Weight-Free Workouts: 5 Exercises for a Stronger Upper Back

Getting to the gym is hard enough as is, and the wait for equipment once you’re there makes it even worse. Fortunately, you can get a great workout without any dumbbells, barbells, or fancy machinery. Our Weight-Free Workouts series focuses on a different muscle group each time to show you how to build strength, even when you don’t have access to the gym. With these moves, any time can be workout time. 

The end of a long day at work often leaves people feeling like they need to uncoil themselves from the hunch they assume at their desks. Sitting in this slouch for so long leads to muscle weaknesses that wreak havoc on your neck, shoulders, and upper back. According to T Nation, insufficient strength in this area of the back can throw your shoulder blades out of alignment and compromise your rotator cuff. In simple terms, weakness in these muscles can lead to injury in just about every area of your upper body. And no one wants to look like Quasimodo.

Though many exercises for the upper back involve lifting heavy weights, you can still target the area without hitting the gym. We’ve picked five exercises to help you build stronger back muscles and rediscover what it means to have good posture. You can even do some of these moves right in your office, so get started.

1. Reverse snow angels

Get a stronger upper back with this exercise move

Get a stronger upper back with this exercise move. | iStock.com

The bad news about hunching all day is it leads to tightness and weakness from your neck down to your hips. That’s a lot of damage to undo, but some exercises are capable of targeting these muscles all at the same time. One of our favorite weightless ones is the reverse snow angel, a move that’s more challenging than the name implies. It strengthens your muscles and boosts mobility, which will greatly reduce your chances of suffering an injury.

Lie face-down on the floor with your legs extended straight and your toes pointed down. Begin with your hands extended along the length of your body with the palms facing down, then raise your hands a few inches off the ground by pinching your scapula together. Keeping your back engaged, your elbows locked, and your forehead against the ground, bring your arms out to the sides and past your shoulders and head until your thumbs just about touch. Swing your arms back in the same motion. Life by Daily Burn recommends three sets of five repetitions.

2. Isometric pull-ups

man doing pull-ups

Pull-ups are extremely tough. | iStock.com

The name for this move is a little bit misleading because it still involves movement that lengthens and contracts your muscles. The isometric part comes in when your chin rises above the bar. Instead of going right back down, you’ll hold the move before continuing. This small change makes regular pull-ups a lot more challenging. It forces you to really squeeze your back muscles to stay in place.

To perform this move, start below a pull-up bar and grasp it with an overhand grip. Perform a pull-up as usual, without swinging your legs for any assistance. When you get to the top of the bar, hold yourself in place for 10 to 15 seconds. In a controlled motion, lower yourself back to the start. Men’s Health says you can either do a full set of these or end a set of regular pull-ups with one repetition of the isometric hold.

3. Bomber push-ups

man doing push-ups

Bomber push-ups are particularly great for strengthening your upper back. | iStock.com

Any type of push-up is great for strengthening your arms, chest, back, and core, but you can target certain muscles more than others depending on how you vary the move. Bomber push-ups are particularly good for strengthening your triceps and increasing mobility in your upper back. This exercise is a little less intuitive than traditional push-ups, so you’re going to have to concentrate a bit harder to make sure your form is correct.

Instead of beginning with your feet close together, spread them at least a few feet apart. Rise onto all fours with your butt pointed in the air and your hands in the usual push-up position. Shift your weight forward as you lower yourself to the ground until your chest is a few inches above the floor. Your head will move past your hands a bit more than with a normal push-up. From this downward phase, push yourself up and back at the same time. Your body should move on the diagonal back to the starting position. Head to Muscle & Fitness to see a video.

4. Inverted row

man exercising outside

Inverted rows will seriously strengthen your back. | iStock.com

Sometimes called reverse push-ups, inverted rows target your lats and traps at the same time. This move works the same muscles as a push-up, but it’s considered an opposing exercise because you pull instead of press. A well-rounded fitness routine uses both types of movements to build overall strength and reduce the risk of getting hurt. And often, incorporating pulling exercises in your routine leads to better performance in the ones that require pressing.

To perform inverted rows, you need a sturdy pull-up bar that’s about as high as your waist. Sit beneath the bar, then reach up to grab it with an overhand grip. Raise your hips off the ground, keeping your legs fully extended so just the edges of your heels are touching the ground. Your body should form a straight line from shoulders to heels. Keeping your core tight, pull yourself up until your chin rises above the bar, then lower yourself back down in a controlled motion. Check out Men’s Fitness to see an example.

5. Shoulder packing

Man showing his strong back

This move seems easy — but give it a try. | iStock.com

This isometric move is one of the simplest to perform and one of the most versatile. You can do it sitting down, standing, and even isolate one side at a time. This flexibility means you can perform it anywhere, so it gets our vote for a great exercise to do when you have a short break during your workday. Because this exercise is entirely dependent on your effort, make sure to squeeze the hold tightly.

Either stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or sit straight up with your knees bent at 90-degree angles and your feet flat on the floor. Your arms should be resting at your sides. Keeping your core engaged, pull your shoulder blades down and back as far as possible without arching your back. ACE Fitness recommends holding the move for five to 10 seconds for two to four repetitions.