***This is an article I published for BreakingMuscle.com, a fitness and strength website for athletes and coaches alike.
Back development (or lack thereof) can tell you a lot about a lifter. Regardless of the sport, a strong back is fundamental to peak performance. Without full development of the lats, erectors, traps, and rhomboids, your lifts will falter, performance will plateau, and injury will ensue.
The lats, traps, rhomboids, and erectors are all categorized as "the back.” Many lifters train pull ups, rows, and shrugs mindlessly, instead of taking the time to understand the back's role in nearly all of the formal strength and power lifts.
Add these exercises into your warm-up routines, strength sets, or corrective segments, and facilitate those gains.
6 Exercises to Build a Bulletproof Upper Back
Supine Banded Rows
When: Warm Up and Corrective Segments
Why: This banded variation is perfect for teaching the lats to stay active while simultaneously disengaging the traps, neck, and anterior muscles of the body.
How: 2-4 sets of 15-20 extremely controlled and contracted rows.
Banded Pulldowns (Kneeling or Seated)
When: Warm Up and Corrective Segments
Why: This banded variation allows a lifter to pack the lats tightly at the bottom of the pull, increasing activation of the middle and lower lats.
How: 2-4 sets of 15-20 extremely controlled and contracted pulldowns.
Pause Pull Ups
When: Warm Up and Strength Sets
How: 2-4 sets of 1-10 reps. Repetitions can be higher or lower depending on the hold times at the top of the pull up. Think quality over quantity, as endless reps will result in poor form and minimal lat engagement.
When: Corrective Segments
Why: Scapular retraction is needed to anchor the scapulae, allow proper shoulder girdle support, and enhance the stabilization powers of an erect torso. Over time, the rhomboids (muscles that control scapular retraction/protraction) can be weakened or out-performed by the anterior parts of the body (delts and pecs). Performing the rows will strengthen the rhomboids and promote better "packing" of the lats and back.
How: Once you have learned the basics, I recommend performing heavier loading of 2-4 sets of 8-15 repetitions. Feel free to hammer the back, as long as you are locked in.
Front Rack Holds and Dips
When: Strength Sets
Why: Lat engagement is pivotal in the front squat, clean, and jerk positioning. Too often people fail to rely on the lats and erectors for support, and instead find themselves collapsing like turtles in their lifts. This gem will not only allow you to stabilize loads with the lats, but also will build confidence and comfort under heavy loads. Additionally, you can add a slight dip to simulate the jerk dip and challenge stability under movement.
How: After front squats, take a few sets and build up to a heavy 10-15 second hold, working on bracing the core and settling the lats and traps down the back.
Bent Over Dumbbell Shrugs
When: Strength Sets and Corrective Segments
Why: The traps and rhomboids help anchor the scapulae and counter the anterior chain, providing postural support and muscular symmetry. By doing these on a slight forward lean/bend, the angle of pennation (angle the muscle fibers run) is more aligned, resulting in greater muscular development and reinforcement of recruitment.
How: 2-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions at a controlled pace. The key is to fully contract and focus on alignment at the top of the shrug.
Due Diligence for Gains
Muscular development in the upper posterior chain (lats, traps, rhomboids, and erectors) will result in postural improvements, injury prevention, and improved athletic performance. Understanding the role of these muscles in all barbell strength and power lifts, bodyweight training, and sport-specific movements will help athletes and coaches achieve next-level performance and health. Lift on, my friends!