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Virtually everyone who trains-young, old, male, female, recreational, competitive- wants to build his or her upper back to its fullest potential. That's because upper- back development gives your physique a pleasing
taper, and it's one way to balance a relatively wide lower body Most clothing styles accentuate a tapered loot so a developed upper back lets you display your physique in your day-to-day life.
Upper-back training presents some problems, however, including the fact that you can't really see the area when you're exercising it. Other difficulties are due to the complexity and size of this bodypart and the paramount need to focus and concentrate when training it. When I say "upper back," I mean the middle of the upper back, not the lats. If we could watch this bodypart move when we trained it, most of us would have more development.
The lack of visual feedback means that the feel of the movement-that is, the stretching and contracting of the upper back is most critical. Almost any upper-back exercise becomes a moderately effective biceps and forearm movement and a minimally effective upper-back movement if you don't concentrate and focus on the target muscles.
Because it's a large bodypart, the upper back won't get sufficient work if you use only one or two exercises. Performing a variety of movements seems to facilitate more development even though in reality there's considerable overlap. The most difficult lesson about upper-back training I've had to learn is that relying on brute force undermines your efforts. Powering your way through the exercises often fails to involve the upper back adequately and, worse, can lead to some serious injuries. My experience with two basic movements illustrates this point.
Barbell rows is the traditional exercise for working the entire upper back area. Many of us can eventually use some pretty impressive weights on this movement, but it's a mistake to focus only on piling on the plates. If you don't fully control the bar, your upper- back involvement will be minimized. A heavy weight will probably force you into a fully stretched position but will probably also prevent you from really contracting your upper-back muscles. When you think about that for a moment it makes the usual hardcore gym approach to barbell rows-that you should stand on a block or bench nonsensical.
Unless you have incredibly long arms, you'll easily reach the full stretch position. Most of us have experienced difficulty in the fully contracted position, which has more to do with remaining stable-feet planted, knees slightly bent-and using a reasonable weight. If a weight is too heavy, you compromise the movement by shortening it when you thrust your legs or lower back and move your upper body down to meet the bar. I've used all these tricks over the years, and they all negate effective barbell rowing. Furthermore, while you can perform this movement safely with even moderately heavy weights, using excessive poundages and compensating movements to propel the weight sets the stage for serious lower-back problems.
Close-grip pulldowns performed on a triangular bar, with the palms facing each other, have taught me a similar lesson. If you're very secure in the seat on a pulldown machine that is, there's a brace for your knees and you just power the weight stack down, it's comparatively easy to use a lot of weight, meaning more than 150 to 170 percent of your bodyweight. Those large poundages are sure to spark your ego and impress training partners and gym regulars. Unfortunately, the results will often be some biceps and forearm development, minimum upper-back development and shoulder injuries.
While it's still important to be secure and stable in the seat, you must think of your arms as links only, connections to your upper back. By focusing on the target muscles, you can ensure that a good deal more of the work is supplied by your upper back, Of course, it's impossible to eliminate your arms From the action altogether, but by focusing this way, you can go a long way toward making the exercise more effective. Leaning back as you go into this movement, with your upper body at a 60 degree angle at the bottom when your hands are at your upper chest-can further emphasize the upper back, depending on how you do it.
It you hold your torso steady and aim for a full contraction rather than swinging into it and creating momentum, the lean will do the trick. Once again, the key is to use moderately heavy weights that you can control. Moderately heavy' in this case can include son-re considerable poundages. Correct upper-back training is quite simply hard work. Over the years I've found myself doing it at a slower and slower pace taking more dine between sets. This pace enables me to concentrate better, lifting respectable weights in good form.
Over the years I've also experimented with different movements and various combinations of exercises for upper back. The following routine, I believe, is organized logically for a modified pre-exhaustion, working the target area from top to bottom. Perform the following movements for the designated number of warmup sets and one hard work set, taking an average of 2 1/2 minutes between sets. Your reps may depend on your training cycle, but I've found that 12 to 15 works especially well for upper back. In addition, I do a lot of stretching between sets.