Why You Need to Build a Strong Upper Back

The upper back is a key muscle group that deserves your attention. Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, explains why it's important and shares 3 tips that'll make building a strong upper back simple, effective, and safe.

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
4-minute read
Episode #580

If we were to ask a thousand random listeners which parts of their body are their favorite and least favorite for strength training, what do you think the answers would be? My guess is that most people would choose the chest as their favorite and legs as their least favorite. 

Legs are definitely my least favorite for strength training and the word “loathe” doesn’t even fully capture how I feel about leg days at the gym. Heavy squats and lunges are no fun and just knowing that I have a leg day coming up brings on a bit of anxiety for me. 

Of course, skipping leg days is not an option because the leg muscles are the largest in the body, and working them has a slew of benefits such as boosting your levels of testosterone and human growth hormone which can help all of your muscles develop. So the best I can do is grit my teeth through leg days and take it like medicine. 

In contrast, chest workouts seem to be a favorite for most people and it makes sense. Chest exercises are relatively simple and you can really feel the “pump” of the muscles as they become engorged with blood after each set. 

Here’s a little secret about me—I like chest days because there's something cathartic about pushing a bunch of weight off my chest. If you don’t know what I mean, try thinking of something a little upsetting, like your toddler dropping your brand new smartphone in the toilet, while performing chest exercises and you might notice that frustration goes away more quickly.  

Based on my experience as a fitness professional, I know that upper back muscles don’t stand out as a favorite for most people at the gym. But they’re a key muscle group that deserves your attention. Keep listening to find out how to build a strong upper back and why it’s important, and stay tuned for a future episode when I talk about the lower back muscles.

Why building a strong upper back is important 

In our society, exercises for muscles on the front of our torso, such as our chest and abs, tend to be over-emphasized, while muscles on the back of our torso, such as our upper and lower back, are not emphasized enough.

Overdeveloped muscles on the front of the body can become short and tight, resulting in poor posture and pain. Even if you aren’t overemphasizing the front of your body at the gym, those muscles can still become short and tight and result in your spine rounding forward if you spend a lot of time in front of a computer or mobile device like many of us do.

The key to developing an upright posture and preventing neck pain or back pain is to build a strong upper back. Having a strong upper back will also improve your performance in upper-body dominant sports and daily activities such as carrying groceries and toddlers—or both at the same time if you’re like me. 

The upper back muscles consist of several muscles, the main ones being your latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids. Together, the back muscles are more numerous and much bigger in size than the muscles on the front of your torso.

Generally, your upper back muscles work to extend your torso and pull your shoulders back. Any exercises that involve pulling with your arms will work these muscles. 

It can be challenging to design an effective upper back strength training routine because of the number of muscles involved and the dozens of upper back exercises to choose from. Where does one begin? 

Luckily, you don’t need to worry about all the details because the tips I’m about to share with you will make building a strong upper back simple, effective, and safe. 

3 tips for building a strong upper back

Pull at different angles

One of the difficulties of designing an effective upper back workout is knowing what exercises to incorporate that’ll hit all the important muscles. The solution is actually pretty simple and it involves choosing exercises where you pull at different angles.

Specifically, you should choose exercises where you pull at 3 different angles: straight back, back at a downward angle, and back at an upward angle. Exercises that involve pulling straight back include seated cable rows and flat back one-arm dumbbell rows. 

Exercises that involve pulling back at a downward angle include pull-ups and lat pulldowns. Exercises that involve pulling back at an upward angle include upright rows and landmine rows. 

By incorporating exercises that pull at these 3 angles into your upper back routine, you’ll be working all the major parts of your upper back. My current upper back routine includes the flat back one-arm dumbbell rows, pull-ups, and the landmine rows. 

Engage your core

The quickest way to derail an upper back strengthening routine is to suffer a lower back injury. So please remember to engage your core while performing upper back exercises to protect your lower back. 

There’s often a tendency to arch the back or flare out the ribs while performing upper back exercises, which can cause upper and lower back injuries. Engaging your core will help prevent this from happening. 

If you need some tips, check out the episode titled The Right Way to Engage Your Core from last December to learn how to skillfully engage your core during exercise. 

Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down 

To get all the intricate muscles of your upper back working, you’ll want to squeeze your shoulder blades together and down while performing upper back exercises. 

Your rhomboids, middle trapezius, and lower trapezius muscles are important stabilizers for your shoulder blades. You’ll get all of these muscles working by simply squeezing your shoulder blades together and down with each repetition of an exercise. 

Just be sure to keep your core engaged while doing this, otherwise, you might unintentionally end up arching your back or flaring out your ribs. Also, it takes some practice to develop the motor control to perform this subtle movement so be patient. 

By following these tips for building a strong upper back, you’ll develop an upright posture, prevent neck pain or back pain, and improve your performance in sports and daily activities. 

If you have a question that you want me to answer on the show, email me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.