The Best Upper Back Exercises for Complete Back Development

December 29th, 2016|Muscle Gain, Training|

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 Exercises - Muscles - Myolean Fitness

Adapted from: Delavier F (2005)

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.

The Best Upper Back Exercises for Width and Thickness - Myolean Fitness 1

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.

Enter biomechanics!

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.

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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/pullups

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

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.

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2018-03-03T12:01:55+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Travis 07/04/2017 at 6:36 pm - Reply

    In your opinion, as long as someone is doing movements that spare the lower back then they don’t have to worry about deadlifting on a lower body day interfering with recovery from an upper body day? For example in an Upper/Lower Split on Monday you do an upper body workout with chins and chest supported rows, then on tuesday do a lower body workout with the deadlift. Do you need to worry about doing deadlifts only 24 hours after training your upper back interfering with recovery or are deadlifts mainly just a lower back exercise and thus if you don’t train your erectors much on an upper body day then there’s not significant overlap when deadlifting on a lower body day. Programming deadlifts in a program that emphasizes training each body part 2-3x/ week gets really tricky.

    • Myolean Fitness 15/04/2017 at 10:19 pm - Reply

      Hi Travis,

      Thank you for your comment and apologies for the late reply.

      With regards to your question, I think that, since deadlifts are primarily a hip extensor and erector spinae exercise, neither performance nor recovery should be affected when doing an upper/lower split as you’ve described (provided that intensity load and volume are properly planned to begin with).

      I agree with you that it’s tricky to plan deadlifts in a 2-3/week frequency routine, which is why I prefer to use RDLs in such plans (they are, usually, better for hypertrophy and easier to recover from) and only include chest-supported rowing stuff for the upper back.

      • Jason 16/04/2017 at 6:26 am - Reply

        I’ve always been skeptical of the dogmatic statement of saying conventional or sumo deadlifts are absolutely necessary for back thickness (upper and lower thickness). While the popularity of powerlifting has certainly had beneficial effects on bodybuilding it also has made people feel like they have to conventional or sumo deadlift. In reality prioritizing conventional or sumo deadlifts in a hypertrophy program could be counterproductive due to programming, recovery and overlap challenges they present in a higher frequency routine and probably aren’t worth the effort if you’re just physique focused. If you really love conventional or sumo deads then have at it, enjoyment and adherence are critical, but if you’re not a powerlifter then don’t feel guilty about not including them.

        • Myolean Fitness 17/04/2017 at 7:15 pm - Reply

          Thanks for you comment, Jason.

          I absolutely agree!

        • Celente 08/12/2018 at 2:29 am - Reply

          Jason, you forgot the hormone release when doing maximal effort in DL. It’s very important to muscle growth

          • Myolean 08/12/2018 at 11:51 am

            Hi Celente and thanks for your comment,

            It is a common misconception that muscle growth is affected by exercise-induced hormonal release.

            Examples from two studies:

            “We conclude that the transient increases in endogenous purportedly anabolic hormones do not enhance fed-state anabolic signalling or MPS following resistance exercise. Local mechanisms are likely to be of predominant importance for the post-exercise increase in MPS.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790261/

            “We conclude that exposure of loaded muscle to acute exercise-induced elevations in endogenous anabolic hormones enhances neither muscle hypertrophy nor strength with resistance training in young men.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20959702

  2. The max 19/04/2018 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    nice advice on those back workout

  3. Genuss gesund 05/08/2018 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    Useful info. Lucky me I discovered your website accidentally,
    and I am stunned why this accident did not happened in advance!
    I bookmarked it.

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