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July 19, 2021 10 min read

Just about every lifter's dream is to get that perfect, V-shaped back. And, the way to achieve that is to build a bigger upper back by doing the best upper back strengthening exercises.

With that said, we have a list of the ten best upper back exercises for a bigger and stronger back. Not only will these help you grow bigger and stronger, but they'll also help:

  • Improve poor posture 
  • Reduce chronic back pain
  • Improve max loads on non-back focused exercises

For an overall better back, get these ten exercises into your back workout routine right away!

The muscles of the back 3d medical vector illustration

The Primary Muscles in Your Upper Back

There are three large primary mover muscles in your upper back, including the:

  1. Trapezius
  2. Latissimus dorsi
  3. Rhomboids

First off, the trapezius is a pair of triangle-shaped muscles that form a diamond shape in your upper back. The diamond extends across your shoulders and up the length of your mid-spine into the neck. Its job is to stabilize and move the scapula. The scapula is also known as your shoulder blades.

Second, the latissimus dorsi, also known as the lats, is the largest muscle in your back and is split into two halves. Each half is a triangle-shaped muscle that lays flat on the mid-back and stretches around the sides of the body. It has three jobs, all involving moving the arms from the shoulders, including:

  • Adducting the arm
  • Extending the arm
  • Internally rotating the arm

Third and lastly, the rhomboids are two rhombus-shaped muscles on each half of the upper back, underneath the trapezius. Their primary function is to pinch and lift the shoulder blades to initiate pulling movements. Additionally, their secondary job is to provide support to the shoulder blades.

In addition to the three primary mover muscles, there are a few more muscles that straddle your upper back region and provide support, including the:

  1. Posterior (rear) deltoids
  2. Teres major and teres minor
  3. Infraspinatus
  4. Erector spinae

These muscles are not necessarily in your upper back, but they support the upper back muscles during exercises that target the primary movers.

Now that you know more about upper back anatomy, here are the ten best exercises that strengthen and increase the size of your upper back muscles!

1. Reverse Flys

The first and perhaps most famous of all the upper back exercises is the reverse fly. It’s one of the best exercises for reaching the deep rhomboids. Here's how to do reverse flys with proper form:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold one dumbbell in each of your hands
  2. Bend your knees slightly, let your arms hang straight down, and hinge forward from your hips so that your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. To avoid hurting yourself, you must maintain a straight back - no arching!
  3. Face the palms of your hands towards your body, bend your elbows slightly, and then raise both arms out to the sides so that your shoulder blades pinch together
  4. Raise your arms until your elbows are level with your shoulders, then slowly release the pinch in your shoulder blades and return your arms to starting position
  5. Repeat! Don't forget to keep that back flat!

2. Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns are another classic back exercise. They target your lats as well as the biceps and triceps. Strengthening the lats is so important because strong lats significantly help improve posture and spinal stability. Not many people realize the importance of good posture.

Considering that back pain is the world's leading cause of disability and proper posture is one of the best ways to prevent it, you should pay extra attention to strengthening the lats! Before doing lat pulldowns, you need to set up the pulldown machine.

Sit on the machine's seat and reach up to grab the pulldown bar. If you can grab it with a small elbow bend, then you're good. If the bar is too high or too low, then adjust the height of the bar. Then, adjust the pressure of the knee pad so that your quads stay touching the seat.

Now that your set-up is ready, here's how to do lat pulldowns with perfect form:

  1. Sitting on the seat, grab the bar overhand with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart
  2. Keeping your torso straight, pull the bar down with control towards your chin by pulling your elbows down as far as they can go
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades at the bottom of the pull, then release the tension and straighten your arms

The key is to keep your back straight during the exercise. Leaning backward or arching your back will take some of the work off of your lats and incorrectly redistribute it to other muscles.

