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18 Bodyweight Exercises For A Stronger Back

18 Bodyweight Exercises For A Stronger Back
Andy Griffiths
Writer and expert4 years ago
View Andy Griffiths's profile

So, you've started to find some sort of routine with your home workouts. You’ll know that HIIT workouts are relatively easy to throw together, but not as easy to perform. Conditioning workouts tend to focus on legs, chest, abs and a token effort on triceps,  most likely from the press-ups you've been doing.

But, what if you want to focus on a specific area, like your back muscles? For too long we've been distracted by what's in front of us in the mirror, while there are gains to be made right behind us, that we can't always see.

We're going to show you how to build bigger, stronger back muscles, that won't only look great, but improve your posture and assist in those larger compound moves. Read on for the best move to include in your home workouts.


1. Cat-Camel Stretch (AKA Happy Cat Angry Cat)

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 8 - 10A great way to mobilise your spine and all the muscles responsible for extending it. Increases your chances of improving your back’s function and moving better. If mobility is something you avoid, then this is a great way to start.

  1. Start with your knees under your hips, and hands under your shoulders
  2. Relax your back and allow your stomach to lower towards the floor. Your hips should tilt forwards.  Hold this position for 1 - 2 seconds
  3. Tuck your hip under and push your mid-back up towards the ceiling, focusing on allowing your shoulder blades to move apart. Again, hold this for 1 - 2 seconds
  4. Allow your head to move naturally with the movement rather than forcing the movement through your neck


2. Prone Cobra

Sets: 4 - 6 | Reps: 30 - 45 seconds (with a 15 second rest)This exercise will target the mid and upper back. Building strength here is fantastic for postural improvements but will also help maintain great form during deadlifts, squats and rows when the time comes to return to the gym.

  1. Lay on your front with your arms by your side and your eyes pointing to the floor
  2. Simultaneously lift your chest from the floor and externally rotate your hands and point your thumbs to the ceiling
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and draw them down towards your hips
  4. Keep your eyes pointing at the floor and maintain the tension for 30 seconds
  5. Keep your feet on the floor and try to relax your glutes

Regression - If you feel any lower back strain, keep tension in your glutes and reduce the rep duration

3. Y Raise

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 8 - 12The Y raise will strengthen and build the mid-shoulder and have a fantastic impact on the upper back. Whether this is done with cables, dumbbells or just bodyweight, it is a must for any back and shoulder workout.

  1. Lie on your front with your arms extended out in a Y shape with your thumbs pointing to the ceiling
  2. Keeping your chest against the floor, raise your arms and focus on pulling your shoulders back and down
  3. Flexibility and strength should dictate your range of movement
  4. Hold at the top for 1 - 2 seconds

Regression - Reduce your range of movement and rep range if you struggle. You can also try raising your body up from the floor by a couple of inches.


4. Plank Row

Sets: 2 - 3 | Reps: 20 - 30Time to hone your technique and get the big back muscle fully engaged and ready to work. Added bonus - the workload you’ll be putting through your abs, chest and shoulders is significant, and who doesn't want that?

  1. Start in a full plank with your legs extended back and hands under your shoulders
  2. With your abs engaged, shoulders and hips locked in and pointing down, pull one hand up to your lowest rib
  3. On the row, focus on squeezing the shoulders back together but minimise any rotation
  4. Alternate arms but don’t rush. This is about taking your time and getting those back muscles switched on

Regression - Drop down to your knees if you need to reduce the intensity of the exercise.


5. Bird Dog 

Sets: 3 - 3 | Reps: 8 - 12An entry-level exercise which, for many, will be a great, engaging warm-up exercise. No matter who you are, this is a great addition and will engage plenty of upper muscle, not just the back.

