Back: Stand Tall

One of the most revealing characteristics of a person is the way she carries herself.

Body language can speak louder than words, and confidence emanates from a woman who holds her head and chest high and her shoulders back. After all, how much strength and conviction rises from a person who walks and sits with rounded shoulders and a hunched back?

Aside from improving your looks, effectively training your upper-back muscles may help prevent some orthopedic problems like shoulder impingement and neck pain. Since many of us spend a large part of our lives in poor posture – hunched over a computer keyboard, the steering wheel or our kitchen counter – we should include back training to correct this imbalance and improve the way we look and feel.

Routine

For many of us, upper-back training should take precedence over chest training due to the habits and lifestyle influences mentioned above. If we train our chests and neglect our backs, we may force our bodies deeper into that poor posture. To best work those muscles that have been lazy and stretched out all day, either train the upper back two days a week and the chest only once, and/or perform more upper-back exercises than chest exercises in your routine. If you train chest and back in the same session, try ending with a back movement to emphasize good posture.

Set, Rep And Weight Recommendations

Within the descriptions for each exercise, you’ll find helpful hints for progressions from beginner to intermediate to advanced. If the exercises are new to you, even if you’re an advanced exerciser, consider yourself a beginner for at least the first time through. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise. For your first time, choose the least amount of sets and reps (three sets and eight reps) and work your way up from there. Increase the reps until you can do three sets of 12, then add an additional set of eight reps and go up from there. Look to add weight to the exercises when four sets of 12 reps are no longer challenging.

Shake It Up

For complete back development, the key is to incorporate variety into your training. Besides altering sets, reps and weights used, you can change it up by varying grip width (narrow, medium, wide), grip position (both pronated, both supinated or an alternating grip), speed of movement and angle of pull. Simply change one of these factors each workout. That way you’ll be sure to blast lots of different muscle fibers in your back on your way to new growth and strength.

Pull-Up

  • Beginner: Use the assistive machine, concentrate on the eccentric movement or move through partial ROM (range of motion).
  • Intermediate: Decrease assistance, increase ROM, slow down the eccentric or add pauses in the ROM.
  • Advanced: No assistance, full ROM, add weight, slow down the eccentric or add pauses in the ROM.

Pull-ups are truly one of the most basic exercises and a great way to build upper-body strength. Start with an overhand grip (palms away) on the bar slightly wider than shoulder width. Squeeze your scapulae together, arch your back, focus on your lats and pull your body up, aiming your chest toward the bar. Be aware that assistive machines allow you to use momentum and, therefore, you may create some bad habits. If you use an assistive machine, concentrate on keeping your back arched so that you develop ideal form, which will be a boon when you cross over to free-standing, unassisted pull-ups.

Training Tips

  • Always start from a full hang position. Sure, it’s easier to keep your elbows bent at the bottom and use your arms to help for the initial pull, but that doesn’t help strengthen the back as much.
  • If you find that you need to pile on the weight when using the assisted pull-up machine, you may be better off concentrating on the eccentric movement by lowering yourself very slowly, which will improve strength.
  • Beginners should also try to decrease the assistance they use and just move through partial ROM. In a full bodyweight pull-up, the hardest part is getting started from the hang position. Partials will allow the beginner to train through that initial movement and overload the muscles.
  • If you’re already an ace at full-ROM bodyweight pull-ups, try draping a thick rope over the bar and doing your pull-ups while grasping the rope. The instability of the rope will challenge your neuromuscular system and your grip will improve tremendously.

Seated Cable Row

  • Beginner: Light weight using low-row grip.
  • Intermediate: Heavier weight; alternate low-row grip with straight bar.
  • Advanced: Train one side at a time using single-D grip.

Grasp the handle with both hands and sit down on the seated cable row machine. Keep your knees slightly bent, torso upright, abs tight and low back slightly arched. Pull the handle toward your lower abdomen, keeping your arms close to the sides of your body. Bring your elbows as far back as possible and squeeze your scapulae together at the end of the movement. The rowing motion should come from the upper back, not the arms or lower back. Slowly allow your arms to extend to return the handles to the starting position.

