A strong upper back is arguably one of THE most important physical attributes for any strength endeavor.
That may sound ridiculous, but it’s true. Without a solid base of strength in your upper back, you’ll never Squat or Deadlift impressive weight. And no matter how big your arms and chest are, you won’t Bench Press big numbers without a strong foundation from your lats and rhomboids.
Unlike other muscle groups, the upper back can be trained frequently without negatively affecting your performance in the gym. In fact, if you want to get really strong, really fast, you should train your upper back every time you step into the gym. That means 3 to 5 days per week, you should be attacking the muscles above your waist that you cannot see in the mirror. And on the days you don’t lift, small postural exercises can speed up recovery and improve shoulder health.
Here are five reasons to train your upper back every day.
1. The Upper Back Limits Every Big Barbell Lift
When you start moving serious weight, it’s not your legs, your arms or even your abs that determine how much weight you can Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift. In the end, it’s how much weight your upper back can support that truly limits your maximal strength. Here’s how each big lift is affected by the upper back.
For the Squat:
- The traps and rear deltoids create the shelf on which the barbell rests.
- The lats and rhomboids squeeze the bar into position and prevent it from rolling.
- The lats and thoracic erectors keep the chest up and prevent the lifter from falling forward.
If your back is weak, your chest caves and your hips shoot up too early, turning the squat into a Good Morning. Your most powerful leg muscle groups can’t contribute to the lift as much as they should, increasing your risk of lower-back injury.
For the Bench Press:
- The rhomboids, middle traps and lower traps keep the shoulder blades squeezed together, which stabilizes the shoulders.
- The lats pull the shoulder blades “into the back pockets” to help tuck the elbows and control the path of the bar as it’s lowered to the chest.
- The lats and thoracic erectors maintain an arch in the back, which shortens the range of motion to protect the shoulders and allow more weight to be lifted.
If your back is weak, your shoulder blades will push apart during the bench and your elbows will flare out, increasing the risk of shoulder injury.
For the Deadlift:
- The entire upper back (especially the lats, traps and thoracic erectors) works together to keep the bar close to the body and prevent rounding of the lower back, which allows the legs to do most of the work.
If your back is weak, the bar drifts out in front of the body, causing the upper and/or lower back to round. Your major leg muscle groups can’t contribute to the lift as much, and you increase your risk of lower-back injury.
To sum it up, if your upper back is weak, don’t expect to have a strong squat, bench press or deadlift!
2. There Are Unlimited Options for Training the Upper Back
The upper back is made up of many different muscles (10 or more if you include muscles that attach to the shoulder and spine) that have varying shapes, sizes and functions.
For example, the lats (latissimus dorsi) are the biggest muscles of the upper body and can move your arms, shoulder blades and spine. On the other hand, the four tiny muscles of the rotator cuff work together to keep your shoulders healthy and happy. With plenty of muscles of varying size, strength and function in between, the number of exercises as well as the weight, sets and reps utilized need to be widely varied to target them all appropriately.
Because of the diversity of your upper-back muscles, they can handle a ton of work. The bigger muscles like your lats and rhomboids can handle heavier weights for lower reps, while the smaller muscles like your rear delts and rotator cuff require lighter weights for higher reps in order to grow and get stronger.
For the bigger muscles, use heavy movements like Deadlifts (1-5 reps), Rows (5-10 reps) and Pulldowns (8-12 reps). As for the smaller muscles, use lighter movements such as Reverse Flies, Face Pulls and External Rotations for 10-20 reps.
3. The Upper Back Works in Multiple Planes of Movement
The upper back doesn’t just work horizontally (e.g., Rows) and vertically (e.g., Pull-Ups and Pulldowns). If you split up all the movements the upper back can perform, you’ll realize how many different exercises you’ll need to hit every muscle. Here’s a quick summary.
- Horizontal Pulls: Barbell Bent-Over Rows, 1-arm Dumbbell Rows, etc.
- Vertical Pulls: Pull-Ups, Lat Pulldowns, etc.
- Retraction/Horizontal Abduction: Band Pull-Aparts, Reverse Flyes, etc.
- Isometric: Deadlifts, Farmers Walks
- Rotator Cuff: External Rotations, Cuban Presses, etc.
