Exercises for the Postural Muscles of the Upper Back

If you spend much time working on a computer or driving, you’ll be familiar with the feeling of soreness and tightness across the shoulders and neck. In time, this kind of work can result in weakening and “rounding” of the shoulders and upper back and problems with posture and pain. The exercises shown here are designed to strengthen the upper back muscles and to counteract these problems. Many of these exercises involve workout equipment such as dumbbells, barbells or cable machines. If you don’t have access to such equipment, focus on the dumbbell exercises and simply substitute an item of suitable weight that you can grasp easily.

Dumbbell Low Row – One Arm, Bent Over

A) Stand facing side of bench. B) Grasp dumbbell with overhand grip and thumb pointing in toward the middle. Lean forward, extend hips back, and support your weight on the bench with the uninvolved arm. Position the supporting hand on the bench slightly forward of shoulder. Maintain the alignment of your neck, upper and lower back. Your knees are bent slightly and your feet are shoulder width apart. Keep a natural arch in your lower back and do not allow it to round. C) Keeping arm straight, retract shoulder blade to lift weight slightly and then, continuing, bend your elbow to pull the weight up until your wrist is level with your ribcage and upper arm is parallel to the floor. Simultaneously, rotate your forearm so that the thumb points forward (overhead) by the end of the movement. D) Lower the weight – rotating your hand back so the thumb points inward again at the bottom of the motion.

Dumbbell High Row – One Arm, Bent Over

A) Stand facing side of bench. B) Grasp dumbbell with overhand grip and thumb pointing in toward the middle. Lean forward, extend hips back, and support your weight on the bench with the uninvolved arm. Position the supporting hand on the bench slightly forward of shoulder. Maintain the alignment of your neck, upper and lower back. Your knees are bent slightly and your feet are shoulder width apart. Keep a natural arch in your lower back and do not allow it to round. C) Keeping arm straight, retract shoulder blade to lift weight slightly and then, continuing, bend your elbow to pull the weight up and back until wrist is parallel with lower chest. D) Keep thumb pointing to the middle and your wrist aligned with elbow so the upper and lower arms form a 90 degree angle. The upper arm should form an angle of 70 to 80 degrees with your body (out and away from body for a “high” row).

Dumbbell High Row – Two Arm

A) Elevate flat bench as high as necessary so that arms hang straight down under shoulders without touching the ground. B) Lay on stomach, straddle bench and place the balls of your feet on floor or elevated platform. As you hold the weights, the thumbs should be pointed inward (to the middle) and at each other. C) Motion #1: Pinch shoulder blades together (retraction) while keeping arms straight. D) Motion #2: Bend and raise elbows as high as possible. Keep wrists under elbows and thumbs pointing at each other.

Dumbbell Upright Row

A) Stand with feet shoulder width apart and bench knees slightly. B) Allow arms to hang straight down from shoulders. Palms of hands face thighs and thumbs start facing forward. C) Motion #1: Shrug and elevate shoulders to ears. D) Motion #2: Bend and flare elbows, and immediately face palms toward floor. The hands are kept at elbow height as they are moved away from sides of body. Upper-lower arms move as one unit. E) End with upper-lower arms forming 90 degree angles. Elbows should be at same height as hands and parallel to shoulders.

Seated DB Shrug – Upper Trapezius Pattern

A) Adjust bench up to a 90 degree angle. B) Sit upright, straighten arms, and point thumbs or inside head of dumbbells at buttocks. C) Expand and lift chest forward. Focus eyes straight ahead. D) Motion #1: Keep arms straight, move them away from sides of body (30 degrees) so that the thumbs are just outside shoulder width, keep hands as relaxed as possible.. E) Motion #2: Lift shoulders straight up as high as possible towards ears. Avoid rotating shoulders. F) Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Standing DB Shrug Levator Scapulae Pattern

A) Stand upright with upper torso perpendicular to floor. B) Grasp dumbbells with overhand grip, with head of dumbbells facing forward. Feet shoulder width apart. C) Expand and lift chest. Focus eyes straight ahead. D) Lift shoulders straight up as high as possible towards ears. Avoid rotating shoulders.

Standing Barbell Shrug

A) Position bar in rack (or on Smith Machine) at height of mid thighs. B) Face away from rack, grasp bar behind body and place thumbs just outside shoulders width (30 degrees shoulder abduction). C) Step away from rack, assume a moderate stance, bend knees slightly, move hips back, and straighten arms. D) Expand and lift chest upward. Focus eyes straight ahead. E) Extend arms backward slightly until bar is behind buttocks, lift shoulders to ears, pause, and return slowly.

