To build a stronger, more muscular back, look no further than upper body pulls. The upper body pulling muscles are targeted with horizontal and vertical pulling exercises.
As an expert trainer, I will teach you the key movements you should be doing to build a wider back, reinforce strong posture in total body lifts, and get continued back growth no matter your training level.
The 14 best upper body pulling exercises for muscle growth are:
- Dumbbell Row
- Seal Row
- Incline Dumbbell Row
- Barbell Row
- Pendlay Row
- Machine Iso Row
- T Bar Row
- Lat Pulldown
- Single Arm Lat Pulldown
- Assisted Machine Pull Up
- Pull Up
- Chin Up
- Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
- Sling Pulldown
I’ll teach you how to perform each of these movements and integrate them properly into your workout routines.
If you struggle to grow your back muscles and increase upper body pulling strength, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.
Upper Body Pulling Muscles
The primary pulling muscles of the upper body are the back, biceps, and traps. However, the rhomboids, erectors, and rear delts are also active to a lesser degree during pulling exercises. I’ll explain each of these muscles and their role in pulling exercises.
Latissimus Dorsi (Back)
The lats span the entire upper back and are responsible for pulling objects into the body from an overhead position (vertical pulling), in front of the body (horizontal pulling), and anywhere between.
You can train the lats using vertical (e.g., pull-ups) and horizontal pulling exercises (e.g., rows), which we will discuss below.
The trapezius muscles (traps) are a large muscle group that spans the back of the torso. Most people know the upper traps, the muscle fibers that run along the tops of the shoulders and upper back/neck, which are the most visible.
The upper traps raise the shoulder blades, which is crucial for pulling exercises like shrugs, deadlifts, and even some bent-over rows (the less bent over you are, the more upper traps are involved).
The middle and lower traps are lesser-known fiber groups of the traps that are trained during rows and pulldowns as they work to stabilize the shoulder blades (retract them and pull them down).
The rhomboids are the muscles that run between the shoulder blades in the upper back and are responsible for pulling the shoulder blades together and apart.
These small but mighty muscles are critical in most upper-body pulling exercises and maintaining good posture. Training these is often done indirectly through performing rows and pulldowns properly.
The rear deltoids are the posterior shoulder muscles that pull the shoulders back during pulling movements. The rear delts are often isolated with bent-over flies. However, many upper-body pulling movements like rows, pull-ups, and lat pull-downs also indirectly train them.
The erectors are back muscles that run along your spine and are responsible for extending the spine and resisting spinal flexion (rounding of the spine). The erectors are active in bent-over rows and any movement where you must keep your spine neutral by preventing it from rounding.
The erectors help create a stable base to exert more force while pulling. If your erectors are weak, you won’t be able to pull as effectively, and you will have a higher risk of injury.
The biceps assist the larger pulling muscles of the upper body and get some training stimulus as they flex (bend the elbows). When training upper body pulling movements like the ones below, you should not feel limited by the biceps, as this indicates you are using the arms rather than the back muscles to pull the weight.
Related Article: Best Upper Body Workout for Women
Benefits Of Upper Body Pulling Exercises
The benefits of upper-body pulling exercises include:
Increased Back Strength and Size
Training your upper body pulling muscles will help you build a bigger, more muscular back, which creates the illusion of a smaller waist. Training these muscles a few times a week also encourages strength gain, allowing you to lift heavier loads.
Improved Total-Body Pulling and Pressing Capacity
The stronger your upper body pulling muscles are, the better you can express strength in other movements by creating a stable base from which you can exert force.
A strong back is needed to stabilize the spine in squats, assist the legs and hips in deadlifts, and allow the pecs, shoulders, and triceps to unleash all their force during the bench and overhead press.
Training your upper body pulling muscles improves your posture by building strength in your rhomboids, rear delts, lats, and lower/middle traps. These muscles help resist rounding of the spine (spinal flexion) and shoulders.
If you work a desk job, you likely have bad posture from being hunched over your desk; therefore, you will see the most benefit from upper body pulling exercises.
