Bodyweight back exercises

Bodyweight back exercises

Bodyweight Back Exercises: How To Get A Taper With Ease

Athlete flexing his back muscles

Bodyweight back exercises are effective enough to substitute free weight or machines.

This sentence is bold.

In our opinion, one of the most effective exercises for back muscles development is the pull-up.

If done properly, using the full range of motion, there is little to no need for another type of vertical pulling exercise.

You may be interested in constructing your own bodyweight back workout...

Otherwise why would you need a list of the best bodyweight back exercises?

Therefore, before presenting you with the list, we have added a section on the pulling planes of motion.

By knowing this information, you will be able to develop a well-rounded, injury-free body.

Pulling planes of motion

The shoulder is the joint with the most range of motion in our entire body.

Most, if not all, upper body exercises involve the shoulder in some type of way!

Therefore, we need to make sure that our shoulders are healthy and strong throughout the entire range of motion.

This is where issues may arise with a workout based around muscle groups, rather than the wellbeing of the shoulder.

There are two planes of motion that we should train:

  • Vertical
  • Horizontal

Pulling exercises are all the exercises in which the center of mass of the body, and the hands, are pulling towards each other.

Example:

  • Pulling your chest from the hanging position in a pull-up towards your hands.
  • Pulling the bar towards your chest in a row

Vertical

Man doing a pull-up - one of the best bodyweight back exercises

In bodyweight fitness...

The vertical plane of motion is characterized by pulling exercises such as the pull-up, inverted pull-up, and other gymnastics’ specific skills such as the iron cross.

However, how does this information affect you?

Most people perform too many vertical exercises.

Eventually their shoulder is placed under a lot of pressure.

This can lead to injuries because there is a lack of balance in the shoulder girdle.

Too much vertical pulling is not the only issue.

Most people do not skip their pushing day; therefore, a tight chest, tight anterior deltoid, and weak upper back muscles may lead to a catastrophe in your shoulder.

So how can you fix or prevent that from happening?

Horizontal

Fitness class doing inverted rows as part of their bodyweight back workout

The horizontal plane of motion is characterized by pulling exercises such as the inverted row and front lever.

These are all the rowing exercises, whether we’re talking about bodyweight fitness, free weights or machines.

How can these exercises help you?

As mentioned above, most people have an imbalance in the muscles around the shoulder girdle. This may lead to shoulder pain or, even worse, injury.

To fix this issue all you have to do is perform more rowing-type exercises.

You should perform them at 2:1 ratio - two horizontal exercises for every one vertical exercise.

If you start doing this and you stick to it, you’ll see that any existing shoulder pain should start to disappear.

Posture issues such as having a hunched back will also start correcting themselves.

Bodyweight back exercises

In bodyweight fitness there are just a few pulling exercises.

In fact, there are just a couple that we repeat and vary.

However, there are lots of variations to every single exercise.

These variations can be used to make the exercise easier, tougher, or simply place the focus on certain muscles.

The exercises we’ll be discussing are:

  • Pull-up
  • Inverted row
  • Front lever
  • Back lever

Let’s get started.

Vertical

1. Pull-up

Man pictured in different phases of a pull-up

The pull up is certainly the best bodyweight back exercise.

In our opinion, it is a strong contender for the King of all pulling exercises - regardless of the sport.

If you are not doing it you are missing out. 

Make sure to check our article on how to do a pull-up if you can't do one yet.

In that article you’ll learn how to get your first repetition, how to address any weak links, and how to increase the number of repetitions.

Muscle focus:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Biceps
  • Lower trapezius

How to do it:

  • Grab onto a bar with a shoulder-width grip.
  • From the dead hang position, get into an active hang by depressing and retracting your scapula.
  • Pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar or until your chest touches it.
  • Lower back to the starting position in a controlled manner, making sure that your elbows are fully locked.

How to progress to this exercise:

As mentioned above, we have an entire article dedicated to doing your first pull up.

There are two main exercises you should be doing if you are unable to do a full repetition:

  • Inverted rows
  • Eccentric pull-ups

Eccentric (negative) pull-ups will help you build the necessary strength for your first repetition.

