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Shoulder and Back Workouts That Build Upper Body Strength

5 min read

By Eric Leckie, PT

Who doesn’t love the idea of having nicely sculpted and strong upper back and shoulder muscles? Well, the good news is that this ideal physique isn’t all that hard to achieve. All you need to do is target the right muscles during your workouts and complete the appropriate amount of reps and sets to sculpt and tone your muscles.

Firstly, if you’re looking to build strength and tone your upper back and shoulder muscles, you’ll want to aim for 3-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions at 67 to 85-percent of your maximum load (the very most you can lift for one rep). If you combine this prescription with the following exercises, you’ll be on the road to building upper body strength. Here are my favorite 16 shoulder and back workouts to do just that…

Standing Shoulder Press

A standing shoulder press is a great exercise that can target most of the large muscles in your upper body. This includes your pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps (arms), and trapezius (upper back).

Grab a set of dumbbells and start pressing them up into the ceiling to feel the shoulder burn. You can either push both arms up at once or alternate arms for a similar effect.

Bent Over Rows

Not only can bent-over rows help increase strength in your back and shoulders, but they can also help increase strength in your posture. This can help prevent you from slumping too much.

With this exercise, make sure you engage your core, hinge at the hips, row the dumbbells up to your chest. Then lower slowly back down to strengthen your back muscles.

Lateral Raises

Lateral raises are sure to leave your shoulders screaming (in a good way!). Be sure not to choose a weight too heavy and maintain good form throughout the entire movement.

Stand with a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. Keeping your back straight and your core engaged, slowly lift the weights out to the side, bringing your arms parallel with the floor. Keep your elbows slightly bent, and then slowly lower back down.


This is the ultimate upper back exercise. Even if you can’t complete a complete pull-up, you can use exercise bands to help or a pull-up machine to get started.

Face Pulls

Grab either a set of bands or a cable machine and start doing face pulls. This exercise will help you sculpt and build strength into your shoulders and upper back.

Lat Pull-Down

Lat pull-downs are a great exercise to help strengthen the broadest muscle in your back, the latissimus dorsi muscle. It will help strengthen and tone your back as well as promote good posture and spinal stability.

Take a wide grip on the bar, lean back slightly, and pull the bar down to your chest. Make sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull the bar down to feel the burn in your upper back.

Front Raise

Front raises are great exercises that can help strengthen and build definition in the front and sides of your shoulder. Take a pair of dumbbells or a weight plate and slowly lift it in front of you to shoulder height and then slowly lower back down.

Upright Row

Upright rows are effective exercises that help build strength in your upper back and shoulders. Standing up tall, pull a barbell up to your chest to shin height making sure that your elbows stay raised above your wrist and squeeze your upper traps.

One-Arm Row

Bending over a weight bench, pull a weight up from the floor to chest height as if you are trying to start a lawnmower. Make sure to control the weight throughout the entire movement and squeeze your lower back at the top of the exercise.

Reverse Fly

Bending from the hips, bring your chest towards the floor and hold this position. Slowly perform a reverse fly by bringing the dumbbells towards the ceiling and then lower back down.

Dumbbell Punches

Standing in an athletic stance, grab a pair of lightweight dumbbells and perform dumbbell punches. The slower you go, the more you’ll feel the burn in the top of your shoulders.


This exercise targets both your shoulders and your back muscles making it a no-brainer! Lie face down on the floor, lift your opposite arm and leg into the air, and then alternate.

Renegade Rows

Set up in a plank position resting your hands on a pair of dumbbells. Engage your core and then row one dumbbell at a time up by your side.

Be sure to go nice and slow as this exercise will blast both your core and your back muscles.

Arnold Press

Named after the almighty Arnold Schwarzenegger, this exercise was designed specifically to tone your shoulder muscles. I mean, all you have to do is look at a picture of Arnold and you’ll understand just how effective this exercise is!

Seated Row

Using the seated row machine, make sure that you keep your chest up so that your lower back doesn’t arch. Slowly pull the cable handles towards your chest and squeeze your upper back at the same time.

Push Press

Take a barbell and by using a little momentum generated in your legs, push the barbell above your head towards the ceiling and then lower back down. This exercise is brilliant for building good shoulder strength!

Getting Started

I advise my clients to pick five to eight of these exercises and try them out for themselves. Start slow and choose weights that you can control with good technique through every rep and set.

Remember to follow the prescription of reps and sets outlined in the second paragraph above and get started. You will be building strength in your upper back and shoulders in no time!

DPT, Doctor of Physiotherapy

Eric Leckie is a men's health Physiotherapist specializing in prostate cancer treatment. He completed his studies in Australia earning his Doctor of Physiotherapy from the University of Melbourne. He currently works in a private practice, in addition to owning his own Telehealth Physiotherapy clinic which focuses on treating men with prostate cancer.

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