How to Build a Bigger and Straighter Upper Back
A common issue with us skinny guys is that we develop a bony upper back that caves in on itself. Part of that is due to being skinny, so we’ll cover how to bulk up the upper-back muscles. And part of that is due to having poor upper-back posture (kyphosis in the t-spine), which is incredibly common with ectomorphs, given our longer spines and smaller muscles.
The good news is that both of these issues are the same issue. You can think of posture as simply being weakness in the muscles that are supposed to hold your body in the proper position. So if we can bulk up your upper back muscles, we can also simultaneously improve your posture. The trick is to make sure that you’re engaging all of the relevant muscles, including the prime movers and the stabilizer muscles in both your upper back and your core.
So in this article, we’ll teach you how to bulk up your upper back and improve your posture while you’re at it.
- How to Build a Bigger Upper Back
- The Best Exercises for Upper Back Size
- Will a Strong Back Fix Your Posture?
- Improving Your Upper-Back Posture
- The Best Exercises For Improving Upper-Back Posture
- My Posture: Before and After
- At-Home Upper-Back Posture Routine
- Key Takeaways
How to Build a Bigger Upper Back
As we mentioned above, having a bony upper back that rounds over with kyphosis is incredibly common with naturally skinny ectomorphs. That’s because these issues go together. A weak upper back won’t be able to hold your body with the correct posture.
That means that the best fix for a bony back is to pack a ton of muscle onto it. Now, that doesn’t mean just doing rows and pull-ups/pulldowns. Those exercises will do a great job of strengthening your lats, traps, and rear delts, but we also want to strengthen all of your spinal erectors and postural muscles. That will accomplish three things:
- You’ll build a wider, more muscular upper back.
- You’ll build a thicker upper back that makes your torso look bigger from the side.
- You’ll be bulking up the muscles that hold your back in a strong position.
There are a few great exercises for that.
The Best Exercises for Upper Back Size
If you’ve read our article about how skinny guys should lift to gain muscle size, then you know that we build our bulking routines around the “Big 5” compound lifts:
What’s interesting about these lifts is that, except for the bench press, they’ll all help you build up a bigger and stronger upper back. Furthermore, if you’re a beginner, then we usually recommend starting with the push-up instead of the bench press, and the push-up is great for your upper back. Now, it’s not that the push-up is actually going to bulk up your back muscles, but it will certainly strengthen your shoulder muscles and serratus muscles, which will build up the stabilizer muscles in your shoulder girdle.
Anyway, the best compound exercises for bulking up your upper back are:
- The deadlift (or Romanian deadlift)
- The front squat (or goblet squat)
- The chin-up (or lowered chin-ups)
And the best accessory exercises are:
- The row
- The pull-up (overhand)
- The reverse fly
- The snatch-grip deadlift
Now, if you’re still a skinny beginner, then you’ll want to focus on the exercises that are easier to do with proper technique. After all, if you’re practicing these lifts with poor posture, that won’t necessarily help you improve.
So I’d recommend bulking up your upper back with a routine that looks more like this:
- Romanian deadlifts
- Goblet squats
- Chin-ups (or lowered chin-ups)
- Dumbbells rows
- Lat pull-downs (or pullovers)
I wouldn’t do all of these exercises in the same workout, but you certainly could. If it were me, I’d mix them into full-body workouts. So that might look something like this:
- Monday: Chin-ups and goblet squats + other lifts
- Wednesday: Romanian deadlifts and pullovers + other lifts
- Friday: Goblet squats and rows + other lifts
Some of these exercises might be obvious. Most people know that chin-ups and rows are good for building a bigger upper back. However, most people don’t realize just how incredible deadlifts and front-loaded squats are for improving upper-back strength, posture, and even muscle size.
The Conventional Deadlift
The conventional deadlift, especially if you have a long and skinny torso, is going to strengthen all of the spinal erectors, making your entire torso much thicker.
When you pick the bar up, your spinal erectors and lats will be firing as hard as they can to help keep your spine in a neutral position. That’s going to reduce the sheer stress on your spine, which is great, while still putting a ton of pressure on it, which will make all of the bones and connective tissues in your body much denser and tougher.
