Top 10 Calisthenics Back Exercises For A Stronger Upper Body

Benefits Of Training The Back With Calisthenics

Training the back with calisthenics provides numerous benefits. Calisthenics exercises, which utilize bodyweight movements, effectively target the back muscles without the need for weights. These exercises contribute to both functional strength and aesthetic appeal.

Strong back muscles are crucial for various functional movements and activities. Whether you’re lifting heavy objects, performing pulling motions, or engaging in sports or physical activities, a well-trained back enhances your ability to generate power, stabilize the spine, and move efficiently.

In addition to functional benefits, developing a strong and well-defined back can contribute to a V-tapered physique. By focusing on building the muscles in the upper back and lats, you can widen your upper body and create a desirable tapering effect from your shoulders to your waist.

Anatomy Of The Back: How To Target Specific Muscles

Before jumping into the exercises it is good to have a basic understanding of the anatomy of the back, so you know how to target the right muscles. The back consists of several major muscle groups that work together to provide support, stability, and movement. Here are the most important muscles to know when training the back:

Trapezius: The trapezius is a large muscle that extends from the base of the skull to the middle and lower back. It is responsible for movements of the shoulder blades, such as elevation, retraction, and depression. The trapezius is divided into three regions: upper, middle, and lower.

Latissimus Dorsi: Commonly known as the “lats,” these muscles are the broadest muscles of the back. They originate from the mid-back and attach to the upper arm. Training the lats will help you get that v-shaped back. The lats play a crucial role in movements like pull-ups, rows, and shoulder extension.

Rhomboids: The rhomboids are located between the shoulder blades and help retract and stabilize the scapulae. They work in conjunction with the trapezius to maintain proper posture and shoulder blade positioning.

Erector Spinae: The erector spinae muscles run along the length of the spine and are responsible for spinal extension and maintaining an upright posture. They provide support and stability to the back during movements like bending, lifting, and standing.

Rotator Cuff: The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and their tendons that surround the shoulder joint. These muscles include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. The primary function of the rotator cuff is to stabilize the shoulder joint and facilitate smooth and controlled movements of the arm.

There are other muscles in the back as well, but specifically isolating these muscles is not necessary for most healthy individuals as they will receive work enough from other exercises.

10. Best Calisthenics Back Exercises

Now you have a basic understanding of the anatomy of the back it is time to get down to business, that is why I compiled a list of the 10 best back exercises that target every major muscle of the back, enjoy!

1. Pull Ups

The first exercise on the list should come as no surprise, the classic pull is a stable in any good calisthenics program for a reason because it works. Pull-ups are one of the most effective exercises for building upper body strength and increasing muscle mass. They engage multiple muscles at once, making them a compound exercise. The primary muscles worked during a pull-up include the latissimus dorsi, biceps, rhomboids, and trapezius. Additionally, the muscles of the core, forearms, and grip strength are also recruited during the exercise.

Photo by Eric Astrauskas

How to pull up like a G:

  1. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended, engaging your core and maintaining a straight body position.
  2. Initiate the pull-up by squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling your elbows down and back towards your sides.
  3. Continue pulling until your chin clears the bar and your upper chest approaches the bar.
  4. Pause briefly at the top of the movement, maintaining control and engaging your back and arm muscles.
  5. Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position with controlled movement, fully extending your arms.

Top Tips for beautiful pull-ups:
– Start with assisted pull-ups using a machine or resistance band to gradually build strength if necessary.
– Keep your body straight and avoid swinging or using momentum to complete the exercise (no crossfit reps).
– Focus on maintaining proper form and using a full range of motion (straight elbows and elevate the scapula at the bottom of each rep).

2. Chin Ups

Chin Ups work many of the same muscles as the classic pull up, but the supinated grip will shift the focus more towards the biceps. If you are looking to build the biceps without too much isolation this can be a great option. Chin-ups are generally a bit easier for most individuals compared to pull-ups.

The Chin Up should be performed much like the pull up the only real difference is that you grab the bar with an underhand grip (supination) instead of an overhand grip (pronation).

