Bodyweight exercises are the most foundational, basic movements of all fitness branches. No one is quite sure when the first recorded push-up happened, but many archaeologists presume it began somewhere in India along with the birth of yoga. In China, bodyweight movement exercises like tai chi have been around for centuries. In Europe, early humans undoubtedly moved their bodies in repetitive motions to get stronger.
But lately, it seems like all anyone is interested in is weights. Barbells and dumbbells have their place in the current fitness world, but bodyweight exercises should be part of your programming too. Not only is it entirely possible to get a full-body workout using just your body, but often, bodyweight exercises are incredibly challenging for even the most physically fit among us.
That’s because your body is skilled at adapting. So if you train bodyweight for an extended period, you’re forcing yourself to learn new skills and to consistently get stronger. For example, consider the bodyweight functional fitness workout, Murph. Murph is a total bodyweight workout and consists of a run, some pull-ups, some air squats, and some sit-ups. On first blush, it looks like it should be easy. Until you realize that (unless you train for these kinds of movements), your body gets heavy – quickly!
Let’s find out how bodyweight back training can be incredibly practical to help you achieve your strength goals and take a look at our top bodyweight back exercises. Some of the exercises we review might need a Power Tower, but don’t let that distract you: they’re still bodyweight exercises even if you’re using a bar.
How Effective Is Bodyweight Back Training?
First, let’s take a look at why bodyweight exercises are so hard (and why so many people shy away from them).
Bodyweight movements are less taxing on the joints because they allow for a natural range of motion in each of the movements. In other words, if your muscles aren’t strong enough to, say, do a push-up, your body will prevent the movement from happening. Compare that to machines that force the movement (IE – the Smith machine) or barbell / dumbbell exercises that rely on gravity for the descent. Full-body tension is the goal with all bodyweight movements, and back training programmes are no exception. Ultimately, bodyweight movements will lead to incredible strength gains overall.
The majority of fitness enthusiasts shy away from bodyweight training because they’re unclear on how to progress with the movements. They don’t increase resistance, so they see no “gains.” Most often, people will just do a push-up, pull-up, and inverted row variation but never see any real development. Then they get discouraged because it feels like it’s not possible to build muscle, and guess what? They’re right. These three exercises aren’t enough on their own to provide enough overall tension and build muscle.
But when you start working on multi-planes of movement and incorporate one-arm or one-leg exercises into your programming, the resistance increases, and ultimately, you build more muscle.
Another reason people give up on bodyweight training is that it requires a lot more patience than free weights or barbell movements. After all, it’s a lot easier to load up a bar with more weight than it is to progress to stair-step push-ups or one arm inverted rows. Just as challenging is that as you continue to put on mass, bodyweight movements become more difficult because you’re working with more mass. In that way, bodyweight progression requires a lot of patience and recognizing that the gains might be incremental, but they translate to real strength.
The perfect back bodyweight exercise programme should include targeted upper back training along with mid-back work. That means that you should include scapulae and stabilisation muscle work. Additionally, you can easily vary your training by switching things up to have either an overhand or underhand grip. Doing this will engage your shoulder blades and forearms more, which can help increase time under tension and ultimately lead to more gains.
You’re only as strong as your spine is flexible
Bodyweight back training involves so much more than increasing your time under tension or mastering the perfect rep scheme. As with all things fitness, it’s most beneficial to look at this training modality from a comprehensive, macro-view rather than as a specific one-muscle group approach.
The reason that bodyweight back training is so critical to a well-rounded programme is because you need your back to be as strong as possible to progress in all your other lifts. Let’s unpack that a bit since it’s critical to the success of a good bodyweight programme.
As everyone knows, sitting is the new smoking. And with this sedentary culture we live in comes a disturbing array of back problems. Poor posture can lead to everything hip issues, shortened hamstrings, and ultimately, a back that’s weak and unable to, well, hold everything together.
We all know that our core starts at the base of our neck and travels the length of our spine. That means that having a strong core is so much more than just having strong abs; it includes having activated and engaged scaps, lats, and delts. However, since most of us overlook or undertrain our backs, we ultimately end up with a back that can’t support the load we ask of it.
In turn, this leads to weak numbers on compound lifts, poor posture, and in some instances, can even lead to osteoarthritic conditions. The only way to get a strong core is to develop a strong back. That means that your bodyweight back exercises should be multi-function; meaning, they should include your hip flexors, abs, and other “secondary” muscle groups to lengthen and strengthen our spine.
Yogis have a saying, “You’re only as young as your spine is flexible.” When you incorporate the right kinds of bodyweight back exercises into your training, you’re ensuring that your spine stays malleable and open to movement, and you’re helping ensure that your body can literally shoulder the load of living a modern life.
When we think about bodyweight back exercises, most are designed to promote and develop that oft-coveted “V-Taper” look that many bodybuilders seek. While that might not be your preferred aesthetic, the truth is that it’s going to come naturally since back exercises focus on adding strength to the upper back and shoulder region, all the while building on engaged and defined lats. The benefit of bodyweight back exercises is that you’re also able to focus on preventative movements that help prevent injury.
The best part about bodyweight back exercises is that these really can help you overcome any stalls you’re experiencing in your current routine. That’s because most bodyweight movements focus not just on the large muscle groups, but also on the small stablisier muscles as well. The result is that you’re going to be stronger overall, which can help if you’re chasing PRs.
The other thing to keep in mind that a strong back is going to serve you for all movements, not just back-centric lifts. For example, a strong powerful snatch truly is only possible if you have a strong upper back to support and hold the load. If you’re unable to perform bodyweight back exercises, then chasing a big snatch number is futile. When you bring your training back to the basics, you’re investing your time in a foundation that will serve you well.