So, first of all, there are the obvious back muscles that will be strengthened, including your lats, which fan over most of your upper back:
What’s so cool about the deadlift, though, is how many layers of spinal erectors it will strengthen, and how much growth potential they have:
These spinal erector muscles are absolutely essential for your posture, and they’ll make your back much thicker when viewed from the side. This might not be a big deal for guys with a naturally stockier body type, but most ectomorphs have fairly skinny torsos by default. Bulking up our spinal erectors, then, is a great way to banish a bony back.
The deadlift will also strengthen your glutes and hamstrings, which is interesting because the glutes will help to hold your hips in the correct position. Having strong glutes will ease the load on your upper back and help improve your upper-back posture.
The deadlift is hands down the best trap exercise. Your traps are the diamond-shaped muscle that runs up alongside your neck all the way down your spine. Of all the muscles in your body, your traps are arguably the most masculine and impressive. If you have strong traps sitting atop your shoulders, you’ll look strong. Or, as some guys like to say, yoked.
Finally, the deadlift also engages your lats to help hold your back in position, which will help to make your upper back wider. (The chin-up is a much better lat exercise, but the deadlift still helps.)
The problem with the deadlift is that it requires quite a bit of upper-back strength in order to do it safely. If you’re a skinny beginner who’s eager to bulk up his back, the deadlift might not be the best way to ease into it. Better to start with a slightly easier variation, such as the Romanian deadlift.
With the Romanian deadlift, you start in the top position and you only go as low as your mobility will comfortably allow. Because you aren’t sinking as low, your torso remains more upright, and it requires less upper-back strength in order to do properly. When that starts to feel comfortable, you can try raised deadlifts, and then eventually progress to deadlifting from the floor.
The Front Squat (or Goblet Squat)
The front squat is a sorely underrated upper-back exercise. That’s because most guys squat like powerlifters, favouring the barbell back squat (often with a “low-bar” position). Strength training routines aren’t ideal for bulking up, though. Guys who are trying to bulk up should probably favour front-load squats, such as front squats and goblet squats.
When you hold the weight in front of your torso like that, it makes your body want to collapse forward. If you think about it, you’ll realize that this “collapsed forward” position is the postural issue that most of us skinny ectomorphs are struggling with. The front squat directly strengthens the muscles that hold our backs in an upright position.
As you can imagine, having to support a ton of weight in front of our torso puts a huge load on our upper back muscles, and therein lies the power of the front squat for bulking up our upper backs whilst improving our posture.
The front squat isn’t just great for building up a bigger upper back, either. It also allows us to squat with a more upright torso, allowing us to use a large range of motion without our femurs jamming up against our hips. This puts our quads through a larger range of motion, which is great for our lower bodies.
Finally, the front squat is absolutely brutal on our abs and obliques. It helps us learn how to lift while keeping our ribs down and our abs firing. This is also incredible for improving our upper-back posture.
Now, the problem with the front squat is that it’s an absolute beast of an exercise, and I don’t mean that in the pleasant way. Holding a barbell on the fronts of your shoulders like that with your wrists bent all the way to China is even more difficult than squatting a wild boar. You already need to have fairly good posture and mobility. If you’re struggling with upper-back strength and posture, you might not be able to front squat properly.
If you’re a beginner with poor posture, that’s where the goblet squat comes in. The goblet squat is where you hold a dumbbell in front of you while squatting. You don’t need great mobility or posture to do it well, and as you get stronger at it, you’ll find that your upper back strength and posture improved, eventually allowing you to transition to a front squat.
There’s no real downside to the goblet squat as a beginner. The only problem is that you’ll eventually grow too strong for it. At that point, when you can squat the heaviest dumbbell for 10–15 reps, you’ll need to progress to the barbell front squat. By then, you should be ready for it.
The Chin-Up (or Lowered Chin-Up)
Most guys know that the chin-up is an incredible lift for building up your upper back. While the deadlift and front squat are more focused on your spinal erectors and postural muscles, the chin-up is more focused on your lats and rear delts, which are some of the larger muscles in your upper back.
