Along with the glutes, the upper back holds a special place in the hearts of the LBEB crew. The upper back muscles consist mostly of the latissimus dorsi (the lats), the rhomboids and the trapezius (traps). Also just like the glutes and hips, upper back muscles play an important role in nearly every strength movement: It helps support weight overhead, it helps keep your chest from caving during squatting movements, and it helps you pull weights off the floor. Don’t those three aspects cover just about every movement we all do? Unfortunately, direct upper back training is lacking in a lot of programs, which is why we consider a weak upper back to be one of the three deadly plagues of the novice athlete. I am going to spend this article outlining the importance of a strong upper back, how you can increase the strength and thickness of yours, and some of the training I use for mine.
I like to tell new athletes “If I know that my upper backs need to be stronger, I am going to assume that yours probably needs to be stronger too.” People like to blame a caving chest during front squats on things like “getting your elbows higher” or “pushing your belly out’, and while these things can be culprits of a bad front squat, many times it stems from a weak upper back. I used to adhere to the mindset that all you needed to do to increase your lifts was to deadlift, front and back squat, press, and bench press. I no longer subscribe to that mentality, I now believe that certain parts of the body need to be addressed specifically, and in this case it’s the upper back. Our ultimate goal for all strength athletes is to not only strengthen the upper back, but to also make it thicker and larger by increasing the muscle fibers and tendons.
We include a day specifically for the upper back not only for us, but for everyone who is on the LBEB Sauce (does that rhyme?). We use this upper back day to hit explosive movements in a variety of motions, include triple extensions, stiff legged movements, and lifts from the blocks. Below are two examples of upper back days in my program:
As you can see, the volume on these days is extremely high, which is exactly what I am going for. The high volume will contribute to hypertrophy work and make my back thicker, while the heavy Olympic pulls will increase the strength of my upper back as well as my explosiveness. We have discovered that when it comes to increasing the strength of the upper back, working Olympic high pulls is just as effective as the full movement, if not more so due to overloading. Working on pulls is also easier to teach to new athletes. I also add a good amount of isolation movements on this upper back day, (shout out to Chris Stark for showing me some new stuff) and is perfectly paired with the Olympic movements like a fine wine.
You may have seen that we are huge fans of snatch-gripping bars for various pulls: This is because widening the grip is a much greater contributor to upper back strength than a conventional deadlift grip. Originally we used to do snatch deadlifts straight from the ground, but have recently switched to snatch deadlifts off of low blocks because it focuses more on the upper back without contributing to a large lower back pump. We are also (in)famous for using straps on our deadlifts, we don’t do this because our grip is weak, we do it because we want to overload our backs to get as much back stimulus as possible. We get plenty of grip work from lifting atlas and Husafel stones, as well as pulling sleds, pullups, etc. Some have said they won’t use straps because they “want to keep lifting organically.” While I am not sure what that means, I am sure that their backs would get stronger if they took grip out of the equation as a limiting factor and focused directly on their back. Like Marshall says: “if your raw deadlift is 600 and then you pull 700 with straps, how hard will it be to hit 650 pretty quickly? not hard at all.”
Finally, walking events are probably my favorite way to not only build upper back strength, but also build spinal erector strength, and increase my ability to move quickly under heavy load. You will notice that events involving carrying will make your back blow up almost overnight, as well increasing muscle and tendon strength in your forearms! Who doesn’t love huge traps and giant forearms? Remember that your upper back plays an enormous role in your ability to move heavy weight, and you need to train it accordingly. CT Fletcher did biceps every day while being warned of overtraining, and in this same mentality I feel that the upper back can take a huge amount of abuse. In fact, I think it NEEDS a huge amount of abuse in order to help it get ridiculously strong. Just remember that you rest as big as you lift in order to keep training and avoid injuries in your upper back. Have more questions about training your upper back? Let us know!