Updated: Oct 31
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Armed with these bodyweight back exercises, you’ll be able to build a strong back without the trappings of a gym. As well as increasing functional strength and muscle endurance, the five bodyweight back exercises below can sculpt lean, defined muscles.
And the great thing about bodyweight movements is that no equipment is needed. Other than a fixed bar and a wall, all that you need to complete the following bodyweight exercises is a bit of space.
So, when you master the five exercises, you’ll be able to forge a strong sculpted back anywhere.
How to use these bodyweight back exercises
Another string in the bow of bodyweight exercises is how versatile they are. They can be included in weightlifting workouts, AMRAPs, EMOMs, HIIT, or, my personal favourite, circuits.
The number of possible different circuit configurations you could conceive with just the five exercises below will keep you in workouts for weeks to come.
Throw in a few shuttle sprints or skipping HIITs and other calisthenics exercises, and you’ll be able to improve complete fitness conditioning.
Related: Need workout ideas? Then get a copy of the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits >
Bodyweight back exercises circuit example
So, we’ve considered the benefits and versatility of bodyweight exercises. And we’ve briefly looked at how they can be incorporated into a range of training sessions. Now we can turn our attention to creating a workout.
The following circuit example has been designed to engage all the major muscle groups. Furthermore, because it features a cardio element, it will also promote aerobic fitness.
Instead of just targeting the back muscles, other bodyweight exercises have been included to balance the training focus. By broadening the range of exercises the circuit promotes whole-body fitness conditioning.
A simple way to increase the resistance of bodyweight exercises is by strapping into a weighted vest. Not weightlifting per se, weighted vests enable you to increase your bodyweight which turns up the intensity of the exercise.
Basic bodyweight and cardio circuit
Bodyweight back exercises
Having looked at how the bodyweight back exercises can be integrated into a workout, it makes sense to review the key teaching points of each exercise. In addition to the technique overview, the purpose of each exercise has been outlined. This way you will know which areas of your back the exercise engages.
#1: Pull up
Purpose of exercise: to enhance functional strength in the muscles of the upper back – specifically the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus and trapezius. Pull-ups also enhance strength in the arms.
Key teaching points
There are a few hand positions you can adopt when performing pull-ups. Each hand position shifts emphasis to different muscle groups. The position that best engages the back muscles is the classic palms facing out, hands spaced one and a half shoulder widths.
Hanging from a pull-up bar, preferably one high enough so that your feet clear the floor, ensure your arms are fully straight. This position is called the ‘dead hang’.
When you’re ready, heave your chin over the bar. The pull-up should be performed in one smooth movement. Avoid swinging or kipping to generate momentum. Use only muscle strength.
If you cannot yet do a full pull-up, try focusing on the eccentric – the lowering – phase of the exercise. Alternatively, perform the inverted variation: feet remained planted on the floor, you are hanging underneath a waist-height bar, pull the chest to the bar.
#2: Handstand press up
Purpose of exercise: to increase strength in the shoulders, upper back, and arms. Professional wrestling coach and author of Combat Conditioning, Matt Furey tells us that ‘Anyone who wants to get a lot stronger should do a lot of these.’
Key teaching points
The simplest way to get into position for the handstand press-up is to perform a ‘wall walk’. Actually, the wall walk is a great back and upper body builder on its own.
In the handstand position, organise your position before performing the press-up. To do so:
Space your hands shoulder-width apart.
Knees are slightly bent.
Back is perfectly straight and not bowing (a common technique misdemeanour).
Your weight is on your palms.
From this position lower down as far as you can. The full range of movement is from full arm extension until your head touches the floor.
However, if you are not yet strong enough to execute the full range of movement, dip as low as you physically can.
And if you can’t yet do one? Not a problem, ‘make it an isometric movement and push and push until your muscles have had enough,’ (Furey).
#3: Reverse plank
Purpose of exercise: To develop muscle endurance in the upper and lower back, shoulders, tripes, glutes and hamstrings.
Key teaching points
Seated on a soft training mat, your legs are out straight, and your palms are pressed flat against the floor behind you.
Prior to planking, organise your posture so that you don’t have to when in position.
To do so space your hands a little over shoulder-width and point your fingers back. Your feet are together, and your knees are slightly bent.
To perform the plank simply push your hips up raising your buttocks and legs off the floor.
If you’re reverse planking for the first time, it’s best to do so side onto a mirror. This way you will be able to assess your posture.
