The Unseen Advantage: Train Your Back for Power
Increased power, strength, size—everything you expect to develop from training your back. Yet many people forget about properly training their back, simply because they can't see it (at least without a mirror), and it's not a primary "beach body" muscle, like the chest or biceps. Nevertheless, the back is a critical muscle group, it should not be neglected, and training it can provide a huge advantage for athletes.
The upper back is a large, complex group of muscles that work together to move the shoulder and scapula and stabilize the spine. Almost any upper body movement involves the back muscles, including throwing, swinging and pulling.
The back also plays a role in pressing motions like blocking, stiff arming and even Bench Pressing. Rather than directly applying strength, the back works to support the muscles in the front of the body so you can deploy your full strength.
Below, I recommend a few common exercises that will help you strengthen your back, thereby increasing your overall upper body strength and stability—so you can throw harder, pull down more rebounds, block defenders and reduce your risk of injury.
If you can't move your own body, how can you expect to move weight or battle an opponent? Build up your body-moving strength with Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups. They are excellent for developing multiple upper body and back muscles, but they primarily engage the lats, which run down the sides of your back under your arms.
Pull-Ups are performed with a shoulder-width grip and palms facing away from the body. Chin-Ups are performed with a shoulder-width grip and palms facing toward the body; they involve the back but have slightly more bicep activation.
Start both exercises by pulling with your back, and finish by bending your elbows.
Sets/Reps: 1-2x8-12 reps; 1x max without breaking form
This exercise is effective for strengthening the muscles that support the shoulders, including the rhomboids, which engage when you pull your shoulders back. It is particularly beneficial for athletes prone to rotator cuff problems, such as quarterbacks, pitchers, swimmers and tennis players. The Inverted Row ensures that the muscles around the shoulder are strong and stable enough to eliminate unwanted stress.
Lie on the ground and set a bar (either on a rack or a Smith machine) to approximately an arm's length above you. Keeping your heels on the ground, legs straight and body locked in a straight line, grasp the bar with a slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width grip, and pull your chest to the bar. Keep your body in a straight line and make sure your chest touches the bar. Lower yourself with control—but don't rest on the ground!—and immediately repeat.
Sets/Reps: 1-2x8-12; 1x max without breaking form
The Dumbbell Row isolates each side of the back, helping you develop balanced upper body strength, critical for preventing imbalance injuries and back pain.
Make sure to maintain a solid three-point base with the same side hand and knee on a bench and the opposite foot on the ground. Keep your back flat, core tight and head up. Lift the weight directly up to your armpit, keeping your elbow close to your body. Avoid rotating your back.
Source: Golding, Lawrence Arthur, and Scott M. Golding, Fitness Professionals' Guide to Musculoskeletal Anatomy and Human Movement. Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning, 2003.
Michael Palmieri is the president and founder of The Institute of Sport Science & Athletic Conditioning. He has lectured for several major organizations and associations, and written numerous articles for multiple media outlets. He is also a state chairman for the National Strength & Conditioning Association, a state director for the North American Strongman corporation and a judge for the International Natural Bodybuilding Association. A former powerlifter, Palmieri has been in the industry for more than 20 years, and is pursuing his master's degree as a biomechanics graduate student at UNLV.