The chin-up is also great for improving your upper back posture because of how well it stimulates your abs, which we’ll cover in a second.
The trick with chin-ups is to do them with an underhand grip. That’s going to allow you to use a much greater range of motion, which is going to bring a greater number of overall muscle fibres into the lift (including your biceps). That’s going to help you build a more balanced upper back, and it’s going to help you build a more aesthetic physique.
Since the idea is to lift with a larger range of motion and to bring as much overall muscle mass into the lift as possible, you also want to start the chin-up from a dead hang, and then pull your chest all the way to the bar.
What’s especially interesting with the chin-up is that it isn’t just a great upper-back and biceps exercise, it’s also one of the very best ab exercises. Bret Contreras, PhD, did EMG research to determine which exercise was the best for the abs, and the chin-up wound up winning.
The reason that chin-ups are so good for your abs is that you need to keep your ribs down while lifting your body up with your back muscles. As we’ll discuss in the posture section, learning how to keep your ribs down by engaging your abs is incredibly for improving your upper back posture.
The problem with chin-ups, especially if you’re doing them with a huge range of motion, is that they’re damn hard. The advantage us skinny guys have is that our bodies are lighter, but still, doing chin-ups with lanky arms and a bony back is pretty tough.
The solution for skinny beginners is to step (or jump) up into the top position, and then lower yourself back down. Resisting your bodyweight on the way down is going to stimulate all of your upper-back muscles, making them bigger and stronger. Over time, you’ll develop the strength to pull yourself back up.
The Barbell & Dumbbell Row
We usually like to think of the row as an accessory exercise for the deadlift or chin-up. If you row while bending over at the waist with an unsupported chest, such as with a barbell row, then it’s going to be hardest on your spinal erectors. That makes it a great accessory lift for the deadlift.
On the other hand, if you row with a supported chest, such as with a one-armed dumbbell row, then it’s going to be hardest on your lats, which makes it a great accessory exercise for the chin-up.
So I would say that the row is less essential than the deadlift and chin-up for building up a bigger, stronger, and straighter upper back. It’s still incredibly useful, though. Just do it later in your workouts, after you’ve done your heavy deadlifts and chin-ups.
Will a Strong Back Fix Your Posture?
It’s true that poor posture is usually caused by your postural muscles being too weak. So simply becoming bigger and stronger can absolutely help. However, unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
In order to improve your upper-back posture, we also want to make sure that your abs are big and strong. After all, skinny guys often have skinny abs as well. That’s why even at low body-fat percentages, we often don’t have visible abs. In fact, it’s common for skinny guys to think that they’re skinny-fat even though it’s just their ab muscles that are small.
So let’s talk about how to engage your core and bulk up your abs while doing your upper-back bulking routine.
Improving Your Upper-Back Posture
There is something about a big, strong, and straight upper back that makes someone look powerful. It makes me think of a person who can accomplish whatever they want.
Take, for example, the venerated George Washington, who was known for his formidable posture. To quote social psychologist Amy Cuddy from her moving Ted Talk, “Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behaviour, our behaviour changes our outcomes.”
If you’re curious about how our posture and body language can have such a deep impact on us, here’s a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy called Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.
Having a strong, mobile upper back is a worthy practice for anyone trying to feel and be perceived as attractive as well as build muscle. While some have maintained their youthful posture since birth, others have lost it due to a variety of different issues.
Your activity level, stress and occupation are all powerful contributors to your posture. While there are many ways to improve posture, this post will specifically look at how improving rib movement can help bolster your upper back.
How Your Breathing Can Impact Your Posture
Read this if you haven’t watched the video: When you breathe, your ribs are designed to move based on what cycle of the breath you are in. When you inhale, the ribs are elevated and expanded by certain muscles; when you exhale, your muscles are squeezed down like an accordion. This exhalation portion is of utmost importance as it allows your main respiratory muscle, the diaphragm, to reach a dome position, which then allows you to effectively inhale. A full exhalation is also the best way to activate a key spinal stabilizer: the transverse abdominus.
