15 Bodyweight Exercises to Build Your Back

15 Bodyweight Exercises to Build Your Back

AS ANY BUSY GUY can tell you, there will be days when you miss out on your typical workout and be forced to adjust. You might not have access to a gym or the equipment you’re used to training with—and on these occasions, bodyweight exercises will be your best option for a good, productive sweat. That means rounds of pushups, air squats, situps, and even burpees if you’re really moving. But there is one aspect of bodyweight training that most people miss out on: targeting their back muscles.

The problem is, it’s easy to push with your body weight as your resistance. Unless you have access to a bar or some other tools for pullups (assuming that you can even eke out more than a few good-form pullup reps), it’s a bit more difficult to perform the pulling movements that use your back muscles. That makes many go-to bodyweight training splits unbalanced. Just think about all the guys with daily pushup habits. Are they doing anything to balance out all that anterior work?

For too many guys, the list of bodyweight back exercises starts and ends with the pullup. Thankfully there are more bodyweight exercises that you can use to train your back muscles. You might not have the easiest time and you’ll have to concentrate, but if you want a balanced workout outside of the traditional gym environment, there are options. Some equipment like suspension training straps and pullup bars are technically necessary for some of the moves, but the only resistance you’ll work against comes only from you.

Benefits of Bodyweight Back Exercises

You need to match your upper body pushing exercises (pushups, etc.) with pulling ones so that you build up a balanced and functional physique. These bodyweight back exercises allow you to do that, helping to create comprehensive workout plans when you don’t have access to equipment rather than just a slapdash series of movements. This can help with your posture, too.

The Bodyweight Back Exercises

Pullup

preview for Work Your Way to a Pullup

Why: No list of bodyweight exercises—or overall best exercises, for that matter—is complete without the pullup. This training staple is a test of pure strength as you work to raise yourself up about the bar.

How to Do It:

  • Grab the pullup bar with an overhand (pronated) grip. Make sure your arms are straight.
  • Squeeze your lats and arms to pull yourself straight up, until your chest is at the bar.
  • Straighten your arms to lower yourself down in a controlled motion. Don’t perform another rep until your elbows are straight.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 10 reps


Inverted Row

preview for How to Master the Inverted Bodyweight Row | Form Check

Why: Pullups aren’t the only way you can use your own bodyweight as resistance with a pulling movement. Flip to the underside of the bar for this surprisingly challenging variation.

How to Do It:

  • Place a barbell at about hip height on a power rack or Smith machine.
  • Lower yourself under the bar, then grab the bar with an overhand (pronated) grip with your hands at about shoulder width apart.
  • Straighten your arms to hang from the bar. Straighten out your legs for more of a challenge.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades and upper back together to pull your chest up to the bar.
  • Pause at the top position, squeezing your core and glutes to keep your body straight if your legs are fully extended, then straighten your arms to return to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps


Lying Back Press

preview for The Bodyweight Back Blast for Summer

Why: Hit the deck for this challenging movement, which uses a potent scapular squeeze to train your back muscles. You’ll get some valuable core work in if you do it right, too.

How to Do It:

  • Lie on your back, with your knees bent and your arms extended on either side of your torso. Squeeze your glutes and abs to create tension.
  • Press your forearms and elbows into the floor to elevate your back. Keep your neck in a neutral position; you shouldn’t be straining up with your neck to raise up.
  • Hold the elevated position for 2 to 3 seconds, keeping your upper back muscles and core engaged. Lower back down slowly.

Sets and Reps: 2 to 3 sets of 10 reps


Reverse Fly

preview for 20-Minute Metcon: Bodyweight Back Blast

Why: This exercise looks simple, and it is. Focus on developing a strong mind-muscle connection as you work through the movement.

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then hinge at the hips and lean forward, keeping a slight bend in the knee and a flat back. Let your arms hang straight down.
  • Shift your arms so your palms face front, with your thumbs up. Squeeze your shoulder blades to raise both arms straight back in a fly motion. Squeeze your rear delts and pause at the top.
  • Reverse the movement back down.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Rear Delt Raise Plank

preview for 20-Minute Metcon: Bodyweight Back Blast

Why: A high plank position adds a core challenge to this bodyweight back move. Along with honing core stability, you’ll be forced to work against rotational forces when you raise your arms.

How to Do It:

  • Get into a high plank position, with your shoulders stacked over your elbows and wrists. Squeeze your glutes and abs to create full-body tension. Your shoulders and hips should be square.
  • Raise one arm straight out and up, squeezing your delts. Drive the other palm into the floor and brace your core to stay balanced.
  • Bring your arm back into position, then repeat on the other side. Keep your hip height consistent throughout the exercise.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10 reps per arm


Y Raise

preview for 20-Minute Metcon: Bodyweight Back Blast

Why: You’ll have another chance to hone your mind-muscle connection with this exercise. Focus on squeezing your shoulders and keeping postural integrity throughout the working set.