Related Article: Best 4-Day Push Pull Workout Split for Muscle Growth
14 Best Upper Body Pull Exercises
Below are 14 of the best upper-body pull exercises. Ideally, you will include one or two of each (horizontal and vertical) in each upper-body pulling session.
7 Horizontal Pulling Exercises
Horizontal pulling is when you move an object into the body by pulling the elbows behind you (rather than from the overhead position).
1. Dumbbell Row
The dumbbell row is performed with one arm at a time and is a great way to train the lats, rhomboids, and, to a lesser extent, the biceps.
Using a bench allows you to support yourself, create a stable base to produce more force, and train harder without instability or your erectors (lower back) being a limiting factor.
How To Do It
- Place your left knee on the bench, with your other leg on the ground with the foot planted and hip stacked overtop.
- With your torso bent parallel to the floor, place your left hand on the bench and keep your arm straight and shoulder stacked over your wrist.
- With a dumbbell in the right arm, hanging down under the right shoulder, arch your back and pull the right elbow back to the side of the ribs.
- Pull the elbow slightly past or in line with the torso, then slowly lower the weight until your arm is fully extended.
Think about pulling with your pinkies rather than placing all the weight and emphasis on pulling through your thumbs and index fingers. This queue will help you engage more of your lats and less of the biceps and forearm muscles. You’re doing it wrong if you feel this in your biceps more than your lats.
2. Seal Row
The seal row variation allows you to load the back with heavy loads because your back is supported. By lying on the bench, you take pressure off the lower back, hips, and hamstrings and limit the ability to “cheat the movement.”
How To Do It
- Lie down on a bench and ensure that the bench is high enough off the ground that you can fully extend your arms without having the weight touch the ground. You may need to raise the bench by placing it on boxes or platforms.
- With a barbell or dumbbell underneath the bench (the barbell should be perpendicular to the bench), grab the weights and straighten the back.
- Pull the weights towards your chest as high as possible (elbows should align with the torso), then slowly lower the weight.
Keep your upper chest off the bench to keep your upper back active and minimize arm pulling. Think of your arms as hooks that allow the back to exert force rather than actually pulling with the arms.
3. Incline Dumbbell Row
The incline dumbbell row is a chest-supported row that has you row at an angle. This exercise is another variation that allows you to lift heavier as you are in a supported position rather than having to support yourself. The higher the incline, the more you use the back’s upper lat and trap fibers.
How To Do It
- Set in an adjustable bench on a 15,30,45 degree incline angle.
- Lie your chest down on the bench, and grab your dumbbells.
- Pull the dumbbells to the body’s sides, ensure the elbows pass the torso, lower them, and repeat.
If you feel this in your lower back more than your upper or mid back, focus on keeping your lower back neutral rather than excessively arched.
4. Barbell Row
The barbell row is done in a bent-over position and is a powerful back-building exercise that can build strength and muscle. This exercise can also improve your strength for other lifts like deadlifts and RDLs, for which you need a strong back in a bent-over position to resist spinal flexion under load.
How To Do It
- Place a barbell on the ground and stand with your feet underneath the bar with a hip-width stance. You can use a double overhand or underhand grip, whichever feels best on the back.
- Bend down and grab the bar with a wider-than-shoulder-width grip. Keep your back flat, chest up, and knees slightly bent (your shins should be vertical).
- With your chest up and hips high, pull the barbell to the upper abdomen/lower chest, slowly lower the weight until the arms are straight, and repeat.
Resist the urge to let your hips shift upward throughout the set, and work on keeping your torso stationary as you pull to avoid momentum.
5. Pendlay Row
The Pendlay row is similar to the bent-over row. The main difference is that you take the bar to the ground between every rep, and your body is fully bent over (around 90 degrees).
This movement is very challenging and places all the loading on the lats, minimizing the involvement of the arms and traps while putting your back at the most significant disadvantage from a leverage perspective (which is what you want when trying to build muscle).