Training Tips

  • Don’t jerk your body backward to complete the movement.
  • If you have a hard time keeping your torso upright, have a spotter put her knee on the bench right behind your back so your entire torso is lightly touching her thigh. Don’t allow your back to deviate from this position.
  • Experiment with different attachments and grips to vary your workout and the muscular emphasis.
  • Thread a towel through the cable handle and grasp that to improve your grip and make the exercise more difficult.

T-Bar Row

  • Beginner: Use a comfortably wide, overhand grip; start with the apparatus that has the chest pad. If a T-bar is not available, lie against a bench set at an incline and use a lightweight barbell.
  • Intermediate: Load the T-bar with moderate weight.
  • Advanced: Increase weight, and vary your grip each workout.

Like most other back exercises, this one can be done with one of several grips: narrow, wide, underhand and overhand. Place the appropriate amount of weight on the bar and straddle it with your feet just a little wider than hip-distance apart. Bend your knees, keep your back slightly arched, tighten your abs and grab the bar. Lift it off the support stand and lower the weight, fully extending your arms and allowing your upper back to stretch, inhale and pull the weight up, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top. Slowly return to the start position and repeat.

Training Tips

  • Keep your chest and head up.
  • Contract your abs and hold them tight throughout your set to help support your lower back,
  • Keep a slight arch in your lower back throughout the set.
  • Raise the weight all the way up to your chest, working through a full range of motion.
  • When using the unsupported T-bar machine, make sure you keep your lower body and spine stable, and move only at your shoulder and elbow joints.

Dumbbell Row

  • Beginner: Concentrate on form and use light weights, with one knee and the same-side hand on bench for stability.
  • Intermediate: Increase weight, keep both feet on the floor and hand only on bench.
  • Advanced: Knee on Swiss ball or standing on one leg.

For this free-weight exercise, form is everything. Start with your abs tight, your back flat and slightly arched, your head in a neutral position, looking at a point on the floor in front of you, and your body bent at the hips. Angle a bench lengthwise along a mirror so you can watch yourself with a slight turn of your head (but try to keep your head in the neutral position throughout most of the movement) With a dumbbell in your right hand, place your left knee on the bench. Bend over from the hips while keeping your back straight and place your left hand on the bench for support. With your right arm hanging toward the floor, start the row by squeezing your scapula and bringing the dumbbell all the way to your lower ribs. Slowly lower to a full stretch, and repeat for reps.

Training Tips

  • Remember to keep your abs tight, hold your low back in a slight arch and bend your body from the hips.
  • Use your upper-back muscles to lift the weight, not your arms.
  • Keep your arm close to your side during the entire movement.
  • When progressing to where you have both feet on the floor, use a split stance to improve your stability and help you maintain correct form.
  • Standing on one leg will improve balance and strengthen muscles in your hips and glutes.

Lat Pull-Down

  • Beginner: Light weight with straight bar.
  • Intermediate: Heavier weight, alternate cable attachments.
  • Advanced: Unilaterally (one arm at a time).

A lot of controversy exists over whether it’s safe to perform pull-downs behind the neck. If you have no pre-existing problems and you follow the proper form, behind-the-neck pull-downs can be beneficial for adding width to your upper lats. The excessive external rotation required, however, is potentially dangerous to the shoulder joints and neck. For this reason, we suggest that you stick to pulling down to the front when learning this exercise and incorporating it into your workout for the first time. Start by taking an overhand grip on the pull-down bar slightly wider than shoulder width. Sit down and position your thighs under the pads, keeping your feet flat back slightly arched and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull the bar down to your upper chest, pause and return to the start position. Repeat for reps.

Training Tips

  • Do not use your entire body to assist with the movement.
  • When releasing the bar upward, allow your arms to fully straighten and shoulders to rise before dropping your shoulders and pulling the bar back down.
  • Experiment with different attachments and grips to vary your workout and the muscular emphasis.

Confidence emanates from a woman who holds her head and chest high and her shoulders back.

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