Those who think you can’t build a powerful and imposing back without fancy machines and barbells are wrong.
People were building impressive, shirt-busting backs long before gyms ever existed.
How naive for one to think that you need external weight or an awkward machine to build a muscular back.
Few people in the gym I see doing set after set of machine back exercises have a back to be envious of.
Even worse, many well-intentioned gym goers injure themselves seriously doing the “must do” exercises like deadlifts and barbell rows.
There is a better and safer way to strengthen your back while packing on lean muscle.
I’ve been watching a lot of calisthenic channels on YouTube lately and oh man have those guys figured it out.
Their strength is through the roof and they’ve built backs that even the late Eugene Sandow would be proud of.
I’ve been doing almost entirely body-weight calisthenics lately and I don’t feel that I’ve lost any strength at all.
In fact, I feel stronger and my joints feel better than they ever did with weights alone.
My back also looks more defined that it did when I was lifting heavily all summer.
If you’re not familiar with calisthenics, then you might think that the only back exercise you have is the pull-up.
Not true at all. There are a lot of other exercises and variations that you can do aside from the basic pull-up.
The 7 exercises below can be done without weights and with minimal equipment. The only thing you absolutely need is a pull-up bar, but you can find that for free at your local playground!
# 1 -- Pull-ups
So, I said it wasn’t the only exercise, but it is one of the big ones.
If you are looking to build a wide and powerful back with calisthenics, you are going to need pull-ups.
The best thing about the pull-up is that it works a ton of muscles.
Aside from your back, it works your biceps, forearms, hands and your abdominals.
You may never have thought about it, but pay attention to your abs the next time you do pull-ups.
You’ll realize how hard they’re working and contracting.
For a lot of people new to calisthenics, it will be difficult to do a full pull-up right away.
If you struggle with full pull-ups, start with doing half pull-ups or use a resistance band to help take some weight off.
Best for: overall strength, size and definition of the back.
# 2 -- Neutral grip pull-ups
A grip change makes a big difference when it comes to exercise.
With a neutral grip pull-up, you grab the bars with your palms facing in towards you.
This change of grip puts the focus on your upper back muscles.
For most people, they want to develop their muscles as much as possible. The upper back plays a major role and your back will look out of balance if you don’t train it.
These are one of my favorite type of pull-ups because they put less strain on the biceps and shoulders.
When I do these, I like to go slow and focus on form.
Even just a few sets of these will likely leave you sore the next day.
Best for: upper back/trap development and mass.
# 3 -- Wide grip pull-ups
Just like the neutral grip pull-up, a change of grip targets a different part of your back for these.
When you grab a pull-up bar wider than usual, you change the focus to your outer lats.
Even top professional bodybuilders over the years have attributed the wide grip pull-up to helping them build a wide v-taper back.
If you are looking for a wider back, these are going to be your money maker.
They can be hard to do because they put the shoulder at an awkward angle so go slowly with them.
Best for: back width and development.
# 4 -- Close grip pull-ups
These primarily work the biceps as well as the upper back and traps.
You will really feel your biceps working with these.
I also feel like they make my core and abdominal muscles work harder than the other pull-up variations.
These are probably the toughest type of pull-up to do on this list so you will want to do at least a few regular ones before you move on to these.
Just like regular pull-ups, if you can’t do these fully at first just start with half reps or use a resistance band.
Best for: biceps, traps and upper back strength and mass.
# 5 -- Horizontal pulls
You don’t need a machine to do rows.
With a horizontal pull, you are actually using a lot of weight because you are pulling your entire body up.
A horizontal pull is basically a horizontal pull-up.
You use a table, bar or suspension trainer to pull yourself up from a horizontal position and lower yourself back down.
In my opinion, these work the back and biceps better than any machine can, especially when you go slow.
I absolutely love this exercise.
If you have access to a free-standing bar with enough room to get under, you can do these from all different angles.
Best for: back width, biceps and overall strength.
# 6 -- Scapula pull
This is a newer one to me, but people swear that it will increase the number of pull-ups you can do so I’m including them in my routine and this list.
This exercise is basically the beginning movement of the pull-up.
It focuses on your shoulder blades and the muscles that surround it.
A lot of people fail with pull-ups because they think it’s all in the arms which isn’t the case.
If you are doing it properly, you should be starting by contracting your back and scapula first.
This exercise works to increase your scapula strength, which will make it easier for you to pull yourself up.
I like these a lot and can really feel them working my back and scapula muscles.
Best for: increasing your pull-up strength
# 7 -- Door handle row
I first heard of these in a book called You are your own gym.
These are a cool MacGyver type exercise that you can do anywhere you find a door handle.
With these, you can really go slow and focus on the movement.
These are easier than horizontal pulls because you don’t have your entire body-weight pulling you down.
Since you don’t have as much resistance, you can get a much stronger squeeze in your back and biceps.
These will torch your back if you do them correctly.
As a bonus, they also work your legs since you have to maintain a partial squatting position as you do them.
Best for: back strength and definition.
Put your back into it
Hopefully some of these were new to you, but if not it’s always good to review the basics.
These are all basic exercises that don’t require any special skill, although they definitely require strength.
There are many more calisthenic back exercises out there that I can’t do or haven’t done myself so just know this list isn’t exhaustive.
Just search for calisthenics on YouTube and you will see all kinds of high-flying movements.
I believe that the basics are always best for building a strong foundation and to me, these are the basics.
They take time to master, but I can promise you that it’s worth it if you are looking to build a large, powerful back.
Once you start incorporating even some of these into your current workout routine, I know that you’ll see a difference.
P.S. What are some of your favorite calisthenic back exercises? I’d love to hear them below along with any questions or comments you have!