How To Do It
- Set a barbell on the ground and place your feet under the bar, hip-width apart.
- Bend down and grab the bar with a double overhand grip, shoulder width or 2-3” outside.
- With the bar starting on the ground, flatten your back, pull the bar up to the chest or upper abdomen, and then slowly lower the bar to the floor.
Do not use your hips to lift the weight. Keep your torso fully bent over and pull only with the upper back. Any leaning back or shifting forward means the weight is too heavy.
6. Machine Iso Row
The machine iso row is a row machine that allows you to train both arms independently and simultaneously. This exercise is excellent for addressing muscle imbalances.
Unlike the dumbbell row, you are seated and in a set, stable position, which minimizes the ability to cheat or round the back (making it great for heavier training for beginners). The machine also has a fixed rowing path, ensuring you are pulling the weight in the right path every rep.
How To Do It
- Sit down on the machine with your chest on the pad.
- Reach forward and grab the handles.
- With your chest up and back straight, pull the elbow back in line with your torso, and then slowly lower the weight until your arms are fully extended.
You can do this with an overhand grip, neutral grip (palms facing each other), or underhand grip. Each grip will hit the back slightly differently. I recommend you experiment with each and see which one offers you the best muscle contraction of the lats.
7. T Bar Row
The T-bar row is a bent-over row on an angle, allowing you to train the bent-over row in a set, fixed path. This movement is helpful as it can develop many of the same qualities as the barbell row while keeping your bar path consistent to ensure you are moving the weight correctly.
You can do this supported (chest down on a pad) or freestanding (the “how-to” is based on the free-standing version).
How To Do It
- Stand on the platform with your feet hip-width apart, and grab the bar with a wider than shoulder-width, overhand grip.
- Lift the weight, keep the arms extended, and bend over at the hips until your chest is over the front of the bar.
- With the back flat and hips back behind you, pull the weight to the chest and then slowly lower the bar back down.
You can vary the angle of your back to change the target muscles. The more bent-over you are, the more you target your lats and mid back; the taller you stand, the more you’ll target the upper back. However, ensure you do not let the body move when you row the bar.
7 Vertical Pulling Exercises
Vertical pulling is when you move an object into the body from an overhead position. Below are seven of the best vertical pulling exercises.
1. Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is a movement that trains the lats from the overhead angle. This exercise is excellent for all lifters at all levels, and it allows you to prepare the back if you are not strong enough to do slow and controlled pull-ups in high volume (a lot of reps) or if you find your grip gives out first in pull-ups.
How To Do It
- Sit down on the lat pulldown machine and grab the handles (you can choose between various grips and handles).
- With your chest up and minimal or no torso recline, pull the handlebar down to the middle chest, arching and keeping your chest up and shoulders back as you pull the weight down (do not hunch).
- Touch the chest, and then slowly straighten the arms and repeat.
As you pull the weight down, ensure you are not collapsing forward. The tendency to collapse forward is often due to using too much weight, so if you find yourself struggling to maintain your position, decrease the weight and pull the bar to the upper chest.
2. Single Arm Lat Pulldown
The single-arm lat pulldown is a one-arm pulldown variation that allows you to address any muscle imbalances.
You can also do these to train the pulldown from a different angle, where the arm starts above the head and pulls down and out toward the side of your body, increasing the range of motion and the demand on the lats.
How To Do It
- Sit down sideways on the lat pulldown and reach your outside arm above you to a single handle.
- While staying upright, pull the handle down to your side and out, as the hand should be above the head, and then get pulled down to the side of the outside shoulder.
This exercise is best done with lighter loads, as you are not securing your feet under the pad. Focus on the strength of the muscle contraction rather than loading this movement as heavily as possible.
3. Assisted Machine Pull Up
The machine-assisted pull-up is a great way to train the back muscles like a pull-up, but do so while minimizing cheating, changing form, or swinging the body. Even the most advanced and strongest lifters will benefit from doing these (these aren’t just for beginners).
