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August 15, 2020 10 min read

If you’re tired of having to carry your teammates in absolutely everything, then you already know the importance of a strong back.

While the back isn’t as often ignored as, let’s say, leg day, the importance of it often goes ignored. Training the backside will probably get you some looks of admiration whenever you go to the beach, but it doesn’t “pop” the same way a pair of strong pecs and biceps do. 

As you might’ve guessed, we’re here to change your mind about that.

Yet whenever most people think about training the back, what usually comes to mind are resistance exercises such as lat pulldowns. But as we all know, we’re not always going to have easy access to a fully equipped gym—or any gym at all.

At the same time, you don’t want to leave gains on the table when something keeps you going to the gym. That’s why having a good collection of bodyweight exercises under your belt will help tremendously when things don’t go to plan.

So ditch the barbell (for now) and check out our list of the best bodyweight exercises to get a shredded back.

What Actually is the Back?

But for all of the importance of the back, what does it actually mean when we talk about it? 

We can functionally separate “the back” into the lower back and upper back, since the term, “the back” doesn’t mean much by itself. So, while the upper back provides support for your shoulder girdle, head, and neck, the lower back is involved with anything that you have to lift and carry. Furthermore, it also supports our posture. We can also include the core and the shoulders as part of “the back”.

There are four main muscle groups that make up the back. These are the: 

  •         Rhomboids
  •         Trapezius
  •         Latissimus dorsi
  •         Erector spinae

The rhomboids are located on your mid-upper back. They help when it comes to the retraction of your shoulder blades or scapula. Traps aid in the movement of your shoulder blades. They go from the neck to the middle of the back.

The lats are big muscles that begin below the armpits and go down to your rib cage, giving them a wing-like appearance if developed. Not only do they help with shoulder movement, but if you get them big enough you can fly away.

And finally the erector spinae. This muscle group runs along your spine and is essential for controlling extension, lateral movement, and keep you in an upright position. A strong erector spinae is able to better support your all-important spine.

A girl doing back extensions.

The Benefits of a Strong Back 

Although you rarely see your back, that doesn’t mean it’s not super important. Especially with strong lats, the back is what adds shape to your physique (for example, the v-shaped torso) and also adds a solid foundation for your arms, chest, and any abdominal exercises. 

After the legs, the back muscles are the largest in the body, so it makes sense that a strong back is essential for a well functioning body.

Training your back will also aid in your other lifts. Particularly lower body exercises such as the squat and deadlift will greatly be improved if you put some time and effort into training the back muscles. 

Furthermore, the mid back area is one of the more common sites for osteoporotic fractures which can be prevented by strength training in this area. This also hints at one of the biggest benefits of training your back. 

Strong muscles in the back help to support the structure of your posture and your spine. Specifically, the support ligaments and vertebrae disks preventing your back from hurting. A problem that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in the population.

The Modern Back

It’s no secret that our mostly sedentary lifestyles aren’t too good for us. Nowhere is this more obvious than the back.

This lifestyle can often lead to an atrophy of the back muscle and excessive fat accumulation. This isn’t something you necessarily have to worry about if you’re already relatively active, but it is something to keep in mind.

Over a longer period of time of deconditioning, your back muscles will provide less and less stability. This in turn will raise your chances of experiencing chronic back pain. However, it many instances it can be reversed by giving your back the proper training it deserves.

The Best Back Exercises for a Bodyweight Workout

Below we’ve compiled a list of some of the best bodyweight back exercises for you to incorporate into your training routine.

While you won’t be needing to worry about loads or weights since you’ll just be using your body weight, it is important to keep in mind how you program in these movements when it comes to reps and sets. 

While you won’t be able to increase the training volume by adding another plate or carrying a heavier kettlebell, there are some other ways to maximize the gain potential.

The simplest way is just to increase the number of reps. For example, you can continue an exercise until failure, which will do a lot to engage your muscles. You can also turn sets into supersets by eliminating rest times in between exercises and sets. If you’re not ready for that yet, even minimizing rest times will do you good in the long run.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the meat of the matter.

1. Supermans

This exercise is terrific for strengthening the lower back, erector spinae, and the abdominals in particular. Not to mention that you’ll feel like Superman as well. 

To begin, lie on your stomach with your arms to your sides—the legs should be straight behind you and your feet should be together. Engage your glutes and lower back at the same time while simultaneously raising your legs and your shoulders off the ground. Your arms can either be in front of you or behind you.

Pause for a moment and reverse the movement into the starting position.  

2. Wide Grip Push-Ups

Just a regular push-up with a wider grip, this movement will challenge not only your chest and triceps but also your lats and upper back in general.

To begin the exercise, get in a push-up position with your hands placed a few inches outside of your chest. You want to engage your core and your glutes in order to maintain stability throughout.

Bending your elbows, you want to come as close to the ground as possible without touching it. Pause for a moment and reverse the movement, with your arms straightening out at the end.

3. Pull-Ups 

To many, pull-ups are the Cadillac of back workouts—especially bodyweight back workouts.

We’re all familiar with this deceivingly simple movement that really challenges our lats and the entire upper back and shoulder region. Not to mention your biceps, deltoids, forearms, and the core. Your grip strength will also be taken to new heights since you’ll be regularly holding up your own bodyweight.

But when it comes to pull-ups, it’s really the lats we’re after.

To begin, reach up and grab a pull-up bar with a pronated (overhand) grip, with your palms facing down and your thumb wrapped underneath the bar. Then, it’s as simple as pulling yourself up until your chin reaches just above the bar. At the top of the movement, you want to lower yourself back down slowly and in a controlled fashion.

