Speaking as a fitness coach with a decade of experience, the shoulder, and back muscle groups are crucial for an upper body physique that really stands out.
So, to help our clients and readers, we’ve decided to create this article to show you how to approach a proper back and shoulder workout.
To make a full-proof article, we did some research and reached out to physical therapists and colleagues in the fitness industry.
Here’s what we found.
- Barbell bent-over rows pull-ups, lat pulldowns, lateral raises, and dumbbell front raises are some of the most effective back and shoulder drills.
- According to research, overtraining shoulder muscles can lead to injury, so it's better to pair it with another major muscle group.
- Shoulder muscles are best paired with the back muscle group because most back workouts also train the shoulder to a degree.
Best Back and Shoulders Workout
Below is a list of the most effective back and shoulder exercises.
1. Barbell Bent Over Rows
The barbell bent-over row is also known as the barbell high row. It works the back, shoulder, and arm muscles but mainly helps you build a bigger back.
The good thing about this workout is that it can be done with a dumbbell, a barbell, and even a machine.
Here’s how to do the barbell bent over row:
- Start by holding a barbell with an overhand grip. Your hands should be slightly shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your legs slightly bent, your back straight, and your upper body slightly bent forward.
- Now, row the weights upward till it reaches the lower part of your chest, then pause.
- Return the barbell to the starting position.
2. Lat Pull-down
Lat pull-downs are one of the best exercises on cable machines that target the big back muscles known as latissimus dorsi.
However, as you perform this workout, it also recruits other important muscles in your shoulders and arms.
Here’s how to do the lat pull-down:
- Load weights onto the lat pull-down machine.
- Sit in front of the machine with your thighs under the leg support. Keep your chest up.
- Grab the bar with your palms facing away from you, slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Now pull the bar down until it touches your upper chest or below your chin.
- Slowly return the bar till your arms are fully extended.
3. Renegade Rows
The renegade row is one of my favorite full-body movement exercises for building strength and stability.
It targets various muscle groups, such as the shoulders, chest, and core muscles, aside from the back muscle, which it mainly targets.
To perform this workout effectively, you will need to use some weights.
So a dumbbell, barbell, or even a kettlebell will do. But don’t be tempted to use heavy weights. It works well with weights you’re comfortable with.
Here’s how to do the renegade row:
- You’re going to be in a plank position when doing this workout. So, be sure to get into the position and place the dumbbells at shoulder width apart on the floor just beside your hands.
- While in a plank position, keep your core engaged and row one dumbbell to your hip as you shift your weight to the opposite side.
- Now, lower the dumbbell and repeat the same with the other dumbbell.
Pull-ups are advanced upper body bodyweight exercises targeting the chest, arms, and back.
It can be difficult to perform, especially if you’re a newbie trainee.
So, I suggest modifying it by attaching a resistance band to relieve some weight off your arms.
You will need a pull-up bar for this.
Here’s how to do a pull-up:
- Extend your arms overhead and step up to grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Your legs should come off the floor and stay in a hung state.
- Now, engage your back and bend your elbows to pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar.
- Once at the pull-up height, slowly lower yourself back down and repeat.
“Pull-ups activate muscle groups including back, chest, shoulders, arms, and core – providing an all-over upper body workout.
- Faisal Abdalla, Fitness Coach
5. Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is a variation of the traditional deadlift workout. Its main target is the lower back, although it also works your lower body as well.
As you will find, it's a pretty simple workout to perform yet very effective in strengthening the lower back. You can do it with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells.
Here’s how to do it:
- Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart, chest up, and a barbell in your hands.
- With your upper back retracted and shoulder blades squeezed, bend your knees slightly and hinge at the hips till the barbell goes below the knees.
- Upon reaching a low point, pause and hinge at your hips to return back to your start point.
Also Read: Best Deadlift Alternatives and Substitutes
The superman workout is an effective workout that mainly targets the lower back muscles .
However, it also works the upper back, glutes, hamstrings, abdominal muscles, and shoulders.
The cool part about this workout is that it's easy and can be done by people of all fitness levels.
However, if you suffer chronic back injuries, talk to a health professional first before attempting this workout.
Here’s how to do superman exercises:
- Start by lying facedown on the floor with legs extended behind you, arms in front of you, and palms on the floor
- Now, as you engage your lower back, glutes, core, and shoulder blades, lift your upper body and lower body off the ground. Make sure your neck is in line with your spine.
- Hold for 1-2 seconds before lowering back down.
Shrugs are one of the go-to exercises for a well-developed trapezius, the large muscle at the base of your neck that runs across the shoulders to the middle of your back.
Besides the back, shrugs also strengthen the shoulder muscles, neck, and upper arms as well.
This simple movement can be a great finisher to a back workout and can be done with weights (a dumbbell or barbell) or without weights, with the former being the most effective in terms of strength.
How to perform a shrug:
- Start by standing tall with weights in your hands and arms straight and extended by your side.
- Now brace your core and lift your shoulders towards your ears to engage your traps.
- Once you reach the top position, hold for a second and relax your shoulders back to your starting point.
8. Overhead Press
The overhead press is an excellent workout that sears all three heads of the deltoid muscle and is effective for big and strong shoulders.
Performing this workout also emphasizes the tricep, chest, and upper traps.
The overhead press is one of those convenient exercises that can be done with a barbell, dumbbell, and a smith machine.
