Like many other fitness enthusiasts, one of the major things I wanted to achieve when I first started training was to have body aesthetics, especially more size and width to my back. A wider back gives a “V-Taper” physique that displays broad traps, upper back, and shoulders, as well as a narrow waist creating a “V” shaped body.
To add some serious size to your back, the primary muscle that you would want to develop is the latissimus dorsi as this will add the width that you’re after. Also, you’ll need to perform the right exercises to see optimal results. Here are the 4 best calisthenics exercises to build a perfect back.
Table of Contents
Anatomy of The Back
Before we jump into the exercises, let us first understand the common mistakes that could hinder your progress, and what creates an attractive looking back. The first mistake that people make is that they think the “back” consists of one muscle, therefore, they randomly create a workout plan without paying much attention to what muscle each exercise targets.
For instance, you will see in the exercises below that by simply changing the width of your grip, or your elbow angle will entirely change the muscles that are being targeted. Being uninformed of these small details can lead to slow progress in your back development that lacks thickness and definition.
Another common mistake with back training is that there are “hidden” muscles that seem insignificant and often get as much attention as other big back muscles, even though these play an important role in keeping your posture upright and your shoulders healthy. We need to give equal love to these muscles to build a well-rounded back. These muscles include
- The rhomboids (which are located in the upper back, under your traps). They are worked by retracting your scapulars.
- The latissimus dorsi (which are the large wing-like muscles from your mid-back to your lower back). These are targeted when you pull things down your vertical plane and along your horizontal plane.
- The trapezius (upper back broken down into three sections; upper traps, mid traps, and lower traps).
- The erector spinae (the lower back muscles).
- The posterior deltoid (located behind your shoulders). They work by pulling things towards your face.
The diagram above illustrates smaller muscles such as the teres major and the infraspinatus. We will be focusing on these muscles as well because they will provide stabilization in our shoulders and give us an aesthetic look.
Calisthenics Back Workout
Exercise 1: Pull Ups
This is pretty much the “king” of all back exercises. The pull up is a compound movement, which means it targets all the major back muscles. For instance, the traps, rhomboids, and lats. They also develop your scapular stabilizers which are extremely beneficial for your shoulder health.
To build a wing-like back, you should use different grip widths to target different back muscles so that you’d have well-rounded muscles. The wider the grip, the more isolation will be placed on your lats and you’ll have to pull a greater percentage of your body weight. Whereas the close grip will also recruit the lats, and it will gain a large contribution from your biceps and chest muscles.
According to the Strength and Conditioning Journal, the pull up is a closed kinetic chain exercise (meaning your hands are fixed in space and cannot move) that is designed to increase muscular strength and endurance in the upper body muscles. This exercise will improve an athlete’s shoulder girdle strength, stability, and ability to create force during pulling movements.
How To Do Pull Ups
- Grab a pull up bar using an overhand grip outside of shoulder-width apart. The wider the grip, the less biceps will be involved. Extend your arms and lift your feet off the ground to be in a dead hanging position.
- Exhale as you engage your back muscles to pull yourself up towards the bar until your neck clears the bar while keeping your core engaged.
- Inhale while you slowly lower yourself to the starting position. Resist the gravity by coming down in a controlled manner. Lock your arms out to ensure a full range of motion.
- Repeat this movement between 5-12 reps, for 4 sets.
What If I Can’t Do a Pull Up?
The great thing about calisthenics is that you can choose specific exercises and progressions to suit your current fitness level, and gradually build up the strength required for the harder variations. For instance, you can practice negative pull ups. Negatives are performed by controlling the tempo of the repetition during the eccentric (lowering down phase).
To do this, you will simply step on a stable object to raise your body almost at the top position of the pull up. Grip the bar using an overhand grip, followed by jumping so that your chin is above the bar. Engage your back lats and lower slowly at a count of 3-5 seconds until your arms are fully extended. Repeat this between 3-5 reps, for 5 sets.
Exercise 2: Australian Pull Ups
The Australian pull ups, also known as inverted rows, is a compound exercise that focuses on the upper back muscles. The core elements of this exercise are:
- How high you pull your body towards the bar
- Your elbow angle
When you pull up, aim to pull as high as you possibly can, and over time try to touch your chest to the bar. Also, the elbow angle will play a big role in determining what muscle will be targeted. Rather than having your elbow flared out too close to your torso, tuck them between 45-60 degrees, with a high emphasis on squeezing your shoulder blades as you drive your elbows back.
How to Do Australian Pull ups
- Position yourself under a low bar that is around waist height. Line your lower chest with the bar and grip the bar tightly using an overhand grip.
- Straighten your body by extending your arms and legs fully, and dig your heels into the ground. Your body should be in a straight line at an inclined slope. Engage your core.
- Exhale as you retract your shoulder blades and pull your chest towards the bar.
- Inhale as you slowly lower back to the starting position.
- Repeat this movement between 8-12 reps for 4 sets.
Exercise 3: Tuck Front Lever
The tuck front lever will target the entire back region such as the lats, rhomboids, traps, teres major, infraspinatus, erector spinae, and your core too! This is a static hold and is the first progression towards the front lever. I guarantee that you will feel the burn in your back muscle if you do this properly. To do this you will:
- Grab the bar shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip.
- Tuck your knees in towards your chest and use the momentum to retract your scapulars and lean back to raise your torso until it is parallel to the ground. Keep your core squeezed, arms straight, and eyes looking forward.
- Hold this position between 10-15 seconds, for 5 sets
Once this exercise becomes easy, you can progress to the advanced tuck front lever by extending your knees forward so that it goes past the bar, creating a 90-degree angle between your thighs and torso. This progression will recruit more of your lower back and lats due to higher leverage/torque.
Exercise 4: Reverse Deadlift
Moving on to the last exercise is called the reverse deadlifts. This is an excellent workout for strengthening your lower back (erector spinae), lats, and core. For those who cannot do this move, you can regress to hanging leg raises.
- Grab the bar shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip.
- Kick your legs up, keeping them straight until you are at a 90 degrees angle between your legs and torso. Your back is parallel to the ground and your arms are straight.
- Exhale as you pull down on the bar and thrust your hips forward. Generate the force from your lats, lower back, and core. Raise up until your body is in a straight line.
- Inhale as you lower down until your back is parallel to the ground.
- Repeat this movement between 3-8 reps, for 4 sets.
Calisthenics Back Exercises Routine
Here’s a laid-out workout plan that you can follow to make some serious gains on your back. Remember that your grip width and hand position play a big role in determining what muscles will be targeted.
Now you have all the necessary information needed to have an effective back workout. It’s your turn to take action and work towards your goals with these 4 exercises. You can also follow along with me in this complete back workout. You will feel it after, I guarantee you that!
If you’d still like some more personalized assistance and a complete step-by-step program that shows you how to train, what to eat, and how to optimize your recovery, then you should book a consultation with one of our expert coaches today.
I’m Pat Chadwick, a qualified Level 2 and Level 3 calisthenics coach and athlete from London, England, with six years of experience. I’ve competed in various UK competitions, including the Kalos Stenos Championships, where I achieved third place in the lightweight category. My passion is highlighting the beauty of calisthenics as an authentic and pure form of body expression. I believe that everyone has the potential to become a champion of their body and mind, and that calisthenics opens the door to personal empowerment.