The movement of your ribs directly impacts the structures of the shoulders, the head, and the neck. Regardless of whether your back is straight or slightly rounded, it’s possible that your ribs are stuck in a position of inhalation. This overdevelops the muscles that open the ribs, leaving the muscles that close the ribs weaker and underdeveloped.
When the inhaler muscles become overdeveloped, it pulls the rib cage open and forward, stretching your diaphragm into a flattened state. This takes your diaphragm out of the proper inhalation position. Without the diaphragm, your body will turn to secondary respiratory muscles like the neck and back.
Diaphragm breathing is ideal because it uses pressure to suck air in and fill up the ribs evenly. Neck and back breathing can be a problem because it yanks on the ribs and diverts air mostly to the lower ribs. This means that relying on your neck and back muscles to help you inhale can significantly tighten your upper back. After all, there is much less air expanding there.
Air pressure in the upper back is also important for overall upper-body strength. With this stiffness of our ribcage, we lose the ability to move our ribs effectively. This hampers our ability to bend and twist our core, meaning we need to get that flexibility from our lower back and neck instead. This can make it more likely to get injured, it can make lifting much less comfortable, and it also doesn’t look very good.
This information has influenced my approach to improving the appearance and function of someone’s upper back. In the past, I would cue people to straighten their back when doing rows and lat pulldowns (or at-home alternatives). Now I prioritize rib position and movement.
Someone who has flared ribs can be more likely to row in an imbalanced fashion, relying heavily on back extension and head protrusion. Below is a video detailing three exercises:
- The first to move the pelvis in a position that allows better diaphragm function
- The next to shunt air into your upper back
- And the final one is a rowing exercise for the upper back muscles where you can apply these two postural exercises.
For someone who is having a hard time with their upper back posture, I recommend running through these three postural drills once a day with the at-home version.
The Best Exercises For Improving Upper-Back Posture
Here’s a simple routine that I use to help my clients improve their upper-back posture. The goal with these postural exercises is to increase how far you can pull your shoulders back without neck and lower back tension whilst completing full breath cycles.
Until you’re proficient at exhaling fully and inhaling properly, keep doing the 90/90 hip lift and All-4 Reach. Each exercise done consistently over time will improve your posture and your ability to create pressure without you having to think about it, making lifting more natural and fun.
This is best performed as a daily routine. As Dan John says, “If it’s important, do it every day.”
The 90/90 Hip Lift
The 90/90 hip lift is a great exercises for teaching you how to keep your ribs down and your abs engaged while breathing. If you can master that skill, it’s going to let you do all of your lifting with improved posture, which will allow you to strengthen your postural muscles with every single compound lift that you do.
For example, if you can keep your ribs down and your abs engaged while doing front squats, then the front squat becomes not only a great exercise for bulking up your legs, glutes, and upper back, but also a great exercise for strengthening your abs and obliques.
I’m going to show you how to the 90/90 hip lift using a balloon, which is going to make it even easier to engage your abs. The balloon is optional, but I recommend trying it at least once.
All-4 Reach Exercise
Now that you know how to keep your ribs down by engaging your abs, we’re going to use the all-4 reach exercise to practice moving our limbs while keeping good posture. After all, this is what we do while lifting weights, going through the full range of motion while keeping our abs engaged.
Breathing Pit Pulls & Elbow Drive
This this rowing exercise, we’re going to practice actually lifting weights while maintaining good upper-back posture. This is going to directly strengthen our upper back muscles in the correct position. Once these upper-back muscles get big and strong enough, we’ll be able to naturally hold ourselves with better posture without even needing to think about it.
Over time, these exercises should get easier and more intuitive. At a certain point, you’ll probably feel like you don’t even need them anyway. You’ll just naturally lift with proper posture. Great.
Once you’re happy with your back posture while lifting weights, you can skip these drills and just keep doing more traditional back strengthening exercises, such as rows, chin-ups, front squats, and deadlifts.
