6 Calisthenic Back Workouts (For a Strong & Sculpted Back)

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Published by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: March 4, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Dr. Kristy Dayanan, BS, MD
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As a certified fitness coach, I've guided many clients and readers on how to exercise their backs and gain the required strength and muscles.

Often, many have asked if it's possible to build a bigger and stronger back without weights.

I spent a couple of hours learning the anatomy of the back and worked closely with colleagues to develop the best calisthenic workouts targeting the back muscles.

In this article, I will provide my findings and expertise on the best calisthenic exercises you can perform to strengthen your back and build back muscles.

Quick Summary

  • Building a stronger and bigger back without weights is achievable through calisthenic exercises like close grip pull-ups, resistance band face pulls, and Australian pull-ups.
  • A calisthenics back workout may help you create lean, powerful muscles across your core if you employ the appropriate movements properly.
  • A study published on the National Institutes of Health website highlights the effectiveness of bodyweight exercises in engaging and strengthening the latissimus dorsi muscle, a key component of the back.
  • In my professional opinion, as a fitness coach, consistently practicing these calisthenic exercises can lead to significant improvements in back strength and muscle definition.

The Best Calisthenic Back Workouts

The men perform calisthenic back workouts.

1. Close Grip Pull-Ups

Some of my clients often confuse the close-grip pull-up with the traditional pull-up bar exercise. The difference is in the hand placement.

Your hands should be shoulder-width apart during a close grip pull-up, and your palms might be facing back or forward.

As an experienced fitness coach, I've found the close-grip pull-ups effective in strengthening back and arm muscles, particularly the lats and biceps.

How to perform:

  1. Grab the pull bar with a shoulder-width hold and a pronated grip.
  2. Breathe deeply, clench the glutes, and brace your core.
  3. By engaging the lats, depress the shoulder blades and drive your elbows down to the floor.
  4. Lift your chin to the bar until your lats are fully clenched, then gently return to the beginning position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

2. Resistance Band Face Pulls

As a fitness coach, I've seen firsthand how resistance band face pulls can transform upper back strength. These exercises particularly work the trapezius, deltoids, and upper back.

This exercise engages multiple layers of back musculature, including deeper muscles like the rhomboids and lower traps, which are crucial for scapular movement and stability.

"They assist in maintaining the shoulders squared and back, preventing the pulled-forward appearance from performing too much front delt and chest training. They also aid in the development of a robust upper back, which serves as a foundation for a powerful bench press."
- Robert Herbst, World Champion powerlifter & Personal Trainer

How to perform:

  1. Begin by securing a resistance band to a stationary object at a lower chest height level.
  2. Using an overhand grip, grab the given handles, or the resistance bands themselves if there are no handles.
  3. Stand with your feet staggered and your back straight. Arms should be straight in front of you, hands at lower chest height.
  4. Begin the workout by pulling both hands near your ears, keeping the palms facing down the entire time.
  5. Hold this posture for a few seconds to obtain a nice contraction, then gently drop your hands back to the beginning position.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

3. Australian Pull-Ups

A man doing Australian Pull ups outdoors

Australian pull-ups have been a staple in my training programs, especially for beginners or those with limited upper-body strength.

The Australian pull-up bar is about waist height, and you must lie beneath it, extend your arms up, hold the bar, and pull up till your chest reaches the bar, all while maintaining your heels on the ground.

Integrating Australian pull-ups with other training regimens, such as yoga for flexibility or weightlifting for added strength, can provide a more comprehensive approach to back fitness.

The Australian pull-up is also called the inverted row, bodyweight row, and Australian row.

How to perform:

  1. Set up a bar at around waist level. Check that the bar does not move. You can use a barbell for Smith machine exercises or a squat rack.
  2. Place yourself on the floor below the bar. Grasp it with an overhand grip that is broader than shoulder width.
  3. Lean back and keep your arms straight. Pull the shoulders down and back, bracing your core.
  4. Raise your hips so your body weight is supported solely by your heels and hands. Check that your entire body is straight, from the heels to the shoulders.
  5. Bend both arms and raise your chest toward the bar while keeping your body aligned.
  6. Maintain straight wrists and concentrate on leading with the elbows. At the height of the rep, squeeze your shoulders together.
  7. Go to the starting point by slowly extending your elbows and maintaining your torso straight.
  8. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

4. Prone Cobra

Prone Cobra is a basic postural adjustment workout that will strengthen the back's anti-slouch muscles, improving your posture.

I often recommend it to clients who spend long hours at a desk.

Exercises like Prone Cobra are excellent for rehabilitating back injuries, as they gently engage and strengthen the muscles without excessive strain.

