Torso People vs. Limb People

Go to a gym, any gym really, and among the clientele that have a decent amount of muscle mass you're likely to find two types of upper bodies: the torso people and the limb people. Rarely will you see an individual who has both areas of the body developed in perfect balance. In most cases, individuals will fall into one of these categories:

  • Category 1: Chest and back lagging behind the biceps and triceps.
  • Category 2: Biceps and triceps lagging behind the chest and back.

You can also have subcategories where an individual can have:

  1. Big triceps, lagging chest, big back, lagging biceps.

    or...
  2. Big chest, lagging triceps, big biceps, lagging back.

This occurs because our bodies will strive to use the muscles best suited to do the job. For example, if someone has very strong arm-flexors (biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis) or is mechanically advantaged in that department, then these muscles will take on more of the workload during heavy pulling movements. As a result, these muscles will then receive more growth stimulation than the back, and this only accentuates the problem.

Correct lifting technique also plays a role in proper muscle recruitment. When performing an exercise aimed at building the back muscles, then the activation of the arm flexors should be minimized. However, this isn't easy to do when the individual already has overpowering arms.

Big Arms/Small Back Syndrome: The Solution

This article will show you several upper back exercises that minimize the involvement of the arm flexors. If you suffer from the big arms/small back syndrome, then I recommend using these exercises until your back development catches up. When it does, you'll be able to return to more traditional back movements since the body will naturally increase the involvement of the back musculature in these exercises.

Understand that these exercises aren't substitutes for properly executed heavy pulling movements. However, they can be used to bring the back into balance and to learn how to focus on your back muscles during pulling exercises. As such, these exercises can be used both to bring a lagging back up to par and to "teach" your body to properly activate the muscles of the back during heavy pulling movements.

Let's get started!

Exercise 1: Straight-Arm Pulldown

Straight-Arm Pulldown Straight-Arm Pulldown Straight-Arm Pulldown
Straight-Arm Pulldown Straight-Arm Pulldown Straight-Arm Pulldown

This is my favourite exercise to develop the lats and teres major without involving the biceps. It consists of bringing the arms from a fully extended position in front of your face to your pelvis (while keeping the arms as extended/straight as possible). Focus on keeping the back in a neutral/anatomical position (don't bend forward).

At the low position, bring the shoulders down (scapular depression) so you'll get a better peak contraction of the back muscles. You can use a variety of grips for the sake of variation: hammer grip with a rope (first picture above) or a parallel grip bar, a pronated grip (second picture), or a supinated grip (third picture).

Exercise 2: High Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle

High Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle High Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle

This is a good exercise for the whole upper back musculature with a focus on the rhomboids, rear deltoids, and lower fibers of the traps.

The first key point is to "open up" (stretch) your back in the starting position and to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the fully contracted position. The second key is to keep the elbow bend to a minimum during the pull (to minimize biceps involvement). This angle should be anywhere between 100 and 135 degrees, depending on your limb length.

Exercise 3: Low Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle

Low Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle Low Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle

This third movement is performed the same way as the preceding one; the only difference is that we'll use a low-pulley position instead of a high-pulley one. This will put more emphasis on the rhomboids, rear delts (like the preceding exercise), as well as the upper and middle fibers of the traps.

Exercise 4: Chest-Supported Dumbbell Shrug

Chest-Supported Dumbbell Shrug Chest-Supported Dumbbell Shrug

This exercise is basically an incline shrug. Lie facedown on a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand and perform a shrugging motion. The higher the incline, the more stress you'll place on the upper fibers of the traps. As you lower the angle, the involvement of the middle fibers will increase, as well as that of the rhomboids.

Exercise 5: Seated Scapular Retraction

Seated Scapular Retraction Seated Scapular Retraction

This exercise is similar to the preceding one in that it's simply a shrugging motion. The difference is that it's performed in a seated position, making it a horizontal shrug.

Really open up the back at the starting position and squeeze the shoulder blades together hard. This exercises focuses on the rhomboids.

Exercise 6: Decline Cable Pullover

Decline Cable Pullover Decline Cable Pullover Decline Cable Pullover

This exercise is very similar to the straight-arm pulldown movement explained earlier. It also has the benefit of putting more stress on the lats during a fully stretched position. As a result, the first half of the movement is executed with a greater contraction of the lats. However, the last portion of the movement is less effective as the last portion of the straight-arm pulldown, so utilizing both exercises can become quite effective for complete lat development with minimal arm involvement.