However, they can be pretty taxing on your body. Therefore, it’s recommended to couple them with inverted rows.

Make sure to check that article for a more in-depth analysis of how to build up to that first repetition, and beyond.

How to make it harder:

  • Do it slower
  • Do harder progressions
  • Add extra weight

There are multiple ways to make the exercise harder - you can increase the time under tension (tempo), do a harder variation, or add weight.

Below we’ll discuss the harder variations and the difference in the muscles they engage.

2. Wide grip pull-up

Athlete doing wide grip pull-ups, a bodyweight back exercise

The wide grip pull-up is a bit more difficult than the regular one.

The mechanics of the exercise are in such a manner that the biceps is unable to help much at all.

One of the most common mistakes is that trainees take too wide of a grip, placing them in an inefficient line of pull.

Not only are they reducing the range of motion, while making the exercise harder, but they also put a lot of strain on their shoulders.

Muscle focus:

Wide grip pull-ups place more emphasis on the lats above all muscles. 

Even though pull-ups (pronated grip) place the biceps in a technically disadvantageous position, the wider stance takes away even more of its function.

How to do it:

  • Grab onto the bar with a wider than shoulder-width grip.
  • From the dead hang, depress and retract your scapula.
  • Pull your body until your chin is above the bar; the wider the grip, the more difficult it will be.
  • Lower slowly to take advantage of the eccentric movement. Fully lock your elbows in the bottom position.

3. Narrow grip pull-ups

Diagram of the muscles worked during a narrow pull-up

The narrow pull-up is great for emphasizing the forearm muscles, as well as bringing the biceps in a more advantageous position.

The narrow grip allows for a greater degree of extension in your shoulders.

Given that your hands are closer, you can bend your elbow to a greater degree.

Muscle focus:

The focus in the narrow grip pull-up is placed on the lats, biceps, and forearm.

Since you can bend the elbow more, the biceps engage more and can better assist with the movement.

In the top position of this pull-up, you will notice your wrists flexing, due to the mechanics of the movement.

The wrist flexion increased the demand on the forearm.

How to do it:

Follow the points in the pull-up or the wide pull-up, but taking a close grip rather than a regular or wide one.

4. L-sit pull-up

Man and woman at the bottom position of an L pull up

Most bodyweight exercises are compound movements - working more than a muscle and using more than a joint at a time.

Furthermore, all such movements need stabilization from the core.

Therefore, the core is being worked out secondarily with most of them.

However, if you want to increase the demands on your core using one of your bodyweight back exercises, you can do it with the L-sit pull-up.

Muscle focus:

This variation places the emphasis on the same muscles the regular variation does.

However, the core has to work more to keep your body in the L position.

How to do it:

  • Grab a bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Depress and retract your scapula, then lift your legs until they form a 90-degree angle at the hips.
  • Pull yourself up until the chin is over the bar.
  • Lower in a controlled manner and lock the elbows in the bottom position.

5. Archer pull-up

Bodybuilder doing archer pull ups

If you find regular pull-ups easy, perhaps you should try doing them unilaterally (using only one arm).

The archer variation is a very effective progression towards the one arm pull-up.

This exercise is pretty hard on the joints. Therefore, we recommend you to consider doing it once you are intermediate or advanced.

Muscle focus:

Doing archer pull-ups you will engage the same muscles that you engage in a regular variation.

However, since you are working only one side of your body per rep, the intensity will be much higher.

How to do it:

  • Hang on a bar using a wide grip.
  • Depress and retract the scapula, then pull yourself up using only one arm. Move towards the arm that you are pulling with.
  • Hold the other arm straight and do not bend at the elbow. In the top position of the movement, it should be parallel to the ground.
  • Get back to the bottom position then pull with the other arm.

How to progress to this exercise:

If you are unable to archer pull-ups yet, you should get good at pull-ups in general to build a solid foundation.

Once you have a strong foundation, start working with archer pull up eccentrics and archer rows.

A way to make the exercise easier is to perform it on gymnastics rings.

The bar is fixed, hence it may be tough on the joints when you are extending the arm.

However, rings offer a better range of motion which makes the exercise easy on your joints.

