Here's what you need to know...
- We've become a society of technology-addicted slouchers. No wonder our rotator cuffs and upper back muscles are weak.
- These same muscles fortify the bench press and keep the upper back from folding during a heavy squat.
- Exercises to strengthen them require little equipment and can be performed as active rest between big, compound exercises, or as a warm-up or cool-down. You can even do them first thing in the morning.
The postural muscles of the common man aren't what they used to be. We slouch all day in front of the computer; we thumb our phones to death; we barely look up from our meals to make eye contact with our families. The trouble is, these muscles play a huge role in the gym. They balance out a strong bench press. They resist forward folding under a heavy squat. And they keep shoulder blades in alignment and can restore all the modern damage we inflict.
Furthermore, a thick mid and upper back with a strong ability to retract and depress is crucial to safely moving big weights on the big three exercises – squat, deadlift, and bench press. Rather than neglect the mid and upper back until physical therapy becomes necessary, check out some of my favorite exercises to help build a denser back and improve posture. But first...
A Few Reasons Your Upper Back Needs Attention
Heavy squatting requires a very tight upper back.
This means thick, strong muscles and good mobility to retract and depress (the two scapular movements that help brace the back against forward lean). Upper back tightness is foundational for keeping the entire spine braced and stable.
This is a common affliction of overhead athletes and often an underlying cause of shoulder dysfunction. The scapula needs to move in concert with the upper arm to keep optimal alignment in the glenohumeral joint. When the scapula stabilizers get weak or imbalanced, joint misalignment and pain is often experienced as the arm moves above the head. For those who enjoy overhead pressing and Olympic movements, scapular stability and dyskinesis is a major performance inhibitor.
These will often lead to rotator cuff weakness, inhibition, and pain, especially in those who are very strong in the bench press. Preventative maintenance can keep you on the bench and keep the weight climbing.
Lastly, poor posture is unattractive.
A strong rotator cuff and thick upper back not only completes an upper body physique, but when the shoulders are pulled back, the chest appears broader.
1 – Moving Blackburns
The moving blackburns series is useful as a warm up, builds scapular stability, and helps teach good movement patterns. It's important to not just wave the arms around but to attempt to move the scapulae in concert with the arms. This means squeezing them down into the pockets as the arm comes back, and allowing them to upwardly rotate as the arms move toward the ears. If you haven't done these before, they'll make your mid and upper back scream.
2 – Pull-Aparts
Pull-aparts are a welcome staple in the powerlifting world. They're simple, they require negligible equipment, very weak people can do them properly, and they make for an outstanding active rest exercise.
There are three main variations that I like – the Y, T, and A. I love Ts for retraction, As for retraction and depression, and Ys will get a little more upward scapula rotation. All three will burn you up in a hurry.
My big teaching points are all about the shoulder blade squeeze. We want the shoulder blades to protract forward as the arms move toward the front of the body, and to retract as the arms move to the posterior. Squeezing the scapulae tightly together, and not just moving the arms posteriorly, is key.
One variation I really like is the Isometric/Dynamic pull-apart. It forces good standing posture and core tension during the exercise. To perform, simply hold one arm in a static position while the other does its repetitions. You could hold the isometric arm out in front or in the end position with fully-squeezed shoulder blades.
3 – The "No Money"
I usually lump this as a pull-apart variation, but it deserves special attention as an all-around great exercise. It works to help bring the shoulder blades back and down, stretch tight pecs and anterior delts, and fire up the external rotators of the cuff. These are one of the absolute best bang-for-buck postural exercises.
4 – Chain Y-T-Ls
I love using short strands of 5/8-inch chain for rotator cuff work because they provide a double whammy – resistance and dynamic stability. By swinging the chains up with just enough speed to make them unweight at the top, they force the user to "stick" them at the top until they stop sloshing around. This is something dumbbells and bands can't provide, and the brief isometric pause that ensues is fantastic for building endurance.
Since the weights we typically use are light – between 2 and 10 pounds – regular hardware store chain would also work, making these accessible to everyone. Lighter chain is great because it can be made into a short loop that becomes its own handle.
5 – A-Triangle
The A-triangle was my solution to getting more scapular depression in athletes who have a tough time moving out of the shrugged and protracted position. With conventional pull-apart exercise, it's sometimes easy to cheat when the user finds it difficult to pull the shoulder blades back and down.
By forcing the arms to pull both back and to the sides, we found that the humerus would move back easier and the shoulder blade would also depress with less difficulty. These are hard, and even a mini-band is often too difficult. Micro bands or light theraband tubing is often the correct amount of resistance.
If you have very forward-rolled shoulders and struggle to depress the scapulae, no moneys and A-triangles may become your new best friend.
Sets and Reps
All these exercises are best performed at higher repetitions and volumes. I suggest 3-5 sets of 12-20 reps on all of them, or goal reps of 40-60 per workout done at least 3 times per week.
All work great as active rest between big, compound exercises or as a warm-up or cool-down. The lack of needing significant equipment means these are also simple wake-up exercises that can be done after brushing your teeth.