Bent Over Reverse Flye – 1 Arm w/tubing

A) Attach tubing at ankle height. B) Grasp handle with an underhand grip, and turn so that the non-involved shoulder is parallel to and towards the point of attachment. C) Assume square stance feet positioned slightly wider than shoulder width. Bend forward to an approximately 45 to 60 degree angle. DO NOT lock the knees. D) Maintain core stability by contracting the abdominals and glutes. Relax the neck and keep it stable throughout the exercise. E) Position exercising hand in a palm up position, while placing the other hand on the opposite thigh. F) Keeping the wrist stable, begin the movement by retracting the shoulder blade (scapular retraction) while pulling the arm up and across the body. G) Finish with the arm fully extended and parallel to the ground, palm facing down. H) Slowly lower the arm to the starting position in a controlled manner. I) Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Bent Over Reverse Flye – 2 Arms w/tubing

A) Stand in with feet shoulder width apart. Position tubing under arches of feet; ensure the knees are not locked. B) Grasp handles with hands at the side of the body, palms facing in and position arms straight while maintaining a slight bend in the elbow C) Bend forward at the hips to approximately 45 degrees, keeping the chest up. D) Maintain a neutral spine and core stability by contracting the abdominals and glutes. Relax the neck and keep it stable throughout the exercise. E) Begin the movement by squeezing the shoulders (scapulae retraction) as you drive the elbows back, wrists remain in neutral. F) Keeping the wrists stable, begin the movement by retracting the shoulder blades (scapular retraction), while pulling arms up and away from the body. G) Finish with the arms extended and parallel to the ground, palms facing down. H) Slowly lower the arms to the starting position in a controlled manner.

Standing Row – High pull with tubing

A) Secure tubing at ankle height. B) Stand in a narrow staggered stance position; grasp handles with palms facing down. C) Maintain core stability by contracting the abdominals and glutes. Relax the neck and keep it stable throughout the exercise. D) Retract shoulder blades (scapular retraction), bend elbows, as you pull the hands up and back towards the mid-chest while progressively flaring the elbows. Ensure that the wrists remain in a neutral position. Elbows finish slightly below shoulder height, flexed to a 90 degree angle, chest expanded. E) Slowly lower the elbows to the starting position in a controlled manner. F) Repeat for 8-12 repetitions.

Seated Row – Low pull with tubing

A) Sit with knees bent, center tubing under middle of both feet. Grasp tubing in between both feet and pull towards the body to create a loop. Place loop back over feet. B) Keep feet together. To increase resistance move the feet slightly apart. C) Sit up while leaning forward slightly. Maintain core stability by contracting the abdominals and glutes. Relax the neck and keep it stable throughout the exercise. D) With arms fully extended, grasp handles/tubing with palms facing each other. E) Retract shoulder blades (scapular retraction), bend elbows and pull back, and progressively pronate the forearms so hands finish beside lower rib cage, palms facing down. Elbows finish behind the body, chest expanded. F) Slowly lower the elbows to the starting position in a controlled manner. G) Repeat for 8-12 repetitions.

Barbell Row – Overhand Grip, Bent Over

A) Stand with feet shoulder width apart and grasp the barbell just outside shoulder width with a pronated (overhand) grip. B) Bend at the knees and move hips back (tilt the pelvis) while dropping your ribcage to your upper thighs. Maintain alignment of neck, upper and lower back. Keep natural arch in lower back and do not allow to round. C) Bend elbows and pull bar to the upper abdominal region. Focus on expanding the chest so that you finish with shoulder blades squeezed together. The upper and lower arms should form a 90 degree angle with wrists under elbows and your shoulders should form a 70-80 degree angle with your body. D) Slowly return the arms to start position. Note: Unlike other exercises of this type, retraction of the shoulder blades is not required.

Pull Ups – Overhand (Assisted as Needed)

A) If using an assisted pullup: select a counter-weight for assistance that lets you complete 8-12 reps. B) Grasp the overhead bar in an overhand position with hands slightly wider than shoulder’s width apart. (Assisted: step up onto the foot pads and, placing a knee on the kneepad, push the pad down so that you can place the other knee on as well while holding your body up by the arms.) C) D) Pull up smoothly until your chin is slightly higher than your hands. Keep your hips and back loose – do not hop or jerk to get over the bar. Lower and repeat for 8-12 reps.

Pull Ups – Overhand/Wide Grip (Assisted as Needed)

A) If using an assisted pullup: select a counter-weight for assistance that lets you complete 8-12 reps. B) Grasp the overhead bar in an overhand position with hands well apart. (Assisted: step up onto the foot pads and, placing a knee on the kneepad, push the pad down so that you can place the other knee on as well while holding your body up by the arms.) C) D) Pull up smoothly until your chin is slightly higher than your hands. Keep your hips and back loose – do not hop or jerk to get over the bar. Lower and repeat for 8-12 reps. Note that a wider grip causes this exercise to use muscles of the inner parts of the back and higher up the spine.

Cable High Row – Seated

A) Attach the rowing handle (parallel grips in a “V” shape) to the cable row pulley. B) Grasp the handles with palms facing inward. Sit back with knees comfortably bent upper body leaning forward slightly. Keep natural arch in low back. C) Motion #1: Pinch shoulder blades together (retraction) while keeping arms straight. Upper body should be perpendicular to floor. D) Motion #2: Keep head neutral and pull hands back so wrists contact lower/mid sternum. E) Finish with chest expanded and shoulder blades pulled back and together.