How will you know if you’re in the correct reverse plank position? A straight line should extend from your ankle through to your shoulder.
You can now either hold the plank for time or perform reps – lower down until your bum touches the floor before rising back up again.
#4: Bear crawl
Purpose of exercise: The bear crawl is a beast of an exercise that engages a vast range of muscles as well as developing ‘strength and mobility throughout all the limbs,’ (Combat Conditioning). In addition to engaging the glutes, quads, core and chest, bear crawls are brilliant for building strength and endurance in the upper back.
Key teaching points
Bear crawls are best performed on a stretch of soft flooring or patch of grass.
The position sees us revert to the method of travel our ancient ancestors used to get around. On all fours, the palms of the hands and balls of the feet are making contact with the floor.
The optimum method of crawling is to advance forward in opposites: left arm / right leg.
Don’t think about the movement pattern too deeply, though, otherwise, you’ll wind up like the millipede in the fable who, when asked how he simultaneously coordinates a hundred little legs, crumpled into a heap of confusion.
Purpose of exercise: to engage the lower back, erector spinae.
Key teaching points
Lying face down on a soft training mat, arrange your posture as follows:
Feet are together and suspended a couple of inches off the floor.
Hands are either clasped behind your back or, to increase the intensity of the exercise, fingertips touching your temples.
To perform hyperextensions, raise your upper torso off the floor.
The range of movement is comparatively constricted – you’re only raising up about four inches.
There is no need to extend any further.
Bodyweight back exercises FAQ
If the article has done its job, at this point you should have a range of new bodyweight back exercises to add to your repertoire. In addition, you know which areas of the body each exercise works and how to include them in a workout.
To conclude the article, four frequently asked questions have been answered. The questions aim to seek an understanding of the training effect bodyweight exercises can bring about.
If the FAQ fails to answer any question you have concerning the above bodyweight back exercises, pop it in the comments box below.
How can I strengthen my back without weights?
All the bodyweight exercises above will, to a point, strengthen the muscles of your back. Pull-ups are a superlative lat and trap builder. Handstand press-ups are equally as effective at developing the anterior deltoids and upper traps. Similar praise could be lavished on other bodyweight back exercises.
However, because the weight of your body cannot be increased (not quickly anyway), strength gains will cease once you can comfortably perform the bodyweight exercise.
To take your strength to the next level you will need to ‘train according to basic power principles – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding – p493).
Can you build big back without weights?
The short and honest answer is no, bodyweight exercises do not place muscles under sufficient stress to promote the increase in muscle mass. This is the case for those who are trained and engage in regular exercise.
For the beginner, the person who is completely untrained, bodyweight exercises will improve the strength, size and shape of their back. But, as emphasised in the answer above, gains in size and strength will begin to taper off as your muscles become accustomed to your bodyweight.
At this point, to further advance the size of your back, you will need to engage in weight training. Start building serious size with these dumbbell back exercises.
Can I build back without pull ups?
Though pull-ups are (arguably) one of the best back exercises you can do, it is still possible to build a strong, defined back without them. If your aversion to pull-ups stems from your inability to perform them or a long-term injury, there are other exercises you can do that stimulate the back in similar ways.
For example, the inverted pull-up is an ideal replacement for those that yet do not possess the physical strength to heave their full body weight. By planting the feet on the floor, a significant percentage of your bodyweight is supported. This modification makes the exercise more accessible for beginner trainers.
However, if it’s injury or a dislike of the exercise that is preventing you from performing pull-ups, there are plenty of alternatives.
Related: This Boxing Workout improves complete fitness conditioning
Do push ups work your back?
In the Royal Marines Training Manual, we are told that the ‘press-up is an excellent exercise for working on muscular strength, and more importantly muscular endurance’. According to MedicalNewsToday, push ups work the following muscles:
Chest muscle group, including the major and minor pectoralis
All three heads of the deltoid – anterior, medial, and posterior
Upper and middle back muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, and traps
The lower back muscles – erector spina – are engaged isometrically
Medial head of the biceps brachi and all three heads of the triceps
What an inclusive exercise! But the list of muscles is incomplete. When performing push ups the core, transverse abdominus, hip flexors, quadriceps, and glutes and soleus are all also engaged. This makes push ups as close to a complete exercise as you can possibly get.
Related: What’s the best exercise to lose weight?
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About Adam Priest –
A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing practitioner. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam via LinkedIn or email@example.com.