  1. Start with hands under shoulders and knees under hips
  2. Looking down at the floor, make sure abs are braced hard so you minimise torso rotation
  3. Lift and extend the left leg back whilst reaching your right arm forward in a pressing motion
  4. Prevent curvature in your lower back by keeping you hip locked in the starting position
  5. Lower your arm and leg and switch sides


6. Reverse Snow Angel

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 8 - 12 (up and down equates to 1 rep)

Someone out there took a childhood activity that we all looked forward to when we had that 1 day of snow and turned it upside down and made it pretty uncomfortable! Predominantly targeting the stabilisers in the shoulder it will also help lock the shoulders in and build great tension in the back.
  1. Start in the same position as you do for the Prone Cobra and follow steps 1 to 5
  2. From your Prone Cobra position raise your arms overhead
  3. During this movement keep your thumbs pointing to the ceiling, your eyes pointing down and your chest lifted slightly off the floor 


7. Prone Pull

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 10 - 15Imagine doing a pull up without actually having to pull your body weight, sounds great right? Enter the Prone Pull! Now it doesn't actually have the same impact as a pull-up but it will certainly keep some of those important back muscles engaged until you can revisit that pull up bar.

  1. Start laying down on your front with your arms over your head
  2. Lift your chest and arms a couple of inches from the floor
  3. In a slow and controlled manner pull your elbows down towards your hips focusing on pulling your shoulder blades back and down
  4. Ensure you fully extend your elbows when returning your arms overhead


8. Body Saw Plank

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 30 - 60 secondsLet’s get those abs shaking, shoulders burning with the added benefit of firing up those lats. Throwdown a sweat towel, hold this for long enough and you’ll need one.

  1. Start with elbows under shoulders and legs extended with feet hip-width apart
  2. Slide your hands forward until your elbows are in line with your ears (this is your starting position)
  3. Keeping your abs engaged drag your body forward by pulling through your elbows, then shift your bodyweight back until elbows return to ear level
  4. Important to think about your back being the pulling force in this movement

9. Scapula Press Up

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 10 - 15Admittedly this is less of a back exercise and more of a shoulder mobility movement. Having said that, this is great to help with shoulder health and consequently back strength. For anyone who loves a good heavy chest day, this is a great exercise to include in the early stages of your workout.

  1. From a press-up position with your hands just outside of your shoulders start by bracing your abs and glutes to ensure you have a good solid base.
  2. Lower your sternum by relaxing your shoulder blades. It's important not to let your stomach sink and make sure your elbows stay fixed
  3. Push your upper back up towards the ceiling and allow your shoulder blades to pull apart
  4. You should feel the tension releasing across your upper back and to the rear of your shoulders


10. Elbow Bridge

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 8 - 12 (3 second hold per rep)Want that upper back squeeze but have no kit? Elbow bridges could be the answer. Looks easy, but is far from easy. Trust me, give this a try.

  1. Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet flat to the floor and elbows out in-line with or slightly lower than your shoulders
  2. Lift your head from the floor a small amount (this is to prevent you from pushing through the neck)
  3. Push into your elbows and lift your upper back off the floor 2 - 3 inches
  4. Pull your shoulders blades together and down to maximise the contraction and prevent the rear shoulders dominating the movement


11. Glute Bridge

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 10 - 15Yes, I know, ‘Glute’ Bridge but hear me out. We are essentially extending the hip and there are 3 sets of muscles that will perform this, your hamstrings, glutes and elements of the lower back. Performing this exercise will predominantly target your glutes but your lower back will be doing a serious amount of stabilising so definitely worth throwing into your home workout until you have access to the speciality kit at the gym.

  1. Start by laying on your back with a 90-degree bend at your knees
  2. Start the movement by tucking your hips under and then pushing your hips up until you can draw a straight line from your shoulders through your hips to your knees
  3. The pressure should be through the heels of your feet and you should try to prevent any excessive curvature to your lower back
  4. Return to the start of the movement without allowing your hips to rest on the floor


12. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 8 - 12 each legFollowing on from the Glute Bridge let’s apply a similar thought process, using the back as a secondary hip extensor and in a stabilising capacity, this will complement the more back-specific exercises in this article.

  1. From standing hinge at your hip and at the same time extend one leg back 
  2. Reach towards your toes with the opposite arm to the leg extending backwards
  3. Aim to keep your hips and shoulders square to the floor to prevent any twisting

Regression - If you struggle with balance, rather than extending your leg back try resting your toes down for balance but without taking any bodyweight (see video).


13. T Press-up

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 10 - 15Can your back really work in a press-up? If you add some torso rotation and shoulder retraction then absolutely. T Press Ups are an ideal addition to your push/pull sessions.

