6 Best Barbell Exercises to Sculpt Your Upper Back

Whether you want to build a sizable back or improve posture, upper back training is essential. A solid upper back helps prevent shoulder injuries, correct poor posture, enhance your pulling strength, and improve upper body aesthetics.

You can bolster your upper back with multiple equipment, but if you’re looking to do it with barbells only, I can help you.

In this article, I’ve shared the six best barbell exercises that target the upper back from all angles and help you build a strong, defined, and symmetrical torso, especially the back.

Whether you train in a commercial gym or lift at your home, you can integrate these back exercises into your training program to reinforce and sculpt your traps and posterior deltoids.

The 6 Best Upper Back Barbell Exercises for Muscle Gain

barbell upper back exercises
  1. Bent-over Barbell Row
  2. Barbell Seal Row
  3. Barbell Meadows Row
  4. Pendlay Row
  5. Incline Barbell Front Raises
  6. Barbell Shrugs

Let’s see how to perform these exercises one by one.

1. Bent-over Barbell Row

Barbell Bent Over Row

The bent-over barbell row activates muscles from the upper to the lower back, including the traps, lats, and rhomboids.1 Fenwick 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, 2ACE-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 It also engages the biceps and abdominal muscles and helps you build a muscular back.

How to Perform Step By Step

  1. Put the suitable weight into the bar and grab it firmly with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width (widening the grip hit more of the traps, infraspinatus, and overall upper back than lats).
  2. Holding a bar with straight arms, stand upright with your feet hip to shoulder-width apart.
  3. Pushing your hips back, slightly bend your knees, and lean forward until the barbell reaches below your knees.
  4. Brace your core, keep your chest up, and maintain a neutral spine position.
  5. Now, driving your elbows up and back, pull the bar toward your stomach until you feel a good contraction in your back.

Tips and Mistakes

  • 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 an incredible pull exercise that targets the posterior delts and upper traps and helps develop sturdy and thick upper back muscles without putting much stress on the lower back.

How to Perform Step By Step

  1. Set the bench on a foot platform or box and place the loaded barbell underneath.
  2. Lie on the bench with your face down and thighs on the edge of it.
  3. Grip the barbell with an overhand grip with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and arms straight. That’s the starting position.
  4. 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.
  5. Squeezing your traps and lats, pause for a couple of seconds at the top before lowering the bar.

Tips and Mistakes

  • Focus on retracting your shoulder blades while pulling the barbell towards your lower chest.
  • Do not let your elbows go wide because it may put excessive stress on your shoulder joints.

3. Barbell Meadows Row

The Meadows row is a unilateral back exercise that engages multiple muscles at once, particularly the traps, rhomboid, and rear delt, and helps increase the thickness and width of the upper to middle back.

How to Perform Step By Step

  1. Place one end of the bar in the corner of the wall and insert the desired weights into the opposite end.
  2. Stand in a staggered stance with the front foot perpendicular to the bar.
  3. Bend forward at your hips to grab the bar in your right hand.
  4. Place your left elbow on your knee for balance. That’s the starting position.
  5. Driving your elbow up, pull the bar until you feel a full contraction in your back muscles.
  6. You can hold the bar at the top before lowering it to the start.
  7. Perform an equal number of sets and reps on each side.

Tips and Mistakes

  • 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 the lats, traps, and rhomboids. It involves lifting the bar from the ground in a slightly more explosive way than the standard bent-over row, which helps your body torch more calories and improves your endurance.

How to Perform Step By Step

  1. Place a loaded barbell on the floor and stand in front of it in a hip-width stance.
  2. Pushing your hips back, slightly bend your knees until your chest is parallel to the floor.
  3. Keep your head in a neutral position and maintain a flat back. That’s the starting position.
  4. Brace your core and pull the bar toward your torso until it touches your stomach.
  5. Pause for a moment and lower the bar on the floor.
  6. Perform each rep with a controlled range of motion.

Tips and Mistakes

  • Keep your core engaged and back flat throughout the exercise.
  • Use a lifting belt to provide support to your lower back and minimize the risk of injuries.

5. Incline Barbell Front Raises

The 45-degree incline front raise is an excellent exercise to hit the back and shoulders simultaneously without placing any stress on your lower spine.

It requires you to lie prone on the bench and lift the weight against gravity to engage the various upper body muscles.

How to Perform Step By Step

  1. Holding a naked or loaded bar, lie prone on a 30-45-degree incline bench with your face down.
  2. 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.
  3. Raise the bar in front of you as high as possible so your shoulders and upper back both feel the work.
  4. Return to the start and go for the next repetitions.

Tips and Mistakes

  • This exercise is not only about lifting the bar but also about controlling the weight, so make sure you use appropriate weight and control the weight during the ascent and descent phases.

6. Barbell Shrugs

The shrug hits the deltoids, neck, and trapezius as well as various stabilizer muscles, which are often missed by the other barbell upper back workouts. According to a study, it elicits the highest muscle activation in the upper and middle trapezius, helping you develop a proportional and defined back.3 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

How to Perform Step By Step

  1. Grab a barbell with an alternate or overhand grip, hands just outside your hips.
  2. Stand upright with your feet in a deadlift stance and hold the bar in front of your things with straight arms. That’s the start.
  3. Pull the bar as high as possible toward your ears without rolling your shoulder.
  4. Return the bar to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Tips and Mistakes

  • Keep your elbows locked throughout the movement.
  • Maintain a tight core and upright posture.
  • Keep your chest up and your shoulders fractionally leaning back.
  • Perform each rep in a controlled range of motion.
  • Use weights that are heavy enough to perform a maximum of ten to twelve reps.

How to Integrate The Back Exercises into Your Workout

All the above upper back barbell exercises are pulling movements, so you can do them separately on pull day, or you can superset them with either push or leg exercises.

If you are a beginner, you should train your upper back on pull day, and if you have been working out for a while, you can combine the back exercises with chest, shoulder, or leg workouts.

Here’s how you can plan your specific upper back workout:

Workout AWorkout B
Bent-over Row (4 sets x 15 reps)Pendlay Row/Seal Row (4 sets x 15 reps)
Meadows Row (3 sets x 12 reps per side)Meadows Row (3 sets x 12 reps per side)
Shrug (4 sets x 15 reps)Incline Front Raises (3 sets x 10 reps)

References

  • 1
    Fenwick 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
  • 2
    ACE-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
  • 3
    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
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Author
Murshid Akram
I'm an online personal trainer, fitness blogger, and fitness enthusiast. I love researching and writing about exercise and nutrition. I share science-based, practical, and logical information that can help you achieve your desired fitness goal.
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