Ah, the good ol’ upper back: it can either be the secret weapon of the advanced athlete, or the plague of the mediocre athlete. In this article, I will discuss the importance of upper back strength, and I will discuss some tools I use to build my own upper back up, both for size and strength. After all, if you are going to get strong, you might as well get as big as your weight class allows. In my first upper back article, I outlined some tools you could use to build your own back up, and this article will expand on these exercises, as well as offering some that can be completed in the average gym. Let’s get started. First things first, your upper back is the part of your back that is at the top (knowledge bomb). The upper back muscles consist mostly of the latissimus dorsi (the lats), the rhomboids and the trapezius (traps). If I were to grab the average lifter or the average Crossfitter, there is a pretty good chance that their upper back is weak, relative to the rest of their body. Mobility experts on Youtube and weekend coaches across the country like to endlessly discuss the importance of glute and hip strength for athletes, and rightly so: everything starts in the hips and radiates outwards. However, I place upper back strength right next to hip strength on the importance chart, and as such, I spend a lot of time working my upper back. It is important for all strength programs to have some sort of direct upper back work, whether they are hypertrophic exercises or strength building exercises. Both will benefit you, and this is another instance that supports our claim that “you can’t just do bench, squat and deadlift forever.”
Upper back strength and size are important for many reasons, some of them are, but aren’t limited to: providing a better base for shoulder stability for pressing objects overhead. Increasing thickness of the area where bars rest for squats and yoke walks, thus providing more surface area to support the weight. Providing more strength to increase the ability to pull weight off the floor. And finally, improving posture and diminishing the Quasimodo effect. Let’s check out some exercises I like to use to increase my girth and mantle. Stone Loading
OK, I know i promised that we would discuss exercises that can be done in a standard gym, but as the Stone Boss of our little training crew, I feel it is my duty to discuss the benefits of stones for upper back strength. Regardless of what anyone might tell you, I cannot be convinced otherwise that stones are the single best test of overall strength for a single lift. Yes, deadlifts are hard, yes cleans, snatches, and squats are hard. However, all of these lifts just named are performed with bars that have nice knurling on them, and the bar’s diameter is designed to be picked up and fit in the palm of your hand. The big difference here, of course, is that a stone is perfectly round and smooth, and does not want to be picked up. Time to teach these stones a lesson.
I like using stones for upper back strength, simply because stones are an incredibly skill-based strength movement that often gets overlooked when discussing skill, flexibility, and full body strength. No, I am not talking about taking a ridiculously light stone and throwing it over your shoulder 30 times like a jackass. I am talking about loading monster stones (for you) over bars or onto platforms. You will quickly discover that stones are one of those lifts that you can skate by on, by omitting certain body parts that are weaker than they should be. If your upper back strength is lacking, not only will you not break that stone off the ground, there is no way on this earth you will take it from your lap and load it. Fortunately for you, the best way to get better at stones is to do stones often! There are some exercises that can assist stone loading, but nothing will replace it. So please, don’t ask what good substitutes are for stones, find a gym in your area with stones, and use them. If you want to learn how to load stones like a Strongman (AKA the right way), check out our comprehensive article on them. Straight-Legged Deficit Deadlifts
This are one of my favorite deadlift assistance exercises, shown to me by my coach, Alanna Casey. In the previous article, I discussed block pulls below the knee, which are outstanding for upper back strength, but the special thing I like about these is the extra work that the hamstrings get as well. In fact, many exercises that focus on upper back can be utilized to work on hamstrings, a particular weakness of mine. Some important things to remember on this exercise: Keep your descent SLOW, keeping the bar close to your legs, and keep your ascent FAST. Make sure that you drive your hips back as far as possible, while keeping your legs straight as possible, for as long as possible. You can see that sometimes my toes almost look like they will leave the ground: that is how far I am trying to sit back.
I stand on the block to create a slight deficit, so I can descend the bar even further, while keeping it from touching the floor. This will allow you to stay under tension, which will help break down muscle fibers in your upper back and hamstrings, which means one thing: bigger muscles. You can use straps like I am above, or you can go with mix grip. Both will offer you benefits, but I find that using straps for this allows me to use more weight and hit more reps. This isn’t a grip exercise, so leave your ego at the door when it comes to straps. I started week one with about 60% of my deadlift, and eventually worked up to about 82% in the following weeks. Aim to hit 3-4 sets of 5-7 reps for this exercise.
Dumbbell Shrugs (high-rep and pause variations)
While I personally don’t find that shrugs have direct carryover to any particular lift, they definitely work for hypertrophic purposes. In the video above, you can see LBEB athlete Nick Best banging out a quick of 60 shrugs with 150lb dumbbells. That is a little something I like to call “Man Work”. If you aren’t feeling up for some man work, lower the weight, but I would still suggest using straps like Nick is, so grip is not a factor and you don’t have to put down the weights. Lean forward a little on these, and try to bang out 60 reps in as short of amount of time as possible.
Another variation you can use for dumbbell shrugs are pause shrugs. You can pretty much pause any exercise to make you better at it, and shrugs are no different. What I like to do is use a somewhat lighter weight for sets of about 20 reps. The goal for pause shrugs is to shrug, hold the top for three seconds, drop the weights down and immediately go into the next pause. Treat the top of the shrug as if it is the rest portion of the shrug, don’t rest at the bottom. You will be pleasantly surprised the next day after trying these out.
Like the LBEB Doc has stated in previous articles, You don’t see great pressers who have weak upper backs. There is a reason for this, and the most simple reason is that you need a strong base to put things overhead, it isn’t just about delts and triceps for a strong press. The upper back is your foundation for a strong press, and the more difficult an object is to press, the greater benefit your upper back will receive. Putting a barbell overhead is much easier for the average person than a giant dumbbell, log or block, simply because the bar is able to be racked across your front delts without you needing to hyperextend in anyway. Unlike a barbell, however, odd objects do not fit across your front delt rack, and require greater upper back strength to be able to hold the weight in place. Some people say that Strongmen are masters of leverage, and you can watch press medleys at Strongman shows to see why.
Something I would recommend is look in your area for a gym with kegs, atlas stones, sandbags or logs, and attempt some pressing with them. Not only will you notice a significant amount of hypertrophy occurring in your front delts, but your upper back will also take a proper beating. Thank you sir, may I have another?
An important facet of upper back training that I neglected in the previous article is to not neglect your other forms of training. I spent a lot of time working on my upper back last year, so much time, in fact, that my upper back was starting to overcompensate for weaknesses on my other lifts, like my deadlift. Make sure that all your weaknesses are addressed, but a strong upper back is something everyone should strive for. If it makes you feel any better, your upper back can never be too strong. To see some other exercise methods for upper back training, make sure to check out the previous article, and post all of your questions to our Facebook. Thanks for reading, now go get huge.