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Top 14 Best Upper Back Exercises for Muscle Mass

In my many years as a fitness enthusiast, I’ve often been asked about the secret to a well-defined and strong upper back.

Through countless hours in my home gym, I’ve discovered that building muscle mass in this area isn’t about a single magical exercise, but a combination of targeted and well-executed movements.

Let me share with you some of my favourites.

Read our Medical Disclaimer before starting any exercises.

What Muscles Are In The Upper Back?

Rear view of back muscles inside the body

Trapezius

Helps with moving, rotating, and stabilizing the scapula (shoulder blade) and extending the neck.

Rhomboids (Major and Minor)

Pulls the scapula towards the spine, providing stability and support for the shoulder.

Latissimus Dorsi

Involved in shoulder adduction, extension, and internal rotation. Also plays a role in pulling the body upward during activities like climbing and pull-ups.

Levator Scapulae

Elevates the scapula and helps with the downward rotation of it.

Infraspinatus and Teres Minor (Part of the Rotator Cuff)

Assists in stabilizing the shoulder joint and helps with external rotation of the shoulder.

Supraspinatus (Part of the Rotator Cuff)

Assists in the initial phase of shoulder abduction and stabilizing the shoulder joint.

Erector Spinae

A group of muscles that run along the spine, helping with extension, lateral flexion, and rotation of the spine.

Serratus Posterior Superior

Helps with elevating the ribs, thus assisting you with breathing.

These muscles work together to support the movements and stabilization of the upper back and shoulder region. 

From my own experience, understanding these muscles and their functions has been vital in developing effective upper back exercises. It allows for targeted training and helps in achieving a balanced and robust upper back.

Best Upper Back Exercises For Developing Muscle Mass

Here are 14 of the best upper back exercises that you can add to your workout. Whether you’re training at home, in the gym, or elsewhere, there’s something for you. 

These exercises are in no particular order, so feel free to pick and choose several of them to add to your workout routine. 

1. Pull-Ups

Illustration of man doing pull ups

Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius, Rhomboids, Biceps

How to Do It:

  • Grab the pull-up bar with palms facing away.
  • Pull your body upwards until your chin passes the bar.
  • Lower yourself slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: In my opinion, pull-ups are one of the most effective exercises for building the upper back. They’re simple yet challenging and can be done by almost anyone.

However, they might not be suitable for complete beginners or those with shoulder issues.

The only equipment needed is a pull-up bar, which is commonly found in most gyms or can be installed at home.

Take a look at the Gravity Fitness Pull Up Rack as a good option.

2. Face Pulls

Muscles Worked: Trapezius, Rhomboids

How to Do It:

  • Using a rope attachment on a cable machine, pull the rope towards your face.
  • Keep elbows high and pinch shoulder blades together.
  • Return slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: I find face pulls to be an excellent exercise for targeting the traps and rhomboids, especially for those who sit at a desk all day.

This exercise can help correct poor posture. It’s best suited for intermediate to advanced trainees and does require access to a cable machine.

3. T-Bar Rows

Illustration of a man doing T-Bar Rows

Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Biceps

How to Do It:

  • Use a T-Bar row machine or landmine attachment.
  • Hold the bar with both hands and pull towards your chest.
  • Lower slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: T-Bar Rows have been a staple in my back workouts. They provide a robust challenge and are great for building mass.

However, proper form is crucial, so it might not be ideal for beginners. Special equipment like a T-Bar row machine is needed, limiting this exercise mainly to gym environments.

4. Lat Pulldowns

Illustration of a woman doing a lat pulldown

Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps, Rhomboids, Traps

How to Do It:

  • Sit at a lat pulldown machine and grab the bar with palms facing away.
  • Pull down towards your chest.
  • Release slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: I consider lat pulldowns to be a more accessible alternative to pull-ups, especially for those new to lifting or those unable to perform pull-ups.

The exercise requires a lat pulldown machine, so it’s generally performed at a well-equipped gym.

5. Single Arm Dumbbell Rows

Illustration of a man doing a single arm dumbbell row

Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps, Rhomboids

How to Do It:

  • Place one knee and hand on a bench and hold a dumbbell in the other hand.
  • Pull the dumbbell towards your hip.
  • Lower slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: This exercise has always felt more personal and targeted to me. It’s suitable for all levels and allows for a full range of motion in the upper back.

The only equipment needed is a dumbbell, making it accessible both in a gym and at home.

6. Band Pull-Aparts

Illustration of a women doing band pull aparts

Muscles Worked: Trapezius, Rhomboids

How to Do It:

  • Hold a resistance band in front of you with both hands.
  • Pull the band apart by moving your hands away from each other.
  • Return slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: Band pull-aparts are one of my go-to exercises for warming up or cooling down. They’re great for beginners and don’t require anything other than a resistance band.

They might not be the best for building massive muscle mass but are excellent for shoulder health and activation.

7. Shrugs

Illustration of a women doing shrugs

Muscles Worked: Trapezius

How to Do It:

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
  • Shrug your shoulders upwards towards your ears.
  • Lower slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: Shrugs are simple yet effective for isolating the traps. I’ve found them beneficial in my routine, but they might not be suitable for those with neck issues.

You can perform shrugs with dumbbells, barbells, or even kettlebells, offering flexibility in equipment choices.

Check out our range of the best barbells.

8. Inverted Rows

Illustration of a man doing inverted rows

Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps, Rhomboids, Core

How to Do It:

  • Set a barbell in a rack at waist height.
  • Hold the bar and hang beneath it with your body straight.
  • Pull your chest towards the bar.
  • Lower slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: Inverted rows are a fantastic alternative to traditional rows. They’re suitable for all levels and are an excellent way to build strength without heavy weights.

