Building Bigger Stronger Upper Back Muscles


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Muscle: Upper Trapezius Origin: At the occipital, ligamentum nuchae, and the spinous process of the seventh cervical vertebra Inserts: At the acromion process and the lateral third of the clavicle Function: Elevates the shoulder and laterally flexes the head and neck; it also assists in cervical extension

Muscle: Middle Trapezius Origin: At the spinous processes of the sixth cervical to the third thoracic vertebra Inserts: At the acromion process and the spine of the scapula Function: Assists in flexion and abduction of the humerus by rotating the glenoid cavity and assists in maintaining a normal kyphotic posture in the upper thoracic spine

Muscle: Lower Trapezius Origin: At the spinous process of the third to twelfth thoracic vertebra Inserts: At the medial aspect of the spine of the scapula Function: Assists in flexion and abduction of the humerus by rotating the glenoid cavity and assists in maintaining a normal kyphotic posture in the upper thoracic spine

Muscle: Rhomboid Origin: At the spinous processes of the seventh cervical to the fifth thoracic vertebra Inserts: At the medial border of the spine of the scapula Function: Elevates and retracts the scapula toward the spine and provides stability for both the scapula and shoulder. The rhomboid prevents winging of the scapula when the arm is lifting a weight.

Muscle: Latissimus Dorsi Origin: At the thoracolumbar fascia, crest of the ilium, lower six thoracic vertebrae, and the last four ribs Inserts: At the intertubercular groove of the humerus Function: Depresses the shoulder and extends the humerus. It also adducts and assists in internal rotation of the humerus. Bilateral contraction of the latissimus dorsi assists in extension of the thoracic spine.

Indications of Weakness

Weakness in the upper trapezius causes dropping of the shoulder on the affected side. If both are weak, the head is anterior to the thoracic cage. Weakness in the middle trapezius gives a round-shoulder appearance and causes forward protraction of the scapula. The thoracic spine may also have an increased kyphotic curve. Weakness of the latissimus dorsi allows the shoulder to elevate and move anteriorly in a standing posture. It may also cause difficulty in depressing the shoulder when the arm is overhead and pulling down.

Optimal Training Principles

Upper Trapezius: The best exercise for the upper trapezius is the shrug performed in the standing calf machine. Unlike the dumbbell shrug, all the stress in this exercise is on the upper trapezius and not the forearms. The head should remain neutral throughout the exercise (dropping the head and rounding the shoulders has become popular among many bodybuilders to recruit more fibers by getting a little extra stretch in the trapezius).

Unfortunately, when the cervical spine is flexed, the risk of cervical disk injury increases dramatically. Despite the stretch felt in this position, there is very little additional recruitment of fibers, so it is certainly not worth the risk. Another popular variation is to “roll the shoulders” during the exercise; this has minimal additional fiber recruitment and places considerable stress on the shoulder capsule, acromioclavicular, and sternoclavicular joints.

Optimal performance is achieved by keeping the head neutral and fully contracting the trapezius by elevating the shoulders straight up as high as they will go and lowering them straight down as low as they will go. If a standing calf machine is unavailable, then dumbbells or cables can be used, utilizing wrist straps will reduce stress on the forearms. Keep the dumbbells/cables alongside the body during the entire exercise. Allowing the dumbbells/cables to drift forward causes torsion and shear on the acromioclavicular and sternoclavicular joints.

Middle Trapezius: The bent-over dumbbell lateral raise with elbows in line with the shoulders will stress the posterior deltoid and middle trapezius. Retract the scapulae fully at the top of the exercise by “pinching the scapulae together”. Use a slow, controlled movement; avoid “throwing the weight up” to keep the stress on the muscles.

Lower Trapezius: Dumbbell single-arm-extended-back extensions on back extension bench. Work one arm at a time by placing a dumbbell in the left hand at the 11:00 position or in the right hand at the 1:00 position (non-working arm: place hand behind lower back). Position bench seat high enough so that when your hips are on the bench and your working arm is hanging straight down, no part of your hand/dumbbell is touching the floor.

