When you think about working the back, what comes to mind?
The pull-up bar, perhaps? A pole to do flag holds?
Although there are many calisthenics back exercises that do require the pull-up bar and sturdy poles, that is only a few of the many exercises you can do to strengthen the back. No-bar back workouts are definitely a thing! They use the weight of the body, require a lot of strength, and have you fighting against gravity, in some cases.
Though it is possible to get around needing a pull-up bar at home, better safe than sorry. The last thing you need is your poorly engineered door crashing down on you because you’ve incorrectly fastened a broomstick to the door frame or are hanging onto the door handle by a towel. I don’t discourage the ingenuity of these exercise hacks, but in this article we won’t be covering them; we’ll be focusing mainly on no-bar back calisthenics, some also considered bodyweight exercises as well.
Calisthenics for Back
Regardless of the shape and look you wish to achieve, working out your back is almost a necessity. Your back assists in almost every movement and strong, balanced muscles with good flexibility protect your spinal column and mobility.
This is why—and I stress it even more in this article—you must warm-up before every back session! If you hurt your back you can send yourself months, sometimes years, back(no pun intended)wards in your fitness journey. For those with herniated discs and other lower back problems, consult with your doctor before doing any back strength training.
Lay on the floor and bring both knees to your chest, hugging them. Pull them into your chest until you feel a light stretch in your lower back. Hold for 10-15 seconds, relax, and repeat.
2. Supine Twist Stretch
From the knees-to-chest position, keep your knees together and twist at the waist to the right until the right leg is on the floor. Your upper body should be facing upwards with your arms against the floor bent upwards. Hold for 15 seconds and return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
3. Bar Hangs
Using the pull-up bar, grip and hang. Activate the muscles you’d use to do a pull-up. This way you can stretch but keep your body strong in the stretch. You can also do one-arm hangs and alternating hangs depending on how comfortable you are with the bar hang.
Yoga is a practice that is smartly incorporated into many exercise routines. It builds strength, flexibility, mobility, focus, and balance. Some good yoga poses to do before a calisthenics back workout include cat-cow, downward facing dog, and cobra pose.
No-Bar Back Exercises
1. Scapular Wall Hold
Like wall sits, this hold may seem easy, but you may find yourself fatigued pretty quickly. To start, stand with your back flush against a wall and your feet about six inches away. You will be pushing your body away from the wall with your elbows, so, as in push-ups, keep your back straight, being careful not to overarch or slouch. Now drive both elbows into the wall, pushing yourself forward, bringing your scapulae—shoulder blades—together, down and back. Activate your core and glutes to assist in your support. Correct breathing will help you through the hold. Now relax and repeat.
2. Reverse Snow Angel
Lay on the floor stomach down, with arms stretched out in front of you, legs stretched out in back, and toes touching the floor. Lift the arms, chest, and legs slightly off the floor. In a controlled fashion, like you would making a snow angel, move your arms down to your sides and legs outwards. Maintain the hovering distance while doing this. Return to your original position and relax. You may place your limbs back on the ground.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane! No! It’s you on the floor exercising! This traditional exercise will help the beginner gain strength in their back, even if it proves a bit difficult at first. First, lay on your stomach with arms outstretched and legs stretched out in back. Inhale, and then exhale, raising your arms and legs about 4-5 inches off the ground and keeping them straight. Keep your head up. Hold for another 5 seconds and then relax. If this is too difficult at first, you can start by doing the right leg and arm first and then switching to the left leg and arm.
4. Plank Row
The plank row without weights, which is what we’re going for here, is a great way to work the upper and mid-back, especially if you are a beginner. To begin, start in a plank position, but with palms on the ground and arms straight. Remember to keep both arms in-line with the shoulders. Make a rowing motion, bringing your hand to the side of your chest, and keeping your elbow close to your side. Bring the arm back to the ground and switch arms. Keep alternating arms until your set is complete.
5. Hip Hinges
Do not back away at the name, this exercise actually targets your lower back while stretching your hip flexors. It will both increase flexibility and strength of the lower back and hips. Some variations use a dowel or pole to hold against your back, but it is not necessary. To perform this exercise, start standing straight with feet a shoulder-width apart. Keep your back flat and chest straight. To properly “hinge,” stick your butt out and bring your upper body forward, but do not arch or curve the back. There should be no back bending, it should all come from the hips!
6. Prone Cobra
This is a great exercise for the lower back and trapezius. Because it is such a good lower back work out, it’s beneficial to do after sitting for long periods of time. Begin by laying on the floor on your stomach, legs stretched in back of you with arms by your sides. While bracing your body, lift your upper body and arms off the ground. Hold this position for a few seconds and then return to the ground. Repeat.
7. Inverted Row (Partner Exercise)
Get that middle back working out—and your friend involved! Both of you need to bring your best strength to the table for this one. Lay on the ground between your partners legs. Your legs are outstretched and your partner’s feet should be on either side of your pelvis. Hold hands with your partner. Your partner’s knees should be slightly bent and both of your backs straight and strong. This is where your partner needs to brace themselves! Pull yourself up as high as you can, only worrying that your heels remain on the ground. Lower yourself slowly back down. Do not rest for too long. Repeat.
Working with a bar is a very effective and fast way to strengthen the back and seemingly requires inhuman strength. Well, it’s not inhuman, because humans are quite capable of pull-up bar mastery. Most bar exercises are compound, targeting arms, chest, and back, but this is a good thing. You want balanced muscles as they work in conjunction with each other to make you perform at your peak. Bar exercises are great for street calisthenics as well, because of all the “bars” available in public (flag poles, railings, etc.). So if you see anyone doing crazy holds and pull-ups in a public park, they’re probably working out their back in a good ol’ calisthenics fashion!
Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups
The difference between a chin-up and a pull-up is all in the grip. A pull-up uses a pronated grip, hands over, and a chin-up uses a supinated grip, hands under. To begin, stand gripping the bar a little wider than the shoulders. The closer your hands are, the more focus you’ll put on your arms. You don’t have to maintain a crazy width, but enough to cover the distance of your shoulders. Now hang from the bar, bending your legs behind you. Exhale and pull yourself up so your chin clears the bar. Bring yourself down carefully. Repeat. If you choose to switch to a supinated grip, you’ll find yourself working your middle back and putting more focus on your biceps as well. Most find the supinated grip the easier of the two.
There are an incredible amount of pull-up variations that utilize different grips, levels, and lower body positions, but the reliable pull-up and chin-up is perfect to get you started.