However, setting up might require a bit of expertise or assistance.

9. Bent Over Barbell Rows

Illustration of a man doing bent over barbell rows.

Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapezius

How to Do It:

  • Hold a barbell with palms facing down and bend at the hips.
  • Pull the bar towards your lower ribs.
  • Lower slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: As a heavy compound movement, bent-over rows have been instrumental in my back development.

However, they’re not for the faint-hearted or those with lower back issues. Proper form and a barbell are required, so it might be more suitable for intermediate to advanced lifters.

If you’re looking for a reliable barbell, check out our Mirafit Olympic Barbell review.

10. Seated Cable Rows

Illustration of a women doing seated cable rows.

Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps, Trapezius, Rhomboids

How to Do It:

  • Sit at a cable row machine and grab the handle.
  • Pull the handle towards your waist.
  • Release slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: I love the controlled motion of seated cable rows. They allow for a targeted contraction of the back muscles.

It’s suitable for all levels but requires access to a cable row machine.

11. Kettlebell High Pull

Illustration of a woman doing a kettlebell high pull

Muscles Worked: Trapezius, Rhomboids, Shoulders

How to Do It:

  • Stand with a kettlebell between your feet.
  • Pull the kettlebell upwards to shoulder height, leading with your elbows.
  • Lower slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: This is a dynamic exercise that brings both power and strength into play. It’s particularly suitable for those who enjoy a more athletic style of training.

However, it requires proper technique and might not be ideal for complete beginners.

12. Renegade Rows

Illustration of a man doing renegade rows.

Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius, Rhomboids, Core

How to Do It:

  • Start in a plank position holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Row one dumbbell to your hip while balancing on the other.
  • Lower slowly and repeat on the other side.

My Thoughts: Renegade rows are fantastic for integrating core and upper back training.

I find them particularly challenging and rewarding, but they require a certain level of core strength and balance, so might not be suitable for everyone.

13. Reverse Flyes

Illustration of a man doing reverse flyes.

Muscles Worked: Rear Deltoids, Rhomboids, Trapezius

How to Do It:

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand and bend at the hips.
  • Raise your arms out to the sides, squeezing shoulder blades together.
  • Lower slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: Reverse flyes are a delicate yet powerful exercise in my routine.

They’re perfect for targeting those hard-to-reach muscles in the upper back. Suitable for all levels, but lighter weights are recommended to maintain proper form.

14. Scapular Wall Slides

Muscles Worked: Trapezius, Rhomboids, Serratus Anterior

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your back against a wall, elbows at 90 degrees.
  • Slide your arms up the wall, keeping them in contact with the surface.
  • Lower slowly and repeat.

My Thoughts: Scapular wall slides are more of a mobility exercise in my training. They are fantastic for improving shoulder health and posture.

I highly recommend them for anyone, regardless of training level, as they require no special equipment and can be done anywhere.

Building Upper Back Muscle FAQ

Why is targeting the upper back important in strength training?

Targeting the upper back is crucial as it plays a significant role in overall posture, balance, and stability. Strengthening the muscles in this area can lead to better support for your spine, reducing the risk of injuries. 

Moreover, a strong upper back contributes to a more balanced physique, enhancing your appearance and improving functional movement in everyday activities.

Can I build my upper back muscles without going to the gym?

Absolutely! While gym equipment like cable machines and barbells can be helpful, there are many exercises that you can do at home using minimal equipment, such as dumbbells, kettlebells, or even resistance bands.

Exercises like single-arm dumbbell rows, band pull-aparts, and inverted rows can be effective in targeting the upper back muscles without the need for specialized gym equipment.

How often should I train my upper back muscles for growth?

The frequency of upper back training depends on your overall workout routine and goals. For most individuals looking to build muscle, training the upper back 2-3 times per week as part of a balanced routine can provide significant gains.

Ensure you have rest days between workouts targeting the same muscle group to allow for recovery and growth.

What are the common mistakes to avoid when working on upper back muscles?

Common mistakes to avoid include:

  • Using Too Much Weight: Lifting too heavy can lead to improper form, increasing the risk of injury.
  • Neglecting Proper Form: Failing to maintain correct alignment and form can reduce the effectiveness of the exercises and increase strain on other areas.
  • Ignoring Muscle Imbalance: Focusing too much on one muscle group and ignoring others can lead to imbalances, which may impede progress and lead to injuries.
  • Lack of Variation: Sticking to the same exercises and neglecting to include a variety of movements may slow down progress and lead to plateaus.

Can upper back exercises help with shoulder or neck pain?

Upper back exercises can indeed help with shoulder or neck pain if done correctly.

Strengthening the muscles in the upper back supports better alignment and posture, which can alleviate stress on the neck and shoulders. 

However, it’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional, like a physiotherapist or a certified fitness trainer, to ensure that the exercises you choose are appropriate for your specific situation.

If pain persists or worsens, seeking professional medical advice is essential.

Summary

The 14 exercises I’ve shared in this article are the cornerstone of my own upper back training. Each one targets different muscles in the upper back, providing a comprehensive workout that can be done in a home or commercial gym.

By combining a handful of these exercises in various ways, I’ve seen a remarkable improvement in both strength and muscle mass in my upper back.

It’s not just about lifting heavy; it’s about the correct approach, proper form, and consistency.

Whether you’re a beginner or a regular gym-goer, these exercises can be a part of your journey towards a stronger upper back.

Medical Disclaimer

Medical Disclaimer: The content on this fitness website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with a qualified healthcare professional before starting or changing any exercise, diet, or wellness program, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, have any pre-existing medical conditions, or are taking medications.

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