Calisthenics is a great way to achieve maximum conditioning with minimal equipment, and it is an excellent addition to any fitness workout program. Are you interested in trying some calisthenics back exercises, but don't know where to start? This guide will help you. Here I will show you how to do the best calisthenics back exercises for a strong back.
Back muscles are easily neglected. Most people focus on their chests and biceps, but not on the back, which is too important to ignore. We cannot have a strong body without a strong back.
Beginners may find calisthenics back exercises challenging, but they are worth the effort. And in most cases, there are progressions or scaled versions of each exercise that help you work your way to the most difficult exercises. But these bodyweight exercises for the back also have a lot of benefits which we'll talk about in this guide.
Whether you’re at the beginner intermediate or advanced stage of your fitness journey, no workout routine is complete without training one of the keystone body parts of the human body. Often, forgotten and laid to the wayside (almost as much as legs), a strong back is crucial for developing a well-rounded physique and helps keep you free of injury.
In a world where bench presses, overhead presses, and bicep curls take the spotlight, it’s not uncommon for athletes to develop imbalances; for example, forward-hunched shoulders, which can lead to an improper technique for the aforementioned exercises, can reduce upper body strength potential, and can negatively impact shoulder health.
So, the question many calisthenics novices and enthusiasts run into, especially in the early stages is:
‘Can calisthenics or bodyweight exercises work the back as effectively as weights?’.
The short answer is, yes. Calisthenics can work the back as effectively as weights and can provide as much capacity to build muscle mass as free weights. Get a complete upper and lower back workout that hits all the major muscles.
And check out this guide to Calisthenics vs CrossFit for fans of both training regimes.
Bodyweight Exercises and Minimal Equipment Exercises
In contrast to weightlifting, calisthenics workouts usually make use of compound movements. By selecting the right exercises, you can design a bodyweight back exercise routine that targets both your upper back and lower back.
But before we talk about the workouts, it's important for us to know which muscles actually make up the back. Let's review the major muscle groups we will be targeting with these workouts. There are many more, but here are the most important ones to remember:
- Erector spinae: this group of muscles extends from your pelvis all the way up to your neck. As its name suggests, this pair of muscles runs on either side alongside your spine and it allows you to keep your back straight.
- Latissimus dorsi (/Lats): this muscle group engages when you pull things down from above your head. It is a triangular muscle that starts from the lower back and attaches to the upper arm bone.
- Trapezius (/traps): this muscle group is primarily responsible for shrugging your shoulders and for pulling your shoulder blades back. It starts from the neck, goes across the shoulders, and stretches down to the middle back.
Make sure you maintain the best form possible while you perform these back strength exercises. Avoid forcing a repetition just to increase the number of reps. The short term seems harmless, but the long term can lead to injuries if the correct movements and body positioning are not followed.
Bodyweight back exercises
Reverse snow angels / floor-facing angels
To perform this exercise, start by lying with your stomach on the ground and raise both your arms just an inch or two from the floor. Start with your hands in front of your head and move down gradually until your hands touch your hips. Then raise your hands back up to your head to complete a rep.
This targets your traps and your inner upper back as well as the upper back. As an added bonus it also works with external shoulder rotators which are often vital for stability in shoulder exercises.
This exercise is similar to the one above but it also targets the lower back more intensely and builds more muscular strength in this area. This is a static hold similar to a plank, but instead of targeting the abs, it targets a lot of the major back muscles and is also a great core exercise. Plus, you may even feel a bit like a flying superhero.
Stretch your arms out in front of your head while lying on your stomach. Lift both arms and legs a few inches off the floor, and hold them there as long as you can while keeping your core tight. Try increasing this time or adding small ankle or wrist weights over time.
This isometric exercise targets your erector spinae in both the lower and upper portions.
(Half) Back bridge
To perform this exercise, lie on your back and bend your knees so that your heels are close to your buttocks. Keep your knees about shoulder-width apart and the soles of your feet flat on the ground. Let your arms lie next to your body and, as a rough guide, try to keep your heels in line with your fingertips.
Then by pushing your soles into the ground, drive your hips upwards such that your chest and upper thighs are in alignment. Your arms should lie
This works your lower back, predominantly the erector spinae as well as glutes and hamstrings.
