The Upper-Back Workout You Should Do Every Week

By K. Aleisha Fetters |

Keep your spine and shoulders strong and pain-free with these four simple moves.

woman with hanging flower pot

If there’s one thing your exercise routine needs more of, it’s upper-back work.

Fitness professionals commonly recommend that more than 50 percent of your training focus on the many muscles that make up your upper back. Why? Because that’s what it takes to counteract the effects of everything you’re doing outside of your upper-back workouts, explains Franco Calabrese, D.P.T., a physical therapist at React Physical Therapy in Chicago.

That includes hunching over your computer or phone, sitting with poor posture for long periods of time, or even going to town on chest-dominant exercises like pushups that, when not balanced with back exercises, can exacerbate strength imbalances between your front and back sides.

“The upper back contains a lot of muscles that are smaller in size and therefore often overlooked,” Calabrese says. “By focusing a little more on these smaller muscle groups, we can keep the shoulders and spine healthy and strong for longer.”

Why Upper-Back Strength Is So Important

Your back muscles act on the spine just like tension wires on a massive crane, explains Saad Chaudhary, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon at the Mount Sinai Health System.

They support the crane, keep it in proper alignment, and are responsible for much of its strength. Without the tension wires, everything goes amok, he says.

Over time, without proper strength of the muscles surrounding your spine, it easily falls with gravity, aging discs wear down, and nerves can even become pinched, Dr. Chaudhary says. That partly explains why the majority of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives.

That’s where this simple workout plan comes in. “Exercise is the best preventative measure we have to combat spinal issues,” Dr. Chaudhary says.

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How to Do the Upper-Back Workout

The key to all of these exercises is performing them slowly and under control. Choose a pair of dumbbells that allows you to perform all reps with proper form.

You may need to select two pairs: one light and one heavier. You should feel the exercises working, but they shouldn’t be a struggle. If you ever feel your form breaking down, consider using lighter weights for that exercise, or only perform two sets instead of three.

Do all sets of each exercise before moving to the next, resting for 30 to 60 seconds between each. For best results, perform the full workout two to three times per week. You can also sprinkle the exercises throughout your day to break up time spent sitting or performing other forward-oriented activities.

Ready to get started? Here’s how to perform each movement. As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition (including osteoporosis), balance issues, or injuries, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.

Exercise #1: Shoulder Squeeze

Shoulder Squeeze
Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps

Stand tall with feet hip-width apart. While pulling your elbows back and down, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Imagine you’re squeezing a lemon between your shoulder blades. Pause, then release. That’s one rep. Complete a total of three sets of 10 to 15 reps, resting for 30 to 60 seconds between sets.

Exercise #2: Bent-Over Row

Bent-Over Row Exercise
Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Grab a pair of dumbbells, and stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Pushing your hips back and allowing your knees to bend slightly, lower your torso until it’s almost parallel with the floor. Let the dumbbells hang at arm’s length from your shoulders, palms facing in.

From here, squeeze your shoulder blades together as you bend your elbows and pull the dumbbells up to the sides of your torso. Pause, then slowly lower the dumbbells to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform three sets of eight to 10 reps, resting for 30 to 60 seconds between sets.

Exercise #3: Standing Arm Lifts

Standing Arm Lifts
Do 3 sets of 5 to 6 reps

Start in a hip hinge position, with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and torso at a 45-degree angle. Brace your core to stabilize your spine, and pull your shoulders down and back.

With palms facing down, extend your arms from your shoulders to form a Y. Next, bend your elbows and pull them back so your arms form a goalpost. Next, keeping your upper arms steady, straighten your arms to make a T. Finally, keeping your arms straight, squeeze your shoulder blades and gently push your arms back. Perform three sets of five to six reps, resting for 30 to 60 seconds between sets.

Make it easier: If you have flexibility challenges, do just the first three positions (Y, goalpost, T). Focus on good form and squeezing your shoulder blades.

Exercise #4: Internal and External Shoulder Rotation

Shoulder Rotation
Do 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps per side

Grab a light dumbbell in your right hand, and stand with your feet hip-width apart. With your arm bent about 90 degrees, position your right elbow on the right side of your torso. You should feel gentle contact.

Making sure your elbow stays in contact with your side, rotate your right arm across the front of your body. Pause, then slowly rotate your arm out as far as you comfortably can. That’s one rep.

Focus on initiating the rotation from your shoulder, not your wrist or elbow. Perform three sets of 12 to 15 reps per side, resting for 30 to 60 seconds between sets.

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