3. Deadlifts

And now, the king of all exercises: the deadlift. A perfect example of a full-body exercise, deadlifts work just about every muscle in your posterior chain, including the:

  • Upper back muscles
  • Lower back muscles
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

Not only do deadlifts help build strength in each of these muscle groups, but they also improve:

  1. Cardiovascular endurance
  2. Muscular power
  3. Muscular endurance

Whoever you are, if you aren't already doing deadlifts, then you need to add them to your workout routine! Check out our complete guide to deadlifts to get started today!

4. Seated Cable Rows

If you want a single exercise that targets all three of your primary upper back muscles, then look no further than seated cable rows. They also target several middle back and lower back muscles, including the erector spinae.

Like lat pulldowns, you need to set up your machine before getting started. Sit on the rowing seat with your knees slightly bent. Reach forward and grab the row handle with both hands, keeping only a slight bend in your elbows. If the handle is too close or too far, then adjust the length of the cable.

Here's how to do seated cable rows with the right form:

  1. Plant your feet flat on the floor and reach for the row handle
  2. Grip the handle with both hands, sit up tall, and pull the handle towards your core by pulling your elbows back and pinching your shoulder blades together
  3. Release the tension in your back by slowly allowing the handles to pull your elbows forward

One way to cross-train cable rows is to use the rowing machine on your cardio day. You'll get a killer upper back workout and boost your heart rate at the same time!

5. Barbell Bent-Over Rows

Barbell bent-over rows are a variation of the original barbell row. While the OG barbell rows are excellent, we like the bent-over version because it channels additional muscles in your upper body, including the rear delts.

The rear (posterior) delts connect the upper back to the shoulders. Their primary job is to abduct the arms. Here's how to do barbell rows:

  1. Place a weighted barbell on the floor in front of you and stand with your toes under the bar
  2. Bend your knees slightly and send your hips backward so that your upper body is almost parallel with the floor
  3. Grab the bar with a wide overhand grip and keep your back in a perfectly straight line
  4. When you're ready, pull your elbows straight back so the barbell rows towards your lower chest
  5. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, then slowly allow the barbell to pull your elbows forward and release the tension in your upper back
man doing pull ups in a gym

6. Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are one of the best bodyweight exercises out there. They work all three of your primary upper back muscles, as well as several muscles in your shoulders and upper arms.

Don't confuse pull-ups with chin-ups, which use an underhand grip and target the biceps and triceps rather than the back. Here's how to do pull-ups with perfect form:

  1. Stand directly underneath a pull-up bar
  2. Jump up to the bar and dead hang with straight arms and an overhand grip
  3. When you're ready, exhale and pull your chin over the bar by squeezing your back muscles 
  4. Hold your chin over the bar for one second, then drop back down to a dead hang

One form tip to remember is to keep your lower body still as you pull yourself up. The movement is a slow and controlled pull, not a swing. Avoid using your legs to create power and pull yourself up.

If you do, it'll reduce the exercises' upper back strengthening benefits. If you want to level up your pull-ups, try one of these challenging modifications:

  • Single-arm pull-ups (start on the right hand then switch to the left)
  • Pull-ups with tucked knees
  • Pull-ups with ankle weights

7. Supermans

Next up, supermans are another bodyweight exercise. Because they require no equipment, you can do them anywhere, at any time. Like deadlifts, they target all of the muscles in your posterior chain. Having a strong posterior chain is crucial for several reasons, including:

  • Helping you run faster
  • Improving muscular power
  • Increasing your metabolism

Here's how to do supermans:

  1. Lay flat on your stomach with a neutral spine, feet inside the width of your hips, arms overhead, and forehead planted on the floor
  2. When you're ready, slowly lift your arms and legs about 6 inches above the floor
  3. Channel the strength in your posterior chain to keep your limbs hovering above the ground for about 3 seconds; balance on your pubic bone
  4. After 3 seconds of hovering, slowly lower your arms and legs back to lying flat on the floor
  5. Repeat! Do seven to eleven more reps to complete one set

You will know you are doing this exercise right if you look like superman with your limbs hovering above the ground!

8. Resistance Band Pull-Aparts

Resistance bands are a commonly underestimated piece of exercise equipment. As a simple rubber band, it's easy to think that resistance bands won't help you  build bigger and stronger upper back muscles.