How to build strength and size with bodyweight back exercises
Contrary to what you might think, high rep work isn’t going to lead to real mass gains or significant strength. Sure, high rep work will give you a pump while you’re in the gym, but this approach to training does very little to activate fast-twitch muscle fibres. Fast-twitch muscles help with sudden bursts of energy. You use fast-twitch muscle for things like bod jumps, burpees, or sprinting. Slow-twitch muscles are used for endurance activities, like intense lifting sessions, or low-impact steady-state cardio workouts, like running and cycling.
Fast-twitch muscles have enormous potential for growth because they use both fat stores and glycogen resources for energy. They’re resistant to fatigue and recover much more quickly than slow-twitch muscles. Fast-twitch are useful for repetitive motions, like those you might find with a bodyweight programme.The more quickly you can train your body to recruit fast-twitch muscles, the more power you develop. This means that as you move through a bodyweight training programme, you’re developing your body’s capacity to develop its maximum force. This is achieved through a stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). SSC involves a pre-stretch of the muscle, such as assuming a push-up position, and then it’s followed by a rapid contraction of the muscle, which is the pushing up of the movement. This push of energy produces the maximum amount of force your body can create. The more often you train bodyweight, the more power you’re creating.
So the best way to build size and strength is to incorporate movements that recruit both short and fast-twitch muscle groups. That means the ideal programme should have a concentrated focus on developing power while being mindful of spending a decent amount of time under tension.
Let’s Look at Some of the Best Bodyweight Back Exercises
To warm up your back for a strenuous bodyweight workout, you might consider any of these movements to help wake up the body and prime you for movement. Some of these movements might feel very yoga-centric, and that’s because they are. Many branches of yoga focus on developing a strong back. When you perform these movements, remember to keep your core engaged. If you begin to feel pressure anywhere in your body, modify the movement until you’re strong enough to perform it without pain.
- Cat/Cow – helps improve back flexibility and opens up lumbar/cervical spine
- 90/90 Stretch – opens up middle and upper back which are generally tight and weak in most people because we collectively spend so much time sitting
- Hand Walk to Push Up – Wakes up your hamstrings and calves, helps to “turn-on” your lower back muscles
- Forward lunge with a T-Spine twist – Thoracic spine mobility is super critical for good bodyweight back training, plus the lunge helps to open up your hips
- Bridge pose – This is as much a hip flexor movement as it is a lower back opener and helps to prime you for Superman holds
- One-arm, one-leg plank – Shifting between arms and legs will challenge your core strength, which will be useful for pull-ups, push-ups, and inverted rows.
- Half locust – the ultimate warm-up for back movements, this yoga posture strengthens erector spinal muscles, the group of muscles that run along your spine from your pelvis to your upper back.
To programme this warm-up, focus on time spent in the posture, not the number of reps. Here we’re looking for static stretches as much as we are for mobility.
Once you’re feeling warm and ready to tackle your first bodyweight lift, try this dynamic workout. Try sticking to the 5-12 rep range here (if you can get through it) because you’re looking to build strength, not burn out your back.
- Pull up Superman
- T, W, Y Superman variations will all help activate and engage your middle back, which is an often overlooked area of back training.
- Dead Stop to Superman helps to improve push-up performance, activate and mobilise your shoulders, and engage your middle and upper back.
- Wide-grip Push-up
- T-Spine Push-up
- Pull Up (and all grip/leg variations)
- Inverted Row
Both pull-ups and inverted rows will require using a power tower, which means that it’s technically not a bodyweight movement since it relies on equipment. But you’re still only using your body as the weight, so we’ve included it here. Plus, pull-ups are amazing at developing serious strength gains, so there’s no real reason not to include them. Just as impressive are their benefits for your compound lifts and for your overall aesthetics. Besides, who doesn’t like to hop on a tower and rep out endless pull-ups? Just like the bench is a clear determiner of strength, so too are the number of pull-ups you can successfully execute.
One of the most impressive benefits of integrating bodyweight back training exercises into your yearly plan is that it allows your joints to recover and heal. This is especially important if you’ve been pushing hard lifting programmes for a while and haven’t had a true deload or if you’ve just come off of competition prep.
The thing to keep in mind is that bodyweight movements are going to feel so archaic and, well, slow. It’s not like bodybuilding, powerlifting, or functional fitness training. But when you stay patient and remain committed to growing your back with basic functional movements, you’re recruiting fast-twitch muscles, you’re allowing your joints to heal, and you’re exploring deficiencies you might not have been aware of otherwise.
No matter if you’re following a classic programme like 5-3-1 or if you’re writing your own programming, you’ve probably experienced general malaise and disinterest in heading to the gym.
Let’s face it – gym burnout is a real thing and can have serious impacts on your long term goals, especially if you don’t find a way to snap out of it. Or maybe you’ve been on a programme for a while and are starting to stall on your compound lifts, even though you’ve been following the programming to the letter.
Let’s get one thing clear – lifting is as much physical as it is mental. If you’re stalling mentally because you can’t possibly imagine doing another set of deadlifts or pendalay rows, then you might consider readjusting both your mental attitude and your approach to training.
Pushing the same programme can get boring and can stall your gains. The reason is that your body adapts super quickly to new stresses, and your brain gets bored – easily.
As lifters, we’re always so quick to pick up a barbell or plan a dumbbell routine that we often forget about one of the best and most effective weights we have to use: our bodies. Even though their benefits are innumerable, bodyweight exercises continue to be under the radar, mainly because we just don’t add them into thier programming often.
If you’re looking for ways to build a bigger back, get stronger, and reach your aesthetic goals, you should consider adding in bodyweight back exercises to your routine. Or go full-board and have a bodyweight back day where you torch your lats, traps, and all your other back muscles with your bodyweight.