What’s the most powerful thing about human beings? No, it isn’t our superior intellect…it’s our massive backs!
Whether you’re male or female, thick, muscular backs are highly coveted as a sure sign of superior physique (move over, intellect).
The trouble is, to build a back worth boasting, you have to sling a bunch of big weights, max out LAT pulldown machines, and do fifty variations of rows.
But, to tell you the truth, this isn’t the case. You can achieve that full, wide look in your back with nothing but a handful of bodyweight exercises.
Hold up…bodyweight exercises? How could this be possible?
Well, in this article we’re going to breakdown why bodyweight back exercises are the best for your LATs, traps, and lower back.
We’ll also dive deep into the different exercises – and their progressions – to give you the complete picture and to build a back that makes you stand out in pictures.
Why Bodyweight Back Exercises?
You have access to a full-blown gym, complete with heavy plates, dumbbells, and machines. Why would you ever choose to back exercises that involve just your bodyweight?
Well, one reason is that you may be stuck at home due to a global virus pandemic, but there are lots of reasons why you want to forego the heavy weights and switch them for bodyweight:
- It preserves your joints, preventing heavy amounts of external weights on your back.
- You don’t have to be a gym member; you can do bodyweight exercises anywhere, anytime!
- Bodyweight exercises also don’t require much equipment – a pull-up bar is all you need.
- Because of the simplicity of these movements, you don’t need supervision for safety, compared to needing a “spotter” for heavy weighted lifts.
- Probably the best benefit of bodyweight exercises: They’re all compound movements. This means each exercise works multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
Of course, this is still strength training, so you still build and maintain lean muscle mass.
However, with your body as the weight, there are some movements you can do with an element of speed.
Therefore, you can improve your cardiovascular health as well. And with back lifts, where you can pull a heavy amount many times, this works wonders.
The Complete List of Bodyweight Back Exercises
Reverse Snow Angels
How To: Lay on the floor face-down, arms up near your head. Move your arms out and back to your hips, then go back to pointing your arms forward, as if you’re making upside down snow angels. This actually targets your traps and your inner lower back.
How To: These are push-ups involving your back. There are multiple variations with this movement:
- Scapula push-up: In normal push-up position, shrug your body down without bending your arms.
- Hindu push-up and dive bomber push-up: Both of these start in the downward dog position. For the Hindu push-up, from downward dog dip your head down to the ground, then raise it so your chest gets close to the ground. For a Hindu, raise your head only; for a dive bomber push-up, extend your arms to get into cobra position. Retrace your steps to get back to the downward dog position – this is one rep.
- Elevated Reverse Push-ups: Place your flared-out elbows on elevated platforms (a pair of chairs or something similar). You should be suspended in the air. Lower and raise your upper body, contracting your back at the top of the movement.
Equipment: None (for elevated reverse push-ups, two elevated platforms)
Scaling: For the scapula push-up, you can do them on your knees. Every other variation can’t be scaled.
How To: Go on all fours, with your back flat and parallel to the floor. Simultaneously raise your left arm and your right leg off the ground, with your foot flexed (toes pointed down). Return to all fours. Perform the required reps, then switch to your right arm and left leg.
Scaling: For an added stretch, twist your upper body when you raise your arm and leg. An advanced version is to lift your right arm and right leg. Another way to advance this movement is to simply hold the top position for as long as possible.
How To: This is for your shoulders and traps. Lay on the floor, face down, with your feet against a wall.
Lift your body off the ground with your hands and feet, then begin walking up the wall with your feet. Walk your hands back towards the wall at the same time.
This puts your entire body above your shoulders, giving it a heavy load.
Equipment: A wall
Scaling: You can hold the top part of this position, where you’re flat against the wall in an assisted handstand.
An even more advanced variation would be handstand push-ups. This gets your shoulder muscles more than your technical back muscles, but they’re good for overall development.
How To: Also called Australian rows (for being “down under” the bar). Start by lying on the floor, face up, under a horizontal bar.