How To Do It
- Place your knees on the support pad and set the pin to the desired weight. The more weight you use, the more assistance you will get.
- Pull your body up to the bar from the hanging position, ensuring your legs are pressed together, and you are not swinging your hips.
- Slowly lower yourself down to a full hang, and repeat.
Squeeze your thighs together and flex your glutes to minimize lower body movement and create more force through your lats.
4. Pull Up
You can do the pull-up using only your body or external weight (vest or added weight). The pull-up is often done incorrectly and prone to technique breakdown at higher reps (which is why I also suggest you do machine-assisted ones).
The assisted pull-up is better for beginners and those performing higher reps.
How To Do It
- Hang from a bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width, double overhead (palms away) grip.
- With your chest up and your body rigid, pull your middle chest to the bar (or, at the very least, chin past the bar).
- Lower on a 2-3-second count, and end each rep in the full hang (arms straight).
Most people could be better at these, so I suggest you do as many good ones as possible and then embrace assisted pull-ups and lat pulldowns. You can do these for back growth if you do them properly and can do enough of them (sets of 8-15 reps) to make significant muscle growth.
5. Chin Up
The chin-up is similar to the pull-up. However, you use an underhand grip that emphasizes the biceps more than the lats.
How To Do It
- Hang from a bar with an underhand shoulder-width grip.
- With a rigid torso and legs, pull your elbows down to your sides and keep your chest up and shoulders back until your chin passes the bar.
- Lower yourself slowly and fully straighten the elbows at the bottom of every rep.
This vertical pull tends to work the biceps more than the lats, so program this accordingly. I recommend doing these early in the workout if you want to train your arms; that way, you are the strongest.
6. Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
The straight arm lat pulldown is a more isolated exercise for the lats and takes out the usage of the biceps to lift the weight, as there is no elbow bending during the movement.
How To Do It
- Stand a few feet from the pulley system and grab the bar with a double overhead, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- Lean slightly forward and bend the hips and knees. Stretch the arms overhead as much as possible, and keep the arms straight. You should feel the tension as the weight is now off the stack.
- Pull the bar down with straight arms using your lats, keep your chest up, and move the bar in an arching pattern.
- Pull the bar to the hip crease or the upper thighs, and then slowly raise the arms back up overhead.
This exercise is best performed with less weight and more reps, working on contracting the muscle and getting a big stretch at the top.
7. Sling Pulldown
The sling pulldown is a lat pulldown variation that has you place your upper arms (above the elbows) in a sling rather than grab a bar with your hands. By doing this, you remove all arm use and isolate the lats.
The sling pulldown is an excellent movement for people who struggle to use their lats in the lat pulldown or if you want to truly isolate the lats and take the arms out of the movement.
How To Do It
- Attach the slings to the cable pulley clip and place your elbow through it with your triceps in the slings.
- Sit down in the lat pulldown seat with your thighs under the pad and the elbows as high as you can in front of you.
- Pull the elbows down and back to your rear pockets without using your arms or grip of the bands, keeping the chest high and back arched.
You may feel like the movement is short in the range of motion, but in reality, you are training the lats and shoulder blades through the full range of motion. Think about pulling your elbows down and lifting them as high as you can every rep.
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Sample Upper Body Pull Workout
You can do these workouts to increase lean muscle mass and strength of the back. For overall development, include a vertical and horizontal-focused upper body pulling workout in your weekly training.
Note: While these exact workouts are not in the Fitbod app, you can use these workouts as a template to create your workout using the movements above.
Vertical-Pull Focused Workout
This workout is focused more on vertical pulling and is for those lifters looking to add width to the back or improve their pulling abilities from the overhead position.
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Machine Assisted Pull Up: 3 sets of 10 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
- Single Arm Cable Row: 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
Horizontal-Pull Focused Workout
This workout is focused more on horizontal pulling and is for those lifters looking to add thickness to the back or improve their pulling abilities.
- Cable Single Arm Row: 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Pendlay Row: 3 sets of 10 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
- Straight Arm Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.