Just because you can’t see your back, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train it. The back is often overlooked and under trained because people don’t bother to put the effort in. However, the back region – along with any other body part – really shouldn’t be neglected.
Since the chest is a point-of-pride among egotistic males, many guys end up developing imbalances between the opposing chest and back muscles. This particular imbalance can be easily identified though. All you need to do is stand up straight and let your hands hang naturally to the sides.
When standing naturally, your palms should be facing the outside of your thighs. However, if your chest is tight and overdeveloped in relation to your back, your palms will be rotated inwards – because your shoulders are rotated inwards – and they’ll be facing either the front of your thighs or in extreme cases, your palms will be completed rotated over and facing behind you.
In terms of how to actually selecting the right exercises for your upper back, you’ll need to first understand how the upper back muscles function. The upper back is composed of three main muscle groups..
- The trapezius (aka. “traps”)
- The rhomboids
- The latissimus dorsi (aka. “lats”)
Here’s a brief breakdown of each..
The “traps” consist of the parts – the upper fibers, the middle fibers and the lower fibers. Each serve their own individual functions..
Upper Fibers: These are the muscles up around the neck. If you don’t know which ones I’m talking about, think of the player profiles at the start of a football game. When they show photos/video clips the offensive or defensive linemen, the “traps” are what give them that no-neck appearance.
The traps serve an array of functions, most notably, they help to elevate the shoulders, flex the neck to the side and extend the neck back as well. However, the traps also help protect a nerve called the brachial plexus – and this is why it’s so important to train them. For more detailed information on that, just check out the breakdown of the shrug exercise.
Middle Fibers: The middle fibers also help to elevate the shoulders and because of that, they’re also strengthened by performing shrugs. The middle fibers also assist in a variety of arm movements and in addition to that, they also assist the rhomboid muscle (discussed below) in drawing the shoulder blades together.
The middle fibers of the traps can be trained via shoulder shrugs, rowing movements that are done properly (initiated by drawing the shoulder blades together) and by performing bent over dumbbell laterals with your elbows in line with your shoulders.
Lower Fibers: The lower fibers – like the middle fibers – are also involved in a variety of arm movements and they too assist the rhomboids with drawing the shoulder blades together. Not only do the lower fibers assist the rhomboids in pulling the shoulder blades together but they also help to pull the shoulder blades downwards and because of that, you can train them with chin ups as well.
There’s an movement you can do called the “superman exercise” using an exercise ball that also targets the lower fibers of the traps really well. It’s really important that you incorporate exercises that strengthen the low fibers of the traps because they’re typically the most underdeveloped muscle within the back and the weakness contributes to pain and shoulder instability.
With all this talk about “rhomboids”, I get you’re probably wondering what the heck they are. Originating on the spine and attaching on the inner portion of the scapula, the rhomboids are responsible for initiating numerous shoulder blade movements.
The rhomboids play a major role when it comes to drawing the shoulder blades (scapula) together during the beginning phase of a rowing exercise. They’re also responsible for the downward rotation of the shoulder blades (pull ups) and on top of all that, they also assist the upper traps to elevate the shoulders.
A great way to target the rhomboids while performing dumbbells rows – or anything rowing exercise for that matter – is to draw the arm back to a position that has the elbow aligned with the shoulder. Check out the photo..
Performing these modified rows may also help reduce back pain for people who spend hours upon hours hunched over at their computer desk at work. Just make sure you use better for than the cartoon dude in the illustration. Click the link to learn how to perform the dumbbell row exercise properly.
The “lats” are the sought after muscles that run down the side of the torso and when developed, contribute to that desirable V-look of the upper body. Ladies, you know you love it!
The primary functions of the lats are to draw the shoulders downwards and to extend the humerus (upper arm bone). Two exercises that mimic these movements are pulldowns/chin ups and dumbbell pullovers.
Upper Back Training Techniques
Your back program should begin with compound/multi-joint movements such as chin ups or dumbbell rows to maximize lifting potential and increase testosterone levels. As mentioned above, many of the muscles within the upper back are responsible for drawing the shoulder blades together.
Because of that, you want to initiate rowing movements by drawing the shoulders blades together – just focus on bringing the shoulders back while keeping your arms straight. Doing this will isolate the rhomboids – for the first 6 inches of the movement anyway – because your arms will remain straight and the biceps won’t be involved. Of course, once you bend your arms and pull the dumbbells, barbell, machine handles towards you, the biceps are recruited to assist with the movement.
For detailed, step by step instructions along with videos demonstrating how to perform all sorts of upper back exercises, just click an exercise on the navigation to your right.