Exercise 7: Ankle Strap Lat Pulldown

Ankle Strap Lat Pulldown

This movement requires the use of an ankle strap attachment that you loop around your arm at the elbow. From a position with the arm above your head, pull your elbow toward the side of your ribcage. You essentially duplicate a lat pulldown movement without having to rely on the arm flexors. This exercise can be done with one or two arms at a time.

Exercise 8: Rear Delt/Rhomboid Raise

Rear Delt/Rhomboid Raise

I consider the rear deltoid to be part of the upper back complex because of both its function and position on the body. The rear delt raise combo is a good way of finishing off a back workout.

The way you perform the exercise can have a certain impact on muscle recruitment/development. Pictured above are the three different positions that I recommend. I often suggest performing all three positions during a set (five reps of each).

Here's a chart to help you sort things out:

Chart

Sample Programs

Level 1 (Easy)

A.Straight-Arm Pulldown – Pronated Grip
4 sets of 10-12 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
60 seconds of rest

B.Low Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle
4 sets of 8-10 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
60 seconds of rest

C.Rear Delt Combo
4 sets of 12-15 reps (4-5 reps per position)
Controlled tempo
45 seconds of rest

Level 2 (Intermediate)

A.Straight-Arm Pulldown – Hammer Grip
3 sets of 10-12 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
60 seconds of rest

B.Decline Cable Pullover
3 sets of 10-12 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second hold at the stretch position on each rep
60 seconds of rest

C1.High Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle
3 sets of 8-10 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
No rest (post-fatigue superset)

C2.Seated Scapular Retraction
3 sets of 12-15 reps
Hold a 2 second pause at the stretch position and a 2 second peak on each rep
90 seconds of rest

D.Rear Delt Combo
3 sets of 12-15 reps (4-5 reps per position)
Controlled tempo
45 seconds of rest

Level 3 (Difficult)

A.Straight-Arm Pulldown – Hammer Grip
3 sets of 10-12 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
60 seconds of rest

B1.High Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle
3 sets of 8-10 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
No rest (post-fatigue superset)

B2.Seated Scapular Retraction
3 sets of 12-15 reps
Hold a 2 second pause at the stretch position and a 2 second peak on each rep
90 seconds of rest

C1.Low Pulley Cross-rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle
3 sets of 8-10 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
No rest (post-fatigue superset)

C2.Chest-Supported Dumbbell Shrug
3 sets of 12-15 reps
Hold a 2 second pause at the stretch position and a 2 second peak on each rep
90 seconds of rest

D.Rear Delt Combo
3 sets of 12-15 reps (4-5 reps per position)
Controlled tempo
45 seconds of rest

Level 4 (Reintegration of the traditional back exercises)

A1.Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rowing
3 sets of 8-10 reps
Controlled tempo
No rest (post-fatigue superset)

A2.Low Pulley Cross-Rowing With Fixed Elbow Angle
3 sets of 8-10 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
90 seconds rest

B1.Lat Pulldown to the front (or weighted chins)
3 sets of 8-10 reps
Controlled tempo
No rest (post-fatigue superset)

B2.Straight-Arm Pulldown – Pronated Grip
3 sets of 10-12 reps
Controlled tempo; add a 2-3 second peak contraction on each rep
90 seconds of rest

C.Rear Delt Combo
3 sets of 12-15 reps (4-5 reps per position)
Controlled tempo
45 seconds of rest

Kick-Start Your Upper Back!

When your main objective is to build muscle mass, you shouldn't focus on "lifting weights" but rather on contracting muscles against a resistance. However, when one muscle group is overpowering another (arms in our case), it can become difficult to get a maximum quality contraction in the back muscles when performing pulling movements. These exercises often become "arm" exercises, the end result being that the arms receive even more stimulation while the back remains partially untapped.

Furthermore, continuing this form of training can eventually lead to faulty movement patterns that'll make it more and more difficult to efficiently use your upper back musculature. These exercises will help you "re-learn" to use your back so that when you get back to more traditional back training you'll actually be training your back, not your biceps!

Don't get the wrong message though: these exercises serve their purpose, but they aren't as effective as properly performed heavy pulling exercises. However, if you have trouble getting your back into action during traditional back movements, then these exercises might be the solution to your problem and will help you kick-start your upper back development!