How to Do the Y Raise for a Healthier Back and Shoulders

illustration of a person doing the y raise exercise on a blue background
The Y raise targets your upper-back muscles and shoulders while improving posture.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com

If you're getting bored with rows and pull-downs in your upper-back routine (and even if you aren't!) you'd be wise to add the Y raise to your workouts.

  • What is the Y raise?​ It's an upper-body exercise that sculpts and strengthens the upper back and shoulders. You can do it with just your body weight or with dumbbells.
  • Is the Y raise effective?​ The exercise effectively targets muscles in the upper back and shoulders that many workout routines and upper-body exercises tend to miss. You can add load to make it more challenging as you get stronger. Tatiana Lampa, CPT, personal trainer and founder of Training with T, suggests performing the exercise at least twice per week to see your strength build.
  • What muscles does the Y raise work?​ The exercise targets every muscle in the upper back in some way, specifically the lower trapezius, which sits between and extends below the shoulder blades, and the rhomboids (upper-back muscles between the shoulder blades). It also hits the shoulder-stabilizing muscles in the rotator cuff, aka the infraspinatus, supraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis, as well as the anterior (front), lateral (side) and rear deltoids (shoulder muscle). In other words, you hit the muscles of the shoulder from every angle.

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How to Do the Y Raise With Perfect Form

Watch the Full Tutorial

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Body Part Back
  1. Lie face-down on the floor. Tuck your chin and pelvis slightly to create a neutral spine. Put your feet together.
  2. Extend your arms overhead and to the sides at 45 degrees to create a Y shape with your body. Situate your hands with your thumbs pointing up, palms facing each other.
  3. Keeping your head and torso still, squeeze your shoulder blades together so that both arms raise off of the floor.
  4. Pause, then lower your arms back to the floor and repeat.

5 Y Raise Exercise Benefits

1. It Fortifies Your Back and Shoulders

Your upper back and shoulders muscles — particularly the stabilizing ones — get extra love with this move. Strengthening these muscles is key to increasing the depth of your push-ups and leveling up to more challenging exercises, like pull-ups.

They are also important for carrying out everyday tasks, like pulling heavy trash bags to the curb and grabbing something off the top shelf of your kitchen.

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2. It Strengthens Posture

Attention desk jockeys and cyclists: Sitting hunched over a computer or bike can weaken your back muscles, but the Y raise exercise can help prevent this imbalance by pulling your shoulders back so you sit taller. "Y raises are super helpful for strengthening your lower traps and improving your posture," Lampa explains.

It can also help you build muscular endurance — or the muscles' ability to work longer without fatiguing — which helps you maintain a strong posture all day.

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And because it contributes to a taller back and a more open chest, this exercise can also promote healthy breathing patterns, which means you may have more power and control to do other strength exercises and cardio workouts.

3. It Improves Shoulder Range of Motion

Many people tend to have limited shoulder mobility, but strengthening your upper back and shoulders with the Y raise can help increase your range of motion, says Lauren Sambataro, CPT, personal trainer and instructor with MYX+Openfit.

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The stronger you get in your prone (lying on your stomach) Y raise, the better you'll be able to get your arms overhead when standing. This allows you to perform other heavy exercises, say lat pull-downs or bench presses, and help you feel better doing everyday movements.

4. It Reduces Risk of Injury

By strengthening your rotator cuff muscles (the muscles that surround the shoulder blade), you avoid imbalances that can lead to injury, Sambataro says.

And thanks to that strengthening of the muscles around your shoulder, the Y raise exercise can also improve stability at the shoulder joint, Lampa says. This, too, can protect you from injury, especially when moving things overhead, like when you put a suitcase in an overhead compartment on the plane.

5. It Eases Muscle Imbalances

Doing moves like the Y raise helps to offset muscle imbalances in the upper body by working your pull muscles (the ones that tend to get weak from a hunched-over posture), Sambataro says. Push exercises, like push-ups or chest presses, work the front of your upper body, while pull exercises such as pull-ups or lat pull-downs, target the back of your upper body. You want both to be equally strong.

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5 Common Y Raise Mistakes

1. Raising the Shoulders

A common form mishap that Lampa sees is raising the shoulders up by the ears as the arms come up for the Y. Doing this means the upper traps take on all the work in this exercise — a muscle that is often already overworked because of everyday desk posture.

Instead, pack those shoulders down and pinch your shoulder blades together as hard as you can to lift and lower the arms.

2. Going Too Heavy

When done correctly, you'd be surprised at how challenging it is to do this exercise with just your body weight or a light pair of dumbbells.

If your shoulders are coming up to your ears or if you have trouble lifting without moving your lower body, it's a sign that your weights are more than what you can handle.

Instead, grab a light set (or skip dumbbells altogether) and see how it feels. Using a lighter set of weights means you want to train for muscular endurance and aim for higher reps (around 15 to 20), Sambataro says.

3. Lifting Your Chin

Sticking your head out or lifting your chin could put a strain on your neck, Sambataro says. You want to make sure you tuck your chin and keep your gaze toward the floor (when lying down or standing) to maintain a neutral spine. This also allows your upper back and shoulders to do the work.

4. Not Bracing Your Abs

Speaking of strong body alignment, you also want your abs to fire to make sure you maintain a neutral spine position, Sambataro says.

Take deep breaths to tighten the core — exhaling as you lift your arms and inhaling as you lower — and make sure you feel that ab activation as you go.

Maintain it throughout the entire move, too. Thinking about tilting your pelvis slightly forward should also make your abs fire.

5. Rushing Reps

Do this exercise slow and steadily. Rushing the movement and using momentum can make the exercise less effective at targeting the upper-back muscles and shoulders.

To slow things down, add a tempo as you lift your arms and pause at the top of the movement. This forces you to do the exercise with more control and to initiate the lift from your back and shoulders.

5 Y Raise Variations

1. Incline Bench

Lampa says doing this exercise on a bench will allow for more range of motion, compared to lying on the floor to do the move.

To do it, adjust the bench at a 15- to 30-degree angle and place your body from shoulders to hips against it. Extend your arms down in front of you, then lift the arms up in a Y position. Lower back down and repeat.

2. Standing

To create more tension in your abs, take this exercise off the floor and on your feet.

Get into a hinge position by sending your butt back and keeping the back flat. Then, perform the same Y raise motion as you'd do on the floor, lifting the arms up and out. Then lower back down and repeat.

3. Standing Single-Arm

Take that standing variation and make it unilateral, Sambataro suggests. This move will fire up the core even more and help you address any muscle imbalances on your left or right side.

To do it, start standing in a hinge position with your butt back and back flat. Lift one arm up and out to half a Y raise. Then lower back down. Repeat on the other side and continue alternating.

4. Dumbbell

Both experts recommend grabbing a light set of 2.5 weights to level up the strength benefits of the exercise when you're ready to make it a little more challenging.

Perform the exercise lying or standing, lifting the arms to a Y position with control. Then lower back down and repeat.

5. Swiss Ball

Add a balance challenge to this move by lying down on a stability ball, Sambataro recommends.

You'll still start on your stomach and perform the move as you would on the floor, but you'll have a bit more room for added range of motion. You'll also feel your entire body activated to keep you steady on the ball, and your anterior delts will be working more, too.

Start lying face-down on the stability ball with your chest and hips supported, but your shoulders off the ball. Brace your legs to keep you stable, then lift the arms to the Y position. Lower back down and repeat.

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