  1. Hands just outside your shoulders with your abs engaged (make sure you are not arching your lower back and dropping your hips)
  2. Lower your chest so your shoulders are in line with your elbows or slightly lower
  3. Return to the starting position by pushing through the heel of your hand and actively thinking about squeezing your chest
  4. At the top rotate your entire body to face the wall and simultaneously lift the arm on the same side as your rotation
  5. In this side plank position allow you ankles to touch the floor (remember, full rotation)

Regression - If you struggle with upper body strength try doing the press up on your knees and return to your toes for the rotation.


14. Dead Stop Press Up to Superman

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 8 - 12A dead stop press -up forces a full range of motion and takes the momentum out of the equation. So let’s take it one step further and throw a Superman into the mix.

  1. Hands just outside your shoulders with your abs engaged (make sure you are not arching your lower back and dropping your hips)
  2. Lower your chest to the floor and lift your hands so your weight is on your chest
  3. Reach your arms overhead with your thumbs pointing to the ceiling
  4. Return your hands to the floor in the bottom of a press-up position
  5. Push through the heel of your hand and actively thinking about squeezing your chest

Regression - Perform the press up part of this exercise on your knees.


15. Dive Bomber Press Up

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 5 - 10Possibly one of the most challenging types of press-ups you can do. Your back will play a big part in the middle to end of the movement when you pull through at the bottom and extend at the top. If you lack shoulder flexibility work on improving this first.

  1. Start with hands and feet hip to shoulder-width apart and your hips elevated into a pike position
  2. Lower your chest towards hands by bending your elbows
  3. Your chest should pass through your arms as close to your hands as possible
  4. Your hips should follow the upper body and finish just above the ground
  5. Reach the finish position by straightening the arms and lifting the chest
  6. To return to the starting position lower your chest back down and push your hips up into a pike whilst pushing through your arms

Regression - This is an advanced exercise so do not feel disheartened if you can’t get this right. If you struggle just perform a traditional press up or for something slightly more challenging try a shoulder press-up.


16. Suspension Low Row

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 10 - 15If you have access to a suspension trainer or rings you can really start to apply some load to your rowing movements. With a suspended row, you can vary height and grip to target the back in various ways and vary stance to make it harder and easier.

  1. Stand with your arms straight and tension in the straps, then slowly walk your feet in for the desired resistance
  2. You should concentrate on driving your elbow towards your hip rather than pulling the handle into your body, this will encourage a far better muscular contraction
  3. Keep your legs and hips fixed pull your shoulders back and down
  4. Keep your chest lifted through this movement and make sure not to lose tension in your back at the bottom of the movement


17. Suspension High Row

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 10 - 15A high row performed correctly will target a little of your rear shoulder but predominantly your rhomboids (mid-back).

  1. Stand with your arms straight and tension in the straps, then slowly walk your feet in for the desired resistance
  2. On the row, your elbows should be positioned higher with the focus still on pulling through the elbow
  3. Keep your legs and hips fixed
  4. Keep your chest lifted through this movement and make sure not to lose tension in your back at the bottom of the movement


18. Suspension T and Y

Sets: 3 - 4 | Reps: 5 - 10Let’s finish off and obliterate those rear delts and upper back. This will leave you hugging yourself in desperation as the burning sensation lingers for several moments after dropping your suspension trainer handles to the floor.

  1. Stand with your arms straight and tension in the straps, then slowly walk your feet in for the desired resistance (it will not be as far as the row)
  2. Starting with the T, keep your elbows as fixed as possible pulls you arms out to the side creating a T shape 
  3. Return to the start position in a controlled manner maintaining tension
  4. Repeat the same movement but this time arms should move overhead creating a Y shape
  5. 1 of each counts as 1 rep

Regression - Stagger your feet to allow you to apply more weight at the bottom where it’s easier and less weight at the top where it is harder (demonstrated in the video)


Take Home Message

It's important to remember, you can build a bigger back with or without equipment. The main thing to take into account is having a great mind-muscle connection. Actively think about and imagine your back muscles performing the movement and you’ll build that toned looking back in no time.
Andy Griffiths
Writer and expert
View Andy Griffiths's profile