When you don’t have exercise equipment, you can still do a lot of great exercises and piece together an effective at-home workout program. For legs, you can do all kinds of bodyweight squat and lunges variations. For hamstrings, you have hamstring curl, glute bridge, and single-leg deadlift variations.
For the upper body, you can train the chest, triceps, and shoulders with different push-up variations. But for your back, there aren’t many options.
Sure, there are pull-ups, but we don’t all have a pull-up bar at our disposal in our home set up. And even if you do have a pull-up bar and can do all kinds of pull-up variations, you’re still missing out on one of the key elements of the best back workouts: horizontal pulling.
Horizontal pulling includes the most common row exercises. 1-arm dumbbell rows, bent-over rows, seated rows, hammer strength rows, TRX rows or other inverted rows. All of the rows (except for upright rows). The problem with basically all of the rows is they all require equipment, making them pretty much useless to do at home.
Regardless of your program, you need to have horizontal pulling in it somewhere. This is not for vanity or having a sexy back or any of that. When you train at home, you’ll have the tendency to do a ton of push-ups. Doing this in the absence of the antagonist horizontal pull, your scapula (shoulder blades) will roll forward, leading to poor posture and likely shoulder injuries down the road.
Horizontal pulling movements like rows strengthen the upper back and balance that out. Fortunately, there are ways to train it at home.
Okay, I lied. You need some equipment, if you count towels as equipment.
Towel rows, at the outset, look like you’re doing a bent-over row with no weight. Which is exactly what you’re doing. You stand up with the towel, feet shoulder-width apart, reach your arms out, tighten the towel, and pull your elbows back like any other row.
(In the videos I’m using hockey socks, but you get the effect.)
But, towel rows, even without weight, demonstrate how effective exercises can be without any weight at all. In the starting position, extend your arms out holding the towel and pull on the ends of the towel like you’re trying to rip it apart.
Do this even before you start to row, and you’ll feel your shoulder blades start to pull back and your back muscles light up.
At first, you’ll want to go slow, at least five seconds for both the eccentric and concentric contraction. You can also play around with an isometric contraction.
The point is, because you don’t have weight, you have fewer tools to provide stimulus. A benefit of the towel is you can pull it apart and keep it tight. Another tool at your disposal is playing with tempo.
You can also easily change what muscles you want to work on with the towel row. For example, if you want to work on the lats in their most shortened position, focus on keeping the elbows in. If you want to hit the mid traps and rhomboids, focus more on squeezing the shoulder blades.
This, of course, transfers to all back exercises. But because you have no weight, now’s the time to work on learning how to “feel the muscle” by varying your intent and angles. The towel row is a great tool to learn the mind muscles connection.
(Shout out: The Story So Far)
As for as bodyweight exercises go, the Superman exercise is one of the most common. However, this exercise is often completed butchered and arguably deserves its own article (I do talk about it in our newly updated program, Final Phase Fat Loss Bodyweight Edition 2.0). The jist is: you need to make sure you’re working your glutes and not your lower back. Once you have that down, you can isometrics superman while doing a towel row, turning a basic exercise into one that hits many muscle groups. You can even play around with doing behind-the-back style rows or more of a normal pulldown motion. Either way, the Superman +towel row can be a great exercise, and that’s why it’s featured in FPFL Bodyweight 2.0
Even if you’re not training at home, towel rows a great variation to throw into a program for at least a week or two. Of the major body parts, the back is the one that people often have the hardest time “feeling.” The towel rows can help you do that.
They’re also a great warm-up for back training because you can “feel” the muscles. I’ve even played around with doing towel rows in between sets up bent over rows or dumbbell rows.
Now, you might not have any equipment at home. But you have a partner. They might not want to workout with you, but maybe they’ll volunteer to do a few sets of partner towel rows with you.
For partner towel rows, each partner grabs the end of the towel. As you row, they provide enough resistance for it to be difficult but not so much that you can’t do the row. Then, they row. You’ll alternate reps like so, and then switch arms.
This also has some benefits over traditional back exercises. Another human being, unlike a barbell or dumbbell, can adjust the resistance in the middle of a set. They can make it harder or easier in certain parts of the range of motion, or ease up as the reps go on, mimicking a dropset.
This makes partner towel rows one of my favorite back exercises period, let alone at home back exercises.
So whether you’re training at home or not, throw in partner towel rows.
As you can tell, I am home for the holidays. Thank you to my sister Victoria for helping out with this demo.
With Inverted rows, the two most common gym variations are TRX rows and barbell inverted rows. Inverted rows are like reverse push-ups: They’re a bodyweight version of the classic pulling movement you see with dumbbell rows, bent-over rows, and other popular back exercises. But even though it’s a bodyweight movement, you still need equipment.
As far as back exercises go, TRX rows reign king for me because they allow you to rotate your forearm as you row, and thus focus the activation more on the lats by supinating your hands.
While TRX rows are becoming more and more commonplace in commercial gyms, the most common variation of inverted rows is placing a barbell (or smith machine) on a low setting so you can layout your body underneath it just enough so your arm can completely hang. From here, you row up.
Fortunately, most people have the resources at home to make a makeshift inverted row setup
Now, I train hockey players, so this tends to be the dominant method we go with because I know that every hockey player has a whole pile of old hockey sticks laying around. All you do is, you take two chairs, separate them more than shoulder-width apart, and then you lay the hockey stick across the two chairs. Boom. There’s your inverted row apparatus.
