What's the best upper back exercise for overall upper back development, using minimal equipment and bodyweight resistance? While others will have different opinions, I think the sternum pull up is a top contender. Here's why.
Two muscles make up the bulk of the upper back musculature: the trapezius, commonly called the "traps," and the latissimus dorsi, commonly called the "lats." The other upper back muscles are synergists for these muscles so sufficiently effective training for the trapezius and latissimus will probably provide sufficient stimulus for all of the upper back muscles.
To get the most returns from a training time investment, I aim to use the fewest number of exercises necessary to get the desired results. The best upper back exercise for this purpose will effectively train both the traps and the lats through sufficiently full ranges of motion.
The latissimus is the largest torso muscle and provides the much-desired V-shape. It also has the largest range of motion and actions and the best upper back exercise will take the lats from full stretch to full contraction.
The lats originate at the spinous processes of the vertebrae T7-T12, the thoraco-lumbar fascia, the iliac crest, the inferior 3 or 4 ribs, and the inferior angle of scapula.
The lats insert at the floor of intertubercular groove of the humerus
The main actions of the lats include adduction, extension, and internal rotation of the arm. The lats also assist in depressing the scapula.
Notice lines of pull of the fibers of the lats. The lats pull on the arm in the direction of those fibers: down, back and toward the spine. The best upper back exercise will involve moving the arms in alignment with the line of pull of the latissimus fibers.
To fully stretch the lats, you must have your arms stretched out over the head. To fully contract the lats you must extend the elbows behind the torso and extend the spine (arch your back). The best upper back exercise possible would involve moving the lats from full stretch to full contraction.
A full range exercise for the lats will move the upper arm down, back and if possible toward the spine, while you are extending (arching) the spine.
The traps are the largest muscles of the upper back.
The traps Originate at the spinous processes of vertebrae C7-T12, the Nuchal ligament, and the occipital bone (back of skull).
The traps insert at the external occipital protuberance, nuchal ligament, medial superior nuchal line, posterior border of the lateral third of the clavicle, acromion process, and scapular spine.
The upper traps elevate the scapulae; their function is antagonistic to the lats which assist in scapular depression. It is not possible to perform an exercise that properly trains both the upper traps and the lats at the same time.
The middle and lower traps rotate, retract and depress the scapulae and thus function synergistically with the actions of the lats.
Hence the best upper back exercise possible would involve a full range of motion for the traps and the lats: rotation, retraction and depression of the scapulae to engage the traps, in conjunction with moving the arms down from above the head AND back behind the torso, while arching the lower back, to train the lats through a full range of motion.
I think that the bodyweight exercise that comes closest to combining all these actions is called the sternum pull-up, demonstrated in this video by Ben Bruno.
This pull-up variation was promoted by Vince Gironda, a legendary bodybuilder and trainer of champions and movie stars in the 20th century; and it is used by gymnasts to develop strength for the front lever. You can perform this exercise with either supinated, neutral, or pronated grip. If you use a supinated grip (palms facing you, as demonstrated in Bruno's video) many people will call it a chin-up instead of a pull-up. No matter what your grip, you pull your body up, and your chin up, hence all grip variations are functionally both pull-ups and chin-ups.
The supinated and neutral grips put the biceps in the mechanically strongest positions, so that you can handle the most resistance and hence provide the greatest overload to the upper back muscles. Unless injury prevents you from using a supinated grip, or you are required to use a pronated grip for some other reason, you will likely get the most out of this exercise if you use a supinated or neutral grip. You can also use rings that allow you to freely move from neutral to supinated grip as you pull up and to reverse this on the eccentric phase.
As Ben Bruno demonstrates in the video above, this pull-up variation requires holding your torso in a layback position as you pull up to the bar. You extend your head back as far away from the bar as possible and arch your spine; as you reach the top position your hips and legs rise to 45 degrees in relation to the floor. You pull your lower chest/sternum to the bar so that your arms extend behind you.
This movement combines pull-ups and rowing into one complete movement that strongly activates both the lats and the trapezius. Unlike horizontal rowing, sternum pull-ups fully stretch the lats; unlike usual chin-ups or pull-ups, sternum pull-ups bring the traps to full contraction.
In this video Bruno demonstrates excellent form, including a pause at full contraction on each repetition, while wearing a weighted vest. But Gironda had his students strive for an even more difficult, advanced way to perform this exercise.
In his book Unleashing the Wild Physique the famous bodybuilding coach Vince Gironda has the photo below showing how his advanced students performed the best upper back exercise. It is one of several exercises Gironda advocated for superior body building results.
The man performing the exercise in this photo is professional bodybuilder Mohamed Makkawy. Under Gironda’s tutelage, Makkawy won a Mr Universe competition and placed highly in numerous other international competitions. If you know anything about the history of bodybuilding competitions, you might be interested to know that Makkawy placed higher than 8-time Mr Olympia winner Lee Haney in 5 of the 8 competitions that they went head to head.
The full sternum pull-up can only be performed properly if you already have the strength to pull and row your own body weight. Some people need a scaled down version of the best upper back exercise to get started. Fortunately, I have found ways to reduce the difficulty while preserving the general form, so you can gradually progress and get the benefits of the best upper back exercise.
To reduce the difficulty of the sternum pull up, you can use your legs to bear some of your weight. I call this the fulcrum sternum pull up because you use your feet as a pivot point. I like this set up because it enables you to get your torso parallel to the floor at the top of the pull, which means the resistance provided by your bodyweight is directly opposite the line of pull of the fibers of the traps and lats, which results in an even stronger contraction.
You set up the bar so that you can hang fully at the beginning and end of each repetition to fully stretch the lats. Instead of resting your feet on the step or mats, you put your heels up on a training bench. Your hips are flexed and your knees should be at about 90 degrees. As you slowly pull up to the bar you arch into a bridge position on the balls of your feet. This concentric phase should take 3-5 seconds. If necessary you can assist your pull with some push by your legs. At the top your position will approximate that of a full Gironda sternum pull up, although your feet will be supported rather than airborne. Pause at the top and squeeze your shoulder blades together for 3-5 seconds; imagine you are trying to touch your elbows together behind your back. Release and slowly reverse the motion; the eccentric (lowering) phase should also take 3-5 seconds. Continue for 4-6 repetitions.
The Poliquin Group Online explains why the sternum pull up may be the best upper back exercise for overall upper back development:
“Not only does this exercise create a great overload on the scapulae retractors, it works more than just the lats. The beginning of the movement is like a classical chin, the midrange resembles the pullover motion, and the end position duplicates the finishing motion of a rowing movement. If you’re advanced enough to even attempt this routine, then you should make sternum chin-ups the staple of your back program.”
If you want the most return for your training effort, you may want to include the sternum pull-up in your bodyweight-based training routine.