In this article I’m going to show you how to build a powerful and strong back using only calisthenics.
That’s right, it’s possible to build a ripped back that is as strong as Captain America’s shield using only your own bodyweight.
In fact, calisthenics are a perfect method for building a strong back because they stress the ability to move your body through space in order to build muscle and this requires you to keep you back straight and firm throughout these movements.
In this guide I’m going to show you the exact calisthenics exercises you want to follow to progressively build a bullet proof and powerful back; both upper and lower.
But first I want to talk about why it’s important to perform these exercises in the first place:
Why it’s Important to Build a Strong Back
Your back can be divided into essentially two regions for what we’re going to talk about.
Your upper back is in charge of doing all of the pulling motions you do in your everyday life.
Every time you pull something towards your body, or pull your body towards something else, you’re using your upper back muscles.
This will happen every time you hold and lift an object, such as a bag of groceries or some books.
Your lower back is used to stabilize and protect your spine while you perform other motions, such as lifting heavy objects.
Its main job is to remain stiff and firm in order to protect you. It does assist with the pulling but its primary function is just to keep your back straight while your legs and other muscles do most of the movement.
Have you ever heard the saying, “Lift with your legs, not with your back.”
That’s what the meaning of this is. You want to keep your back straight as much as possible throughout most strenuous movements.
However, this doesn’t mean that your back isn’t doing a lot of work.
Every time you’re carrying a heavy bag of groceries, or giving your kids a piggy-back ride, your lower back muscles are doing a lot of work just to keep you standing straight and tall.
That’s why it’s so important to keep our backs strong and healthy.
We need to make sure our backs are always strong enough to do the tasks we ask of them or we might find out painfully that they’re not fit enough.
How to Build a Powerful Upper Back Using Your Own Bodyweight
To build a strong upper back you’re going to be pulling your own bodyweight towards you in progressively more difficult positions.
This will also work out other muscles in your body, such as your biceps, but you want to be relying on your back muscles to really do most of the work.
For many people this may feel awkward as we spend so much time hunched forward in our modern day world.
In order to get over this it helps to do a few drills when you’re getting started.
You want to practice bringing your shoulder blades down and together.
This will activate your shoulder muscles and get your mind and body used to contracting them to do work.
One of the best ways to do this is to hang passively from a pull up bar and practice pulling your shoulders down and back.
You’ll feel your head rising up and forward and your back muscles squeezing together as your shoulder blades move down and back.
Another great way to get your upper back primed for work is to do:
Scapular Push Ups
Why am I talking about push ups in an article that’s supposed to be about pulling?
Because you’re not actually going to be doing any pushing with these “push ups.”
Here’s a quick video on how to do them properly:
Basically you want to get into the top position for doing a push up but keep your arms straight the whole time.
The only parts of you that should be moving are your shoulders and shoulder blades in your back.
The purpose of this exercise is to develop your upper back muscles and get your body used to using them.
This exercise also makes for a great warm up before you start working out.
Bodyweight rows are a great way to begin working your back and develop the strength you need to do full pull ups.
To do them you just need to lie down on the floor underneath something solid that you can hold onto.
Then simply use your arms to pull yourself up off the floor towards that object while your feet remain on the ground. Just make sure to keep your back straight while doing it.
If you’re near a playground or park you can usually find some bars you can hang from that are perfect for doing this exercise
In the picture below I’m using a table at home but make sure that the table you use is heavy enough that it won’t tip up when you’re pulling yourself off the ground.
If you can’t find anything to get a solid grip on you can also invest in some Trix bands that you can loop over any doorway and give you a lot options for pulling exercises.
Chin ups are the next move in your progressions for building a powerful back.
They’re one of my all time favorite exercises and they’re done by finding a bar, or any sturdy surface, and lifting your whole body up into the air.
To do them properly you want to stand under a pull up bar and reach up to grip it with your palms facing towards you.
Then, lift yourself up into the air and raise your chin up and over the bar.
Try not to let yourself sway or swing while you do the exercise either.
As you lift yourself up try to concentrate on pulling your shoulders down and your shoulder blades down and back at the same time.
This will ensure that you’re using your back to pull instead of only your arms.
This is the reason we did all of those scapula push ups; to make sure that our backs are properly trained to do the type of pulling motions we need them to do.
Pull ups are the real bread and butter of upper back exercises.
No other bodyweight exercise targets your back quite as well as a properly performed pull up.
Just like a chin up you’re going to need to find a bar or something above you to grip but instead of having your palms facing you you’re going to have them facing away from your body.
By making this simple adjustment you’ll switch the focus of the exercise towards your back and work your biceps less.
However, you should still make sure that you’re concentrating on pulling your shoulders down as you perform the movement and that you shoulder blades are moving too.
Lift your chin above the bar and lower yourself down in a controlled manner.
