The 21 Best Calisthenic Back Exercises [You Can Do At Home]

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In this post, we are going to cover the best calisthenic back exercises.

Specifically, we will go over 21 bodyweight back exercises that will teach you how to strengthen your back without weights.

The best part?

You can do all of them at home.

You’ll also get a quick 30-minute back workout you can do twice per week.

Oh, and by the way… the videos below were taken in my TINY NYC apartment. If we can do it, you can too.

Alright, let’s get started.

calisthenic-back-exercises

How Can I Strengthen My Back Muscles At Home?

The back is notoriously a difficult muscle group to exercise, even with weights.

But if you use the proper exercises, you can strengthen your back without weights.

How?

You need to find creative ways to target the four different muscle groups in the upper back.

Those four muscle groups are:

The Rhomboids

  • The rhomboids are located between your scapula. They are worked by exercises that retract your scapula (or bring them closer together).

The Latissimus Dorsi

  • The lats are the large wing-like muscles that attach from your arm all the way down toward your low back.  They are worked by exercises where you pull things down towards you in a vertical plane and also horizontal planes well.

The Posterior Deltoid

  • The posterior deltoids are located behind your shoulder. They are worked by exercises that rotate your shoulders outward and pull things towards your face.

The Trapezius

  • The trap muscles are located above your clavicles and run along your upper and mid-back. The traps are broken up into 3 sections:
    • The upper traps are worked by shrug and row type exercises
    • The mid traps are worked by exercises that pull items towards your abdomen 
    • The lower traps are worked by exercises that raise your arms from a prone position

back-workout

I’ll give many examples below.

Can I Train My Back Without Equipment?

Yes, you certainly can. Below, I will show you a few exercises you can do with either no equipment or common household items.

With that said, in order to fully maximize your back workout, you should invest in at least one piece of equipment such as:

  • a pull-up bar,
  • a suspension trainer, or
  • a set of resistance bands.

You’ll see my recommendations below.

Now let’s get to the exercises.

The Best Bodyweight Back Exercises You Can Do At Home

In this next section, we will break up the exercises based on the equipment you need to do them.

Calisthenic Back Exercises With No Equipment

The following exercises can be done with no equipment.

First, I’ll show you some effective back floor exercises that have several advantages:

  1. They strengthen the upper back muscles
  2. They improve thoracic spine extension and mobility
  3. They activate the posterior deltoid – a muscle that is often neglected

Afterward, we will go over a couple of exercises that can be done with regular household items.

Let’s get started.

Back Floor Exercises

Prone Cobra

The cobra is a great exercise to teach you how to activate muscles in the upper back, as well as improve your thoracic extension mobility. It also improves your posture.

  • Lay face down (prone) on a yoga mat.
  • From here, squeeze your glutes and brace your core.
  • Arch your upper back off the mat while keeping the rest of your body in contact with the floor.
  • Keep your arms straight and by your side, pointing your thumbs up toward the ceiling.

You can do this exercise for reps (12-15 reps of 3-second holds) or for time (30-second holds).


Superman

The superman is a great exercise to strengthen the muscles in the low back while activating some of the muscles in the upper back as well.

Just be careful – if you have a history of low back pain or injury- do not perform this exercise.

  • Lay face down (prone) on a yoga mat.
  • Bring your arms up overhead with your thumbs facing the ceiling.
  • Squeeze your glutes and brace your core.
  • Next, raise both legs off the mat, as well as both of your arms.
  • Keep your knees and elbows locked out.
  • You should feel several muscles along your back activate.
  • Alternatively, you can do the exercise with your hands crossed behind your head.

Do this exercise for reps (12-15 reps of 1-3 second holds).


YTI

The YTI is a great exercise to strengthen the upper back as well as the posterior shoulders. It also one of the few exercises that target the lower traps as well.

  • Lay face down (prone) on a yoga mat.
  • Bring your arms directly overhead.
  • Squeeze your glutes and brace your core.
  • From here, lift your arms as much as you can while keeping your elbows straight. Hold the position for a 2 count.
  • Next, widen your hands out to create a Y shape.
  • Keep your thumbs up toward the ceiling, and lift your shoulders up toward the sky. Hold this position for a 2 count.
  • Lastly, bring your arms directly out to the side, creating a T shape.
  • Keep your thumbs up toward the ceiling, and lift your shoulders up toward the sky. Hold this position for a 2 count.

Do all three positions for 5-10 repetitions per set.


Bodyweight Rear Delt Fly

The rear delt fly targets the… you guessed it…posterior deltoid. This is a nice and simple exercise to trengthen this neglected muscle group.