Still, when you do your normal upper-back training, be mindful of how often you use your neck and lower back. While they can help you lift more weight, its good to diversify your movement to improve adaptability and decrease the occurrence of overuse.
My Posture: Before and After
As an experiment, I took before photos, did the routine for ten days, and then took after photos. Both sets are taken in a relaxed setting: no flexing or trying to have perfect posture.
What stands out to me here is how far my shoulder and arms have moved back in just ten days. According to Amy Cuddy’s research, if you can make your natural standing posture more open, not only will this place less stress on your joints, it will also help you feel stronger, more confident, and more willing to go after what you want. Not to mention that if you are continuously working on your posture and mobility, you’ll be able to build more muscle in your upper back. That muscle will look more aesthetic, too.
What stands out to me here is how much tension there is around my neck in the before photo, and how much lower my shoulders are in the second photo. What this means is that I can separate my shoulders from my neck when I do rowing exercises. This allows for a cleaner, more athletic rowing pattern that will build muscle in a more balanced and attractive way. It’s also a big improvement in day-to-day performance. For example, being able to turn your head around independently of your body is useful when checking blind spots while driving.
The ability to move each part of your body independently is a hallmark of great athletes from every discipline, and from an aesthetic standpoint, it looks much more relaxed and confident.
Now, far more impressively, here’s what it looks like if you combine it with it a bulking routine and gain a bunch of muscle while improving your posture:
At-Home Upper-Back Posture Routine
Now, you might not always want to be doing your posture exercises at the gym. That’s no problem. You can do them just as easily at home. They don’t require any equipment.
Here’s the simple routine that I used to improve my upper-back posture at home. Do it once per day, every day, and you should see steady improvements.
- 90/90 Hip Lift with Balloon – 1 x 6 breaths
- All 4 Reach – 1 x 6 breaths
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.– Martin Luther King Jr.
To build a bigger upper back and improve your posture, you’re going to want to follow a bulking routine that’s built around the big compound exercises.
The compound exercises that are the best for developing your upper back are:
- The deadlift: to strengthen your spinal erectors, traps, lats, and hips.
- The front squat: to strengthen your spinal erectors, the postural muscles in your upper back, your abs, and your obliques.
- The chin-up: to bulk up your lats, traps, and rear delts, adding a ton of mass to your upper back. The chin-up is also a great exercise for your abs, which will help you keep your ribs down.
You can then add in accessory exercises, such as rows, pulldowns, and pull-overs, to stimulate some extra growth in your upper-back muscles.
Then, to help improve you lifting technique and your posture, do a quick drill every day that will help you keep your ribs down by engaging your abs. And then, with your abs engaged, practice moving your arms and legs around. Once you can master that skill, you’ll be able to improve your posture simply by gaining upper-back size and strength on the big compound lifts.
Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.
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This was an awesome article! Really good tips I’m gonna definitely put into use… thanks!
Glad you liked it! Let us know how it goes.
Super article Marco. Great information presented really clearly. Thanks!
Thank you Jaska.
I will start donig this. I am going to do the b2B for second time so I am curious how it helps me down the road in a month and after I finish the program.
Breathing was always issue and I can relate a lot with this article.
Nice routine. I already do 15 mins pilates each morning so I will add this 🙂
[…] and sometimes doing some correctional exercises like the one’s Marco has demonstrated here and […]
[…] Front Squat: Given that they allow a deeper range of motion, front squats tend to be better for overall quad development. Plus, having the barbell in front does a better job of bulking up the core and upper back, as well as helping to improve posture. […]
[…] example, the chin-up will bulk up your upper back, which will improve your deadlifts and squats. Then your squats and deadlifts develop the core and […]
[…] a bit more emphasis on building up the muscles around his shoulder girdle: his neck, traps, chest, upper back, shoulders and […]
[…] we strengthen the postural muscles that hold us in a more neutral position, we can sit, stand and move around much more easily—and look better while doing […]
This is awesome! I’ve been doing the breathing exercises, but I’m finding that on a few hours after I do them, I feel tight in my right shoulder/neck. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?
Not too sure! It’s possible your body is adjusting to new positions.