How to make it harder:

Is the archer pull-up too easy for you?

Simply hang a resistance band or a towel on the bar.

Afterward, pull yourself up holding on the band with the other arm, instead of holding on the bar.

Horizontal

1. Inverted row

Someone on the top position of an inverted row - a horizontal bodyweight back exercise

The inverted rows make our list of the best bodyweight back exercises. Not only is it a horizontal pulling exercise, but it is also a very effective progression towards achieving the first pull up.

This exercise can be performed using gymnastics rings, TRX equipment, a smith machine, or a bar that is waist height.

Muscle focus:

The inverted row works pretty much the same muscles a pull-up works.

However, the focus is different.

While the pull-up focuses on muscles such as the lats, which are the prime movers of the horizontal pulling pattern...

The inverted rows focus on trapezius and rhomboids more.

Working pull-ups and inverted rows in conjunction is recommended.

Also, more rowing exercises never hurt, so doing a 2:1 horizontal:vertical ratio can only benefit your progress.

How to do it:

  • Find a bar that is waist height and position yourself underneath it, taking a wide grip.
  • Squeeze your glutes and abs so that your body is in a straight line from top to bottom.
  • Pull yourself up so that your chest touches the bar.
  • Slowly come back to the bottom position.

How to make the exercise harder:

Apart from adding weight, another way of making the exercise harder is to elevate your feet.

This will decrease the angle between your body and the ground.

You may also go through the progressions of the exercise, such as the archer inverted row.

2. Front lever

Markus Bondi doing the front lever

The front lever is a gymnastics skill that can be attained fairly easy by anyone willing to put in the work.

It is a horizontal pulling movement, with the added benefit of looking cool while doing it.

These are the progressions of the front lever:

  • Tuck front lever
  • Advanced tuck front lever
  • Straddle front lever
  • Full front lever

If you are a beginner, you will most likely start with the tuck variation.

Muscle focus:

This exercise activates a variety of muscles ranging from trapezius, latissimus dorsi, biceps, and posterior deltoid, all the way to the anterior deltoid, chest, core, and legs.

How to do it:

  • Hang onto a bar using a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
  • Depress and retract your scapula as much as possible.
  • Using the back muscles start lifting your chest up then bring your knees to the chest. Your back should be parallel to the ground.
  • This is the tuck front lever. For the full front lever extend the legs.
  • Hold the position for as long as you can.

This is overly-simplified.

You can check our full article on the front lever to get more insight into the exercise, as well as how to progress with it.

3. Back lever

Picture of the back lever, a bodyweight back exercise that involves hanging on a bar, holding your body parallel to the ground in a tense position

The back lever is also a gymnastics skill that is easily attainable; even easier than the front lever.

It does look and feel more dangerous.

Until you get the confidence that you can hold your body parallel to the ground while facing it, without falling, you may find it hard to get used to the position.

Thankfully, there are certain progressions to reach this skill and also the confidence to perform it:

  • Skin the cat
  • Tuck back lever
  • Advanced tuck back lever
  • Straddle back lever
  • Full back lever

This exercise can be achieved without specifically training towards it.

This is how I got mine.

How to do it:

  • Hang onto the bar with a shoulder-width grip.
  • Bring your knees to the chest, raise your hips and rotate so that your legs go between your arms.
  • Descend facing the ground and stop when you are parallel to it.
  • You are now in a tuck back lever position.
  • Extend your legs to get into a full back lever.

The back lever is by no means a difficult skill.

However, you should make sure that you get your joints used to it before jumping into the progressions.

Do that by becoming good at pull-ups and comfortable during a skin the cat.

Conclusion

As you can see there are not many bodyweight back exercises out there...

But there certainly are enough progressions and variations to get a good workout.

If you intend on creating your own routine, we highly recommend you to respect the planes of motion and have them in mind at all times.

An injured shoulder will keep you away from the gym/park for quite a while.

Lastly, don’t forget to progress with your exercises once you can easily do them..

If you are able to do 3-4 sets of 10-15 pull-ups, you should consider working towards the wide grip, or even the L-sit or archer variations.

Over to you.