Good back development gives your body symmetry and adds stability and balance to your shoulder joints, which in turn prevents injury and overuse problems. Slippery Rock University scientists, led by Dr. J.C. Barlow, found that most athletes do not have balanced muscle development and are usually inflexible because they do only a few exercises and neglect the rest. The athletes showed muscle imbalances and restricted flexibility during a variety of shoulder and back movements, even though they were much stronger than the average person.
The back is subdivided into the upper, middle and lower back. To build the back optimally, you should know the major muscles, their actions, and which exercises build muscles best. Scientific studies using electromyography (EMG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) show us how these muscles work and which exercises work best for building them.
The surface muscles of the upper back include the trapezius and posterior deltoids. These muscles give height and breadth to back development and are discussed in part two of this article.
The mid-back muscles include the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids and teres major. The low back muscles are called collectively the erector spinae, and include the longissimus, spinalis, and iliocostalis.
The lats are attached to the upper end of the arm bone (humerus) at one end and fan out down the length of the spine to the pelvis. The latissimus dorsi extends the shoulder, which means it pulls the arm downward toward the hips. During pull-ups, the lats raise the body toward the arms when the arms are fixed. These muscles also stabilize the trunk during large muscle lifts, such as squats and bench presses. Good exercises for the lats include pull-ups, lat pulls and pullovers.
The rhomboids (major and minor) run from the spine to the scapula (shoulder blades), the large, flat bone that attaches to the arm bone (humerus). When the rhomboids on both sides work together, the muscles squeeze the shoulder blades together. The rhomboids draw the scapula toward the spinal column. The teres major muscle connects the scapula (shoulder blade) to the humerus (upper arm bone). This muscle moves the humerus backward, meaning it brings the arm toward the back. The rhomboids and teres major work together to move the arms backward during movements such as rowing. Exercises that build these muscles include rear deltoid raises, seated cable rows, wide-grip lat pulls, pull-ups, bent-over rows and one-arm dumbbell rows.
The erector spinae muscles support and extend the spine. These muscles attach to the vertebrae, the ribs and the pelvis. Good exercises for these muscles include back hyperextensions, bird-dogs, deadlifts and good mornings. Well-developed spinal muscles look like you have two boa constrictors running up your back. Strong, symmetrical back muscles give balance to the shoulder joint by maintaining uniform tension on the front and back of the shoulder. This promotes joint health and prevents shoulder pain stemming from abnormal stresses on the joint.
LATS: UPPER BACK
Exercises for upper back width and detail
Wide Grip Pullups
Use a pull-up bar or assisted pull-up machine. Using a wide grip, grasp the bar with a pronated grip (palms away from your body) and hang with your elbows fully extended. Pull your body up until your collarbone reaches the bar. Return to the starting position and repeat. Use a spotter or assist machine if you can’t do 10 reps. Suspend weights from a weight belt when doing 10 reps becomes easy.
Grasp the bar with a wide grip. Sit on the seat with knees under the supports. Use a spotter if your lat machine does not have thigh supports. Start with arms and shoulders fully extended. Pull the bar steadily to your chest without jerking; then slowly return to the starting position.
Use a single dumbbell and lie on your upper back perpendicular to the bench. Your feet should be flat on the floor with your hips flexed slightly. Grasp the dumbbell around the nearest set of plates from behind and position it over your chest. Flex your elbows 15° to 30° during the exercise. Lower the dumbbell over and beyond your head until your upper arms are parallel to your head and torso. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Seated Reverse Barbell Rows
Sit on the edge of a bench with a barbell in front of your feet. Grasp the bar at shoulder width using a supine grip (palm facing up). Pull the bar to the middle of your chest. Lower the bar slowly to the starting position. Avoid this exercise if you have low-back pain.
MID-BACK: RHOMBOIDS AND TERES MAJOR
Exercises for thickness and density
One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
Lie facedown on a flat bench or incline board. With your palms facing inward (neutral grip), raise the dumbbell as high as you can to the side of your body. Hold at peak contraction then lower to starting position and repeat. Do this exercise unilaterally— one arm at a time— for best effect.
Seated Cable Rows
This exercise requires a cable rowing machine. Grasp the handles and place your feet on the rest in front of you. Extend your arms and legs fully; you should feel a stretch in your lats and rhomboids. Without jerking, pull the handles toward your chest, hold the contraction and return to the starting position. Try to pinch your shoulder blades together during the exercise.
Bent-Over Barbell Rows
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and grasp the bar with a wide, supine (overhand or palms away) grip. Bend your knees slightly. Bend forward at the waist until your upper body is slightly above parallel to the floor. Keep your back straight, abdominal muscles contracted, head up, and let the bar hang at arm’s length below you. Lift the bar upward until it touches your lower chest and then lower it to the starting position.
This exercise requires a T-bar machine. Lie on your front side with chest firmly on the pad and grasp a T-bar with arms fully extended. Pull the T-bar toward your chest, then return the bar slowly to the starting position.
LOW BACK: ERECTOR SPINAE
Exercises to strengthen and complete your back development
Use a hyperextension bench and an Olympic plate (25-45 pounds)— preferably one of the new plates with handles. Place your heels under the support and hang over the support at waist level. Hold the weight plate to your chest or put it on the back of your head. Start with the body straight; bend at the waist, keeping your spine rigid. Return to the starting position and hold. Move slowly on this exercise. Emphasize endurance over strength. This exercise is also very good for the hamstring muscles and will help improve whole-body lifts, such as deadlifts and squats.
Smith Machine Deadlifts
Put the weight on the lowest level of the machine. Grasp the bar at shoulder-width using either a supine (palms away) or deadlift grip (one hand going one way, the other hand going the other way). Your arms should be on the outside of your thighs. Keeping the weight close to the body and your spine as straight as possible, lift the weight to waist level. Return the bar to the starting position under control.
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