Make sure to engage your core throughout the exercise for more stability and to prevent yourself from swinging forwards and backward. Additionally, make sure you go through the entire movement—don’t chase rep counts, make sure that the form is perfect. 

4. Chin-Ups 

For those who know some general information about pull-ups and their cousin the chin-up, including this movement on this list might come as a mild surprise. 

The argument is that chin-ups are significantly easier for beginners since the body is able to rely more heavily on the biceps and chest. Pull-ups on the other hand deal almost exclusively with the back muscle.

While there is some truth to this assertion, the difference isn’t as big as you might’ve thought. Furthermore, chin-ups are better for your elbows when it comes to the angle they have to bend. While chin-ups require your elbows to bend outward, pull-ups require an inward movement. And it’s this “inwardness” from desk jobs is exactly the thing we’re trying to prevent. 

To do a chin-up, simply follow the steps of a pull-up but with an underhand grip—your palms facing towards you. For beginners especially it’s important to remember that it’s your back that needs to be engaged. Pull less with the arms and more with the lats.

5. Inverted Rows 

Also known as bodyweight rows, this exercise is terrific for those who are having difficulty with the prior two movements. 

While working many of the same muscle groups as pull-ups and chin-ups, inverted rows allow the person to place part of their weight on their feet.

This is because the exercise has you gripping a bar while rooting your feet in front of it, causing you to lean back. The higher of an angle that you’re standing at (the bar being close to your feet), the more of your weight is placed on the feet. If your body is almost parallel to the floor, then less of your weight is going to be supported and it’s going to be more difficult to lift yourself up. 

6. Back Extensions

While many of the previous exercises have been mostly focusing on the upper back, back extensions are a great way to give some attention to the lower back and erector spinae muscles.

This movement will bulletproof your spine and get you a better overall posture; along with preventing back injuries and better endurance.

To begin this exercise, lie on a bench facedown in a way that allows your hips to hinge over the edge of it with the rest of your body stabilized. You can grab onto the edge of the bench in order to give yourself more support to work with. 

You want to have your legs extended straight behind you with your feet together. Brace your glutes, abdominals, and lower back, and pivot your lower body up and down with the fullest range that you’re capable of. Avoid bending your knees and try to engage the lower back as best you can.

7. Reverse Snow Angels 

If you live anywhere with snow, then you’ll probably already be familiar with this movement.

This exercise mostly focuses on your upper back with the movement of the arms, but it also acts as a back extension since you can choose to lift your legs as well. It strengthens the shoulder external rotators, pulling the shoulders back for good posture while also decreasing the chances of neck and shoulder pain.

To begin, lie facedown on the floor with your hands and fingers pointing straight ahead of you, much like in the superman exercise. Remember to keep your arms slightly off the floor, and you can lift your legs up as well without bending the knees. Lift your chest and head up as well.

Slowly arc your arms to the side and bring them down to touch your torso. Slowly reverse the movement after pausing for a few moments. You want to feel the back and the glutes engaged, so going slower will be beneficial—especially at the beginning.

8. Bird Dogs 

The bird dog movement is one that primarily targets your core, including the abdominals, lower back, glutes, and thighs. 

It’s often recommended when recovering from a back injury since it develops spinal stability and back strength. The main muscle that this movement works is the erector spinae muscle, which will help in better extending, flexing, and rotating the spine.

Other muscles worked include the glutes, and the traps and delts when raising the shoulder.

To begin, kneel down with your knees about hip-width apart and hands planted on the ground at shoulder-width apart. Engage your core at the beginning. 

Following that, choose an arm and point it straight forward in front of you. While you’re doing that, take the opposite leg and extend it straight behind you. There should be a straight line formed from your foot to your hand while keeping the hips from moving. Hold the position for a few seconds and reverse the movement slowly, switching sides for the next repetition. 

9. Body Drag 

This exercise is a great way to simulate the same muscle movements as a lat pulldown if you don’t have the equipment at hand. Furthermore, it also works the rhomboids and upper back muscles.

You’ll want to find a smooth surface that allows you to slide on, such as hardwood or linoleum. Go into a push-up position with your arms extended out in front of you and your palms spread out. Behind you, your feet should be together and your legs extended out straight. 

Engage all of your core muscles for stability and power, and then without moving your hands, bending your arms, or bending your knees, propel yourself forward. You should try to get your chest slightly past where your hands are planted on the ground.

Reverse the movement by engaging your core once again and pushing back into pushing—once again, don’t let your elbows bend or your hands move.

This exercise is meant to be completely done through the back muscles, especially the lats. All of the movement will come from this area and you need to feel them activate.

10. Muscle-Ups

This is an advanced strength training bodyweight exercise that seriously challenges your upper body strength and helps to build muscle. 

They’re an insanely beneficial movement to master not only because they take a lot of strength, but also because they’re a nifty combination of a push and a pull movement. The back muscles and particularly the shoulders are essential in this difficult full-body workout.

In essence, a pull-up combined with a dip, the muscle-up will take everything you have if you want to be able to do one. 

Much like a pull-up, you want to grab onto a bar with an overhand grip and retract your shoulder blades back, as if you’re putting them into your back pockets. Engaging your abdominals, flex, and swing your body very slightly forward in a controlled manner. 

This swing is meant to give you some momentum for the pull-up part of the movement. After the swing forward, pull up and back as explosively as you can in order to get your upper body up and over the bar. Once you’re over, push yourself up similarly to a dip, and then slowly reverse the movement.

A man doing pull-ups in a gym.

A Stronger Back Means a Stronger Body

It’s very apparent that training your back won’t just allow for your body to function smoothly, but that it’ll also provide innumerable benefits in the gym for your other lifts, and in other functional activities.

But as your back takes care of your body, make sure to return the favor by fuelling it well and giving it enough rest.