Back exercises with additional equipment
Wide Grip Pull-up (overhand grip using pull-up bar):
Hold onto the pull-up bar over your head about twice your shoulder width or as wide as your elbows go when you stretch your arms out to the side. Start with your arms fully extended and hang from the ground. If your feet are touching the floor, feel free to bend your lower legs back. Once hanging, pull your shoulder blades back.
Then, as suggested by the name…pull up, and try and get your chin over the bar. Ensure you keep your core engaged throughout and imagine you are pulling from the elbows as opposed to your hands to encourage good form. You almost want to imagine you are putting your elbows into your back pockets.
The lat pulldown is one of the best exercises for developing your lats, as well as some of the upper back muscles like your rhomboids and other smaller muscle groups.
For those who have trouble doing a pull-up, you can hang a resistance band from the bar and step on it before beginning the exercise. As an alternative, you can use a lat pulldown machine to perform the same movement, but with your hands moving up and down while keeping your lower body fixed.
Narrow grip pull-up (Overhand grip using pull-up bar)
Similar to the wide grip pull-up, however, the hands are slightly less than shoulder-width apart. This exercise places greater emphasis on the biceps in your arms. To make this harder wear a loaded belt or weight vest for additional weight.
Tuck Planche (using a parallel bar set)
In a nutshell, the full planche is the ultimate bodyweight back strength exercise, but if you're just getting started with calisthenics exercises and bodyweight exercises, you should start with a tuck planche.
Before progressing to a full planche, you must master the tuck planche.
Start by putting both hands at the same distance apart along the parallel bars. Then bend your knees so that they are close to your chest while keeping both arms straight. If you can, lift your hips to shoulder level. Stay there as long as you can. If you have trouble getting your hips to shoulder height, consider getting a partner to support you or gradually increase the height as you get stronger.
Bent over row (using resistance band)
If you don't have enough room for a pull-up bar, you can use resistance bands, which take up virtually no storage space.
Step onto the resistance band with both feet at approximately shoulder-width apart. Bend the knees slightly and bend the hips back slightly so that your thighs and stomach make roughly a 90-degree angle.
Holding onto either end of the resistance band, pull the band backward. Lead with your elbows and think about pushing your elbows behind your back. You almost want to imagine there are strings attached to the elbow, pulling them upwards. Resist the temptation to make the exercise all about arms.
This entire movement works the upper back muscles including the rhomboids, the traps, and deeper muscles like the infraspinatus.
Frequently asked questions
Should I focus on one muscle group at a time?
It depends on your situation. Focusing on one muscle group at a time e.g. back, chest, legs, shoulders, and arms can be useful if you train multiple times a week and have a specific routine or goal you want to hit. It can be a useful training split for bodybuilders or pro athletes. Focusing on just one muscle group at a time can mean that some workouts get missed. It's easy to end up with muscle imbalances when you're not training your entire body. If you’re a beginner or short on time, full-body or compound movement workouts are recommended.
Do pushups work the back muscles?
The short answer is, not really. Simply put, pushups mainly work your chest, abdominal, and triceps muscles. It could be argued that the back is needed to stabilize the body during this motion, but pushups will only marginally increase back strength compared to other back exercises.
How effective is bodyweight back training?
Back training using bodyweight has proven to be highly effective. Calisthenics is primarily composed of compound movements, which should be used as the foundation of most strength-based routines in any case. In contrast to free weight exercises or machine-based exercises, calisthenics and bodyweight exercises often demand some level of balance. Exercises that challenge your balance will strengthen your stabilizer muscles. And this leads to stronger muscles.
Is calisthenics harder than lifting weights?
Calisthenics can be harder than lifting weights for several reasons: 1. calisthenics movements can be more complex and 2. the principle of progressive overload is more difficult since one cannot simply add extra weight. That said, it is more accessible to regular fitness enthusiasts as it requires minimal equipment. With a pull-up bar, most people will be able to perform the majority of calisthenics exercises.
Is calisthenics good for treating lower back pain?
Calisthenics can help improve lower back pain. Studies have shown that in sedentary patients suffering from back pain, back exercises were more effective in treating back pain than generic exercises.