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The 6 Best Upper Back Exercises For Strength + Definition

Back workouts often focus primarily on the lats, or latissimus dorsi muscles, which are the large, triangular-shaped muscles that extend from your shoulders and taper down to your spine. 

However, it is also important to do workouts for upper back that include upper back exercises for the rhomboids, trapezius muscles (traps), and teres major in the rotator cuff.

But what are the best upper back exercises? How should you structure upper back workouts? 

In this article, we will discuss how to program workouts for upper back muscles and provide you with step-by-step instructions for the best upper back exercises for the ultimate workout:

Let’s dive in! 

Seal rows, an upper back exercise.

How to Structure Upper Back Workouts

If you are doing upper back workouts for strength gains, work up to performing 2-6 sets, 3-5 reps per set, and at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should aim for with your weights.

If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth), strive to perform three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.

The Ultimate Upper Back Exercises

Here are some of the best exercises for upper back muscles:

#1: Single-Arm Dead Stop Rows

Many of the best upper back exercises involve some version of a row.

The single-arm dead stop row is a variation of a single-arm row that is an excellent exercise for upper back hypertrophy and strength because you can pause on the floor between each rep, reset your grip, and then explode through your next one.

Additionally, because there is a complete stop at the floor before beginning your next rep, you will ensure that you are maximizing your range of motion; many recreational weightlifters inadvertently “cheat“ when performing exercises by not fully extending all the way out before beginning the concentric contraction again. 

When you have to drop the weight all the way to the floor, you are, by default, forced to straighten your arm all the way out before beginning the next rep. This, in turn, can maximize your gains in strength and mass.

Here are the steps for how to perform this upper back exercise:

  1. Essentially, you will perform a standard single-arm dumbbell row off of a weight bench, but rather than hinging at your hips just enough so that your arm nearly touches the ground in between reps, you will hinge a little bit deeper so that you can lower the dumbbell all the way to the floor.
  2. Pause once the dumbbell is all the way down, and then begin your next rep. 
  3. Explode up with the contraction, thinking about squeezing your upper back, particularly your traps and rhomboids, until your shoulder blades are fully retracted.
  4. Pause at the top and then slowly lower back down.

#2: Seal Rows

One of the best exercises for upper back is the dumbbell seal row. This row variation involves lying face down on a flat, weight bench.

One of the benefits of adding this exercise to upper back workouts is that because you are lying in the prone position, you cannot use momentum to help lift the dumbbells or press through your legs to help assist the lift. This helps isolate your upper back muscles during the exercise.

Additionally, lying face down helps you activate your rhomboids by making it easier to consciously think about squeezing your shoulder blades together and relying more on scapular retraction, which is a rhomboid function, rather than biceps contraction to lift the weight.

The result is that the movement becomes a much more effective exercise for upper back muscles.

Here are the steps for how to perform this one of our upper back exercises:

  1. Lie face down on a weight bench. You need to extend your arms fully without touching the ground, so you may need to prop up the weight bench on a stack of bumper plates or on plyometrics boxes or steps.
  2. Place a dumbbell on each side under your arms and then extend your arms down, gripping the dumbbells with a neutral grip so that your palms are facing one another underneath the bench.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and upper back as you think about bringing your shoulder blades together and pulling your elbows towards your hips until the dumbbells are as high as they can go and your shoulder blades are fully retracted. 
  4. Slowly lower the weight back down, extending your arms all the way without allowing the dumbbells to come to rest on the floor between reps.

#3: Incline I’s, Y’s, and T’s

This is a great exercise for your traps and posterior deltoids.

Here are the steps for how to perform this one of our upper back exercises:

  1. Lie face down on an incline bench set to a 45° angle. You should be straddling the seat with your torso and chest (and potentially head) facing the bench.
  2. Hold a relatively light dumbbell in each hand with an overhand grip (palms facing away).
  3. Begin by forming a giant letter I. Extend both arms upward overhead, and then think about contracting your shoulders and upper back to extend the dumbbells up and back behind you while still keeping your arms straight. 
  4. At the end range of motion, bring the dumbbells forward so that your body is still forming the letter I, but your shoulders are no longer extended behind you.
  5. Complete all of your desired reps and then move on to the letter Y.
  6. Now, bring your arms out to a 45° angle from vertical so that you are forming a giant letter Y.
  7. Repeat the same motion and scapular retraction and squeeze that you did with the letter I.
  8. After you have completed all of your reps, bring your arms down so that they are perpendicular to your body for the letter T.
  9. Repeat the same exercise, thinking about retracting your shoulder blades as much as possible and remembering to keep your elbows completely straight.

#4: High Pulls

Some of the best upper back exercises are challenging from a technical standpoint, such as the hang clean and power clean, so while these upper back exercises can work well for advanced lifters if you are newer to weightlifting, a great alternative to add to your upper back workouts is the high pull.

The high pull is nearly identical to a hang clean but omits the squat and catch.

Not only does this make it less technically difficult and easier to master for beginners and intermediate lifters, but it also places more emphasis on the upper back muscles.

The high pull exercise can be performed from the hang position if you want to incorporate more hip action, or you can perform it from the floor, which will increase your range of motion.

Here are the steps for how to perform this exercise for upper back strength and power:

  1. Grip the barbell with your hands somewhat wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hinge from your hips to bring the barbell to knee height, making sure to keep your torso straight, your abs engaged, and your shoulders retracted.
  3. Explode through your heels to snap your hips forward and extend your knees powerfully while you pull the barbell up as high as possible. The goal is to keep your elbows high as you pull the bar up toward your neck. This will help make sure you are targeting your upper back muscles.

#5: Cable Shrugs

The cable shrug optimizes the workload on the traps because the path of motion of the cable better matches the muscle fiber alignment in the traps.

This also reduces stress on the shoulders.

Here are the steps:

  1. Stand in the middle of the cable machine with both pulleys on each side set at the lowest setting. Use the handle attachments.
  2. Keep your core tight and drive your shoulders up and inward towards your ears and a bit towards the back.
  3. Slowly lower back down.

#6: Face Pulls

This is a good exercise for your posterior deltoids and traps, and it can help improve your deadlifts and overhead presses.

Here are the steps for how to perform this upper back exercise:

  1. Anchor the cable pulley to a height that is just above your face.
  2. Step back, holding one handle of the rope attachment in each hand until there is tension in the cable and the weight stack lifts.
  3. Retract your shoulder blades, squeezing them together and pulling your shoulders down away from your ears.
  4. Pull the cable towards your face, passing just by the side of your face as if grazing your temples.
  5. Hold the contraction, squeezing your shoulder blades together for at least 2 to 3 seconds.
  6. As slowly as possible, return the cable to the starting position, maintaining tension on the cable at all times.

If you are working on building muscle mass, check out our muscle-building guide here for our very best tips.

A row.
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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