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Why the Upper Back is Extremely Important

Not to say "Everything." But pretty close.

By Resistance Quest FitnessPublished 2 years ago 6 min read

The muscles of the back, especially the upper back, are central to almost all fitness pursuits, to proper posture, and to better health.

Therefore, it could be said that a strong upper back is central to overall health. In fact, I’m going to say it right now:

“A strong upper back is central to overall health.”

There, I said it. And to support my statement, I’ll give some examples.

First, though, exactly which muscles am I talking about? Why, these ones of course:

(This picture also includes the Levator Scapulae, which I view more as a neck muscle.)

So now that you understand which muscles, I'll get back to my examples.

It is possible to become strong on the pushup or bench press with a weak back; I’m not going to say it isn’t. But what happens to people who do nothing but bench press? They often end up injured.

There is no better way to injure your shoulders than benching with a weak back. Why?

Because the “retraction”—that is, the pulling back—of the shoulders during benching keeps the ball-and-socket joint out of the way of the connective tissues of the shoulder, which would like nothing more than to bite down on them and ruin them, just for fun.

And if that happens and you hurt your shoulder, you can’t bench (at least, not normally). If you can’t work your “push” muscles—which include your chest, shoulders, and triceps, all of which are hampered by a shoulder injury)—then your overall health and fitness suffer. Therefore, “a strong upper back is central to overall health.”

Another example.

Now we all know there are plenty of ways to squat. You can Goblet Squat, TRX squat, Pistol Squat, Dumbbell Squat, et cetera.

But we also all know the grandparent of all the squats, and of all exercises besides: the Back Squat. The Back Squat involves having a barbell on your upper back, as you may have astutely guessed.

Me, low-bar squatting in my home gym

Right off the bat, a bigger, stronger upper back gives that bar a better perch to sit on while squatting (whether high-bar or low-bar). This leads to a stronger squat because your back can support more weight. So there’s that to consider.

Now, guess what happens if you squat with a weak upper back.

I’ll give you a hint: it’s a lot like what happens when benching with a weak upper back, only worse. If your upper back gives out, everything beneath it likely will too. And then you’re looking at not only probable shoulder injury, but also back injury, knee injury, and gosh knows what else.

Then, all of a sudden, you can’t squat (or most likely deadlift, either). The muscles of your entire lower body suffer for it. Since your lower body contains some of the largest and therefore most bang-for-your-buck muscles in your body, it could be said that “a strong upper back is central to overall health.”

I mentioned deadlifting a moment ago. What happens if you deadlift with a weak upper back? Well, assuming you are moving any substantial amount of weight, you know very well what could happen to you: injuries of the back (specifically the lower back, though upper back injury is also possible), neck, and shoulders, most likely.

Does this potential for injury mean that these exercises are too dangerous for the “average person” to perform? You can probably guess that my opinion on this matter is an emphatic “no.”

Rather, it means that the “average person” needs a stronger upper back. Period. And that includes you.

“But I’m not interested in those three exercises,” you say. Not to worry. My bias still holds true. Here’s why.

Because 99.9% of all human endeavor takes place in front of us, we do a heck of a lot this in our lives:

We Hold Things in Our Hands and Do Things. In Front of Us.

There’s not a whole lot we can do about it. The world exists in front of us and we are drawn to it, since we live in the world. Most of us, anyway.

Unfortunately, though, humans are not built to move in only one direction. We were meant to move forward, backward, side to side, twisting, and in segments, as well.

So what does this have to do with training the upper back?

Training the upper back improves posture. It helps address forward head posture occasioned by hours of looking at a computer. It fixes the internal rotation of the shoulder that is caused by countless moments with our hands in front of us and/or up on desks, or eating, or holding phones. (This internal rotation, by the way, threatens shoulder health in the same way as benching with a weak back.)

Furthermore, training the upper back can help with mobility issues of the neck (if neck posture is taken into account during training).

And the type of better posture created by a stronger upper back helps reduce or prevent lower back pain. Why? Much lower back pain is caused by a forward posture. This posture puts undue pressure on the lower back to support the weight of the upper body, a task for which it is ill-suited. That’s what the UPPER back is supposed to do, silly!

So even if you never bench pressed, squatted, or deadlifted, and you had no plans to do so, training your upper back IN SOME WAY would only benefit you. If all you wanted to do was run...hello? Running? It’s a forward activity. Have you ever seen the posture of some distance-runners? Might be okay for them (and I doubt it), but not for you.

Good for pink-hat guy anyway. At least they're putting some work in.

And by the way, look at sprinters like Usain Bolt.

Not to mention the other guys behind him. Is this a fair comparison? No. Sorry, pink-hat guy.

No forward posture on Mr. Bolt. That’s because he trains his upper back because he knows a stronger upper back makes you faster and better, not slower and worse.

I think I've made my point. I hope you agree with it, is the thing.

So how do we strengthen the damn upper back then?

Well, there are three main movements that work it effectively. They are:

The Row,

The Pullup,

And the Reverse Flye.

Someone will immediately exclaim, “but the pullup doesn’t work the upper back! The pullup works your outer lats!” Well, your “lats” are an upper back muscle. The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle of the upper back, in fact. Additionally, when you do pullups (and depending on grip and technique), you’re also working your trapezius muscle, rear deltoids, rotator cuff, and even the rhomboids.

The Row works the upper back more directly, and is the Monarch and Grandparent of Upper Back exercises. It works all of the muscles worked by the pullup, and but hits the rhomboids and trapezius even harder.

The Reverse Flye (which includes dumbbell, cable, and machine variations, Pullaparts, and Face Pulls) predominantly works the Rear Deltoid, which is “the forgotten deltoid” (and in case you’re not aware, the deltoids are the “shoulder muscles.” There are three of them).

The rear deltoid assists in pulling the shoulder back, thereby improving posture. Additionally, this “big little” muscle is useful for supporting the barbell during a Low-Bar Back Squat and thickening the upper back (see the photo of me squatting again for reference), thereby reducing the required range of motion to perform a Barbell Bench Press.

Reverse Flyes can also function as a mild Rowing movement for general upper back development, depending on technique.

There are so many variations, regressions, and progressions of these three exercises to suit almost anyone. So unless you’re missing limbs (in which case, I appreciate you taking the time to read this), you have no excuse.

So there you have it. I don’t care if your workout style is “100 pushups and 100 situps every day,” “100% benching,” “kickboxing cardio,” or “unicyle Tabatas” (which sounds dreadful). Training your upper back IN SOME FORM will only improve your performance, appearance, posture, and, of course, your “overall health.”

Thank me later!

Learn more about the author—a NASM-certified personal trainer and business owner—at www.resistancequest.com


About the Creator

Resistance Quest Fitness

A Fitness Company.

Home of the Paralinear Method, Return on Fitness™, and STACHKA Garage Gym.

Embrace Your Power.



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