Exercises to Strengthen Upper Back Muscles
You may overlook your upper back muscles when deciding which strength training exercises to perform, but they have many important functions and should not be neglected. The major muscles of your upper back are the latissimus dorsi, levator scapulae, rhomboids and trapezius. These muscles function to move your scapula bones and shoulders through various ranges of motion. You can perform resistance exercises through these ranges of motion to strengthen and build the muscles of your upper back.
Pullups focus on your latissimus dorsi, or lats, on either side of your spine but also work your rhomboids and trapezius, or traps, to some extent. They are performed on a sturdy bar positioned high enough so your feet do not touch the ground when you hang. To perform pullups, grip the bar with your palms facing forward and hands wider than shoulder width. Then pull your body up until your chin is above the bar, slowly lower back down, and repeat. Try not to swing your legs to help lift your body.
Lat pulldowns exercise the same muscles as pull-ups but require you to pull a bar down to your body rather than lifting your body to a bar. They are not as functional as pull-ups -- in everyday life, you will probably have to pull your body up more than you will have to pull something down toward your body -- but are still effective. They are performed on a pulldown machine. To perform lat pulldowns, start from a seated position and hold the overhead bar with your hands wider than shoulder-width and palms facing away from your body. Pull the bar straight downward until it touches your chest and slowly let it back up.
Like lat pulldowns, you perform seated rows on a machine specially designed for the exercise. To perform seated rows, first sit down, secure your legs and feet, and hold the handles of the machine with your arms fully extended in front of you. Without moving your upper body, pull the handles back toward your body until your hands are next to your ribs. Finally, slowly allow your arms to extend back to the starting position and repeat. Seated rows strengthen your rhomboids and middle traps.
Bent-over rows strengthen your lats, rhomboids and the middle portion of your traps. To prepare for bent-over rows, bend forward until your trunk is parallel to the ground and hold a barbell with both hands or a dumbbell in each hand below your shoulders with your arms extended. To perform the exercise, lift the weight straight upward toward the bottom of your chest. When your arms are flexed to 90 degrees, slowly lower the weight back down and repeat.
Shoulder shrugs work on the upper part of your traps. To perform the exercise, stand upright and hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides with your palms facing your body. Elevate your shoulders toward your ears as high as possible, hold briefly, and lower back to the starting position. Repeat for your desired number of repetitions.
- Get Body Smart: Muscles that Act on the Shoulder (Scapula)
- "Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning Second Edition"; Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle; 2000
- Exercises for Upper Back: Upper Back Training
Matthew Schirm has worked in the sports-performance field since 1998. He has professional experience as a college baseball coach and weight-training instructor. He earned a Master of Science in human movement from A.T. Still University in 2009.