The Best Upper Back Exercises for Thick Back

Rear view of a mid adult man with his arms outstretched on the beach

For a wide back, weightlifters must perform exercises in which they pull down, such as chin-ups and lat pull-downs. These exercises build the latissimus dorsi, causing them to flare out. For a thick back, weightlifters need to perform exercises in which they pull in. These are primarily different types of rows, which build the lats, but also the rhomboids and lower trapezius..

Barbell Row

When you're looking for the best exercises, it makes sense to find out which exercises eight-time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger prefers. In "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding," Schwarzenegger explains that for developing a thick back, there's no better exercise that the barbell row. To perform a barbell row, stand holding a barbell in a palm-back grip. Bend at the hips until your body is as close to parallel to the ground as you can get. Bend your knees to maintain balance. Pull the barbell to your stomach. Try to think of your arms as hooks holding the barbell, and let your back pull your upper arms, instead of pulling with your biceps. Hold for a moment at the top, pinching your shoulder blades together. Release back to the starting position. Perform sets in the bodybuilding range of 8 to 12 reps to build mass.

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

Schwarzenegger is also a fan of the one-arm dumbbell row, because he believes that every workout should contain exercises that work the target muscles through their maximum range of motion. He explains that when you perform a one-arm dumbbell row, you should let the weight hang as far as you can, feeling a good stretch in your upper back muscles, and when you pull the dumbbell up, you should pull it as high as you can in order to fully contract your upper back muscles. The one-arm dumbbell row also lets you focus entirely on your upper back, since you brace yourself for support with your non-working hand. Perform in sets of 8 to 12 reps per side.

Cable Row

The cable row works the same muscles as the barbell row. It's a good exercise to perform after barbell rows because of the stability the exercise offers, allowing you to burn your muscles out safely. To perform a cable row, sit at a cable row station. Use whatever attachment is most comfortable. A narrow grip will allow you to lift more weight by involving the lats, but a wide grip will add more depth to the upper back by forcing your shoulder blades to fully retract. Keep a slight bend in your knees. Pull the weight to your body, then hold for a moment and feel the contraction of your traps and rhomboids. Slowly release back to the starting position. The "Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding" warns that although you see a lot of people swaying at the hips when performing this exercise, it's both dangerous and ineffective. Bending at the hips means that you're cheating with your glutes and hamstrings, which are much stronger than your upper back muscles, so stay strict. Perform in sets of 8 to 12 reps.


You might think of deadlifts as being an exercise for the thighs and lower back, but heavy deadlifts can add serious depth to your back. The body responds to the stress of heavy compound exercises by adding mass, and there's no more compound exercise than the deadlift. "Strength Training Anatomy" explains that the deadlift uses almost every muscle in the body. Because of this, it's common to be able to deadlift a barbell that's twice as heavy as one you'd row, placing massive stress on the muscles that retract your shoulder blades. Though your rhomboids and trapezius aren't moving, they're working very hard to keep your arms from being pulled off your body. To perform a traditional deadlift, step up to a barbell on the ground. Bend at the knees and hips until you can grip the barbell in a shoulder-width grip. Your arms should be perpendicular to the ground, and your knees should be pressed against the inside of your forearms. Keeping a strong, straight back, stand up with the barbell. Follow the same path to set it back down. Because deadlifts are very draining and it's crucial that you maintain perfect form, perform sets of 4 to 6 reps.