Whether you want to build a sizable back or improve posture, upper back training is essential. A solid upper back helps prevent shoulder injuries, fix poor posture, improve your pulling strength, and improve upper body composition.
You can solidify your upper back with various exercises, but this article is for barbell lovers. Here I’ve shared the best upper back barbell exercises that help add strength and definition to your entire back and shoulders.
However, if you work out multiple types of equipment, you can check out these back workouts.
Muscles of the Upper Back
The back has multiple muscles, such as traps, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi. But the trapezius muscles (traps) are the primary muscles of the upper back. It has two parts middle and lower trap. They help you move your head, neck, arms, shoulders, and torso and stabilize your spine.1 Trapezius Muscle – Cleveland Clinic Other than traps, rhomboids, and infraspinatus are also essential muscles to train for building a sturdy upper back.
Benefits of Doing upper back workouts with barbell
You can train your upper back with many types of equipment, but the barbell is one of the crucial ones. The barbell helps lift more weights and engage primary movers where you feel the maximum effect of the exercises, allowing you to perform various compound exercises. Moreover, barbell exercises promote strength and hypertrophy.
However, the combination of the barbell, machine, bodyweight, and dumbbell exercises always produces the best results. So, try to perform different variations of back workouts for ultimate results.
The Best Upper Back Barbell Exercises
You can do various exercises to build a charming upper back, but this article is especially for barbell workout lovers.
Here is a quick list of barbell trap exercises that you can do at home or gym.
- Bent-over Barbell Row
- Barbell Seal Row
- Barbell Meadows Row
- Pendlay Row
- Incline Barbell Front Raises
- Barbell Shrugs
Let’s see how to perform these exercises one by one.
1. Bent-over Barbell Row
An NIH study suggested that the bent-over barbell row highly activates muscles from the upper to the lower back and helps develop a muscular and wider back. 2Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Mar;23(2):350-8. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181942019. PMID: 19197209.
Another research from the American Council of Exercise (ACE) has shown that the bent-over rows elicit higher muscle activation in the middle and lower traps and help build a sturdy upper back. 3ACE-SPONSORED RESEARCH (2018): What Is the Best Back Exercise? by Holly Edelburg, B.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Clayton Camic, Ph.D., Attila Kovacs, Ph.D., and Carl Foster, Ph.D., with Daniel J. Green
To perform the bent-over barbell row,
- Put the suitable weight into the bar and grab it firmly with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width (widening the grip put hit more of the traps, infraspinatus, and overall upper back than lats).
- Holding a bar with straight arms, stand upright with your feet hip to shoulder-width apart.
- Pushing your hips back, slightly bend your knees, and lean forward until the barbell reaches below your knees.
- Brace your core, keep your chest up, and maintain a neutral spine position.
- Now, driving your elbows up and back, pull the bar toward your stomach until you feel a good contraction in your back.
- Avoid lifting too much weight.
- Keep your head high and back straight.
- Do not flare your elbows entirely out.
- Pause at the top of the lift for a moment to feel the work during the movement.
2. Barbell Seal Row
The seal row is one of the crucial muscle-building workouts, especially for posterior delts and traps. It helps develop sturdy and thick upper back muscles without putting much stress on the lower back.
Depending on what suits you the most, you can do it with dumbbells and barbells. Since this article is about barbell upper back exercises, so I’ve shared a step-by-step guide on doing a seal row with a barbell.
Here are the steps:
- Set the bench on a foot platform or box and place the loaded barbell underneath.
- Lie on the bench with your face down and thighs on the edge of it.
- Grip the barbell with an overhand grip with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and arms straight. That’s the starting position.
- Slightly raise your shoulder blades and pull the bar as close to your ribs as possible to feel the good contraction in your back muscles.
- Squeezing your traps and lats, pause for a couple of seconds at the top before lowering the bar down.
3. Barbell Meadows Row
The Meadows row is a single-arm barbell workout that strengthens and tones back muscles. It is invented by a well-known pro bodybuilder – John Meadows (1972-2021). This movement isolates lats and traps specifically and helps increase the thickness and width of the upper to middle back.
