Ease Upper Back Pain With These Exercises

Between using your computer, phone and tablet you're probably hunched over staring at a screen for several hours per day, and that bad posture can lead to upper back pain. If you're suffering from pain in your back, neck and shoulders, strengthening the muscles that improve your posture will help.

Upper back exercises are an important addition to your upper-body weightlifting routine. (Image: Staras/iStock/GettyImages)

Is It Safe to Exercise With Upper Back Pain?

The answer to whether or not you should work out with back pain depends on the cause and severity of the pain. In addition to poor posture, upper back pain can be caused by overuse of back muscles, a herniated disc or fractured vertebrae, according to the University of Michigan.

If you're feeling sore and tight in the upper back (i.e. the pain is not caused by an acute injury), it's best to take it easy for a few days to see if the pain subsides on its own. Regular muscle soreness from exercise should go away within three to five days. If the pain doesn't go away, you might want to see a doctor in case it's a more serious issue.

It might seem counterintuitive or uncomfortable to work out when you're in pain, but light exercise is often recommended if you're suffering from upper back pain, as gentle movement can help keep your muscles from getting stiffer.

Why Is It Important to Strengthen Your Upper Back?

Though any good workout routine should hit every major muscle group at some point in the week, targeting the muscles of your upper back has some very specific benefits. First off, you'll improve your posture.

Stronger rhomboids and trapezius muscles (the ones that pull your shoulder blades back) are better able to hold your shoulders back and your spine upright, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Strengthening the upper back muscles can also help you rehab from a shoulder injury. The rhomboids and trapezius muscles help stabilize your shoulder joint, aiding recovery and helping to prevent future injuries, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

If you have nagging pain that's not caused by soreness or an acute injury, gentle upper back exercises can help manage your pain. In fact, it's better to stay active than rest in bed. Even simple body-weight moves and stretches are better for your pain than doing nothing.

Upper Back Strengthening Exercises

Regardless of whether your goal is to improve your posture, recover from an injury, prevent future injuries or manage your pain, here are several exercises, arranged loosely from easiest to hardest, that will strengthen your upper back.

Shoulder Blade Squeeze

This is a simple upper back strengthening exercise you can do without any equipment. All you need is a place to sit — so you can even do it at work! This move can help ease back pain and improve your posture, and it's a good one to practice throughout your day when you notice your shoulders hunching forward.

  1. Sitting upright in your chair with your hands on your thighs, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for a count of five.
  2. Relax and repeat, making sure your chin stays level and your shoulders don't rise up as you pull them back.

Above the Head Chest Stretch

A tight pectoralis major, more commonly known as your pecs or chest muscle, can pull your shoulders forward. If you're trying to correct slumped-over posture, it's important to correct this by stretching the chest. According to ACE, this stretch is particularly effective at doing just that.

  1. Start either seated or standing and put your hands behind your head and flare your elbows out.
  2. Maintain an upright posture and straight spine.
  3. Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your elbows back to open up your chest.
  4. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.

Cobra Pose

An essential yoga pose, especially for beginners, this exercise can also help fix a slouch.

  1. Lie on your stomach. Place your forearms on the ground with your elbows underneath your shoulders.
  2. Look toward the floor, keeping your neck straight.
  3. Press into your hands and forearms and lift your chest off the ground. Arch your back as much as you can without pain.
  4. Focus on pulling your shoulder blades back and down and keeping your neck alignment neutral.

Modified Pull-Up

The pull-up is a fantastic upper back strengthening exercise that helps correct your posture. But this version is more beginner-friendly than traditional pull-ups. Whether you have neck or back problems, this movement provides strengthening and stretching at the same time.

  1. Hold onto a railing, fence or other fixed object that can support your weight. Your hands should be at about shoulder-height.
  2. Stand close to the object with your arms bent.
  3. Lean back, keeping your feet planted and your body in a straight line from your ankles to shoulders.
  4. Relax your upper back muscles, leaning back with arms fully extended, and stretch for a few seconds.
  5. Pull yourself back up with your back muscles.

TRX Row

Chelsey Yearian, a New York City-based personal trainer, likes TRX rows because they're simple enough for most people to learn and strengthen the upper back muscles. Plus, they're modifiable. "To make it more difficult, walk your feet forward until your body is completely horizontal," she says. "If that's still not hard enough, try elevating your feet on a small box or bench."

