The Top Six Upper Back Exercises for High School and College Athletes

Building a strong, well-developed upper back is essential for any athlete, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are six upper back exercises that should be the foundation of your training routine. These exercises offer the most bang for your buck and will help you develop real-world strength and impressive muscle.

1. Sternum Chin-Ups

Why it’s great: Sternum chin-ups, popularized by Vince Gironda, are an intense variation of the traditional chin-up that work more than just your lats. They create significant overload on the muscles that retract your scapulae.

How to do it:

  • Use either a supinated (palms facing you) or pronated grip (palms facing away).
  • Lean back throughout the movement.
  • Pull yourself up until your lower chest (sternum) touches the bar.
  • Your head should lean back as far as possible, and your hips and legs should be at a 45-degree angle to the floor.

Tip: Slow down your tempo to make it harder. Try 5 seconds up and 5 seconds down.

2. Narrow Parallel-Grip Chin-Ups

Why it’s great: This variation gives you a mechanical advantage, allowing you to lift more weight. It heavily recruits the inferior fibers of the latissimus dorsi, which are great for building strength.

How to do it:

  • Use a V-handle or parallel grips set about 6-8 inches apart.
  • Pull your lower sternum to the handles while leaning back as you reach the top.

3. Subscapularis Pull-Ups

Why it’s great: These pull-ups target your subscapularis muscles, essential for shoulder stability and overall upper back strength.

How to do it:

  • Start in a wide-grip pull-up position.
  • Pull yourself up until your upper chest touches the bar.
  • At the top, push yourself away from the bar and lower yourself under control.

4. Seated Rope Cable Rows to Neck

Why it’s great: This exercise balances out the chest-dominant training that many athletes overdo. It specifically targets the upper back.

How to do it:

  • Set the adjustable pulley at chest height.
  • Use a rope attachment and grab it as if holding hammers.
  • Retract your shoulder blades first, then pull the rope to your neck, keeping your lower back perpendicular to the floor.

5. One-Armed Eccentric Chin-Ups

Why it’s great: These help overcome sticking points in strength development by focusing on the eccentric (lowering) phase of the chin-up.

How to do it:

  • Use an assisted chin/dip machine.
  • Pull up with both arms, then lower yourself slowly with one arm.
  • Aim for 8-10 seconds per rep on the way down.

Tip: If you feel shoulder discomfort at the bottom of the range, consult a shoulder specialist.

6. One-Armed Arc Dumbbell Rows

Why it’s great: This variation emphasizes the lat’s role in shoulder extension by changing the trajectory of the row.

How to do it:

  • Instead of pulling the dumbbell to your chest, pull it to your hip.
  • Use a lighter weight than you would for standard rows.
  • Ensure your elbow comes up high over your hip.

Incorporating These Exercises

To build an impressive upper back, you can focus on these exercises, rotating them through your training sessions. Here’s a sample routine:

Workout A:

  • Sternum Chin-Ups: 3 sets of max reps
  • Seated Rope Cable Rows to Neck: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • One-Armed Eccentric Chin-Ups: 3 sets of 2-4 reps per arm

Workout B:

  • Narrow Parallel-Grip Chin-Ups: 3 sets of max reps
  • Subscapularis Pull-Ups: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • One-Armed Arc Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets of 10-12 reps per arm

Alternate these workouts throughout the week, ensuring you allow at least 48 hours of rest between sessions for the same muscle group.

By consistently incorporating these exercises into your routine, you’ll develop a strong, well-rounded upper back that enhances both your athletic performance and physique. Stay dedicated, keep challenging yourself, and watch your strength and muscle gains soar!