What are the best workouts to build muscle in your upper back?
This is the thirteenth question that I’m answering this month of the 24 most commonly asked questions Mark and I receive.
The Short Answer
I would start with these five:
- Barbell Row
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Ring Row (if you don’t have gymnastics rings, use TRX bands)
- Seal Row
The Longer Answer
This question usually stems from wanting to build two muscles: the rhomboids and the trapezius.
Your rhomboids originate from the cervical (neck) vertebra and run diagonally down the back and attach to the inside of the scapula. Your trapezius is a large flat triangular muscle that sits on both sides of the upper back. It originates from the cervical spine and all 12 of the thoracic vertebrae.
Since both the rhomboids and trapezius muscles are responsible for adduction, pulling movements will strengthen them. This is why the five exercises above are variations of different pulls.
Pull-Ups: If a bodybuilder is reading this article, the pull-up might be the only movement on here that they would argue doesn’t develop the upper back. Sure, while the pull-up develops more of lats than rhomboids and trapezius, they are a foundational movement to the development of the back. And for this reason alone, I added them to the list.
Barbell Row & Single-Arm Dumbbell Row: While these two movements are the same, I separated them for because of load capacity. Similar to the inclusion of push presses and push jerks in a shoulder development program, single-arm dumbbell rows and barbell rows are different variations to overload the upper back.
Ring Row: The pull-up is the vertical pull needed to develop the upper back. The ring row is the horizontal pull. Don’t leave this out.
Seal Row: Similar to the bent-over row, but seal rows don’t allow you to recruit any of the hips because your chest is laying down against a bench. In our press analogy, these would be the strict shoulder presses.
The upper-back is primarily made up of the rhomboids and trapezius muscles. These are best developed from the pull-up, barbell row, single-arm dumbbell row, ring row, and seal row.