It’s not very common to see someone perform a workout that is exclusive to training the muscles of the upper back. You might do a few shrugs and some seated cable rows but that’s about it. There really isn’t any focus or emphasis placed on the muscles of the upper back.
The modern man has become something of a physically weakened species. With our heads constantly slouching over our shoulders working a desk job or spending time on our phones, our rotator cuff and upper back muscles have become significantly weaker.
You may not know this, but having a strong upper back will boost your bench and squat where stability is concerned.
Slouching and the Upper Back
Slouching is a really ugly thing, and it tends to take its toll on the human body. Apart from making you look posturally weak, slouching can cause negative effects such as:
- Digestive issues
- Worsens depression and stress
- Cause tension headaches
- Restrict blood and oxygen flow
And those are just a few to boot.
Modern technology has reduced us to walk around staring at the screens of our mobile devices, avoiding eye contact with anyone, let alone family members around the dinner table.
When you’re slouching for a few hours of the day, you begin to develop muscular imbalances. Muscles like the pecs and anterior heads of the deltoids tend to tighten up, causing movement restriction or a decrease in range of motion.
At the same time, slouching may loosen the muscles of the upper and mid back by placing them in a lengthened position. If a muscle is in a lengthened position for too long, it begins to lose its strength.
With the tightness of the pecs and anterior delts, and the looseness of the upper and mid back, you begin to develop strength imbalances in the upper body.
You’ve probably heard some old man tell you to train you back so that your shoulders get pulled back and aren’t so slouched forward. You might’ve scoffed at his advice, but he wasn’t entirely off track with his unsolicited advice.
The Upper Back Workout
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the workout details, here are a few reason to convince you of why you need a strong back.
For heavy squats, you need a tight and strong upper back — no questions asked.
Strength, thickness, and mobility are all equally important to conquer any heavy squats standing in your way. By having good mobility, you’ll be able to retract the scapulae and keep them tight while keeping your upper back nice and tight.
Having a tight (braced) back will ensure that your spine is braced and kept stable throughout the entire movement.
Prevents Scapular Dyskinesis
Scapular Dyskinesis is when there is a change in the normal resting or active positions of the scapula during any kind of shoulder movement.
And do you know what causes it? Yes, you’ve guessed it — muscular imbalances.
With these imbalances growing stronger, the misalignment of the shoulder joint occurs along with pain when performing any sort of overhead movement.
So, if you want a stronger overhead press, strengthening the muscles of the upper back (rotator cuffs included), you’ll be able to enjoy a stronger overhead shoulder press.
Weak Rotator Cuffs
Piggy-backing off of the previous statement, having weak rotator cuff muscles can adversely affect your performance in the gym.
If you have weak rotator cuff muscles, your bench and overhead movements will suffer for it.
Therefore, it’s absolutely essential that you strengthen your upper back. By doing so, you’ll see many other lifts go up as well.
Exercises for the Upper Back
Now that we’ve cleared the reasons as to why you should train and work on your upper back, it’s time to actually cover the exercise aspect of it.
These exercises aren’t all that common, and you might feel a little awkward doing them at first, but don’t let that put you off. Stick to these exercises and see your strength and stability gains increase.
Sets & Reps
Because the rotator cuff muscles are so small, using heavy weights would be out of the question.
For these exercises, training light and with a good number of reps, you’ll be able to incur a positive change in strength and in posture.
Therefore, sticking to 3-4 sets and 12-20 reps on all of the exercises would be best.
Do not perform these movements as exercises before doing heavy bench presses or overhead movements. For such occasions, use them as warm-ups by performing 2 sets of each with minimal to no resistance.
When you choose to perform these movements as exercises, do so after your heavy or overhead movements.
1. The ‘No Money’ Shoulder Exercise
Yeah, the name of this exercise is utterly ridiculous, but it serves its purpose in what we’re trying to achieve here.
As the name suggests, the basic movement is one where you externally rotate your arms as if to show that you “don’t have any money.”
This is a great movement for hitting the rotator cuff, specifically the Infraspinatus, Teres minor, and Supraspinatus muscles.
2. Pull Aparts
Pull aparts are quite similar to that of the no money exercise mentioned above.
The movement is simple, yet effective. All you need is a resistance band or some adjustable cables at your gym.
While standing, grab the ends of the band with both hands and pull the band apart. When performing the motion of pulling the band apart, retract your shoulder blades as your reach full extension.
Another way of doing this is by working one arm at a time. Either hold the one end of the band in front of you with your arm extended, or tie it to an upright. Then use the other arm to perform the movement.
Or you could perform the movement as an isometric exercise by pulling the band apart and holding it for a set number of seconds.
3. Moving Blackburns
Just a heads up: you might look a little silly when you perform this exercise.
The basic movement of this exercise has you performing something that looks similar to that of swimming, except for the fact that you’re not in a pool of water but resting comfortably on the ground.
This movement can be used as an excellent warm-up exercise before jumping into bench pressing and shoulder day or just if you’re going to perform any sort of overhead movement involving a heavy barbell.
4. The ‘A’ Triangle
This one is a little tricky to explain, so, for the purpose of educating you, the reader, I’ve added a video:
By pulling your arms to the sides and back, you’ll be able to retract your scapulae and obtain great depression in your shoulder blades. This, in turn, will cause your posterior rotator cuff muscles to work hard and have a stronger contraction.
These are not easy to perform and should not be done with great resistance.
Slouching sucks. It creates imbalances in your physique and in your strength levels, plus, it just looks downright unattractive and lazy.
However, as gym goers who enjoy pushing their bodies to new heights, we’re not typically concerned about the looking good part (although, some of us are — I’m guilty), we just want to see how much weight we can lift.
And in order to lift as much weight as we safely can, we need to address the weak points in our physiques, which in most cases, are our rotator cuff muscles.
Remember, gang, a weak upper back causes weak lifts.