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then hinge at the hips and lean forward, keeping a slight bend in the knee and a flat back. Let your arms hang straight down.
  • Keep your hands in a neutral position, with your palms facing each other. Point your thumbs up, then squeeze your shoulders to raise your arms straight out into a ‘Y’ shape.
  • Pause for a beat at the top, squeezing your shoulders.
  • Lower your arms back to the start.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Superman

preview for Superman Hold | Form Check

Why: Mimic the Man of Steel with this deceivingly difficult—and effective—movement. You’ll want to pay extra attention to the form cues to avoid putting too much into the lower back.

How to Do It:

  • Lie with your chest down on the floor, reaching your arms straight out in front of you (as if you were Superman mid-flight).
  • Squeeze your glutes and lower back to raise your arms, legs, and the top of your chest off the floor.
  • Hold for a count, then slowly return to the starting position. Don’t drop your arms or legs.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Y Superman

Y-Superman

Men’s Health

You’ll use the same form as the standard Superman—but your arm position will hit your upper back muscles differently.

How to Do It:

  • Lie with your chest down on the floor, reaching your arms out in front of you to form a ‘Y’ shape.
  • Squeeze your glutes and lower back to raise your arms and the top of your chest off the floor.
  • Hold for a count, then slowly return to the starting position. Don’t drop your arms or legs.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


W Superman

W-Superman

Men’s Health

You’ll use the same form as the standard Superman—but your arm position will hit your upper back muscles differently.

How to Do It:

  • Lie with your chest down on the floor. Put your palms on the ground on either side of your chest in line with your head.
  • Squeeze your glutes and lower back to raise your arms and the top of your chest off the floor. Be sure to squeeze your upper back so that your arms form what looks like a ‘W’ shape when you lift them.
  • Hold for a count, then slowly return to the starting position. Don’t drop your arms or legs.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


T Superman

T-Superman

Men’s Health

You’ll use the same form as the standard Superman—but your arm position will hit your upper back muscles differently.

How to Do It:

  • Lie with your chest down on the floor. Extend your arms out on the ground on either side of your chest to form a ‘T’ shape.
  • Squeeze your glutes and lower back to raise your arms and the top of your chest off the floor. Be sure to squeeze your upper back to lift your arms as well.
  • Hold for a count, then slowly return to the starting position. Don’t drop your arms or legs.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Pullup Superman

Pullup Superman

Men’s Health

You’ll get into the Superman position—but now, you’ll emphasize the squeeze to your mid-back by adding the pullup movement. Make sure to move through each rep slowly and deliberately.

How to Do It:

  • Put your palms on the ground on either side of your chest in line with your head.
  • Squeeze your glutes and lower back to raise your arms and the top of your chest off the floor. Your arms should form a ‘W’ shape.
  • Mimic a pullup motion by extending your arms straight out, then squeezing your back to pull them back to your chest. Extend your arms out again to count 1 rep.
  • After you perform the allotted reps, slowly return to the starting position. Don’t drop your arms or legs.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Dead Stop to Superman

Dead-Stop to Superman

Men’s Health

Add some pushup principles to the Superman for another element to your bodyweight training.

How to Do It:

  • Start in a pushup/plank position. Squeeze your glutes and core to keep your spine straight.
  • Bend your elbows to lower your chest down to the ground. This is the stop part of the exercise.
  • Lift your hands off the ground, then extend your arms straight out in front of you, squeezing your back at the top of the movement.
  • Retract your arms back to the starting position, then push yourself back up.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


TRX Row

suspension trainer row

Men’s Health

We’re back to using your bodyweight as resistance, this time with TRX bands. Work to keep your movements controlled and pull from your back; you shouldn’t swing or use momentum.

  • Hold both TRX handles in an overhand grip at chest height with your elbows bent.
  • Plant your feet and lean back, extending your arms straight out to hang by the handles.
  • Squeeze your upper back and biceps to pull yourself up to the straps. Pause for a beat at the top.
  • Straighten out your arms to return to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps


T Pushup

T pushup

Men’s Health

The ‘T’ referenced in this pushup is the thoracic spine—and you’ll hone your thoracic mobility, which is important for rotation, with each rep.

How to Do It:

  • Start in a pushup/plank position, with your hands placed a few extra inches outside of your chest. Squeeze your glutes and core to keep your spine straight.
  • Bend your elbows to drop your chest down to the ground, squeezing your back at the bottom of the movement.
  • Squeeze your chest to push yourself back up, and rotate one side of your body up, raising your arm straight up along with it.
  • Pause at the top of the movement, then return to the starting position. Repeat the move on the other side of the body.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Back Extension

preview for Do Lower Back Extensions the Right Way | Men’s Health Muscle

Why: This classic movement will build strength in your spinal erectors, the band of muscles that support your lower back. As a bonus, this is a killer glute builder, too.

How to Do It:

  • Set up by lining up the pads on the back extension machine about two to three inches below your hip crease, locking your legs securely on the pads, feet flat and secure on the base.
  • With your legs locked in, focus on squeezing through your glutes while creating torso rigidity. Your body should be in a straight line at this point.
  • Drop your torso as low as possible while maintaining as much core tension as possible.
  • Pause momentarily at the bottom, then drive up.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 5 sets of 15 to 20 reps

Headshot of Brett Williams, NASM

Brett Williams, NASM

Brett Williams, a senior editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.

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