  • Lie on the ground face up with your arms out to your side, thumbs facing up toward the ceiling.
  • Feel free to bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground.
  • Next, press your fists down hard against the ground to elevate your upper body off the ground.
  • Keep your elbows locked out and your arms straight.
  • Hold this position for a 1 count and come back down.

Do 12-15 repetitions per set.


Scapular Wall Slides

The scapular wall slide is a little known exercise that will strengthen the muscles of the middle and lower traps while improving shoulder mobility.

As simple as it looks, many people can’t do it properly.

  • Sit down with your back against a wall. (In the video Brittany is standing, but you can also do it sitting).
  • Place your hands against the wall, palms facing forward
  • Next, begin sliding your arms up and down the wall SLOWLY in a controlled fashion
  • Try not to let your elbows, wrists, or hands come off the wall the entire time.
  • The goal is to completely extend the arms up while maintaining contact.
  • You will feel this in your middle and lower trapezius muscles.

D0 10 repetitions per set.


Scapular Push-ups

While the scapular push-up isn’t exactly a back exercise, I included it because it teaches a very important concept.

It teaches you the difference between scapular protraction and retraction.

This is an important concept to master, as it teaches you how to activate your serratus anterior muscle. This muscle is critical for the health of your scapula.

  • Assume a push-up position with your hands directly underneath your shoulders.
  • Brace your core and squeeze your glutes.
  • Next, retract your scapula without bending your elbows.
  • Your body should lower down slightly by a couple of inches.
  • Then, protect your scapula as much as you can while maintaining your elbows locked.
  • Your upper back will round a bit at the top position and that’s okay.
  • This exercise will strengthen the serratus anterior, which will help keep your scapula healthy.

Do 12-15 repetitions per set.

Do push-ups work the back?

The push-up does not work the back directly, but it can indirectly.

If you actively engage in your scapula in every single repetition as seen in the scapular push-up video above, you will get some upper back activation.

You will also get the benefit of strengthening the serratus anterior, a neglected muscle in the fitness world.


Back Exercises Without A Bar

Alright, so now let’s get to some pulling exercises. These two exercises will actively engage the rhomboids, middle traps, lats, and biceps muscles.

All you need is a door frame and a table.

Wall Pulls

The wall pull is a simple exercise anyone can do to begin activating the horizontal pulling muscles.

All you need is a doorway frame to do it.

In the video, I show two variations, the two-handed pull, and a one-handed pull.

  • Find a doorway frame, (or a pole) that can support your body weight.
  • Grab onto the door with both hands at the level of your sternum (breast bone).
  • Place your feet as close to the frame as possible, and lean back so that your arms become completely extended.
  • The more you lean back, the harder the exercise.
  • Begin pulling yourself toward the frame until your chest makes contact.
  • Focus on driving your elbows back and retracting all of your back muscles.
  • You can also perform this exercise with one arm as shown in the video.
  • To make the exercise more challenging, lower your hands to pull closer from your waistline, and hold the end range for 3-seconds and slowly lower yourself for 3-seconds.

Do 15-20 repetitions per set.


Inverted Rows

Next up is the inverted row. This is also called the horizontal pull-up, or the Australian pull-up.

Unfortunately, I could not film a good video in my tiny apartment. You can do this with any sturdy table you have at home.

  • Find a sturdy table that can support your full body-weight.
  • To be safe, place something heavy on top of the table opposite of where you will be pulling from.
  • Grab the edge of the table with a shoulder-width grip, and bend your knees with your feet flat on the ground.
  • Squeeze your glutes and begin pulling yourself up toward the table.
  • Avoid shrugging. You want the entire movement to come from your scapula.
  • Slowly lower yourself using a 3-second tempo.

Do 12-15 repetitions per set.

Alternatively, you can do bed sheet rows, which you’ll see below!


Calisthenic Back Exercises With Equipment

Let me be completely honest for a second.

In order to maximize your at-home back workout, you should invest in some equipment.

You simply won’t get as much of a stimulus using only the above exercises.

But here’s the good news.

You can choose among 3 great options.

The First Is A Pull-up Bar

There are so many great options. You can get

The Second Is A Suspension Trainer

Suspension trainers are extremely versatile. You can do just about any type of exercise on them.

The best part is, you can attach them to a pull-up bar, onto a wall-mounted frame, or against a closed door.

The Third Is A Set of Resistance Bands

I love bands. Everyone should have a set of bands that provide you with varying degrees of resistance.

We go over a lot of full body resistance band exercises you can do in this post.


So get yourself one of these three options, and let’s get started.

Back Exercises With a Bar

Pull-ups

The pull-up needs no introduction. It is arguably the best upper body exercise of all time.

Check out our post on how to do pull-ups the right way.

