Bodyweight Back Workout And How To Build A Killer Back

Picture of a shirtless man doing pull ups and showing his back muscles

A well-made bodyweight back workout can easily surpass most of the routines created around machines and weights.

While this may seem like a bold statement, hear me out.

One of the staples of bodyweight fitness is the pull up. Coincidentally, this exercise is also regarded as the king of all pulling movements.

If you’ve ever seen a calisthenics athlete, you might have noticed that they have a wide, muscular back. And a V taper. Let’s not forget the V taper.

Supposing that you might want such results, we highly recommend you to check the routine presented below. You will be able to find a workout that suits your needs, regardless of your current fitness level.

Bodyweight back workout

For the beginner routine, we’ll assume that you are able to do a few pull ups. If you are unable to do a single one, we highly recommend you to check our article on how to do your first pull up.

As the routine progresses, you will see changes happening in the following areas:

  • Repetition ranges
  • Rest breaks
  • Exercise variations

For the intermediate and advanced stages, we’ll offer the possibility to choose a workout based on your own body weight or weight based (using additional weight through a weight vest).

Lastly, before starting, do not forget to warm up properly. 

Beginner

Man at the top position of a pull up, struggling to finish the repetition
  • 3 x (4-12) Pull ups
  • 3 x (4-12) Narrow grip pull ups
  • 3 x (8-15) Inverted rows
  • 3 x (4-12) Chin ups
  • 3 x (6-10) Reverse hyperextensions or Hyperextensions
  • Rest: 1 minute between sets, 2 minutes between exercises

If you are a beginner this routine should be ideal for you. Even if you are unable to complete it in your first try, you have something to strive towards.

To bridge the gap between this routine and the intermediate one, we highly recommend you to keep progressing until you reach the 12 repetitions mark.

How to progress:


To reach the intermediate level we recommend you to change the first exercise in the routine with the following progressions, one by one.

  • Wide pull ups
  • L-sit pull ups
  • Typewriter pull ups

You should only make the change when you can do 12 proper repetitions of the given progression.

Intermediate

Man in the top position of a muscle up

Once you reach the intermediate level, we can play around with progressions and/or added weight.

This is what a progression-focused routine would look like:

  • 3-4 x (6-8) Archer pull ups (each arm)
  • 3-4 x (6-8) Tuck front lever rows or 3-4 x (12-16s) Tuck front lever hold
  • 3-4 x (8-12) Pull ups
  • 3-4 x (8-12) Archer inverted rows or Inverted rows with feet elevated
  • 3-4 x (15-20s) Bridge
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets, 2-3 minutes between exercises

This is what a weight-focused routine would look like:

  • 3-4 x (8-12) Pull ups + 20-25% of your bodyweight
  • 3-4 x (15-20) Inverted rows
  • 3-4 x (8-12) Chin ups + 20-25% of your bodyweight
  • 3-4 x (6-10) Wide pull ups
  • 3-4 x (8-12) Reverse hyperextensions +10% bodyweight/leg
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets, 2-3 minutes between exercises

At this point, you should already know what exercises should be part of your routine and how much you should rest. Even if you don’t necessarily start getting information on this, you will feel what works for you and what you should scrap.

There is a huge gap to bridge between the intermediate and the advanced level. You should start working towards achieving a front lever and the one arm pull up (OAP), or one arm chin up (OAC).

Advanced

Marcus Bondi performing weighted one arm pull ups as par of his back workout

Marcus Bondi performing weighted one arm pull ups

This is what a progression-focused routine would look like:

  • 3-5 x (3-5) OAP or OAC
  • 3-5 x (3-5) Full front lever rows or Straddle front lever rows
  • 3-5 x (6-8) Archer pull up
  • 3-5 x (6-8) Muscle ups
  • 3-5 x (8-12) One arm inverted rows
  • 3-5 x (6-8) Inverted deadlift

This is what a weight-focused routine would look like:

  • 3-5 x (6-10) Pull ups + 30-35% of your bodyweight
  • 3-5 x (8-15) Inverted rows + 15-20% of your bodyweight
  • 3-5 x (6-10) Chin ups + 40-45% of your bodyweight
  • 3-5 x (6-10) Wide pull ups + 15-20% of your bodyweight
  • 3-5 x (8-12) Reverse hyperextensions +15-20% bodyweight/leg

Just as with the chest workout, if you have reached the advanced level you are a total beast and we congratulate you.

However, if you haven’t reached it yet you have something to strive for.

Certainly, this level of strength requires a great deal of work, consistency, and dedication. Some people may not be willing to dedicate that much time to training and that is just fine. It all comes down to priorities and goals.

The anatomy of the back

A diagram of the musculature of the back

The more you know about the muscles of the human body, the more knowledge you can apply to your training.

