For years, upper back exercises have been packaged and sold as an antidote to sore shoulders, immovable shoulders, or even rounded shoulders (forward-leaning posture), which is often associated with high volumes of pressure exercises.
Ironically, most pulling exercises, especially bilateral (two-armed) ones that focus on pulling back the scapula, can actually steer you deeper into the same troubled waters. Fortunately, there is a simple solution.
Here’s how to build a muscular upper back that looks great and will help you move and feel better too.
Define the problem
The human body is made up of hot, moist, biological tissue that is very malleable. You put repetitive stress on a muscle and over time it changes shape and thickness to meet demands ̵
These adaptations lead to a tendency for certain tissues to overdevelop, which in turn is more globally reflected in a person’s posture. When you have a group of people who have exposed their tissues to essentially the same stresses for years or decades, common patterns emerge.
One of these patterns is excessive back extension, especially in people who do a lot of compound lifts primarily in the sagittal plane (e.g., squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and pull-ups). Think of the chest and rib cage pointing up and forward, a deep lumbar arch, and an anterior pelvic slope.
Most people are willing to compromise on getting really big and strong, but the cost is less variability of movement, muscle imbalance, and risk of injury.
Because of the mechanics of the shoulders and rib cage, an easy way to offset some of these costs while getting the workout moving forward is to replace some of your bilateral back exercises with unilateral exercises.
Here are some ideas to try:
1. Long sitting alternating row of cables
One of the most common problems encountered in people targeted for a back extension is a restriction on the sliding of the posterior humerus, which causes the humerus to push forward when the elbow retracts during shoulder extension exercises.
This happens during the back extension as all the muscles and bones on the back of your body move closer together creating a high pressure zone. Then when you try to bring your arm back – which is in some sort of mid-neutral zone – the high pressure blocks it, pushing the humerus forward towards the low pressure, and giving you the dimple on the back of your shoulder.
It’s just physics – the pressure moves from high to low, not the other way around.
By reaching forward with the opposite arm as you row back, you are effectively inserting a pressure relief valve into the upper back, allowing the humerus to move back with the rest of the shoulder complex.
2. Alternate rows supported by the chest
Here we use the same strategy, but this time we have passive support to facilitate expansion or decompression of the upper back. By lying on the bench on your chest, you create compression of the front ribs and chest, effectively preventing the airflow entering your lungs from moving your rib cage forward.
Instead, all of the air is pushed backwards, filling the back ribs, and serving as a stretch from within – like air that stretches a balloon and gives it shape.
In the video, I put a rolled-up towel under my stomach to keep my back from sticking out over the bench. I also squeeze my glutes to keep my pelvis tilted backwards – and mentally pull my back pockets towards the hollow of my knees.
3. One arm lat pulldown
Traditional lat pulldowns are a great exercise for building muscle mass, but like all bilateral shoulder extension exercises, they overlook a fundamental truth of human movement: our bodies are designed to move around one another.
This is evident when you think of lower body movements like walking and running. We are upright, two-legged animals that use reciprocal gait patterns and stretchy, elastic fabrics to move us through space.
The same applies to the upper body. Our lats weren’t designed for us to do pull-ups or rows of machines. We are specially designed for climbing and running, both of which take place alternately. Remember to climb a ladder or sprint from a hungry lion – with built-in contributions from the abdominal muscles to flex and twist sideways.
And here’s a variation that uses weights on both sides, switching sides for each rep.
4. One-armed row of dumbbells
Here’s a small but important twist on a classic. Most people don’t pay attention to posture or arm during a row of dumbbells. As a result, the shoulder blade is often seen protruding in the back, with the back ribs falling forward to the ground, like an inwardly collapsing roof.
This causes the front ribs to push forward, rotating further towards the non-working side, and creating more pressure between the shoulder blades.
A better variation is to use the stand arm as a post, like on a push-up above. This brings the serratus anteriorly and internally obliquely into the exercise, which serve to pull the rib cage back from front to back, releasing the oar arm for more natural movement.
I also raised my standing leg to make it easier to stay centered over the bench without twisting.
Remember why you need these exercises
While strong vertical and horizontal bilateral pulls are important in building muscle mass and strength for the upper back and lats, they don’t have magical ratios of push and pull to balance each other out.
If you want to add more flexibility to your shoulders and torso, work on an injury, or just want to add novelty, check the boxes for reciprocal movements of the upper back.
Related: The 6 Mandatory Angles for a Big Back
Related: 4 Lat Building Exercises That You Have Never Tried