Grab the bar at shoulder width, suspending your body in the air with only your heels still on the floor. Lift your body towards the bar by bending your elbows and flexing your back.
Lower slowly back to neutral position.
Equipment: A horizontal bar suspended above the ground
Scaling: You can elevate your feet for more of a challenge. For a super advanced move, try it one handed. This is a great exercise to build towards other bodyweight movements like tuck front lever pull-ups, where you use a pull-up bar, tuck your legs into your body, and pull your whole body towards the bar. It also helps with practicing for full front levers (covered later).
How To: Using a pull-up bar, grab it a little in from shoulder width, with your palms facing you.
At this point, you should be at a dead hang, with your feet not touching the ground.
Pull your body straight up, making your chin pass right behind the bar at the top of the movement. Slowly come back down.
Equipment: Pull-up bar
Scaling: This is the #1 exercise (along with pull-up variations) to build a big back with your bodyweight. Start with assisted, using resistance bands around the bar and your feet to lighten the load.
Then go to negative chin-ups (jumping to the top of the movement and slowly coming back down). Graduate to chin-up holds (holding the top of the movement).
Finally, you should be able to rep normal chin-ups.
The most advanced variation is the one-handed chin-up; start with a towel assisted one-handed chin-up, then go fully one-handed by grabbing your wrist with your free hand.
How To: This is chin-ups big brother. The motion is the same, but your hands are now just outside of shoulder width with your palms facing away from you.
Pull yourself up to the bar, passing your head fully above the bar. Return slowly to a hang. Be sure to retract your scapula when you perform pull-ups, as well as for almost all lifts.
Equipment: Pull-up bar
Scaling: Like with the chin-ups, you can follow this progression: Resistance band assisted → pull-up negatives → pull-up holds → pull-ups.
Once you can get a decent amount of normal pull-ups, you can get creative:
- Archer pull-ups: When you’re pulling up, go towards one hand, then on the next rep go to the other hand. One arm should be almost straight and flush with the bar, the other one completely bent.
- Swan pull-ups: Flex your back and legs to form a “C” with your body. Pull up so the bar goes behind your back.
- Wide pull-ups: Spreading the distance between your hands ups the difficulty of traditional pull-ups.
- L-sit pull-ups: Normal pull-ups, but your legs are raised to be parallel to the ground. This adds a core contraction, which helps strengthen your lower back as well.
How To: First, you have to be able to perform 10 clean pull-ups. Then, grab the pull-up bar at shoulder width.
Lean back with the top half of your body, while at the same time keeping your entire body rigid.
Hold this position, where your entire body should be near parallel to the ground and fully suspended in air.
Equipment: Pull-up bar
Scaling: This is a tough movement, but if you can pull it off (pun intended), you’ll be looking like a beast. Start with a tucked position, where your legs stay tucked to your midsection and chest.
Make sure to lean back and practice leaning back while holding onto a bar above your head. Then go to one leg out, one leg in, followed by straddle position (spreading your legs long and as wide as possible, to widen your center of gravity).
Finally, you can go to full front levers, starting with bent arms and slowly lengthening them. For a super advanced movement, you can go for front lever pull-ups.
How To: The ultimate pull movement, muscle ups are not the best for developing a thick back, but they look incredibly cool and shows how athletic you are.
Starting in pull-up position, at the bottom, pull your body up and back, bending your arms in the process.
You may want to use momentum when just starting out. Get your body over the bar into a single-bar dip position at the bottom.
Finish the move by pushing your body up in a dip motion. Lower yourself down to the bottom of the dip, then all the way down to the hang position.
Equipment: Pull-up bar
Scaling: This is pretty much the end of the line of superior bodyweight pull movements. Muscle ups and one-handed chin-ups and front lever pull-ups are pinnacles for insane back development.
Good Mornings/Hip Hinge:
How To: This is the bodyweight version of the barbell classic. Standing straight, tilt at your hips and bow your upper body forwards.
Ensure your entire back is flat, not rounded. This is a great stretch to keep your hip flexors loose and opening up your lower back.