Hence, in this section of the article, we’ll have a glimpse on the musculature of the back. Knowing this information can help you better understand movement patterns in the exercises; having general knowledge of this can help you spot out any imbalances or better target certain areas of your back.

The following muscles can be found in the back:

  • Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
  • Trapezius (Traps)
  • Erector Spinae (Spinal Erectors)
  • Rhomboid
  • Teres Major

The function of the back muscles is to protect your spine, support the movement of your upper body and help you stand up straight.

Not having strong enough back muscles can lead to issues ranging from poor posture to pain, discomfort and increased chance of injury.

Latissimus dorsi

Diagram of the latissimus dorsi muscle

Also known as wings, the latissimus dorsi (lats) is the widest muscle in the entire body and the biggest back muscle. The lats are responsible for the V taper look, as opposed to public opinion that broader shoulders give that look.

This is the muscle most abused by bodybuilders in their back day. However, not everyone does a great job in targeting it.

The most common mistake is doing extra wide pull ups, which takes away from the total range of motion.

This is the muscle most abused by bodybuilders in their back day. However, not everyone does a great job in targeting it.

There are lots of great exercises to target this muscle group, however, the pull up has to be the most beneficial of them all.

Diagram of the latisimus dorsi and levator scapule

In a study published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, comparing pull ups and chin ups, concluded that for both variations the latissimus dorsi has an EMG activation of 117-130%.

The function of the lats is to connect the spine to the upper arm while supporting the stability and strength of the trunk. It also helps with shoulder adduction, medial rotation, and extension.

Trapezius

Diagram of the trapezius muscle

The trapezius is the trapezoid, flat muscle of the shoulder girdle. This muscle extends from the back of the skull down the thoracic spine.

  • Superior trapezius
  • Middle trapezius
  • Inferior trapezius

The superior fibers help with scapula elevation (think of shrugging), lateral upward rotation of the scapula, lateral flexion and rotation of the head, and neck extension.

If you want to use bodyweight exercises for the upper trapezius, we recommend exercises such as handstand push ups (HSPUs). If you cannot do HSPUs you can choose an easier variation - the pike push up.

The middle fibers help with scapula adduction.

Lastly, the inferior fibers depress and laterally rotate the scapula upward.

Diagram of the trapezius muscle with all the three heads highlighted

Exercises such as the front lever and inverted rows are excellent for targeting the middle and lower trapezius.

Erector spinae

Diagram of the iliocostalis and longissimus muscles

The erector spinae is a muscle group consisting of three muscles that help us straighten, flex, and extend our back.

The three muscles are:

  • Iliocostalis
  • Longissimus
  • Spinalis (not pictured)

There are multiple exercises that target the spinal erectors (erector spinae), out of which the most well-known are:

  • Pull up
  • Deadlift
  • Hyperextensions
  • Bent-over rows

Both the pull up and the hyperextensions are part of the bodyweight back workout plan presented above.

Diagram of the erector spinae muscle group

Even though the erector spinae is not directly trained by any exercise, it is a very important stabilization muscle that supports your body throughout any type of movement.

Rhomboid

The rhomboid has the role of holding the scapula close to the thoracic wall. It connects the scapula to the vertebrae and is found underneath the trapezius.

This muscle is divided into two distinct fibers:

  • The rhomboid minor
  • The rhomboid major

The minor has its origin in the C7 and T1 vertebrae (C stands for “cervical” - neck area, and T stands for “thoracic”) and inserts into the scapula.

The major has its origin in the T2, T3, T4, and T5 vertebrae and inserts into the scapula.

Diagram of the two heads of the rhomboid muscle

The rhomboid has the role of retracting the scapula by pulling it towards the spine, helps with scapula elevation, and rotates the scapula downwards. This muscle group has a critical role in the proper function of the scapula.

​Teres major

Diagram of the teres major muscle

Lastly, we have the teres major, which is a thick muscle of the shoulder girdle. It has a close relationship with the latissimus dorsi muscle, running parallel to the fibers of that muscle.

The teres major originates in the scapula and inserts into the back of the humerus.

This muscle helps with inward rotation, adduction, and retroversion (pulling behind) of the humerus.

The best exercises for this muscles are the lat pulldowns and bodyweight counterparts that mimic the same movement pattern (think scap pulldown or front lever).

Diagram of the teres major muscle

Conclusion

I think the biggest takeaway from this article if you’ve skimmed through the anatomy section, is the importance of keeping balance through all these muscles.

All of them have to do with the scapula, which is an integral part of the shoulder girdle. Since almost all upper body movement goes through the shoulder, we have to assure that there is no lack of balance between the muscles of our back, chest or shoulders.

Only with such a measure of caution can we expect longevity in our training.

As for the bodyweight back workout presented above, it was made in such a way that the integrity of your shoulders was taken care of.

Now that you have the routine and the necessary information to back it up, it’s time to start working out.

Over to you.