  • Grab the pull-up bar with a wider than shoulder-width grip.
  • Start by externally rotating your arms as if you want to separate the bar.
  • Next, squeeze your glutes and engage your core.
  • Begin by pulling up by driving your CHEST (NOT your chin) to the bar.
  • Keep your head neutral and do not move your chin.
  • Slowly lower back down to the starting position.

Do 3-12 reps per set (based on your strength).


Scapular Pull-ups

The scapular pull-up is a great exercise that further teaches you how to engage your scapula correctly.

This is so important for shoulder health and stability.

This exercise will strengthen the rhomboids as well as the middle and lower traps.

  • Grab the pull-up bar with a wider than shoulder-width grip.
  • From here, focus on pulling yourself up by retracting and depressing your scapula together.
  • Make sure to keep your elbows locked out the entire time.
  • Alternate between this “active” and “passive” hang for the desired number of repetitions.
  • Work your way up to one-handed scapular pull-ups.

Do 8-12 repetitions per set.


Front Lever Raises

The front lever raise is an advanced exercise that imitates a straight arm lat pulldown.

In the video below, I show three different variations, in order of increasing difficulty.

  • Grab the pull-up bar with a shoulder-width grip.
  • Activate your core and squeeze your glutes.
  • Next, perform a scapular pull-up and continue pulling as if you are trying to get your chest to touch the bar.
  • Make sure that your elbows remain locked out the entire time.
  • Your lower body will naturally begin to rise off the floor as your upper body becomes more horizontal.
  • For the easiest variation, begin with both knees bent.
  • Extend your legs to make the exercises more difficult.

Back Lever

Next up is the back lever. This is an advanced calisthenics skill exercise that strengthens all of the muscles of the back while improving shoulder, and thoracic mobility.

Exercise caution when doing this movement. Only perform it if you feel very comfortable with all of the above exercises.

In this video, I show 4 different variations, in order of increasing difficulty.

  • Grab the pull-up bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
  • You can keep your palms forward (pronated) or backward (supinated). Pronated is easier.
  • From here, begin performing a front lever raise to bring your entire lower body up and through your arms.
  • Slowly, lower yourself until your back is relatively horizontal to the ground.
  • Make sure to keep your core engaged and glutes activated.
  • The easiest variation is the tuck back lever with your knees bent.
  • You can work your way up to an advanced tuck (knees a bit more extended), a single leg back lever (one leg extended), and a full back lever (both legs extended).

This exercise is held for time (10-30 seconds per set).


Back Exercises With A Suspension Trainer

Suspension Body Rows

The suspension trainer makes it very easy to incorporate pulling exercises into your routine like the body row.

The body row is similar to seated cable rows that you do at the gym. It will strengthen the rhomboids, lats, posterior deltoids, and middle traps.

  • Set up your suspension trainer against a sturdy door.
  • Make sure that the door is fully closed and that it can support your weight before attempting this exercise.
  • Once secure, grab the handles in your outstretched arms and lean back.
  • The closer you bring your feet to the door, the more difficult the exercise.
  • Keeping your core engaged, and your glutes tight, begin pulling yourself toward the handles.
  • Keep your elbows tucked close to your body and pull toward your sternum.
  • Do not shrug, and focus on retracting all of your upper back muscles.
  • Slowly lower back down to the start position.

Do 12-15 repetitions per set.


Bed Sheet Rows

Alternatively, you can also use bedsheets, as seen in this video.

All you need to do is tie a big knot on one end of the sheet and anchor the knot behind the door.


Suspension Australian Pull-ups

Next up is the Australian pull-up. This exercise is similar to the body row, except you will be completely horizontal, making it more challenging.

  • Set up your suspension trainer against a sturdy door.
  • Make sure that the door is fully closed and that it can support your weight before attempting this exercise.
  • Once secure, grab the handles in your outstretched arms.
  • Bring your feet close to the door and bend your knees so that you are horizontal to the floor.
  • The remainder of the exercise is the same as the body row.

Do 12-15 repetitions per set.


Suspension Face Pulls

The face-pull is another underappreciated exercise that is extremely important for shoulder health. This exercise strengthens the posterior shoulder and the rotator cuff.

  • Anchor the trainer the same way as you’ve been behind a closed sturdy door.
  • Once secure, grab the handles in your outstretched arms and lean back.
  • The closer your feet are to the door, the harder the exercise.
  • From here, begin pulling yourself toward the handles by externally rotating your shoulders.
  • Keep your elbows up and flared out to the side as you pull toward your face.
  • At the top position, your arms should create 90-degree angles.
  • Slowly lower back down to the start position.

Do 15 repetitions per set.


Suspension Reverse Flys

The last suspension exercise is the reverse fly. Similar to the face pull, this exercise is great for shoulder health. It also strengthens the rhomboids and middle traps.

