Anatomy For Athletes – Part 8 – Upper Back Muscles

Upper Back Muscles

In Parts 1 through 5 of the Anatomy For Athletes Mini-Series I described the primary functions, training considerations and exercises for each of the lower body muscle groups.  In Parts 6 and 7 I discussed the abdominal and intrinsic back muscles.

In this post I’ll cover the major muscle groups of the upper back — the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboids.

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Functional Anatomy Of the Upper Back

The Trapezius

The traps are one of those “showy” muscles that most people tend to work purely for aesthetics — dudes especially.

I’m sure that if I walked around the gym and asked people their favourite trap exercise, they’d say shrugs.  The problem with shrugs is that they only work the upper traps and they only focus on one of the three primary actions — shoulder elevation.

Only working the upper traps can lead to shoulder issues, especially in people that have overly active upper traps to begin with.  So I’m going to focus on the other two parts of the traps here — the parts that are often underworked or ignored altogether…

The primary action of the mid-traps is scapular retraction — pulling the shoulder blades together.  (Just as an aside, when all three parts of the traps contract simultaneously — the overall movement produced is also scapular retraction).

The primary functions of the lower traps are downward rotation and depression of the scapula (pulling the shoulder blades down).  This is the most neglected portion of the traps.  In fact, lots of people have a hard time getting them to fire at all.

Here are a few exercises that work the different parts of the traps:

  • Upper traps (elevation):  vertical shrug variations, Olympic pulls
  • Mid traps (retraction): row variations, face pulls, prone shrugs
  • Lower traps (depression): wall slides, face pulls, lower trap raises

(I’ve included a few exercise description videos at the end of the post.)

Training Considerations:

Most people have overactive or overly developed upper traps, especially when compared to the middle and lower fibres.  If you want to keep shrugs in your program, that’s all well and good, but be sure to include some exercises for the other functions to help maintain balance and prevent shoulder issues (see the suggestions above and the videos at the end of the post).

Rhomboids Major and Minor

Just like the middle and lower trapezius, the rhomboids are often undertrained.  Especially when compared to how often most people train their antagonist muscle — the pecs.

Training the rhomboids — along with the middle and lower trap fibres — is important for shoulder health, posture, and upper back strength.  Their primary function is to retract the shoulder blades (i.e. pull them together).

Examples of exercises that work the rhomboids include:

  • Row variations
  • Scapular retraction variations
  • Face pulls
  • Wall slides
  • Prone shrugs

(I’ve included a few exercise description videos at the end of the post.)

Training Considerations:

To keep your shoulders healthy and to build a strong upper back, include some row variations in your programs.

For a balanced program, include at least a 1-to-1 ratio of horizontal pulling (row variations) to pushing (bench press variations).  Lots of people — especially those that have internally rotated (forward slouching) shoulders or people that tend to do a lot of pressing exercises — would benefit from a 2-to-1 ratio instead.

What about vertical pulling (e.g. pull-up and lat pulldown variations)?  Keep in mind that the lats (discussed below) also internally rotate the shoulders.  But they don’t contribute to dysfunction quite as much as the pecs.  So a 1-to-1 ratio of horizontal-to-vertical pulling is okay here.  Just be sure to pull your shoulders down and back when you perform vertical pulls.

Latissimus Dorsi

The primary functions of the lats are internal rotation and adduction of the humerus.  In other words, they rotate the shoulders forward and pull the arms toward midline.

If you’re looking to develop your lats, chin-up and pull-up variations are the best exercises, hands down.  Chin-ups (performed with an underhand-grip) place a greater emphasis on the biceps, while pull-ups (performed with a neutral or overhand-grip) increase the load on the lats.

Examples of lat exercises include:

  • Pull-up and chin-up variations
  • Lat pulldown variations
  • Row variations
  • Pullover variations

(I’ve included a few exercise description videos at the end of the post.)

Training Considerations:

Like I mentioned above, chin-ups and pull-ups are far superior to lat pulldown variations.  If you can’t do them, no worries there are plenty of modifications that can be used to help you get there.  For example, negatives, spotted, and band-assisted.  Other accessory exercises like straight-arm hangs, flexed-arm hangs and hollow holds are great too.

I’ll be posting an article all about making pull-up gains soon.  Check back soon for that…Or better yet, sign-up for my inner circle newsletter below so that you don’t miss out on that post.  (Inner circle members get access to free gifts and exclusive webinar content too).

Upper Back Muscle Exercise Videos

Next Up:  Anatomy For Athletes — Part 9 — Shoulder Muscles, check back in a few days for that.


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