Monday 27 March 2017

The Best Upper Back Exercise You Have Never Tried

Which of the following do you want: healthy shoulders, stronger upper body, improved posture, better upper body structural balance, a way to train your upper back while sparing your lower back or a thicker, more powerful-looking upper back? If you answered yes to any of the previous benefit, I have just the thing for you. Here is a new spin-off on a classic upper back exercise that delivers fantastic results!

Recently I was enjoying a nice walk with my family along a river near our house. Along the river, there are facilities for a rowing club. Included in these facilities, was a small gym specifically designed for rowers. I of course had to peak through the window and have a look. While the gym wasn’t much, they had a cool piece of equipment you rarely find in gyms – specialized high flat bench used for bench pulls (a chest-supported barbell row). Here is what they look like:

The Classic Bench-Pull
The bench pull is an old, but seldom-seen upper back exercise that offers some great benefits:
  1. You get all the benefits of barbell training (big, compound movement, easy to progress)
  2. You to spare your low back while doing heavy barbell rows. I know this may not look as functional as a bent-over row, but it can be very helpful for back health and recovery. The spine gets stressed with so many other great movements (e.g. squats, deadlifts, Olympic lift variations, loaded carries, etc.) that you can exceed your tolerance levels and run into problems. 
  3. It puts you in a completely horizontal position. Too many people do “bent-over” rows while hardly bending over. This shifts more emphasis to the upper traps. When you stay horizontal, you maximally target your mid back shoulder blade retractors (middle trapezius and rhomboids. 
  4. You can’t cheat. If you watch how most people do bent-over barbell rows and 1-arm DB rows, you will notice a lot of body movement. While there can be a time and place for this, it can often result in shifting stress away from the target muscles. Bench pulls are a humbling exercise that leaves you nothing but your target muscles to pull with.

While this is a great lift, there are 3 disadvantages:
  1. Your gym is not likely to have this bench
  2. Rowing with a straight bar is harder for many to do well. The pronated position (palms facing down) is awkward for many people and can easily turn into more of a shrugging movement. 
  3. The bar may hit the bottom of the bench before you fully retract your shoulder blades.

Enter the Trap Bar Bench-Pull
After our trip to the river, I started to play with bench pulls. I had dabbled with them years ago, but at the time, I found they were annoying to set up and I didn’t like the barbell version for the reasons mentioned above. This time, when I returned to them, I first tried them with a Swiss bar. 

Swiss bar
This definitely worked better than the straight bar for optimal rowing mechanics. However, this didn’t help the range of motion issue – the bar was still hitting the bottom of the bench before I had fully retracted my shoulder blades. Then, I looked over at our trap bars. For the past several years I had included bent-over trap bar rows in my program and loved this row variation. Then, I realized that the trap bar offers you two different handle options. By pulling with the higher handles, the rest of the bar is lower and thus you can row higher without the bar slamming into the bottom of your bench. Once I tried this variation, I knew I had a winner.

While the trap bar bench pull offers some great advantages, this position is not appropriate for everyone. Avoid if you:
  • Are pregnant
  • Have breast or pec implants
  • Can’t safely get into proper position
  • Try the position and find in uncomfortable
  • Have any other health or medical conditions that could be aggravated by being in this position (check with your doctor first)

If any of the the above apply to you, I would choose other rowing variations. For ideas, check up my playlist on Upper Body Pulling Exercises on my YouTube Channel

An Important Note on Set-Up
The challenging thing with bench pulls is getting the optimal height of the bench. If the bench is too low, you will not get a full range of motion. If the bench is too high, you won’t be able to reach the bar – and that would not be any fun. For my long arms, I found putting a bench across to other benches worked great and gave me a fast, easy set-up. Steps, blocks and bumper plates can also work to elevate a bench so see what you have at your gym to work with. You can also adjust the height of the bar by the size of plates you use on the trap bar.

“What if I don’t have a trap bar?”
The barbell version is still a great option. You can also try it with a supinated grip (palms up). Another great option is to use dumbbells. Also, if you have a home gym, consider purchasing a trap bar. They are relatively inexpensive and great for a variety of lifts such as deadlifts, shrugs and farmer's walks

How about you? If you think it would be a good fit for you and try it out, let me know what you think about the trap bar bench pull. I welcome your questions or comments below or on my Facebook page.


  1. Love this Andrew. Very creative.

    1. Thanks Shane! As always I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Hope all is well on your end!