is because we prefer to include deadlifts on lower body days.
This is one of the reasons why we choose chest supported variations for back exercises – to keep a “fresh” lower back for the days we plan deadlifts.
Another quick note: if you work out at home and you’re not sure what exercises to include for your back, check out this article on how to train for muscle at home.
So there you have it! Combine the workouts above with a proper muscle building nutrition plan and some sound muscle building training principles and you’re sure to make great progress!
Oh, and if you enjoy learning about the science of training and the manipulation of each training variable, you will definitely enjoy this interview we did with Eric Helms.