The back is the largest single area of the body usually trained in one workout. It comprises a number of muscles, not always easily distinguished when viewed.
The best way of understanding these back muscles is to treat the back as having three sections: upper, mid and lower.
The Six of the Best for Back includes exercises for each of these areas.
The dominant muscle in the upper back is the trapezius, or ‘trap’, a triangular shaped muscle on each side of the spine which stretches from the base of the skull down to the lowest rib at the bottom thoracic vertebrae. It stretches out to form the triangle by attaching to the outer tip of the shoulder.
From the rear, the two traps form the large expanse at the top of the back; when viewed from the front, the prominent feature of the trapezius is the rise between the shoulder and neck. The functions of the traps relate to the shoulders and shoulder blades, elevating the scapula in a shrug motion and providing rearward movement in the same area.
Beneath the trapezius lie the rhomboid muscles which work with the traps in retracting the scapula. Although not visible directly as they are beneath the trapezius, well developed rhomboids add thickness to the upper back.
The major mid-section muscle is the latissimus dorsi, or ‘lat’. Another large pair of muscles, they are also triangles, stretching from the pelvis and lower vertebrae to the humerus bones on the upper arms.
Again it can be a huge area when viewed from the rear, the lats can be seen from the front as the ‘wings’ behind the armpits. The key functions of the lats are to pull the upper arms downwards, and also rearwards when the upper arms are vertical.
Finally, the back’s lower section is made up of some of the erector spinae muscles. These actually run along the whole length of the spine, but are most prominent in the lower region, where they both power the movement of arching backwards and providing stability for many other body movements.
The majority of back exercises involve contributions from all three sections, plus other muscle groups, especially the biceps and shoulders. The selection of exercises here is based on those where the back muscles are the prime movers in the exercise, relegating involvement from the other muscles groups into second place.
To give some variety, Six of the Best for Back includes exercises using a variety of equipment: dumbbells, barbells, cable-based machines and seated machines.
Upper Back – Barbell Upright Row
Upright rows are a fundamental exercise type targeting the trapezius muscles. They can be undertaken in many ways – with dumbbells, using both handles on a cable, using the long cross-bar on a cable, on a Smith machine, or – as in this variant – with a barbell.
I prefer using an EZ-curl bar as I find it easier on my wrists than a straight bar, but both do the same job. Shoulder muscles are also used in this exercise, use a narrow grip to minimise the contribution from the deltoids.
How to perform:
Stand upright with slightly soft legs, with the bar in front of you at arms’ length, and with hands close together. Smoothly raise the bar to chin level, allowing the elbows to come outwards and upwards. Hold for a second and squeeze at the top, then lower slower to the start position.
As in many standing free-weights exercises, there is a temptation to use legs and leaning to assist – and as always, ensure that only the body parts that are meant to move actually do move – so keep everything still apart from the movement at the shoulder.
This exercise targets the trapezius muscles specifically. Dumbbells are ideal for this exercise as they can be moved backwards and forwards alongside the body as well as up and down. This motion can also be achieved using both sides of a cable machine set in the lowest position.
Variants exist using barbells and the Smith machine, but these don’t allow the range of forward and rearward travel as the bar has to be either in front of the body or behind. The rotational aspect is possible with dumbbells provides the scapular retraction movement (as motion is rearwards) as well as scapular elevation in the initial lifting phase.
How to Perform:
Stand upright with legs not quite locked out and dumbbells at your sides, with your palms facing inwards. Under control – that is, without momentum – and without assistance from the legs, shrug the shoulders upwards as high as possible. Then pull the shoulders rearward.
The next phase of the rotation returns the dumbbells to the start position. It is very tempting to bend the elbows, as the brain sees this as a good way to get the dumbbells up higher, but try to avoid this and keep the arms straight.
Some gyms have a dedicated machine for this, but if one is not available, then a standard cable machine can be used with the pulley at the lowest setting and the feet against the vertical bar, one foot over the other.
The hand position is important as it drives the upper arm travel – this example has palms facing each other, which keeps the elbows down and therefore emphasizes the latissimus dorsi. An overhand grip leads to upper arms being raised and horizontal, and this would move the emphasis to the rear deltoids and traps. Finally, an underhand palms-up grip would add more biceps to the effort of the lats.
How to Perform:
Use the double grip handle attachment. Bend the legs to reach the handle, then straighten them, keeping arms straight, to reach the start position. From here, pull the arms back, keeping elbows down, not outwards. The lower arms remain parallel to the floor.
Resist the temptation to lean the body back to add extra travel – doing so adds some lower back effort and takes the focus away from the lats. Hold for a second at the maximum-pull position, then return more slowly and under control to the start position.
Legs can be locked out or slightly bent, but shouldn’t move during the exercise.
This exercise focuses on the lats, but is often performed with less than perfect form which diminishes the benefits to those muscles. In such cases, either focus is taken away from the latissimus dorsi, or a full range of movement is not achieved.
Ideally the bar comes down to touch the sternum with form still correct – that is with back and lower arms vertical. This is difficult for those with poor flexibility, and usually, one of three imperfections creep in – a lean back away from the vertical, stopping the motion short of touching, or rotating the lower arms forwards away from the vertical.
None of these is desirable, but the last one is the one I use as it gives some extra exercise to the rotator cuff. Hand spacing is important – the further apart the hands, the better for developing the outer section of the lats, which is the area that is the target for development with this exercise.
How to Perform:
Face the machine and hold the bar at the widest possible hand-spacing in an overhand grip. With arms outstretched above, sit and secure the knees under the roller. If this is adjustable, have it tighter rather than loser – a firm grip on the legs is ideal.
Sit either fully upright or very slightly leaning back (no more than 10 degrees), then pull the bar down vertically so that it touches the chest at the sternum. Ideally, do this without rotating the arms forwards or adding to the rearward lean.
Once touched on the chest, return the bar more slowly to the start position – in this case, of course, the ‘lower slower’ rule applies as the bar goes up – it is the descending weight stack that ‘lower slower’ refers to.
In Part 2 Chris Zaremba concludes his detailed study and instruction of back training
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