But I would supplement the All 4 Reach for this exercise:
The Rockback on Elbows:
Give it a try and let me know if that helps.
[…] Front squats do a better job of improving our posture, given that it’s those same postural muscles that help us stand taller and straighter. […]
[…] consider increasing the size of your upper back, bulking up your chest, and building broader shoulders to increase your upper-body strength and […]
[…] great thing about lifting weights is, provided that we’re smart about it, it can be great for improving our posture. As with the above section, I don’t want to oversell the benefits of lifting weights or to […]
I’ve purchased two of your guys programs and got a lot out of them. And now I find out that you guys are experts in posture too.
I have some kyphosis going on and also a bunch of anterior pelvic tilt. My dad has an extreme case of kyphosis from a lifetime of being an engineer on the computer. I hope you don’t mind me asking a 3-part question!
1) Do you have any suggestions/resources to look at for fixing anterior pelvic tilt?
2) Are these 3 exercises (in combination with strength training) all you really need to fix a normal case of kyphosis, or is there more you can do? Any suggestions on what else to look at?
3) For someone with an extreme case of kyphosis like my dad, are there any additional exercises or resources you would suggest?
Thanks for putting out all the great content!
Hey Tim, thank you! That’s awesome 😀
Marco is pretty good at helping people improve their posture, but to be totally honest, the posture research is really limited. Even the top experts don’t always know exactly what’s going on, or exactly what’s causing pain, or the best way to fix it. It seems that fixing posture comes down to some mix of:
1) Being aware of what posture you want to have, and learning how to get into those positions. We use drills for this.
2) Getting stronger in those positions.
For example, learning how to squat with a neutral spine and pelvis (the posture that you want), and then getting stronger at the squat (strengthening that new posture).
So for something like fixing anterior pelvic tilt (lordosis), we teach people how to squat with a more neutral hip position, with their ribs down, sinking deep. That might mean doing some planks, dead bugs, and maybe a 90/90 hip lift to teach you how to hold a neutral spine, and then doing goblet squats and front squats to strengthen that position. Over time, you posture will almost certainly improve. It does take time, though.
Front squats are also really good at fixing a rounded upper back (kyphosis). They strengthen the spinal erectors that hold our upper backs in a straighter position. Is that ALL that’s needed? Maybe! It depends. Some people have more severe kyphosis than others. And again, it can take some time, especially if you’re trying to undo a posture that you’ve had for many years.
If you have two of our programs, do you have a membership in the community? Marco could work with you one-on-one there. If not, have you been getting the emails about Marco’s Zoom tutorials that he does on Saturdays? That’s another place where Marco could assess your situation and help you individually. Tomorrow the tutorial is on the overhead press, and posture will probably come up, but we’re also doing a tutorial on the squat after Christmas, and probably a full live tutorial specifically on posture 🙂
I’ve looked briefly at posture stuff but like you said, there just isn’t a lot of solid info out there. Every time I look I end up not really sure if anything works or if it’s actually worth fixing. That framework of learning good posture and then strengthening it makes things a lot clearer. So does all your other content when it comes to lifting, even after over a decade of working out and following the same guys you follow.
Just signed up for the membership – keep on producing the awesome content.
Thank you, Tim 🙂
I think with your posture, if it’s giving you noticeable problems, or if you don’t like how it looks, then being more aware of it and intentionally working on it makes sense. Otherwise, I think it works well to just focus on doing the lifts properly, letting your posture adapt along the way as you get stronger.
But back when I was all skinny and crooked, I did care about my posture, and I credit my postural improvements to improving my lifting technique and getting stronger at the deadlift and overhead press. It does seem to work pretty reliably.
Check out this video on posture.
I love Jeff Nippard’s content and I really enjoyed that video. I think he covered posture perfectly.
Wow, this is a fantastic and greatly appreciated article. I have mild Scheuermann’s disease and hyperlordosis, which has given me quite poor posture, lower back pains in general, and upper back pains when I try to use correct posture. Will implement these suggestions immediately.
I hope it helps, man. Good luck!