Start in the hanging down position with the torso completely rounded and down. Begin the movement by contracting the upper back muscles to begin lifting the dumbbell upward with thumb up and arm nearly straight. Continue lifting the arm while uncurling the torso to arrive at the completed “Back Extension Position,” arm maximally elevated, back muscles maximally contracted, and shoulders squarely facing forward (rotating one shoulder backward is an advanced version of the exercise). Reverse direction by lowering the arm and “curling” the torso downward. The lower trapezius is usually the weakest muscle in the upper back, and this muscle weakness can cause upper back pain and shoulder instability.

Rhomboid Muscle: Rhomboid modified one-arm seated cable row. Keep the elbow at the same height as the shoulder. Drive the elbow back using the back muscles. Focus on keeping the biceps relaxed by concentrating on the latissimus dorsi’s insertion point on the humerus and by focusing on the latissimus dorsi, drawing the humerus backward (bicep stays soft). Focus on humerus/lat until the hand is in line with the shoulder. Now focus on the origin of the rhomboid and draw the arm, shoulder, and scapula backward as one unit until the scapula is maximally contracted. This maximally contracts the rhomboid that is both weakened and stretched by people who sit in front of a keyboard all day with their shoulders rounded forward. This exercise will increase the strength of the rhomboid and reduce the pain between the shoulder blades when working at a computer.

Latissimus Dorsi: Lat pull-down-to-the-front is the most popular of the latissimus dorsi exercises because it is an excellent all-around developer. Begin seated under the pull-down bar with lower body anchored by knee rolls. Start with arms fully extended and shoulders and scapulae fully elevated. Begin the concentric action by depressing the shoulders and scapulae all the way to their lowest position. Then begin driving the elbows down by contracting the latissimus dorsi and keeping the biceps soft (relaxed). Focus on the insertion point of the latissimus dorsi, driving the elbows downward until the bar touches the top of the chest and fully retract the scapulae. A slight lean back is allowed to save yourself a bloody nose or loose teeth. The behind-the-neck-lat-pull-down is a contraindicated exercise (high risk of injury—not recommended for the average client).

Some bodybuilders feel that this exercise provides a greater stretch to the latissimus dorsi; the greater stretch they feel is actually greater stress to the shoulder capsule and rotator cuff muscles. This action does NOT allow enough arm extension (remember the lat inserts at the humerus) to completely stretch the lat. In all back exercises, it is critical to visualize the origin, insertion, and function of the muscles involved. When performing back exercises, it is a fundamental mistake to think of pulling the hand, bar, dumbbell, etc. to the shoulder. This will naturally cause you to concentrate on the biceps brachii and brachialis instead of concentrating on the muscles of the back you would like to target. It is highly effective to imagine where the muscle inserts and the function it performs during the exercise. In the case of the lat pull-down, focus on the lat’s insertion on the humerus and its function of driving the arms down and backward. Focus on driving the elbows down and keeping the biceps relaxed to maximally stress the lats.

If you incorporate “Touch Training” with your clients, you can help the client relax the biceps by poking on the bicep and telling the client to keep the bicep relaxed. As you poke on the bicep, tell the client to “keep the bicep soft.” You can also touch the client’s thoracic vertebrae (T-6 through T-12) and bottom four ribs, crest of the ilium, and thoracolumbar fascia to have them FEEL where the lat originates, and stroke your hands from the origin, over the muscle belly, and into the intertubercular groove of the humerus where the lat inserts into the upper arm. After the client drives their elbows all the way down in the lat pull-down and they think they are done, you have one more surprise in store for them. Place your fingertips on their spinal column between their scapulae and have them try to pinch your fingers by squeezing their shoulder blades together. This maximizes stress on the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and middle and lower trapezius. When they begin the eccentric contraction, continuously remind them by your touch training technique of the muscles they want to work and the muscles to keep relaxed (biceps brachii and brachialis).