To perform this movement,
- Place the one end of the bar in the corner of the wall and insert the desired weights into the opposite end.
- Stand in a staggered stance with the front foot perpendicular to the bar.
- Bend forward at your hips to grab the bar in your right hand.
- Place your left elbow on your knee for balance. That’s the starting position.
- Driving your elbow up, pull the bar until your feel a full contraction in your back muscles.
- You can hold the bar at the top before lowering it to the start.
- Perform an equal number of sets and reps on each side.
- Keep your abs tight during the entire movement.
- Maintain a neutral spine position.
- Grip the bar firmly so it won’t slip.
4. Pendlay Row
The Pendlay row is another rowing variation that engages and activates back muscles, primarily the traps and rhomboids. It is not as crucial as the above three upper back barbell exercises but can be good to incorporate into your workout routine.
How to do a barbell Pendlay row:
- Place a loaded barbell on the floor and stand in front of it in a hip-width stance.
- Pushing your hips back, slightly bend your knees until your chest is parallel to the floor.
- Keep your head in a neutral position and maintain a flat back. That’s the starting position.
- Brace your core and pull the bar toward your torso until it touches your stomach.
- Pause for a moment and lower the bar on the floor.
- Perform each rep with a controlled range of motion.
5. Incline Barbell Front Raises
The 45-degree incline front raises work on multiple muscles simultaneously, such as traps, anterior delt, rear delt, and infraspinatus, and helps strengthen the upper back and shoulders. However, to perform this movement, you need a flexible workout bench.
Here are steps to perform prone incline front raises:
- Holding a naked or loaded bar, lie prone on a 30-45-degree incline bench with your face down. Keep your knees on the bench and feet in the air. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart and arms straight underneath your shoulders. That’s the starting position.
- Raise the bar in front of you as high as possible so your shoulders and upper back both feel the work.
- Perform three sets of eight to ten reps each.
6. Barbell Shrugs
The shrug is one of the best upper body workout as it strengthen multiple muscles simulatensouly, such as deltoids, neck, and trapezius. It also engages various stabilizer muscles which are often skip by the above upper back barbell workouts.
A study has shown that shrugs produce highest muscle activation in upper and middle trapezius.4 Pizzari T, Wickham J, Balster S, Ganderton C, Watson L. Modifying a shrug exercise can facilitate the upward rotator muscles of the scapula. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2014;29(2):201-205. doi:10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2013.11.011 Therefore, it can be an excellent addition to your back workout.
How to do perform barbell shrug:
- Grab a barbell with an alternate or overhand grip, hands just outside your hips.
- Stand upright with your feet in deadlift stance and hold the bar in front of your things with straight arms. That’s the start.
- Pull the bar as high as possible toward your ears without rolling your shoulder.
- Return the bar to the starting position. That’s one rep.
- Keep your elbows locked throughout the movement.
- Maintain tight core and upright posture.
- Keep your chest up and your shoulders fractionally leaning back.
- Perform each rep in controlled range of motion.
- Use weight that are heavy enough to perform maximum ten to twelve reps.
If you love working out with barbells, the above variations of barbell upper back exercises will be efficient to maximize strength and size of your trapezius, infraspinatus as well as lats. However, it’s always best to do a variety of workouts. Because doing different variations of workouts adds definition to overall back musculature.
If you have to pick the best three out the above six upper back barbell exercises, they would be barbell bent-over row, meadows row, and barbell shrugs.
Related Barbell Exercises
- 1Trapezius Muscle – Cleveland Clinic
- 2Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Mar;23(2):350-8. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181942019. PMID: 19197209.
- 3ACE-SPONSORED RESEARCH (2018): What Is the Best Back Exercise? by Holly Edelburg, B.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Clayton Camic, Ph.D., Attila Kovacs, Ph.D., and Carl Foster, Ph.D., with Daniel J. Green
- 4Pizzari T, Wickham J, Balster S, Ganderton C, Watson L. Modifying a shrug exercise can facilitate the upward rotator muscles of the scapula. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2014;29(2):201-205. doi:10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2013.11.011