You’d never fit all of these exercises into a single workout, so it’s best to split them up into several training sessions. While the upper back often gets trained on upper-body days, it’s best to add the most lower-back intensive exercises to the lower-body days (i.e. the days you Squat and Deadlift). For example, if you lift weights four days per week with an upper/lower split, your upper-body routine might look something like this:
- Day 1 – Upper Body: Vertical Pulls, Retraction/Horizontal Abduction, Rotator Cuff
- Day 2 – Lower Body: Horizontal Pulls, Isometric
- Day 3 – Upper Body: Vertical Pulls, Retraction/Horizontal Abduction
- Day 4 – Lower Body: Horizontal Pulls, Isometric
4. Grease the Groove
Pavel Tsatsouline, the legendary trainer who brought kettlebell training to the masses and founded StrongFirst, coined the phrase “grease the groove” as a means for frequently practicing a strength skill. For example, to get better at Pull-Ups, one would “grease the groove” by doing many low-rep sets of Pull-Ups several times per day, every single day. You’ll quickly get better at Pull-Ups because you’re practicing the skill of the movement without building up too much fatigue by going to failure.
Luckily, Pull-Ups are an excellent upper-back builder. You can sneak in extra upper back volume every day by sprinkling in low-rep Pull-Up sets throughout the day. If you’re serious about packing on upper-back muscle mass, buy a doorway pull-up bar, hang it up in your home or office, and do a couple of Pull-Ups every time you walk by the bar. The key here is doing just 1-3 reps each time. That way, you can easily rack up dozens of Pull-Ups per day without getting sore or fatigued, and all these reps will add up over time for a bigger, stronger upper back.
5. Goodbye, Shoulder Pain
Many upper-back exercises also contribute to improving and maintaining shoulder health. That’s because several muscles of the upper back (primarily the rotator cuff, rhomboids and lower traps) work together to stabilize the humerus (the upper arm bone). The shoulder joint is a “ball-and-socket” joint, and these muscles work to keep the humerus (the “ball”) snuggly secured in the glenoid fossa (the “socket”).
And while there’s much more that goes into healthy shoulders than just doing lots of Rows and Pull-Ups, doing a high volume of upper-back work can balance out poor posture that results from lots of sitting and staring at a computer or cell phone. Luckily, many of these postural exercises use very light loads and create minimal soreness, so you can do them frequently. Simply improving your posture can have a big impact on your appearance. Just take a look in the mirror with your shirt off and notice how different your muscles look when slouching over vs. standing up straight with your shoulders rolled down. Prevent yourself from looking like a Neanderthal with exercises like:
All of these exercises can be performed during an upper-body warm-up or at the end of a training session multiple times per week to keep your shoulders moving and grooving.
How to Train Your Upper Back Every Day
Here’s an example of a 4-day weekly lifting schedule that trains the upper back each day. But we did say every day, right? That’s why I’ve also included some exercises you can knock out on rest days. By hitting the upper back with a careful combination of exercises in a various movement planes, you maximize your upper back strength and size.
A. Squat variation: 3-5 sets x 3-5 reps
B. Deadlift variation: 10 sets x 2 reps (light weight, focus on speed)
C. Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rows: 4 sets x 8 reps
D. Hamstrings: 3 sets
E. Abs: 3 sets
A. Bench Press variation: 3 sets x 3-5 reps
B. Pull-Ups: 30 total reps (add weight or use band assistance if needed)
C. 1-arm Dumbbell Rows: 4 sets x 8 reps/side
D. Triceps: 3 sets
E. Cable External Rotations: 3 sets x 10 reps/side (light weight)
A. Squat variation: 8 sets x 3 reps (light weight, focus on speed)
B. Deadlift variation: 3-5 sets x 3-5 reps
C. Barbell Bent-Over Rows: 3 sets x 5-8 reps
D. Farmers Walk (Dumbbells, Trap Bar or Handles): 4 sets x 10-20 yards (Heavy)
E. Abs: 3 sets
A. Bench Press variation: 3-4 sets x 6-8 reps
B. Lat Pulldowns: 4 sets x 8-12 reps
C. Standing 1-arm Cable Rows: 3 sets x 10 reps/side
D. Biceps: 3 sets
E. Reverse Flyes: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Rest Days (2-3 days per week)
A. Band Pull-Aparts: 50-100 reps total
B. Face Pulls: 50-100 reps total
C. Forearm Wall Slides: 3 sets x 10 reps
Photo Credit: Art-Of-Photo/iStock
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