Keep your body straight and don’t sway as you do your pull-ups or you’ll be cheating your muscles by using the rocking motion to help you up.
Remember, the goal is not to do more pull-ups but to get stronger.
If you’re having trouble doing you first pull up you can check out the article I wrote here on getting your first one done.
Wide Grip Pull Ups
Wide grip pull ups are the same as the pull ups above except that you’re going to be placing your hands further apart on the bar.
This will make your back do even more work to lift yourself up and will really build impressive lats.
Just as with a regular pull up you want to keep your body straight and lower yourself in a controlled manner to make sure you’re getting the full benefit of the eccentric portion of the exercise.
To get your chin above the bar you’re really going to have to be able to really squeeze those shoulder blades together while moving your shoulders down which is why this exercise is so great at building a powerful back.
Archer Pull Ups
Archer pull ups are an awesome way to train your body for doing one armed pull ups.
The only thing is that you’re going to need gymnastic rings to do them properly.
To begin you’re going to grip your rings and lift yourself up normally but once you reach the top you’re going to extend one arm out horizontally while the other one stays flexed and holding you up.
This means that one arm is in charge of supporting most of your bodyweight while you extend the other arm.
Once you’ve done one rep go ahead and switch which arm is extended on the second repetition.
As you get stronger you can have one arm doing more and more of the work in order to prepare yourself to do a full one armed pull up.
Here’s a video on it below:
One Arm Pull Up
One arm pull ups require some serious strength and they are definitely more difficult than the one arm chin up.
In order to prepare yourself for them you’re going to want to practice archer pull ups regularly until you can build up the strength but once you can do them you’ll be part of an elite group.
One thing which most people don’t think of when they want to train their backs is rope climbing.
Most people can still remember the thick rope hanging from the ceiling in their gym class but few think about it as they get older.
However, rope climbing is a great way to build a powerful upper back as well as biceps.
If you have the space to set it up then I highly encourage you to go for it.
The best part about training with rope climbing is how you can vary the difficulty in many different ways.
You can tie knots in the beginning and then remove them as your grip strength improves.
You can also use your legs and feet and slowly remove them as your upper body strength improves.
Just make sure that you don’t go too high if you’re not comfortable.
How to Bulletproof Your Lower Back with Calisthenics
Your lower back is like the tree trunk of your body.
It supports everything above it; including anything that you’re carrying.
That’s why it’s important to not neglect your lower back and to keep it strong.
Below are some of the best bodyweight exercises you can do to have a strong back and reduce the chances of injuring yourself:
Planks are mostly a stomach muscle exercise but they still help build the stabilizers throughout your mid-section.
Any exercise which requires you to keep your body in a straight line is going to help you build a more functional core and a healthier lower back.
To get the most out of this exercise you want to maintain tension throughout your entire body.
You basically want to be flexing every muscle in your body, not just your core.
Here’s a great guide on the RKC style plank below:
One Legged Deadlift
The deadlift is a well known exercise in the weight lifting world that is remarkable for building a strong lower back.
However, not many people realize that you can do a good version of a deadlift using just your own bodyweight also.
The key is to just do one leg at a time.
Here’s a guide below:
Bridges are kind of like a reverse plank.
You want to lie flat on the floor on your back and then bend your knees while keeping your feet flat on the floor.
Then you want to thrust your hips forward by contracting your lower back and glutes.
You can also make this exercise harder by having only your hands and feet on the floor with your mid-section bent like a bridge.
Not only does this exercise build a strong back but also helps reverse some of the bad posture that results from sitting down all day.
Headstand Leg Raises
This is one of the best calisthenics exercises to strengthen your lower back.
To do it you want to first perform a normal headstand.
Then you want to hinge at your hips by lowering your legs in a straight line while also keeping your upper body perpendicular with the floor.
Basically you want to have a 90 degree angle between your legs and upper body.
Now, go ahead and raise your legs back up again until your body is making one straight line again and is perpendicular with the floor.
Here’s a good guide below:
Also, if you’re having trouble balancing you can try doing it with your back against the wall.
This will help keep you steady and focus on lifting your legs more until you’re confident enough to do a free standing headstand.
Just as with other muscles it’s important to properly stretch your back to make sure you have good mobility.
Nobody wants a stiff back.
One of my favorite stretches I picked up from Pavel Tsatsouline’s Simple and Sinister.
It’s done by sitting on the floor with your legs straight and stretched out to the sides; not doing the splits but not directly in front of you either.
Then you want to lean to the side and touch your toes without bending your back too much.
You should feel a good stretch along one side of your lower back.
Then switch and do the other side.
For a more complete routine here’s a good guide on how to really limber up:
Calisthenics is an awesome way to build a powerful and healthy back.
Not only do bodyweight exercises already lend themselves to naturally strengthening your back but the exercises I listed above will really target both your upper and lower back muscles.
Just follow the above progressions and you’ll find yourself making awesome progress.