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The Best Upper Back Exercises

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We have become a nation of slouchers, perpetually hunched over a desk, a smartphone or a tablet. This poor posture inevitably leads to back and neck problems and it takes more than a fancy new standing desk to fix it. You need to train your upper back.

In fact, scheduling in regular sessions of back exercises will do more than just help fix bad posture, because a stronger upper back will also improve your power and performance both in the weights room and when playing various sports. And the cherry on top is that a wider, more muscular upper back will help you look the business in a suit. Or a T-shirt. Or just about anything you choose to wear – or nothing at all.

Here are seven excellent upper back moves to add to your gym routine.

Bent-over row

bent over row workout

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Many people get into the habit of letting the bench press dominate their workout, but concentrating on your pecs at the expense of your back can lead to a muscle imbalance that not only looks rubbish, but also increases your risk of injury. The bent-over row works the opposite muscle group, the upper back (traps, lats, rhomboids and rear deltoids), as well as your biceps and abs, which help keep your torso stable.

Start with your core braced, your back straight and your shoulder blades retracted. Bend your knees slightly and lean forwards from the hips. Grip the bar with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart, letting the bar hang at knee level. Pull the bar to your sternum, retracting your shoulder blades to allow the bar to come up to your chest, then lower slowly back to the start.

Don’t shrug your shoulders and round your back if you’re struggling with the weight – this takes the emphasis away from the target muscles. It’s far better to switch to a lighter weight and maintain correct form.


shrug workout

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Shrugs have a limited range of motion compared with many other lifts, which means that you can go really heavy on the weights to help build big and strong traps, and develop wide shoulders.

Stand holding a heavy dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip (palms facing), keeping your core braced and a natural arch in your back. Shrug your shoulders up towards your ears, keeping your arms straight. Hold for a second at the top position, then slowly lower the weights back to the start. You can also perform shrugs with a heavy barbell using an overhand grip just outside your hips.

One-arm row

one arm workout

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Working one arm at a time encourages balanced growth, lessening the risk of injury. Rest your left knee and hand on a bench, and hold a dumbbell in your right hand close to the floor. Keeping your back straight, use your back muscles and biceps to row the weight up to your side, leading with your elbow. Normally you’ll complete all your reps with one arm, then repeat on the other side.

Seated cable row

seated workout

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Hitting your back muscles while seated allows you to go heavier and focus all your efforts on the target muscle groups, resulting in big muscle-mass gains. Sit with a flat back and a slight bend in your knees, using a neutral grip to hold a double-D handle attached to the bottom pulley of a cable machine. Ensure that there is tension in the cable before you begin. Pull the handle to your sternum, keeping upper-body movement to a minimum, and squeeze your shoulders together. Return slowly to the start.


pull up workout

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The best bodyweight upper-back exercise going, the pull-up works the lats, traps and rhomboids, as well as challenging your arms and shoulders. It’s a daunting exercise the first time you do it, and you might only manage a couple if you don’t use a resistance band or pull-up machine to support some of your weight, but stick at it and you’ll find that it won’t take long before you can knock out a set of ten pull-ups. You can also use this four-week training plan to build the strength in a more deliberate way.

Jump up and grab the bar in an overhand grip with your hands shoulder-width apart. Let your body hang so your arms are fully extended. Keeping your shoulders back and your core engaged, raise your body until your chin is above the bar. Then slowly lower yourself back to the start.

Reverse flye


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This dumbbell move is one of the best exercises for working the side and rear shoulder muscles, and it will also strengthen the shoulder girdle and rotator cuff muscles. These are worth targeting when building your upper back because they can be easy to injure when performing shoulder exercises. The flye will also work wonders for your posture, but to gain these benefits you need to perform the move with perfect form.

Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing. Hinge forwards from your hips, keeping your back straight and letting the weights hang down with a slight bend in your elbows. Maintain that bend as you raise the weights out to the sides until they are level with your shoulders. Pause at the top and squeeze your shoulder blades together, then lower the weights.

Renegade row


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Add some core work to your quest for a stronger upper back with this combination of a plank and a row. Hexagonal dumbbells are ideal for the renegade row, because the starting position involves adopting a high plank position holding dumbbells resting on the floor. Make sure you form a straight line from your neck to your ankles and don’t let your hips sag, buck or rotate as you lift one weight to your shoulder, supporting yourself on the other arm. Lower the weight back to the floor and then row the other dumbbell up.

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.