  1. Hang a TRX from a ceiling, doorway or similarly high attachment.
  2. Grab the handles and walk back so that your body is at an angle and your arms are straight.
  3. Pull yourself up, keeping your body in a straight line from your ankles to your head as you move.
  4. Lower back down with control.

Inverted Row

If the TRX row sounds intriguing but you don't have access to a suspension system, you can recreate the exercise at your gym with a barbell and a power rack.

  1. Put the barbell on the hooks, slightly lower than waist-height.
  2. Lie down under the barbell, with your chest directly under the bar.
  3. Grab the bar and pull yourself up. If this is too difficult, bend you knees and plant your feet to make it easier.
  4. Lower yourself back down with control.

Resistance Band Row

A resistance band row is useful if you're looking for an at-home upper back exercise that doesn't require dumbbells, barbells or cable machines. This movement helps you focus on squeezing your rhomboids and middle and lower trapezius muscles, which pull your shoulder blades back.

  1. Tie a resistance band around a fixed object at roughly chest-height.
  2. Grab the handles and step back.
  3. Sit your butt back and bend your knees. The resistance band should be taut.
  4. Pull the handles in toward your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades back.
  5. Pause at the end, then relax and straighten your arms.

Barbell Row

If your upper back is strong but you want to make it stronger, try the barbell row. The barbell allows you to add weight quickly and easily.

  1. Grab a barbell with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart.
  2. Fold forward at the waist, stick your hips back and lean forward with your back flat.
  3. Once you're in that position, your arms are the only things that move. Pull the bar up toward your stomach, pinching your shoulder blades back.
  4. Relax your arms as you lower the barbell and then repeat.

One-Arm Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

With just a single dumbbell, you can do this exercise, which also requires some lower-back strength, to strengthen your upper back muscles. It's also useful in evening out any strength imbalances between your right and left sides.

  1. Grab a dumbbell and bend over like you're taking a bow. You can support the side that's not working by putting that hand and knee on a chair or weight bench.
  2. Stick your butt back, keep your weight on your heels and keep your back flat. The dumbbell should hang straight down from your shoulder.
  3. Pull the weight up toward the side of your ribs, and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  4. Relax your arm as you lower the weight and repeat.

T-Bar Row

Nick DeFreitas, New York University strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer, uses the T-bar row with his athletes to strengthen their back muscles. He likes the exercise because other muscles don't have the chance to compensate for a weak upper back. Since your chest is supported during the movement, it's hard to cheat.

  1. Lie on the T-bar row machine with your chest on the pad.
  2. Grip the handles and move the bar so that it's directly underneath you.
  3. Pull the handles up toward your ribs, pinching your shoulder blades back.
  4. Relax and lower the bar.

Cable Face Pull

With a proper cable machine, you can create an upper back strengthening exercise that also works the back of the shoulder, called the rear deltoid.

  1. Set a cable machine to the highest height and put a rope attachment on the machine.
  2. Grab the rope with your knuckles facing each other.
  3. Take a step back and kneel down on one knee.
  4. Pull the rope toward your nose and flare out your elbows.
  5. Pull back as far as you can, then relax and extend your arms back out and repeat.

Chest-Supported Kettlebell Row

Cable machines are useful for upper back exercises, but they're expensive and take up space. You can use this movement to mimic a cable chest-supported row.

  1. Set a weightlifting bench to a roughly 45-degree incline.
  2. Place two kettlebells, one on each side, on the ground towards the back of the bench.
  3. Lie on your stomach, flat on the bench, with your chest at the top.
  4. Reach down and grab the kettlebells.
  5. Row them up as you pull your shoulder blades back.
  6. Relax and lower the kettlebells.

Kettlebell Clean

"Developing and strengthening the musculature of the upper back is essential for improving posture," says Francheska Martinez, an ONNIT Academy certified trainer. She uses the kettlebell clean with her clients.

  1. Start with a kettlebell between your feet.
  2. Hinge at the hips and squat down to grab the handle.
  3. Stand and pull the kettlebell up with one arm so that it flips over and lands on the back of your forearm.
  4. Hold the kettlebell with your forearm vertical.
  5. Puff your chest out, stand tall and pull your shoulders down and back.
  6. Then, flip the kettlebell over and hinge your hips back to set it back down.
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