Most lifters know the importance upper-back strength plays when it comes to the “Big 3” lifts — bench press, squat, and deadlift — and for keeping the shoulders healthy. But those who just train chest and biceps don’t fully grasp the importance of the upper back until their shoulders hurt. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.
A well-developed and strong upper back gives you a broad set of shoulders, helps with your squat, bench, and deadlift, and will help keep your shoulders healthy. Here we’ll go into the muscles that make up the region, their importance in the big 3, five upper back exercises, and a workout to build it.
Upper-back muscles and functions
Rhomboids: They originate from the cervical (neck) vertebra and run diagonally down and attach to the inside of the scapula. They’re functions include scapula adduction (coming together), scapula inward rotation (when you’re bringing your arm down from a lateral raise) and scapula elevation (shrugs).
Trapezius: This is a large, flat, triangular, superficial muscle on each side of the upper back. It originates from the cervical spine and all 12 of the thoracic vertebrae. Its main functions are Scapula adduction, elevation, depression (lower fibers) and Scapula outward rotation (overhead pressing).
The Upper-Back Muscles and The Big 3
Although the upper back isn’t directly trained with the Big 3 like with rows but they still play a huge role in the set up and performance of these lifts.
The contraction of the upper-back muscles plays an important role in keeping a neutral spine while doing the squat and deadlift. Tightness of the muscles keeps the bar close to you when pulling from the floor, which is essential for lower-back health and a stronger deadlift.
During the squat, upper-back muscle provides a place for the bar to sit without the need for a pad. Plus, keeping the muscles tight prevents you from leaning too far forward in the squat and turning it into more of a good morning.
For bench pressing, the upper-back muscle provides a solid foundation to press from. By keeping the region engaged, it supports and controls the bar path, allowing for good technique.
5 upper-back exercises for size and strength
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The beauty of the TRX is you can increase or decrease the intensity simply by adjusting the foot position closer or further away from the anchor point. This makes this exercise accessible to almost everybody and a great exercise for the upper back.
Muscles Trained: Forearms, biceps, posterior deltoid, upper back, and lats
How It helps: Strengthens the shoulder stabilizers, spinal erectors, and deep abdominal muscles due to the instability of the TRX. Adjusting the intensity allows you to train for strength or size, depending on your goals.
When to do it: TRX rows are a great change of pace from weighted rows and training for higher reps (12-20) and two to four sets works well. This is best programmed as an accessory exercise after your main strength moves for the day.
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Single-arm Landmine Row
Single-arm landmine row will help reduce joint stress while maximizing shoulder tension and stabilization because of the gripping strength required to hold the fat end of the barbell. The landmine setup allows you to row from different positions which is great for hitting the upper back from different angles.
Muscles trained: Forearms, biceps, upper back, and lats.
How it helps: The single arm landmine row can be done from different positions which is great for hitting your upper back from a variety of angles for total upper back development.
When to do it: Perform this exercise in place of dumbbell rows as part of your accessory routine. Doing three to four sets of between eight to 15 reps on both sides will help add upper back size and strength.
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The facedown position of the seal row helps take all the momentum out of the exercise so that your upper back muscles are doing most of the heavy lifting. A lot of lifters go heavy with rows and use momentum, using more biceps and less scapula retraction which leaves the upper back neglected. This exercise solves all these issues.
Muscles trained: Forearms, biceps, lats, and upper back
How it helps: The seal row allows you to get into a true horizontal position to optimally target your lats and upper back muscles. Plus, if your lower back is beat up, this is a low-back friendly variation, as it’s not working to support you in the hinge position.
When to do it: If your lower back is hurting or if you’re looking to isolate the upper back more this is the perfect row variation. Because there’s little momentum, use a little less weight than you think you can lift for three to four sets of six to 12 reps.
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Unilateral Dead-stop Row
Unilateral dumbbell rows like the dead-stop row are great for strengthening imbalances between sides. Plus, you’ll get some extra core work because you have three points of contact. With this variation, you’ll go through a larger ROM for more muscle-building potential. And because of the pause to rest your grip, you’ll be able to go harder and heavier.
Muscles trained: Forearms, biceps, posterior deltoid, upper back, and lats
How it helps: The pause on the floor gives your joints a quick break and allows you to use a heavier weight than your usual dumbbell row. More weight gives you more strength and hypertrophy potential. Stopping takes away the stretch reflex of the muscle, so your muscles work harder on the concentric part of the lift too.
When to do it: Perform this as part of your accessory routine on upper or lower body days. Three to four sets of between eight to 15 reps will give your upper back all it can handle.
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Bentover Barbell Row
The barbell bentover row is the granddaddy of all upper-back exercises. This strengthens your upper back, shoulders, biceps, grip and, it’s the perfect accessory exercise for improving your deadlift. This mimics the bottom position of the deadlift and holding this under load for time will help improve your lower and upper back endurance.
Muscles trained: Forearms, biceps, posterior deltoids, lats, upper and lower back, and hamstrings.
How it helps: Reinforces good hip hinge mechanics while adding strength and mass to the upper back, lats, and lower back. This has direct carryover to your deadlifting technique.
When to do it: Early in your training when you are fresh and preferably on days you don’t deadlift. For strength three to five sets for four to six reps works well, For mass, three sets for eight to 15 reps will give you all you can handle
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Upper Back Workout Program
This is a full-body program focusing on the upper back. Alternate between the Workout A and Workout B three to four times per week for four to six weeks. Start at the lower end of the rep range and work your way to the higher end and then go up in weight and go back down in reps.
Reps, sets and exercises (minus the upper back ones) are adjustable to your goals.
1A. Barbell Squat Variation: 4 to 6 reps
1B. Hip Mobility Drill
Repeat for three to five sets of each
2A. Barbell bentover row: 6 to 8 reps
2B. Dumbbell Bench Press Variation: 8 to 12 reps
Repeat for three to four sets of each
3A. Hip Thrust Variation: 12 to 15 reps
3B. TRX Row 12 to 20 reps
Repeat for two to three sets of each
1A. Deadlift or Bench Press variation: 4 to 6 reps
1B. Hip or Shoulder Mobility drill
Repeat for three to five sets of each
2A. Goblet Split Squat Variation: 8 to 15 reps per leg
2B. Unilateral Deadstop Row or Landmine Row: eight to 15 reps per side
Repeat for three to four sets of each
3A. Overhead Triceps Variation: 12 to 20 reps
3B. Seal Row: six to 12 reps
Two to three sets of each