Bolstering Your Lifts with Upper Back Training

August 24, 2014 8:46 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

by Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS

Bulletproof your upper back with this high frequency protocol.

Whether your goal is unlocking the key to enhanced upper body strength and power or developing a yoke so scary that it
frightens trick-or-treaters and their parents on Halloween night, keep reading.

It’s easy to spot serious lifters. They boast a big upper back.

Strong lifters are dichotomously identified from their weaker counterparts by a thick, heavily muscled upper back.
Whether your holy grail is the big three, the clean and jerk and the snatch, or in posing trunks under the lights, you
better plan on investing a decent chunk of your training to the upper back.

For many lifters, especially novice lifters, the upper back is their Achilles heel.

Weak and underdeveloped upper back musculature suffocates their strength building efforts like their clingy beau from high school.

Even stronger lifters and athletes can be plagued by upper back weakness, falling into the enticing trap of pressing more than

A weak upper back can set off a host of shoulder issues, including instability and impingement and potentially set the stage
for serious injury.

Before we dive into the protocol that’s benefitted many athletes, myself included, let’s turn back the time and review some

The muscles comprising the upper back work in constellation to orient and stabilize the bony anatomy of the torso and upper arms.

We’ll go from top to bottom as we analyze the back’s major players.


The trapezius originates from the bony base of the cranial region (the external occipital protuberance) and along the spinous
processes of the seventh cervical vertebrae through the the twelfth thoracic vertebrae.

These fibers then branch out and blend into three separate regions.

The first region is the distal end of the collarbone and acromion. This swath of muscle is known as the upper trapezius which
exerts an upward pull on the collarbone and elevates and upwardly rotates the shoulder.

The second region consists of the medial aspect, or spine, of each shoulder blade. This region is referred by many coaches
and therapists as the mid trap, or trap 2. These fibers govern scapular or shoulder retraction.

The third region connects medially to the base of each shoulder blade. This area is known as the lower trap or trap 3.


The latissimus dorsi, or lats for short, collectively originates from the thoracolumbar fascia at the middle of the thoracic spine,
sacrum and iliac regions of the pelvis, low ribs, and at the inferomedial aspect of the shoulder blades.

The fibers blend into the bicipetal groove of the humerus, or upper arm bone, where they pull the shoulder into extension, internal rotation, and assist
with adduction.

Rounding out the team

Teres Major and Teres Minor

The teres group which collectively connect the humerus and scapula, work to extend the shoulder. The larger teres major adducts and internally rotates the shoulder as the
smaller and deeper teres minor externally rotates the shoulder.

Rhomboid Major and Rhomboid Minor

Similiar to the teres group, the rhomboids consist of a larger and smaller counterpart, both of which connecting to the shoulder blades. Collectively, they retract and downwardly rotate the shoulder.

The back also consists of levator scapula, which elevates and downwardly rotates the scapula, the posterior deltoids, which extends, abducts, and externally rotates the shoulder and the muscles of the rotator cuff which share attachment points along the humerus and shoulder blades, providing the shoulder
dynamic stability.

If these muscles aren’t as strong as the “push muscles” of the chest and shoulders, then problems ensue such as altered
scapulohumeral rhythym, impingement, and a greater propensity to pull or tear a muscle.

Now as they apply to the lifts we want to stay healthy for

Boost Your Overhead Pressing with a simple, yet effective move

Strong traps will allow us to upwardly rotate the shoulders so we can perform overhead presses. Remember, the upper traps and lower traps contribute to upward rotation
of the scapula. This action sets the stage for healthy shoulder articulation, permitting shoulder flexion and internal rotation – two actions that allow you to lockout a heavy lift overhead. If these actions are absent, then you’ll
end up adopting faulty and injurious movement patterns, such as cervical protrusion, flaring the ribs, or even worse, arching the lower back like a halftime contortionist. The combination of over arching the lumbar spine and overhead lifting is the biomechanical
equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys playing a drunken game of cornhole. Oh and let’s mention that having big and strong traps beef up the muscular shelf you need to stablize a heavily loaded squat on your back.

Enter the Trap 3 Raise

Loved by strength training godfather, Charles Poliquin, the Trap 3 Raise targets the trapezius in their functional path.

In order to perform the Trap 3 Raise, the lifter leans against a bench or rack, with one arm supporting their body.

Next, the lifter will grasp a light dumbbell (think 3 to 15 pounds, depending on your strength and shoulder mobility) and retract their shoulder blades.

Finally, the lifter will raise the arm that’s grasping the dumbbell with the thumb side of the hand facing up at 30 degrees of abduction from the body.

Lat Tension for the Big Three

Strong lats allow us to lock ourselves to the bench during heavy lifts. A strong back is your muscular foundation during the bench press. Without it, you’ll squirm your
way to a sloppy red lighted lift that makes the red light district in Amsterdam look like a Bible study.

We need to harness lat tension in order to bench heavy so the bar doesn’t fall behind us or travel over the face. which usually results in a missed lift or injury.

Flaring the lats like a cobra helps us keep the bar in closer alignment with the body during the deadlift, mitigating the risk of sustaining a lower back injury.

And keeping the lats tight during a squat, prevents us from face planting like this wannabe commercial gym hero.

Okay, maybe not, but strong lats will keep us more upright in a heavily loaded squat by keeping the throacic spine extended, which allows us to pull the chest big.

Enter the Straight Armed Pulldown

Long championed by bodybuilders of yesteryear, this move trains our lats in their role of extending the arms.

Simply affix a cable attachment or band a foot or two above your head, and pull down on it, keeping the spine in neutral alignment with a slight bend in the hips and knees. Act as if you’re pulling the attachment or band through the body, keeping the core tight and chest big.

Now can we train upper back everyday?

I resoundingly say “yes”. Incorporating exercises such as the Trap 3 Raise and straight arm pulldowns, along with other staple filler movements, such as banded pull aparts, shrugs, blackburns, plank push ups, wall slides, and facepulls, will help groove proper shoulder comprise lengthy eccentric
component, recovery shouldn’t be an issue. Further, these exercises can be performed with little to no equipment and for anyone desiring shaplier shoulders, this will get you there within weeks. Shoot for a total of 100 reps per day utilizing a combination of the aforementioned exercises and check back in
a couple of weeks.





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