6 Best Exercises for Upper Back Development

6 Best Exercises for Upper Back Development

Are you searching for the best exercises for upper back development?

Different people train their upper backs for different reasons. Some focus on building visible muscle in areas like the traps, lats, delts, and rhomboids. Others prioritize strengthening the rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) for injury prevention or recovery.

Whether you want a stronger, more defined back or improved athletic performance, the right workout routine can make all the difference.

Here, we will provide guidance on how to effectively train the upper back through a combination of compound and isolation exercises.

Sets and Reps

It is important to note that the concept of “building muscle” can vary depending on individual goals, and seeking guidance from a coach is recommended in order to create a personalized plan.

For instance, individuals aiming to increase muscle size may benefit from performing 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions with moderate weights. Conversely, those solely seeking strength gains might be prescribed 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions with heavier weights. If the goal is to improve muscular endurance, a plan consisting of 3 sets of 12-20 repetitions with lighter weights may be more suitable.

woman back with flexing her muscles

Remember, these are generalizations only. An expert coach will tailor a plan to your exact goals and fitness level after a consultation. That plan will also include rest breaks, notes on intensity, recovery protocols and even nutrition advice

With that in mind, let’s get to some of the best exercises you can use to build muscle in your upper back.

Best Exercises for Upper Back Muscle Building

In this guide, we will provide a variety of exercises to target your upper back. These exercises include both isolation movements, which focus on specific muscles, and compound movements that engage multiple muscles and joints simultaneously.

Both styles of training have their benefits. Isolation exercises are ideal for concentrated muscle work, while compound movements provide a powerful full-body workout. To maximize your results, we recommend incorporating both types of exercises into your routine.

Below, we will briefly describe some of the most effective exercises for building your upper back. For detailed instructions on how to perform these exercises, you can refer to instructional videos on YouTube or seek guidance from a qualified coach who can assess your form and provide immediate feedback.


Pull-ups are an outstanding compound exercise to build the back—and you’ll work the shoulders and arms, too! Pull-ups can be done strict or with momentum (kipping), depending on your goals. Or you can grab the bar with your palms facing you to perform chin-ups.

Group of sportive people doing pull ups on the bar at industrial gym

Strong people can add weight with a vest or belt, and the movement can be modified with a cable station, fitness band or “gravitron machine” if you can’t move your entire body weight just yet. 

Bent-Over Barbell Rows

This exercise routine is incredibly powerful!

The first step is to raise the barbell from the ground, a move known as a deadlift. After that, you’ll need to engage your legs and core muscles to stabilize your body, keeping your torso roughly parallel to the ground. Once you’re in position, it’s time to utilize your arms and back muscles to pull the bar towards your chest or abdomen.

If you’re looking for some variations, you can try locking a bar in a squat rack and then lie back, facing the ceiling, before pulling your body towards the bar – this is called a body row.

Alternatively, you can use a bench for support and perform one-arm rows with a dumbbell. Lastly, you can also use a cable station and a seat to do a similar movement, but this time with your torso held perpendicular to the floor.


As mentioned above, you’re picking something off the floor in a deadlift. The object could be a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell or even a rock. While the deadlift works your entire body hard—especially the legs—people will often feel a “sweet soreness” in the upper-back muscles the day after a deadlift session.

Woman in a gym doing heavy weight exercises

Your upper back has to work very hard to keep the spine stable in a deadlift, so this compound movement should be high on your list.


You can do shrugs with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even an attachment and an adjustable cable station. Standing tall while holding a load, you simply bring your shoulders toward your ears. This isolation movement has a very small range of motion and involves just one joint, but it’s a great way to work the traps hard.

Bent-Over Dumbbell Flyes

This movement requires you to assume the same position you used in the bent-over row. Except now you’re going to hold lighter dumbbells below your shoulders and move them to the sides by swinging your hands out to bring your arms parallel to the floor. Your rear delts are going to burn with this one!

The Secret Exercise for the Upper Back: Front Squats

You may not believe that squats have an impact on the muscles in your upper back, but front squats prove otherwise. By holding a weight in front of your body, either in the “goblet style” or with a barbell resting on your shoulders, you will challenge your upper back to maintain an upright chest.

Interestingly, some individuals discover that their legs can handle heavier weights than their upper backs. If this applies to you, it’s important not to compromise form and allow your upper back to round.

Instead, decrease the weight and focus on maintaining a proud chest for flawless repetitions. This approach will effectively target your upper back and contribute to building exceptional stability.

Any Questions?

These are just a few examples of the numerous exercises available to develop the muscles in your upper back. We have many more options, along with comprehensive training plans designed to help you achieve your desired results.

If you have any inquiries regarding these exercises, other workout routines, or training plans, we invite you to schedule a free consultation. Our expert coaches will provide you with detailed information on how they can assist you in rapidly building your upper-back muscles!