Ever since we became a society of technology-addicted hunchbacks, the number of back problems among the population has been on a steady incline. Today, our rotator cuffs and upper back muscles are weaker than ever, and this common issue poses a serious threat in the gym, where many bodybuilders are looking to squat as heavy as possible and use overhead pressing to develop strong upper bodies, disregarding the fact that these two compound exercises require a very tight and stable upper back.
The upper back muscles are responsible for keeping the entire spine braced and stable. When the scapula stabilizers lack strength or stability, there is a high risk of joint misalignment and pain. A lack of scapular stability and mobility is a key factor that can limit athletic performance and result with painful back and shoulder injuries, not to mention its contribution to poor posture. In addition, most athletes emphasize pressing and pushing exercises in their training routines, while pay less attention to antagonistic pulling exercises which are required to counter-balance the effects of the previous movements and enhance shoulder joint stability.
Therefore, sculpting a bigger and stronger upper back is vital for minimizing injuries in the spinal discs and shoulder joints, maintaining good posture and increasing the effectiveness of your performance. There’s no denying that the stronger your shoulder and upper back muscles are, the more weight you can lift in almost any upper body movement. The upper back is made up of the latissimus dorsi, teres major, rhomboids, deltoids, trapezius and infraspinatus. All of these muscles contribute to the ability of the back to withstand heavy loads, and they’re all crucial in building impressive back aesthetics. Additionally, they all have to work as a well-balanced team in order to perform multi-joint exercises, so any weak links will negatively affect the performance of the entire back and diminish your total upper body strength.
So, in case your upper back is nowhere near where it should be, this is the right time to focus on its development in order to break training plateaus and reduce your risk of painful disabling injury. For this goal we’ve created a list of 8 major factors that influence athletic performance to give you a clue on possible areas of improvement, so read carefully.
#1. Scapular retraction
Improving your scapular stability will save your shoulders from the progressive degeneration that is experienced by many more or less ignorant lifters. Scapular stability refers to the ability of your scapula to move freely and offer enough stability to help the shoulder lock in during certain exercises. In this context, scapular retraction, or squeezing your shoulder blades together, is a vital function of your shoulder complex and is incredibly important during lifts such as squats and bench presses. Also, you want to make sure you’re your shoulder blades are properly retracted during most upper body movements because this helps engage the muscle more and increase the tension, providing a better ‘pump’.
However, hyper-retraction can also cause painful issues, so when retracting, you need to make sure to simultaneously retract and suck your shoulder blades into your body by flexing the back and serratus anterior muscles (located on the side of your rip cage). Before choosing a weight to work with, practice this functional movement by simply focusing on achieving optimal contraction of the muscle by placing as much tension as possible on it, then holding the peak contraction for as long as you can. This will give you a better idea of the way your shoulder muscles work and react to different patterns of movement.
#2. Change of grip style
Your gripping style affects the way in which the working muscles will be targeted as well as the choice of accessory muscles, so changing your grip style can lead to more muscle activity and boosted muscle growth. Pronation and supination refer to the positioning of your hands during the exercise – by changing this, you can shift the focus on the muscles and the type of training stimulus applied on them. The supinated grip, which is more isolating and restrictive than its counterpart, will allow you to better target your biceps as secondary muscles, while the pronated grip engages more muscle fibers and creates a better midrange stimulus on the back muscles, primarily targeting the lats and anterior delts.
Changing your grip once in a while will allow you to target different muscles and increase the force applied to them, thereby helping you build a bigger and stronger upper back. In many cases, making some slight tweaks in your grip will change the structure of the entire workout and allow you to engage muscle groups that you’ve never used before.
Just like the effects of changing grip styles on muscle engagement, changing the angle in which you are pulling from is very important for enabling maximum growth stimuli (needless to say, the grip changes also affect the angle from which the muscle is being worked). For example, the traps, which are the second biggest muscles of the upper back, need to be hit from two main angles in order to fully develop their upper and lower parts. The first one is provided by the shrugging motion, i.e. the shoulder blades moving up, and the second refers to a backward shrugging motion, i.e. the shoulders rolling backward toward the spine.
The good news is that all exercises can be adapted to ensure different muscle fibers are targeted – for example, a low pull row will hit the lower section of the rhombs better, while a high pull row will emphasize the traps and upper rhombs. All you need in order to train the upper back from all angles possible is a bar, a decent amount of weight and something to hang from. Get creative!
Many bodybuilders believe that if an exercise is done with perfect form, the muscles involved will automatically perform in an optimal way, and that the mentally focusing on the working muscle is some kind of a new-age bodybuilding myth. The truth, however, is that this phenomenon is real and according to many reliable studies, it greatly influences neuromuscular dynamics during resistance training. In other words, the work of your muscles is ultimately controlled by your brain. Your brain communicates with your muscles by releasing a chemical neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which signals them to contract. So it’s pretty much a no-brainer that the more you can improve this communication, the more muscle fibers you will recruit, resulting with a better quality muscle contraction and bigger gains. Mentally focusing on the working muscle will kick the muscle into gear faster and enable the exercise to have much more impact, so try this at your next gym session and see how it affects your performance.
A good rule of thumb is to perform you heavy strength work with external focus of attention, i.e. maintaining good form, and your lighter work with an internal focus of attention, i.e. concentrating on the target muscles.
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