How to perform: 

  1. Lie prone face down on the floor, arms at your sides in an "A" stance. Ensure that your body is in a straight line, with your toes pointing directly ahead to the floor, your gaze straight down, your glutes contracted, and your tummy is drawn in.
  2. Raise the torso into a straight line, lifting the head and stretching the upper back. Lift your shoulder blades down and back, then stretch your thumbs upward while maintaining your elbows straight.
  3. Reverse the pattern to go back to the starting point.
  4. Repeat until the required number of repetitions has been reached.

Related: Cobra Back Workout Exercises for a Stronger and Leaner Back

5. Arched Pull-Ups

Doing pull ups with arched back

The arched pull-up, a key calisthenics exercise, involves doing a pull-up with a fully arched back. It's crucial for mastering scapula stability during standard pull-ups.

You can perform it using various grips on a bar or ring.

The focus? Keep pulling until your scapula control is spot-on, with perfect depression and retraction.

"This exercise requires horizontal and vertical pull from your upper body, whereas most pulling exercises only require one or the other. Since it emphasizes core muscles and abdominal activation, the arched-back pull-up targets approximately the same amount of total muscle as any other move."
- Martin Rooney, Founder of the Training for Warriors Method

How to perform:

  1. Drape a pull-up bar with a neutral grip.
  2. Grasp the handle with both hands and begin from a hanging position, hands fully extended.
  3. Pull your chest toward the handle while raising your hips and allowing your head to go back so that your chest meets your hands and your torso is nearly parallel to the floor at the peak of the rep.
  4. Drop back to the starting position and repeat for reps.

6. Resistance Band Pull-Downs

Resistance band pull-downs are among the best workouts for strengthening the back and improving your posture.

You'll require a resistance band and an elevated hook, door frame, or other stable items to secure the band for this workout.

How to perform:

  1. Attach the resistance band to a raised hook or door frame, and kneel or sit on the ground.
  2. If the band has handles, reach up and grip the handles with the palms facing forward.
  3. If your band lacks handles, grasp it with your palms facing forward and your hands wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Brace your core, draw your shoulder blades backward and down, and pull the resistance band down to around chest level.
  5. Pause briefly at the bottom, tighten your lats, and, in a slow and controlled manner, return to the starting position.
  6. Keep your core firm and repeat.

The Muscles of the Back

A man showing his back muscles

Even with weights, the back is pretty hard to work out.

Nevertheless, you can develop your back without using weights with the appropriate activities and perfect form.

You must think outside the box to target the four separate muscle groups in the upper back.

1. The Latissimus Dorsi Muscle

The lats are the broad wing-like muscles that go from the arm down to the lower back as shown in studies by the National Institutes of Health [1].

They are focused on by pulling objects down towards you in vertical and horizontal planes.

2. The Trapezius Muscle

Trapezius muscle marked in human anatomy

According to the National Library of Medicine studies, trap muscles run down the upper and mid-back, above the clavicles [2].

The traps are divided into three sections:

  • The upper traps are worked by shrugging and row-type workouts
  • The mid traps are worked by activities that pull objects toward the abdomen
  • The lower traps are worked by activities that raise the arms from a prone pose.

3. The Rhomboids

Rhomboids are found between the scapulae (shoulder blades).

They are worked by workouts that retract the shoulder blades (or align them together).

4. The Posterior Deltoid

The posterior deltoids are situated behind the shoulder.

Activities that rotate the shoulders outward and pull items towards your face help to strengthen them.

Importance of Back Calisthenics

Performing horizontal pull ups

The posterior chain is a series of muscles positioned on the backside, including all major muscles in the posterior chain.

This set contains all the muscles mentioned above.

The value of exercising this group is twofold: first, it significantly influences our posture; second, it stabilizes against damage when we execute other workouts and movement patterns.

When these muscles are weak, they cause your spine to curve forward, leading to undesirable habits with poor physical alignment.

Your spinal position also influences how much oxygen is circulated in your body.

If you have a weaker lower back or a postural problem, strengthening your posterior chain can help.

Strengthening your back muscles will aid in the correction of any hunching or rounding caused by weak shoulder blades and hamstrings.

A strong upper back may also help many individuals with thoracic outlet syndrome, a painful condition caused by strain on nerves that run from the neck down into the armpit and into the hands.

Back training can also help correct muscular imbalances that can lead to mobility dysfunction in other body regions, leading to injury.

FAQs

Can You Build Your Back With Calisthenics?

Yes, you can build your back with calisthenics. Calisthenics back workout uses the body's weight and requires little to no equipment. This permits body weight to be the primary source of resistance, putting less strain on the joints while allowing for the development of lean, powerful back muscles.

What Calisthenics Exercises Work Back?

The calisthenics exercises that work the back are the bodyweight rows, suspension Australian pull-ups, bent-over band rows, band lat pull-downs, and dead hang.

Do Calisthenics Get You Ripped?

Yes, calisthenics get you ripped. It demands a lot of motion, which allows you to burn extra calories in a short time.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448120/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK518994/
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About The Author

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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