However, you would be sadly mistaken to think that resistance band exercises are easy and ineffective. Here's how to do resistance band pull-aparts:

  1. Grab a resistance band and stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and toes turned slightly outward
  2. With both hands, lift the resistance band to shoulder height and keep your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart; there should be light tension in the resistance band
  3. When you're ready, with just a slight bend in your elbows, pull the band apart by pinching your shoulder blades together
  4. Pull the resistance band apart until your arms are in line with your back
  5. Hold then pinch your upper back muscles, then slowly release the tension to return to starting position
  6. Repeat! If you feel like the movement is not challenging enough, then grab a resistance band with greater resistance or start with your hands closer together

9. Kettlebell Cleans

Kettlebells are one of the best pieces of workout equipment. They're incredibly diverse, so you could put together an entire workout out of just different kettlebell exercises.

Kettlebell cleans target your upper back muscles more than most other kettlebell exercises. In addition to working your upper back, cleans have many other benefits, including:

  • Quickly boosting your heart rate (great for weight loss)
  • Enhancing core and stabilizer muscle strength
  • Building muscular power

Here's how you can do kettlebell cleans:

  1. Place a kettlebell about one foot on the floor in front of you
  2. Lean forward to grab the kettlebell with your right hand, and then stand up straight, allowing the kettlebell to dead hand from your right arm
  3. When you're ready, send your hips backward a few inches, bend your knees slightly, and then power forward to lift the kettlebell to chest height
  4. Squeeze your upper back muscles while holding the kettlebell at your chest, then release the tension and allow the kettlebell to drop back down do a dead hang
  5. Do a few more reps with the right arm, then switch to your left arm! The goal is to make this a fluid movement, so try to make each rep as smooth as possible

With kettlebell exercises, including the clean, they should be both a swing and controlled movement. You want the drive from your hips to generate the swing, but you also want to do a controlled lift to strengthen your back muscles.

If you can combine the swing and the lift aspects, then you are golden! For even more kettlebell exercises, check out our complete guide to kettlebell training!

10. Single Arm Dumbbell Rows

Last but not least, try single-arm dumbbell rows. Because it targets all of the upper back muscles, and several other muscle groups, it is a great exercise to end on. In addition to the lats, trapezius, and rhomboids, single-arm dumbbell rows work the:

  • Deltoids
  • ​Biceps
  • Teres major and teres minor
  • Brachialis
  • Infraspinatus

Before getting started, you need to grab a flat bench and one dumbbell. Now, here's how to do the single-arm row with proper form:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand, then plant your left knee and left hand flat on the flat bench
  2. Bend over, so your back is parallel with the floor; be sure to keep your back straight and allow your right arm to dead hang directly underneath your right shoulder
  3. Contract your core muscles for support, then pull your right elbow straight back by retracting your shoulder blades; be sure to get the full range of motion by pinching your shoulder blades as close together as you can
  4. Hold the shoulder blade pinch, then slowly release the tension and return your arm to a dead hang
  5. Repeat! Do between six and ten reps on the right side, then switch to the left side

Extra Back Exercises

It was difficult to limit this list to just ten exercises. While all of the above upper back exercises are fantastic, we put together a short list of additional exercises that are also great, but didn't quite make the top ten. 

These exercises didn’t make the cut because they don't use the upper back muscles as their primary mover muscles. Rather, they use the upper back muscles for support and stabilization.

Here are the upper back exercises that are great, but didn't make it into the top ten:
  1. Push-ups 
  2. Bench press 
  3. Face pulls
  4. ​Wide arm dumbbell rows
  5. ​Hyperextensions

If you have extra space in your back day routine, consider throwing in one of these exercises!

Final Thoughts

Build an enviable upper back with our top ten upper back exercises! Bigger and stronger muscles will help you get that V-shaped look that everyone is after. Upgrade your upper back day routine today!

Bonus tip: While we are passionate about building a bigger upper back, we're equally passionate about not skipping leg day. Check out our top ten exercises for  a better lower body!