Be aware of your wrist as the supinated grip will place extra stress on the wrist so if you start experiencing wrist pain it is advised you perform pull ups instead and work on strengthening and stretching the wrist until you can perform chin ups pain free.

3. Bodyweight Rows (Australian Pull Ups)

The bodyweight row is a fundamental exercise for developing a strong and well-rounded back. Many people overlook the importance of bodyweight rows, but if you truly want to build a strong and thick back it is worth implementing into your workout routine. While this exercise might seem easy, if you have been training for some time, choosing the right progressions will allow for a lifetime of progression. The bodyweight row target many of the same muscles as the pull up, but put more emphasis on the traps and rhomboids as well as the lower back.

How to perform pull ups like a Aussie:

  1. Start by facing the bar or rings and position yourself directly underneath it. Extend your arms fully, gripping the bar with an overhand grip (pronation) slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Activate your core muscles and keep your body straight in a plank-like position. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your heels.
  3. Initiate the rowing movement by pulling your body up towards the bar. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and using your back muscles to perform the pulling motion.
  4. Continue pulling until your chest touches the bar/rings or bends at least 90 degrees.
  5. Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position, maintaining control and keeping your body straight throughout the movement.

Adjust the difficulty by changing the angle of your body. The more horizontal your body is to the ground, the more challenging the exercise becomes.

4. Front Lever Raise

Performing Front Lever Raise is an impressive display of strength and body control, incorporating this exercise into your routine will build a strong and functional back, while also working the long head of the triceps and the core muscles. Front Lever Raises is an excellent exercise for developing straight arm strength through a full range of motion, unlike most other exercises which primarily focus on bent arm strength. The Front lever Raise can be modified to suit most levels, start by tucking your knees in close to your chest, and extend them further out as you get stronger.

How to perform Front Lever Raise:

  1. Start by hanging from a bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Start the movement by driving your arms down towards the hips.
  3. Keep your arms straight and maintain tension in your back and core as you lift your body.
  4. When your body is vertical (head down) or as close as possible you have reached the top of the movement. Lower your body back down to the starting position with control.

Keep your arms straight at all times, the goal is to build straight arm strength.

5. Front Lever Pull Up Progressions

Yet another front lever variation, the Front Lever Pull Up is a great exercise for building horizontal pulling strength. Since this exercise is going to be too hard to perform in a full front lever position for most people, it is suggested to start in a tuck position and then extend your legs out as you get stronger. Performing Front Lever Pull Ups not only look cool but will also beff up your back muscles, especially the traps, and rhomboids.

How to do Front Lever Pull Ups like a pro:

  1. Raise your body up until you are horizontal to the ground, in a front lever position.
  2. Initiate the pull-up by contracting your back muscles, and pull to raise your body towards the bar (or rings).
  3. Continue pulling until your abs touches the bar or your elbows bend at least at a 90-degree angle.
  4. Slowly lower yourself down to the front lever position and repeat for reps

Pro tips:

-This exercise is quite hard even performing them in a tucked position can be quite a challenge, if you can’t do any or only a few reps regress to bodyweight rows until you are strong enough to do at least 3 reps.
-Film yourself to ensure you a doing the exercises correctly, often times you can end up doing the exercise wrong because you can gauge where your body is in space.

6. Ring Face Pull

The Ring Face Pulls exercise is highly effective in targeting and strengthening the muscles of the upper back, including the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and the rotator cuff muscles. This exercise is particularly beneficial for reducing the risk of injury, as it indirectly activates the rotator cuff muscles, with a specific emphasis on the external rotators, such as the Infraspinatus and teres minor.

How to perform the Ring Face Pull:

  1. Step back, generating tension in the rings, and lean your body backward while maintaining extended arms. Form an angled position, ensuring your weight rests on your heels.
  2. Begin the movement by pulling the rings towards your face. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, keeping your elbows raised and wide. Maintain a neutral wrist position throughout the entire motion.
  3. When reaching the top of the movement, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold briefly to optimize muscle activation.
  4. Gradually extend your arms back to the starting position, emphasizing control throughout the entire range of motion.