It also has several variations, but today, we’ll examine the standing overhead press with a barbell.
Here’s how to do it:
- Grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Engage your core muscles to unrack the bar, then let it rest against your delts as you step back from the rack.
- Now press the bar up till your arms straighten. Ensure you’re not using your leg drive for momentum.
- Once you’ve reached the top, slowly lower the bar back to your shoulders.
9. Dumbbell Front Raise
This upper-body exercise mainly engages the shoulders, upper chest, upper back, arms, and secondary chest muscles.
To perform this workout effectively, choose weights you can handle. Avoid the temptation of selecting too heavy weights to ensure you isolate the right muscles.
The workout can be done with dumbbells or a barbell.
Here’s how to do it with a dumbbell:
- Hold a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip in front of your hips.
- Now, slowly lift the dumbbells with straight arms till they reach shoulder height.
- Once they reach shoulder height, lower them with control back to your starting position.
10. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
This workout isolates your side delts and works well on your shoulder width.
This makes this exercise one of the must-dos for a muscular shoulder.
Like the front raise, select a dumbbell that you can easily and repeatedly lift for the best result, but no cheating.
Using momentum for the lift transfers the work to your traps which is not the intention of this workout.
Now, here’s how to do the dumbbell lateral raise:
- Start by holding a pair of dumbbells and hanging them by your sides.
- Slowly lift the dumbbells out to your sides till your arms are horizontal.
- With control, lower the weights slowly.
11. Arnold Press
The Arnold press was named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the famous bodybuilder turned movie star.
The workout is a variation of the overhead press, with the front delts being the main focus.
However, the back and upper arms are also involved when performing the Arnold press.
How to do the Arnold press:
- As your starting position, sit on the bench while holding a pair of dumbbells in each hand with palms facing your shoulders as you’ve just done a bicep curl.
- Now, push the weight over your head till your arms straighten up. As you push up, rotate your arms so that your palms face you.
- Pause once you reach up and slowly bring your weights as you rotate your arms in reverse movement back to your starting position.
12. Upright Row
A back and shoulder workout is incomplete without the upright row, another excellent exercise that works the shoulders and upper back.
The good thing about this workout is that it can be done with dumbbells and a barbell.
The difference is a dumbbell offers a better range of motion, while a barbell allows you to lift a heavier load.
Here's how to do an upright row with a barbell:
- Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding your barbell with a narrow grip just in front of you.
- Now, while engaging your core, bend your elbows to pull up your barbell to neck height. Keep your bar close to the body while pulling up.
- Once you’ve reached neck height, pause and slowly lower the bar back to the starting position.
Related: Best Upright Row Alternatives
13. Bent-Over Rear Delt Flys
The bent-over rear delt is one of the unique exercises that adds muscle to the posterior deltoid in your shoulders and the rhomboids and trapezius muscle located in the upper back.
Additionally, the positioning (done in a hinge position) strengthens the lower back and stabilizes the rotator cuff muscles.
How to do bent-over rear delt flys:
- Start by holding a pair of dumbbells in each hand and hinge at your hips with your shoulders down and chest up.
- With a slight bend at your elbows and with great control, bring the weights out your sides while engaging the upper back.
- Return them to the starting position and repeat.
Related: Best Rear Delt Exercises
Benefits of Working These Two Together
Here are a few reasons why you should combine a back and shoulder workout.
1. To Prevent Injury
Research says that overtraining the shoulder muscles can lead to injury . So, instead of planning a major shoulder day, pairing it with another body part is better to prevent overtraining them.
2. Training the Back Primes the Shoulders
The best muscle group to pair a shoulder exercise with is back. See, most back workouts like the rowing motions and reverse flys also train the shoulder to a smaller degree.
“The back and shoulders can be a great pairing due to them having a little bit of overlap in the muscles used. Many upper back exercises have some shoulder muscles used to a smaller degree, and vice versa. So doing back exercises at the start will often act as a primer for the shoulders after.”
- Caine Wilkes, Weightlifting Olympian
Working your lats and other muscles in your back helps retract your shoulder blades. So, in essence, you’re training your shoulders as well.
3. Allows You to Train More Than Once a Week
Another benefit of combining a back and shoulder workout is that it allows you to train the muscle groups more than once a week, which is good for muscle hypertrophy.
Is Shrugs a Back or Shoulder Workout?
Shrugs are both the back and shoulder workout. The pulling-up movement of the shrug contracts the trapezius muscle, which runs across the shoulder to the middle of the back. It also works the rhomboids, a muscle responsible for shoulder blade mobility.
Should I Do Shoulders or Back First?
You can choose to do either shoulder or back first. However, starting with the one you prioritize is also advisable. If your top goal is building a strong back, then hit it first. And if you prioritize strong shoulders, train them first before a back workout.
What Should I Eat Before a Back and Shoulder Workout?
You should eat a protein-filled meal before a back and shoulder workout. A protein smoothie made of milk, banana, mixed berry, and protein powder can be a great nourishment for optimum muscle gain.
Boost your Workouts with Protein
Back and shoulder exercises such as bent-over rows, overhead presses, shrugs, and upright rows can help you attain an advanced upper-body physique.
However, it takes a lot of discipline and dedication before the results become visible, which affects motivation. That's why I always advise my clients to add a protein powder into the mix.
We’ve tested all the products in these lists, and both our testing data and client feedback shows they are very effective in fast-tracking the results.
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