By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
You might remember the pull-up bar from your days as a middle school or high school student during P.E. The pull-up is one of those fitness activities that seems to just pop up everywhere, from the playground to military boot camp, as a tool to measure fitness.
While I’ve trained hard over the past few years so I can exercise with a pull-up bar, many of the fittest people I know can’t even do one of them. Why? It’s a lot harder than it looks to pull your body weight up off the ground in a smooth manner. The intensiveness of the exercise also might seem intimidating to some, or you might have a shoulder or wrist injury that makes it hard to actually perform pull-ups. Don’t get discouraged if the latter is the case. There are a number of bodyweight exercises to strengthen your back that can replace pull-ups in your fitness routine.
Bodyweight exercises require a lot of stability in your core. These types of exercises can quickly get your body into shape without the use of heavy weights or an expensive gym membership.
Exercises like push-ups, dips, and bodyweight squats are easy to do in almost any environment and build a lot of functional strength. Functional strength helps your body move easier, eliminates muscle imbalances, and can give you an aesthetically pleasing look.
For variety, try some powerful core workouts that can be combined with the bodyweight techniques below.
Lower-back pain is very common in today’s world. You might have a painful back after sitting down for a long period of time, or working all day at a job where you do not move around a lot. It’s true: sitting is the new smoking. Consequently, a sedentary lifestyle contributes to lower- and mid-back pain by creating imbalances in the muscles and a weak core. This places extra pressure on your spine and can irritate the many nerves that run up and down your body.
Looking to make lower-back pain disappear and strengthen your muscles and spine, all while avoiding pull-ups? Keep reading for a top-tier list of the best bodyweight exercises to add to your fitness routine for a stronger back.
Planks are a powerful bodyweight exercise that is simple yet effective. Simply lie on the floor and prop up your body with your elbows placed right under the shoulders. Next, walk your legs back so you are in a straight line. Hold the pose for 30–60 seconds (or as long as possible with correct form). Plank variations help craft a powerful core and will also make your back stronger by engaging many of the muscles on the lower part of your body.
The superman bodyweight exercise is an effective tool for strengthening the lower back and upper abs. With this exercise, lie down on the floor on your stomach and then lift your shoulders and legs so they arch. Once your hips and core only are on the floor, squeeze your lats and quads as you hold the position for as long as possible.
For the dolphin kick, find a bench where you can let your hip rest at the end. Place your feet on the ground and then raise your straight legs as far as they can go. Hold a static position at the top for a few seconds, then let your legs move back down to the floor. The dolphin kick engages the abdominals, glutes, hips, and spinal erectors in the back all at the same time. Aim for several reps and sets before resting for 30–60 seconds.
Don’t think you have to use heavy weights or a pull-up bar to develop a strong chest and powerful shoulder muscles. Bodyweight exercises, including variations on tried-and-true techniques like the push-up, can be put to good use to help you train and strengthen your upper back and body.
Our list of the five best bodyweight moves rounds out with a couple of upper-back building exercises.
This push-up variation is specifically designed to target your traps and shoulder blades. The exercise is great for those looking for a triangle-shaped upper back and shoulder area. With the scapula push-up, get your body in the standard push-up position, with your hands just outside the width of your shoulder blades. Don’t bend your arms as you go down, but instead squeeze your shoulder blades together and then push them apart. The key here is a smooth motion. Make the squeeze and release slow, without any shoulder shrugs, to feel the effects of the exercise and strengthen your upper body. Increase reps as you get stronger and more confident with the technique.
The reverse snow angel is a twist on what you might remember as a kid—lying on your back in the snow and moving your arms and legs to make a snow angel. For this exercise, which aids in strengthening the upper back, lie facedown on the floor and move your arms to your hips and back. This exercise also targets the traps and the inner lower back, and it is easily done without any equipment. Just be sure to find a comfortable surface to lie on before starting.
Total-body wellness transcends bodyweight exercises and a strong back. Combining an exercise plan with a stretching routine and relaxation techniques like Bikram yoga goes a long way toward promoting mind-body wellness while keeping your muscles and joints strong and nimble for the next workout.
Don’t feel like you’re tethered to the pull-up bar for building a strong back. If you’ve suffered an injury, or just don’t have space for a portable bar, take advantage of the many strength-building bodyweight exercises that can transform your back and build your strength for more complicated or intense exercises.