  • Anchor the trainer the same way as you’ve been behind a closed sturdy door.
  • Once secure, grab the handles in your outstretched arms and lean back.
  • The closer your feet are to the door, the harder the exercise.
  • Begin the exercise by pulling the handles apart with your elbows out toward your sides.
  • Keep your elbows locked out, and retract your shoulder blades at the top.
  • Slowly lower back down to the starting position.

Do 12- 15 repetitions per set.


Back Exercises With A Resistance Band

Band Pull Aparts

The last set of exercises use the resistance bands. As you will see, you are going to recreate the above exercises.

The band pull-apart is similar to a reverse fly, strengthening the posterior shoulder and upper back.

  • Grab the two ends of the closed-loop resistance band and hold it up at chest height.
  • Keep your palms supinated up toward the ceiling.
  • From here, begin pulling the band apart until it makes contact with your chest.
  • Keep your elbows locked out, and actively engage your upper back muscles.
  • Slowly return back to the starting position.

Do 20 repetitions per set.


Band Face Pulls

You should be familiar with the band face pull.

You will need a sturdy structure to anchor the band against in order to do it.

  • The form is exactly the same.
  • Externally rotate your shoulders and keep your elbows high as you pull the band toward your face.
  • This exercise is more challenging than it seems. Start with a light band and work your way up.

Band Bent Over Row

The bent-over row is recreating the inverted/body row exercises from above.

  • Step on the middle of a band and grab the two ends with your palms facing each other.
  • Begin bending over by flexing the hip, not your spine.
  • Your back should remain in a neutral position throughout the entire exercise.
  • Brace your core and begin pulling the band toward your waistline.
  • Drive your elbows up toward the ceiling and actively engage your scapula.
  • Hold the top position for a 1 count.
  • Slowly lower back down to the start position.

Do 12-15 repetitions per set.


Band Lat Pulldowns

The last exercise you can do with bands is the lat pulldown.

You will need something sturdy to anchor the band on.

  • Anchor your band on a sturdy structure overhead.
  • Kneel down and grab the two ends of the free loop.
  • Begin the exercise by actively engaging your scapula first, and then pulling the band down toward your sternum.
  • Keep your elbows tucked close to your body.
  • Hold this position for a 1 count and slowly return to the starting position.

Do 12-15 repetitions per set.


So that’s it for the exercises.

Now let’s put all of this information together into something that you can use!

How Can I Build My Back Without Pull-Ups?

There are many ways to build your back without pull-ups.

You simply need to create a workout plan that centers around four major back exercise categories.

These include:

  • Horizontal pulling aka Rows
  • Scapular training
  • Posterior shoulder focus exercise
  • Isometric exercise

Incorporate one exercise from each category into a twice-weekly routine.

A Simple 30 Minute Bodyweight Back Workout

So here’s an example of how to take these exercises to create a home back workout.

It should only take you about 30 minutes to complete.

ExerciseSetsReps
Bodyweight Row412-15
Scapular Training312
Posterior Shoulder Focus312
Isometric Focus312
  1. For the bodyweight row, you can use the Inverted Row, Bedsheet Rows, Suspension Body Rows, Suspension Australian Pull-up, or Bent Over Band Row.
  2. For the scapular training, you can use Scapular Pull-Ups, Pull-ups, Band Lat Pulldowns, Front Lever Raises, Wall Pulls or any of the Back Floor Exercises.
  3. For the posterior shoulder, you can use any Face Pull, any Reverse Fly, the Band Pull Aparts, and the YTI.
  4. For the isometrics, you can use the Cobra, The Superman, or the Back Levers.

Free Calisthenics Workout Template:

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Recap of The Best Calisthenic Back Exercises:

So now let’s quickly go over the exercises and stratify them based on the muscles they train.

Upper-Back Bodyweight Exercises

  • Cobra
  • Scapular Wall Slides
  • Bodyweight Reverse Flys
  • YTI
  • Bodyweight Rows
  • Wall Pulls
  • Pull-ups
  • Front Lever Raises
  • Back Lever

You can find videos for all of these exercises above.

Lower-Back Bodyweight Exercises

We didn’t focus this post on the lower back, as that deserves it’s own post by itself. Here are some examples.

Lat Exercises

  • Wall Pulls (pulling toward your waistline)
  • Body Rows (pulling toward your waistline)
  • Pull-ups
  • Front Lever Raises

You can find videos for all of these exercises above.

Final Thoughts On Strengthening Your Back At Home

So as you can see, it is totally possible to strengthen your back without weights, and with little to no equipment.

If I can get this done in a NYC apartment, you can too.

So now it’s your turn.

Which of these exercises are you going to try first?

Comment below and let me know.

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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM CPTs, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

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