While I use a hockey stick for this, surely you could get creative. Just find something sturdy enough (and safe enough) to do this. If you don’t have anything at home you can use, find a local hockey player and ask them for an old broken stick. They’ll have heaps of them laying around, most likely.
The downside to this variation, as you’ll see in the video, is you can’t do a full row (or even close to it) with chairs at normal height. However, to me, this is okay. The hardest part of the row is the last few inches anyway when you squeeze your shoulder blades as much as possible. So, even though it’s a small range of motion, you still get a great training effect in your back.
The other option is to thread a bedsheet (or blanket, if it’s long enough) through a door. I actually had these little straps laying around that connect resistance bands to a door. I use that for the bedsheets but you can also just thread it through the door and close the door.
The downside to this variation, in my opinion, is you end up at a pretty high angle, and then it ends up being too easy.
The upside is it’s more like a TRX and you more freedom to rotate your arms, and you’ll get the full range of motion all the way to the bottom.
You can see how to set up the bedsheet inverted rows here.
If you’re looking to really master your home gym setup without buying an expensive TRX, you can make a TRX with about 20 bucks worth of simple items you can find at a hardware store.
Without adding weight, you can make inverted rows harder by changing the angle. Ideally, you can do them where your body is perpendicular to the ground by placing your feet on a stool (or box jump that’s around 12 inches).
Once you’re doing reps of perpendicular inverted rows, you can make it harder by putting yourself in a decline via a taller stool or box for your feet. Or you can add a weight plate to your chest or wear a weighted vest, if you have access to that equipment.
When I worked in hockey, I saw division one athletes add two 45lb plates on their chest AND a weight vest to do perdenicular TRX rows. Plus they’re large humans to begin with. Once you get the pattern down, it’s actually quite a simple exercise to load and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to barbell bent-over rows because of the stress that can put on the lower back. Inverted rows are just a safer exercise, especially with a TRX where you can adjust the grip to be most comfortable for your shoulders.
Now, you might not have heavy dumbbells laying around your house, but you almost definitely have something that weighs enough weight that it would be challenging if it were in dumbbell form. So really, what you need then is something heavy, and something else heavy that you can hold it in.
This could be as simple as putting a bunch of old textbooks into a backpack. Look around your house, and get creative. This is a good rule for all at-home training.
Now, if I could only do one upper body exercise, I think it would be pull-ups. It works the arms, the back, the back of the shoulders. If you’re looking for some equipment to add to your home setup, a pull-up bar is one of the first investments I would make.
I won’t go into modalities or rep schemes or programs for pull-ups or any of that here, because we have a whole article about it. That covers a pull-up program for all levels, whether you can’t do a full pull-up yet, or you’re repping out sets of 20.
However. Even if you don’t have access to a pull-up bar, you can still get creative and find a place to bang out some pull-ups.
As some who’s lived in both the middle of the woods (Vermont) and an urban center (New York City), there’s no excuse to not find a place for pull-ups.
My freshman year of college, I walked to my classes through Washington Square Park and east onto Washington Place. At the time, there were scaffolds on the north side of Washington Place. And every damn morning I saw a shirtless man in a beanie (even when it was hot) ripping out sets of pull-ups on the scaffolds.
I don’t know if he just didn’t like gyms or what, but he was absolutely jacked. From scaffold pull-ups. Sure, the NYPD might get mad at you, but there are thousands of scaffold locations in the city. Find a good one and hang out until you do your sets of pull-ups.
Growing up, I got really good at climbing trees. Yeah, I had a few big falls too. But I’ve always been able to do pull-ups. One of the reasons is because I grew up climbing trees from the time I could reach the branches.
So if you live in a small town, find a good tree. It’s okay if it’s a thick one; your grip strength will improve.
Now, I realize you can’t just run outside in the middle of your workout and do a bunch of pull-ups. But building in 15-20 minute pull-up workouts once a week where you go to a park on the woods or a scaffold and do a bunch of sets, you’ll blast your back. If you do this, strategically place it several days apart from the rest of your back training.
The point of this guide is to show you there’s no excuse to not train your back, regardless of what you have at your disposal. If you’re training at home with limited equipment, you may have to go out of your way to do it, but it will be well worth it.
This should give you enough ammo to make up a whole back day, but if you’re training at home, it probably makes more sense to do full-body workouts or an upper-lower split, partly because of exercise selection. So get it done.
Here’s The Home Back Workout Routine:
For the supersets, don’t rest in between exercises and rest about one minute in between rounds.
A1) Towel Row – Lat Emphasis – 4×10 with a 5 second eccentric and 5 second isometric
Keep your elbows tucked in so you can contract your lat at it’s most shortened position.
A2) Inverted Rows 4×8-12
This is your “main lift.” Add load by placing anything heavy (like old textbooks) on your chest.
B1) Pull-Ups – 4xAMAP – 2 second isometric at the bottom (like a dead hang)
The dead hang keeps you from cheating, and also hits the lats in the most lengthened position.
B2) 1-Arm DB Row – 4×12 – 3 second isometric at the top
Maintain the lat emphasis.
C1) Rear-Delt Fly – 3×12
For weight, use the same implement you used for the rows, but take some of the weight out. Don’t move the shoulder blades too much, rather focus on the motion coming from your rear deltoids
C2) Chin-Ups – 3×10
Neutral grip or underhand grip work.
A1) Towel Row
A2) Inverted Row
B1) 1-Arm DB Row
B2) Rear-Delt Fly
*Perform your pull-ups and chin-ups separately, as explained above. Follow the set and rep schemes as explained here.