Great Upper Back Exercises to Improve Your Posture

The muscles in your upper back help you to shape and define the shoulder area, and balance out the muscles in the front of the upper body. These muscles also help you to maintain good posture while sitting still (static posture) or while you are moving (dynamic posture).

These important muscles include the rear deltoid (back of the shoulder), the rhomboids and trapezius (back of the neck), teres major and minor, and infraspinatus. The latissimus dorsi (middle and upper back) and triceps (back of the upper arm) are also involved in most upper back workouts. To work the upper back, you typically do a lot of pulling and rowing motions.

Benefits of Upper Back Exercises

Working the upper back can not only make your body look better, but it can help your body feel better as well. Researchers have reported that many students and people that do sedentary work (such as sitting at a computer) often suffer from pain in the shoulders, middle back, and lower back. Correcting poor posture through exercise can be an effective way to reduce this pain.

The authors of one study explained why posture matters throughout the day.

"Correct posture minimizes the strain on the human body by maintaining balance of the muscles and skeleton. This balanced musculoskeletal state protects the supporting structures in the body and prevents damage or progressive deformation in all positions, including standing, lying down, and sitting."

There are many different exercises that can help you get your postural muscles strong. For example, a pelvic tilt can help address lower back stability. And the cat-cow exercise can improve spinal flexibility. But an upper back workout can strengthen muscles to help prevent slumping over your computer and may even help you to sit, stand, and walk taller.

Getting Started

Speak to your healthcare provider before starting this or any exercise program especially if you have been diagnosed with an illness or injury or if you are returning to exercise after a long break.

A set (or two) of dumbbells and a resistance band will allow you to complete most of these exercises. If you have a barbell and weight plates, those will also come in handy, as well.

When you're first starting out, make consistency your goal. Do a little less than you think you can do just to establish a regular routine. Try to do your upper back workout 1-2 times per week and on the days when you are not doing this workout, try to participate in other physical activities, such as walking, cycling, or other strength training activities.

As you get more comfortable with each movement, increase the number of repetitions first, then increase the weight. When you increase the amount of weight, decrease the number of reps, and slowly increase the reps again.

  • Beginners: Choose 1-2 exercises and perform 1-2 sets of 12-16 reps
  • Intermediate/advanced: Choose 2-4 different exercises. For example, complete a barbell high row followed by a T-pull with a resistance back. Try a variety of moves with different types of equipment to work your muscles in a different way. Try for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps, resting between sets
1

Barbell High Rows

Barbell high rows are perfect for working those upper back muscles, particularly between the shoulder blades. The exercise is much like a regular row except that you're hinged forward at the hips so the torso is tilted forward. Hold the bar with an overhand grip. The key here is to keep the knees slightly bent to protect the lower back and engage the abs.

  1. With feet about hip-distance apart and hands a bit wider than shoulders on the bar, hinge at the hips until your torso comes forward over the knees (but not so far forward that it is parallel to the floor). Keep the shoulders back, the knees slightly bent, and the abs tight.
  2. Bend the elbows and contract the back to pull the weight up towards the chest.
  3. Lower down and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps

You want to bring the barbell up to your chest rather than to your belly button, as you do with regular barbell rows. If you don't have a barbell, this exercise can also be performed with dumbbells.

2

Reverse Fly

Reverse flies work both the upper back (especially the rhomboids and trapezius) and the rear delts (back of the shoulder). You may find that you need to use a little less weight when you're first starting to do this movement.

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart holding one dumbbell in each hand. Then bend the knees slightly and hinge at the hips, bringing your chest forward so it is almost parallel to the floor. Let the weight hang down, palms facing each other.
  2. While maintaining a tight core, bend the elbows slightly and raise the arms out to your sides, squeezing the shoulder blades together.
  3. Lower the weight back to starting position.

Try to avoid hunching your shoulders during this exercise. Keep the neck long and the chin tucked.

3

T-Pulls

T-pulls using a band are a great way to target the muscles of the upper back. The band adds challenge to this move by creating tension throughout each phase of the exercise.

The key to this move is to keep the shoulders down and away from the ears as you focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together. You also want to sit tall and keep the core engaged rather than hunching forward.

  1. Sit on the floor with the legs extended in front of you. Loop the band around both feet. Hold one end of the band in each hand. There should be no slack in the band.
  2. Extended the arms in front of you at chest level and bend the elbows slightly.
  3. Open the arms out to the sides, keeping the shoulders away from the ears and concentrating on the upper back and rear shoulders.
  4. Pause when the arms are open and the chest is broad. Then return to the starting position and repeat.
4

Y-Pulls

This exercise is similar to a T-pull but the shape of this movement looks like a letter Y instead of a T. Start in the same position, but instead of taking the arms out to the sides at chest level, you lift the arms up to a Y position. Maintain a strong tall back throughout the full range of motion. For more intensity, alternate a T-pull with a Y-pull.

5

Upright Row

One of the most effective ways to target those posture muscles is with upright rows. This exercise can be performed with a bar or with dumbbells.

Stand tall with feet about hip-distance apart. Grasp a barbell or place dumbbells in each hand and allow the weight to hang in front of you. Your palms should be facing your body.

  1. Lift the weight up along the body toward the chin, leading with the elbows. Your arms should go no higher than parallel with the shoulders.
  2. Pause at the top of the lift.
  3. Return the weight back to the starting position.
6

Renegade Row

This exercise is more appropriate for intermediate or advanced exercisers. It is performed in a plank position, so in addition to working the muscles of the upper back, you also work the muscles in the core. Core muscles also play an important role in maintaining good posture.

  1. Place two dumbbells on the floor positioned shoulder-distance apart. The handles of the dumbbells should be parallel to one another.
  2. Find a full plank position but instead of placing palms on the floor, you'll grip one dumbbell with each hand.
  3. Shift your weight slightly to your left side and lift the right dumbbell off the floor, bending at the elbow.
  4. Lower the dumbbell slowly to the starting position.
  5. Shift your weight to the right side and repeat the exercise on the left.
7

Seated Row

This exercise can be done on a cable machine at the gym. But it can also be performed at home with a resistance band. You'll begin in a seated position with the legs extended out in front of you. Wrap the band around your feet and hold one end of the band in each hand. Sit up tall and relax the shoulders.

  1. Pull the bands back, bending at the elbows so that your hands come close to the sides of the lower abdomen.
  2. Return the hands back to the starting position and repeat.
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  1. Kim D, Cho M, Park Y, Yang Y. Effect of an exercise program for posture correction on musculoskeletal painJ Phys Ther Sci. 2015;27(6):1791-1794. doi:10.1589/jpts.27.1791