How To: This is the anti-crunch. Lay your legs on a back extension bench. Your upper body should be suspended in air.
Slowly lower your upper body to the floor, slightly bending your back. Raise back to the top, flexing your lower back to lift your upper body.
Equipment: Back extension bench (you can do this on the ground, but then it’s essentially a superman, which we cover next)
Scaling: You can add weight to this movement, but then it wouldn’t technically be bodyweight.
How To: Lay on the floor face down. Simultaneously lift your upper body (arms out in front) and lower body (toes flexed back) from the floor.
Hold this position (called a “hollow hold”) for as long as possible, then return to the ground.
Scaling: You can start by doing one arm and the opposite leg as a hold, then graduate to repping upper body lifts and lower body lifts (known as “Dolphin Kicks”).
For an advanced version, you can do the single arm, single leg variation in a plank position.
Then you can seesaw while in the hollow position or roll your body across the floor without using your arms or legs.
Single Leg Deadlift
How To: It’s a deadlift without weight…and one of your legs. Start by standing straight. Then bend at the hips, like with the good morning exercise.
After this, lift one of your legs, keeping it in-line with your flat back, and bend your standing leg slightly as your upper body goes forward and down.
Lift back up to standing by contracting your lower back and the glute of your standing leg.
Scaling: There isn’t much scaling you can do, but if you have trouble balancing on one leg, practice by standing on one leg.
How Do You Structure a Bodyweight Back Workout?
The beauty with bodyweight movements, as mentioned above, is that they are complex movements.
This means you could do two exercises – an upper back one and a lower back one – and fatigue at least 90% of your back.
Or, you can perform a tough movement (think advanced pull-up variations), and then, once you’ve fatigued that movement, you can “drop set” to the next movement (such as normal pull-ups).
For example, a back workout can look like this:
- Upper back movement #1 (hardest one you can do) 3×4-15
- Lower back movement #1 (hardest one you can do) 3×4-15
- Superset: Upper back movement #2 3×4-15 + Lower back movement #2 3×4-15
The first two exercises builds your back, while the superset – with minimal rest – fatigues it.
For the sets and reps, a simple way to progress in bodyweight back exercises (because progressive overload is the tried and true way to build muscle and strength) is to start by practicing a tough movement for you.
Do three sets of that movement for four to six reps, focusing on perfecting the motion. Then, when you’re comfortable with it, up the reps to an eight to 15 range, aiming for volume and building muscle. When you can get 3×15 easily, move up to the next movement.
Day 1 = Assisted pull-ups 3×4,5,5 (perfect form)
Day 2 = Assisted pull-ups 3×6,6,6 (perfect form)
Day 3 = Assisted pull-ups 3×12,10,8
Day 4 = Assisted pull-ups 3×15,15,12
Day 5 = Assisted pull-ups 3×15,15,15 easily
Day 6 = Pull-ups 3×5,5,4 (perfect form)
If you follow this for both your first upper back lift and your first lower back lift, you’ll be doing impressive stuff within months.
Amount: 1-2 exercises for both upper and lower back, reaching both metabolic and muscular fatigue.
Frequency: 2-3 times per week is plenty, giving you decent recovery time.
Volume: 4-15 reps; The first portion (4-7) develops strength in a movement, while the second portion (8-15) invokes hypertrophy, or muscle growth. Anything above 15 repetitions gets into the endurance type of workout.
Time: Doing three to four back exercises for 12-45 reps each shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes, or five minutes per exercise.
Building a gigantic back doesn’t have to be complicated. Focusing all of your efforts in complex pulling movements will give you the best chance for consistent muscle growth.
Using bodyweight exercises allows you to accomplish this anywhere, anytime, without compromising your joints or requiring any outlandish equipment.
Also, you get a metabolic or cardiovascular element added to your strength workouts.
There are many bodyweight back exercises, both for lower and upper back. Create a simple yet challenging back workout, perhaps pair it with an auxiliary body part, and do this two or three times weekly.
If you follow this blueprint, your back is going to look like a 3D map of the Rocky Mountains. Build those hills!