This touch training technique is highly effective for all muscle groups, provided you follow the rules for touch training as specified in the IFPA training manual, “The Book on Personal Training,”  by Jim Bell, PhD and as depicted in the IFPA training videos. Pull-up (palms facing away from the body) and chin-up (palms facing toward the body) are two of the very best upper-back exercises. These two exercises replicate gymnast-type movements that are known to dramatically increase muscular adaptations as well as neurophysiological adaptations due to the body being forced to make significantly more biomechanical movements than the relatively simple movement of pulling a bar down and/or into the chest. Gymnasts are the most finely-tuned, kinesthetically developed of all athletes because of the nearly infinitesimal fine-motor adjustments of moving their bodies around fixed (or not so fixed) bars, rings, pommels, etc.

These and other “functional” type movements will be very useful for daily activities. Chin-up—narrow to medium grip stresses the upper latissimus dorsi and biceps brachii. Chin-up—“V-Bar”-hands facing each other stresses the rhomboids and lower latissimus dorsi and brachialis (the pronated hand position places the upper arm in “Hammer Curl” position). Larry Scott (the first Mr. Olympia and finest bodybuilder of his generation) is the innovator of a technique that highly stresses the latissimus dorsi, but be advised: THIS TECHNIQUE CAN PLACE A HIGH RISK OF INJURY on the shoulder capsule and rotator cuff. The Scott Lat Technique can be used for all pull-ups, but the “V-Bar” would be safer on the shoulder capsule (though NOT COMPLETELY SAFE) than straight bar positions.

The Scott Lat Technique: During the eccentric contraction (lowering phase), slow down to a 10 second negative. At the halfway point, pause and push the elbows forward, externally rotate the arms, and “flare” the latissimus dorsi to the maximum extent. Maintain this position and continue lowering slowly to the bottom. This variation maximally stresses the latissimus dorsi, but especially targets the lowest part to develop a longer, fuller back width.

Seated Row (palms up or palms inward): Arms are kept close to the body. This technique stresses the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids due to the amount of arm extension that can be achieved as the bar is pulled in towards the abdomen.

Seated Row (overhand grip): Elbows are kept at shoulder height. This technique stresses the posterior deltoid, rhomboid, and mid-trapezius as the bar is pulled to the chest. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row (arm close to the body) stresses the latissimus dorsi and posterior deltoid.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row (upper arm at 90 degrees away from the body, palm facing backward while pulling up): Once the arm is pulled all the way up, you can maximally contract the rhomboid muscles by retracting the whole arm, shoulder, and scapula through the full range of motion of the rhomboids. Cross-bench pullover with dumbbell or curl bar used to be one of my personal favorite back exercises.

Unfortunately, after numerous abuses to my shoulder, I find the stiff-arm lat pull-down far more gentle on my shoulder capsule. The added benefit of this exercise is that it can stress the latissimus dorsi, teres major, rhomboids, posterior deltoid, the various scapular depressors and extensors, and serratus anterior (if you add a deep breathing variation to the exercise).

Overhead cable handles at approximately shoulder width apart work best (though rope handles on the overhead cable are a suitable substitute). Grip the handles with an overhand grip, arms extended overhead, with elbows straight, but not locked. Step back, keeping the arms fully extended, and bend over with bent knees and “weightlifter’s arch” to an approximately 45 – 90 degree angle. Extend arms backward until you feel a gentle stretch in your shoulders and back. DO NOT EXCEED YOUR PAIN-FREE ROM! Inhale. Begin concentric action by contracting the back muscles and pulling the cables downward and backward in a big arc, while maintaining straight (but NOT LOCKED) elbows. In a manner simultaneous to your arm motion, begin to stand up straight, maintaining weightlifter’s arch, with scapula retracted and head neutral. Continue a smooth, controlled arm and torso motion until you complete the concentric action with arms straight behind the hips as far as your ROM will allow; the torso will be straight, with weightlifter’s arch, the scapula will be depressed and retracted, the chest will be out, the shoulders will be back, and the head will be neutral.

Serratus anterior variation: start with the deepest possible inhalation and explosively exhale while performing a faster concentric action. Eccentric action should remain slow and controlled, but make sure you achieve the deepest possible inhalation at the completion of the eccentric contraction. The serratus anterior aids in exhalation.

Dr. Bell

CEO of the IFPA

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