Here are ways to work the back muscles with resistance minus your arms due to a shoulder injury.

An injury to my left shoulder (hairline clavicle fracture) prevented me from doing conventional back workouts (deadlift, any kind of rowing, pull-down, kettlebell swing) and any pushing/pressing motions for that matter.

Back exercises using only your good arm/shoulder (like one-sided seated cable rows) won’t recruit the muscle fibers on the opposite side of your back.

#1. How to Work Back Muscles without Arms Due to Shoulder Injury

  • Slip on a dip belt and fasten a kettlebell to it with minimal hang. The weight of the kettlebell will vary depending on your strength and fitness level.
  • With legs separated just enough to prevent the weight from rubbing into your inner thighs, start walking. This is an armless farmer’s walk. Keep an erect posture.
  • Your back muscles will be isometrically contracted and under continuous tension to prevent the weight from pulling your trunk forward.
  • If you’re not feeling the fatigue or your back muscles working, use a much heavier weight.

#2. How to Work Back Muscles without Arms Due to Shoulder Injury

  • Align two 12-inch stepping stools (or higher) so that you can stand on both (one foot on each), with enough space in between to allow room for you to squat while the kettlebell is hanging from the dip belt.
  • If you squat on the floor, the weight will hit the floor before you can get parallel. Standing on the stools will give you more room to squat down to go past parallel.
  • Now do squats. You will immediately feel your back muscles at work. The forward lean of the squatting motion pulls the kettlebell forward, stressing your back muscles.
  • If fatigue to your back muscles comes quickly, you’re using the right amount of weight.
  • At the end of the set, remain standing on the stools for a minute or so, then repeat for several more sets.

#3. How to Work Back Muscles without Arms Due to Shoulder Injury

  • Still wearing the dip belt and kettlebell, stand with feet the same distance apart as you do when deadlifting.
  • Now move downward as if deadlifting, using the arm of your good shoulder as a guideline, pretending to pick up a barbell.
  • If you’re not “feeling it” in your back muscles, use a heavier weight, and/or alter your position.
  • You may want to straighten your legs more to load your back muscles more, so that you’re doing more of a good-morning motion than a deadlift.
  • Vary the distance between your legs.

When you complete these three workouts, you will feel that your back muscles have been worked—but of course, not to the extent that “real” back exercises will make them feel. But it’s a lot better than nothing.

When your shoulder is injured, you’re screwed, and as a fitness expert, I just cannot think of any other exercises for the back muscles in the absence of shoulder and arm use. The chair equipment in which people sit and push back with their back—back and forth, back and forth—is worthless.

The superior thing about the kettlebell exercises described here is that you’re using a free weight, and this free weight moves as it hangs from the dip belt. And let me tell you, a 50 pound kettlebell, used as described, is no chickenfeed.

Good luck with your injured shoulder and working your back muscles without your arms. The key is heavy weight, short rests, and enough sets to really fatigue the back muscles.