Cable Pulldown

A) If necessary, install a bar on the overhead cable pulldown that permits a horizontal, overhand grip at a width slightly wider than your shoulders. B) If knee/thigh pads are available, adjust their height so that your legs fit comfortably with the lower leg perpendicular to the floor. Be seated so that cable will come down just in front of you. C) Grasp the bar in an overhand grip with hands about 6-8 inches wider than shoulder’s width apart. D) Start movement by pulling the bar down in a smooth, controlled motion. Pull the bar straight down to the front, ending at the sternum. Lean back slightly as the bar passes your face so that you can expand your chest and retract your shoulder blades. E) Start and end movement with smooth, controlled movements. F) Finish with the chest expanded, and shoulder blades pulled down, back, and together.

Cable Pulldown – 30 Degree, Wide Grip

A) Install the wide pulldown bar with grips on the end that are slightly turned-down. B) If knee/thigh pads are available, adjust their height so that your legs fit comfortably with the lower leg perpendicular to the floor. Be seated so that cable would come down just in front of you. C) Grasp bar with hands on the grips near the ends of the bar. The angle of the grips should leave your hands in an overhand, neutral position (not turned outward as on a straight bar). Lean the upper body back at a 30-45 degree angle from the fall of the cable. D) Maintain a slight arch in low back and remain in this stablized position throughout entire exercise. E) Start the motion by pulling the cable downward a few inches with arms straight (retract your scapulae) then, continuing the motion, bend elbows and pull bar to the mid-sternum, with elbows pointing at floor (not outward). F) Finish with the chest expanded, shoulder blades pulled down, back and together.

Cable Low Row – 1 Arm, Bent Over

A) Position bench horizontally in front of cable unit. B) Grasp handle from low pulley, with neutral grip and stand in front of bench. Lean forward, extend hips back, support weight with uninvolved arm and position hand slightly forward of shoulder. Maintain alignment of neck, upper and lower back, knees should be bent slightly, feet shoulder width apart. Keep natural arch in low back and do not allow to round. C) Keeping arm straight, retract shoulder blade returning it to its normal resting position. Bend elbow and pull back until wrist is in contact with the lower ribcage (Shoulder abducted 30 degrees). D) Slowly return the arm to start position, and repeat for desired number of repetitions.

Cable High Row – 1 Arm, Bent Over

A) Position bench horizontally in front of cable unit. B) Grasp handle from low pulley with overhand grip, and stand in front of bench. Lean forward, extend hips back, support weight with uninvolved arm and position hand slightly forward of shoulder. Maintain alignment of neck, upper and lower back, knees should be bent slightly, feet shoulder width apart. Keep natural arch in lower back and do not allow to round. C) Keeping arm straight, retract your shoulder blade returning it to its normal resting position. Bend elbow and pull up and back until wrist is parallel with lower chest. D) Keep wrist aligned with elbow forming a 90 degree angle (shoulder should form an angle of 70 to 80 degrees with your body). E) Slowly return the arm to the start position, and repeat for desired number of repetitions.

40 thoughts on “Exercises for the Postural Muscles of the Upper Back”

    1. I am going to try some of these exercises to help me tighten up my fat and lose weight.

  1. Great recommendations – will use these exercises to keep from looking like my mother did many moons ago!

  2. Those look like they would be great! Going to definitely add these into my routine!

  3. Swimming is a very safe workout that both tones and gives the body and overall workout.
    That will work by swaying your hips, and even that
    can strengthen your inner thigh muscles. Some cardiovascular exercises you may
    consider are running, bicycling, aerobics, kickboxing, swimming, and dancing.

  4. Thanks – great info. I will incorporated them into my exercise routine.

  5. The workouts are incorporated in my exercise routine at the gym. Great workouts!

  6. A good friend can help you focus on your diet and exercise plan. Learn how to pick the perfect partner in health.

  7. This is exercise overload – a lot of exercises that work the same muscles. Narrowing this done to four core moves would have been more helpful.

  8. I really enjoyed this exercise, not only helps with my back pain it also made me focus on my posture.

  9. These look like they will definitely help repetive motion activities in the course of my work day. Plan to try them.

  10. Back strengthing exercises which do not require arms/elbows to be used would be useful to me.

  11. I’m good with all the exercises except the upright dumbbell rows. The position of the shoulders at the up position is counter intuitive to good posture and puts to much strain on the back when pulled up to the chin, especially when too much weight is used and good form deteriorates. This is one of a few that I personally do not recommend.

  12. Some of the exercises I already do, however there are some that I can add to my program. Thank you.

  13. I love these exercises and this is great timing as my upper back is what I am focusing on this month….Thank you Kristen Sorenson for correcting my use of the pull down bar in the gym. I feel my back getting stronger already.

  14. great info! luv that it shows detail pics of each work out!

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