Build the Upper-back

Lest not forget the might of a Herculian back,

 the likes that could carry the sky,

the likes that could crush mountains

You wallow through the gym and see the plethora of lifters that call themselves jacked.  You’ve got the CrossFit-ters and the bench press bros.  Yet, you see left and right, minuscule backs, kyphotic postures, hunch backed front squats, and people aching in their necks as if Darth Vader himself were squeezing their tracheas to death.   What a sight.

It’s time to chase the upper-back

Improving the upper-back can provide benefits across the board from performance, aesthetics, and of course, posture.  To chase that powerful “Hercules and the 12 Labours”- look, we’ll do row variations on row variations.  Some of us do it to correct our imbalances on the bench press, some do it to just get that back thicker.  But we’ll all end up gasping for breath as our neck flexors strangle us with improper, overuse fatigue.

The Pyrros Dimas fanatics, like a Mithratic cult, will do volumes of front squats to strengthen their upper-backs.  Yet, they will allow excessive thoracic rounding, causing their cervical flexors to tighten once more, and their faces to strain harder than after last night’s Old ElPaso dinner.

And then you have those wayward fellows, on the simplest track to improve their upper back for better  posture using simple band pullaparts.  Yet, they too will still manage to hurt themselves with sporadic head jerks, attempting to spread the band.  Lets fix this.  Let’s take a step back so we can take two steps forward, and build a back that can hold the sky like the Titan Atlas.

 photo atlas2.jpg

The Front Rack Position

Whether it’s a front squat or front rack position lunge, or even a goblet squat position (with a dumbbell or kettlebell), we challenge our upper back to stabilize under load.  However, we sometimes lose good positioning.  The bar slides and we end up craning with our necks to keep our upper back from completely collapsing.

The guy in the video acknowledges the bad form but it is a maximal attempt.  This is different from doing volume upon volume of bad repetitions, ingraining the hunchback motor pattern.  If you’re not competing in weightlifting where you’d allow some body English under close to maximal loads, then you need to stop.

Just stop.

You lose the corrective properties of the front rack position and its family of exercises by allowing so much body English.  Try to pack the upper back via a good shelf position.  Make sure your elbows stay up, ideally perpendicular to your torso.  As mentioned, front rack position exercises are great for correcting imbalances.  If you can’t get into the positions, you know you have a problem.

And in the case of the front rack, the exercises themselves can help correct the issues/tightness.  Whether its rolling and stretching the lats, serratus, forearm or upperarm musculature, (or, let’s play devils’ advocate, somehow even something in the lower body; hey the body is cray) creating opportunities to be in optimal position will aid in focusing on strengthening the upper back and improving posture, performance, and hypertrophy.  All this is important because if your elbows are lower, you have a harder time creating tension in the upper back.  This makes you more susceptible to losing efficient T-spine stability.

As another cue for good shelf position, lay the bar right on your shoulder girdle.  This might cause a choking sensation.  However if you make sure to pack your neck (double chin face) you’ll maintain neutral C-spine and T-spine, helping to mitigate the Darth Vader choke hold.

star wars upper back
You can just feel the cervical flexors tightening. Pack the neck!

This packing of the chin, along with spreading the lats via cranking your elbows up, will create a solid shelf for loading.  Moreover, as the front rack requires you to stay your T-spine stability becomes especially challenged.

If you lean forward and allow your neck flexors and other stabilizers to compensate for weak thoracic stabilizers, you ingrain faulty motor patterns.  AKA, your neck gets mad tight man, like real Darth Vader choking.

The ideal front rack. Of course from JTS Strength.

Reduce the load on sub maximal lifts of higher volume and make sure you can maintain good positioning with them so that you have the best chance to hit maximal loads with a great motor pattern ingrained.  And if you fail, you failed while having still practiced good form.  We all have to challenge ourselves to understand our weaknesses.  Just don’t constantly challenge poor technique.  That just leads to poor performance.

Band Pull Aparts for the Upper-back

In an attempt to add accessory upper-back work, band pull aparts are a great tool.  They’re low intensity, and can thus be easily added (as a superset or at home as a warmup) for increasing overall upper-back training volume.  However, we can easily ruin the benefits of this exercise by throwing the head and neck into the movement.

A great cue for band pull aparts, as well as horizontal pulling exercises in general is to keep the chest in front of the head.  By being conscious of preventing the collapse of the chest, we can work on maintaining good head positioning and focusing on deriving force from the rear deltoids and upper back musculature.

Although not related to the upper back, another cheat on band pull aparts in over-extending the lumbar spine (usually in the standing variation of the exercise).  For this issue, making sure to stay braced with the glutes and core muscles to maintain neutral spine helps tremendously.  As well, having a pause between concentric and eccentric portions of the band pull apart can help establish greater tension in the target muscles.

Benefits to Pressing Movements

A strong upper-back is incredible for pressing movements like the bench press.  Although the actual pressing muscles will always be important for improving pressing power, keeping a strong upper back enables a solid base of support to handle challenging weights.  Ignore it and it becomes your limiting factor, as with anything.

Also, doing light upper back movements as warm-ups and in-between pressing sets can be really beneficial to your pressing.  These light intensity movements allow blood to be pumped into the upper back musculature, enabling a bit more arch and allowing you to set your shoulders better into the bench, without artificially increasing arch (and thus putting more strain on your lower back).

In Summary

The upper back is incredibly important to develop.  Strengthening it can provide a wide variety of benefits including better posture.  Get the hang of using it in the front rack position and you can front squat a horse.  Do your band pull aparts properly and it’ll keep your shoulders healthy while giving you some support on the arch.  Moreover, keep a neutral spine, with your chest up and you won’t find yourself aching in the neck from super tight hip flexors too.  Build the upper back good.  Build it right.  Reap the benefits.