Modify the intensity of the workout by altering your body angle. The exercise becomes easier as your body becomes more upright, and conversely, it becomes more challenging as your body approaches a horizontal position

7. Ring Rear Delt Fly

Performing ring rear delt fly is a great way to target your rear deltoids, upper back, and rotator cuff muscles. When performed on gymnastics rings, the rings add an element of instability, demanding increased shoulder stability and activating the smaller stabilizing muscles around the shoulder joint. This enhances joint integrity and contributes to a decreased risk of injuries.

How to perform Ring Rear Delt Fly:

  1. Lean back while walking your feet forward, to create an angled position. Your body should form a straight line, and your arms should be fully extended. This serves as your starting position.
  2. Keep your arms straight and slowly raise them out to the sides.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift your arms out to the side.
  4. Pause briefly at the peak of the movement, and focus on the contraction in the upper back muscles.
  5. Slowly lower back down to the starting position, in a slow and controlled manner.

Ensure optimal form and controlled execution for optimal results. Mastering proper form in Ring Rear Delt Flys can be challenging, so don’t be discouraged if you find yourself nearly vertical at first.

8. Back Extensions

Back extensions are an effective exercise for targeting the muscles in your lower back, as well as your glutes and hamstrings. You don’t need a back extension machine to perform this exercise there are a lot of ways to perform the exercises at home or the park.

How to perform back extensions:

  1. Find a setup that works for you, check the video above for suggestions.
  2. Lower your upper body towards the floor by hinging at your hips. Keep your back straight, and let your torso descend until you feel a stretch in your lower back.
  3. Use your lower back muscles to lift your upper body back up to the starting position. Focus on the muscles in your lower back doing the work rather than using momentum.
  4. At the top of the movement, your body should be in a straight line with your hips not going beyond the horizontal position. Avoid overextending your lower back.

Perform the exercise in a slow and controlled manner. Avoid using momentum or swinging your upper body for best results and to avoid injuries.

9. Reverse Hyper Exstensions

The reverse hyperextension exercise is excellent for strengthening the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. In addition, it is effective for developing lower body strength for calisthenics skills like the back lever and planche.

How to perform reverse hyperextensions:

  1. Lie on a horizontally positioned flat bench facedown and align your hips near the edge of the bench, with your legs hanging down.
  2. Place your hands on the sides or front of the bench and grip tightly to keep your body in place.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and raise your legs until they are parallel to the ground.
  4. Pause briefly at the top and focus on engaging your glutes and lower back.
  5. Slowly lower your legs back down to the starting position, in a slow and controlled manner.

Avoid excessive lower back arching and uncontrolled extension, by posterior tilting your pelvis and flattening your lower back. A slight curve in the lower back is normal and acceptable.

10. Rope Climbing

Rope climbing is an excellent pulling exercise that engages the back along with the bicep and forearms. Doing rope climbs will not only sculpt the back muscles but also build unbeatable grip strength.

How to climb ropes for a big back and strong grip:

  1. Find a sturdy climbing rope
  2. Begin by standing underneath the rope and reaching up to grab it with both hands, using a hand-over-hand grip.
  3. Begin pulling yourself upward using a hand-over-hand climbing motion. Since you’re not using your legs, the emphasis is entirely on your upper body strength.
  4. Descend in a controlled manner, using your hands to support your weight as you lower yourself back down. Avoid letting go of the rope too quickly or your hands will burn!

Be cautious and mindful of your movements to prevent rope burns or injuries. Ensure a soft landing surface beneath the rope in case of a fall.

Programming Considerations For Best Results

To optimize your routine, include at least one vertical pulling exercise and one horizontal pulling exercise. This may involve selecting a pull-up variation for vertical pulling and a row variation for horizontal pulling, for instance.

Remember to prioritize proper form, progressive overload, and consistency in your calisthenics back workouts. As your strength improves, you can modify exercises, add variations, or increase difficulty by adding weight, ensuring continuous progress.

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