Back Anatomical Training Guide by Thats_Justice
The back is composed of a lot of muscles. To simplify things, I’m going to split the back into three sections; the trapezius/traps, the upper back, and the latissimus dorsi/lats (lower back will be covered under the core blog).
- Originate (start) on the C7- T12 vertebrae
- Insert (attach) on the lateral aspect of the clavicle (collar bone), and on the acromion and spine of the scapula
- The traps are separated into 3 sections; the upper, middle, and lower fibres
- The lats have many origins. These include, but are not limited to: the T7 – L5 vertebrae, iliac crest of the sacrum, and the inferior angle of the scapula
- They insert on the humerus/upper arm
- A very interesting fact about the lats is that they are the only muscle that are attached to both the upper limb (arm) and the lower body (hip)
The upper back consists of various muscles:
- The rhomboid major and minor originate on the T2-T5 and C7-T1 vertebrae, and attach on themedial border of the scapula
- The teres major and teres minor originate on the lateral border of the scapula, and attach on the humerus
- The infraspinatus and supraspinatus originate on the infraspinous fossa and supraspinous fossaof the scapula, and attach on the humerus
- Remember that the traps have upper, middle, and lower fibres. Each of these fibres play a specific role, giving the trapezius muscle many roles
- The upper fibres primarily elevate the scapula
- The middle fibres primarily retract the scapula
- The lower fibres depress the scapula
- Another function of the traps is that they prevent humeral dislocation (they prevent your arm from popping out of your shoulder)
- The main function of the muscles of the upper back is to retract the shoulder blade
“I’ve seen guys with big arms and big pecs that weren’t that strong. But I’ve never seen a guy with a big back that wasn’t strong.”
This is one of my favorite quotes. A big, muscular back does not come without strength. I personally believe that to fully develop a big back, it is important to deadlift, squat, and even perform some of the Olympic lifts (cleans, snatches). Although the lifts stated above place a large emphasis on the lower body, the back plays a fundamental role while performing them. You’ll have a tough time finding a successful powerlifter or weightlifter that doesn’t have a large back.
But putting those lifts aside, back specific work is very important. A trick I use for almost all rowing movements is using a thumbless grip. A lot of people, myself included, have the tendency to pull more so with their arms rather than their back. Using a thumbless grip lets me envision my arms as hooks for my back, allowing me to really focus on contracting my back muscles rather than using my biceps to pull. Keep in mind that using a thumbless grip also requires higher grip strength in order to hold on to the bar.
Some people are taught that exercises using a wider grip will make your back wider, while a closer grip will make your back thicker. Although I am not aware of any scientific studies proving this, I believe it to be true. This is through anecdotal evidence I have witnessed in my own body, and many professional bodybuilders also vouch for this.
A back day for me consists of 4-5 lat movements, and 1-2 upper back movements (I train traps on my shoulder day).
For the average person, their trap routine goes no further than holding very heavy weight and barely shrugging it, moving their shoulder about a centimeter up and down. Although this can be fairly effective, there are ways to train this muscle that are much safer, and are much more efficient.
One of the most underrated exercises for developing the traps is deadlifts. One of the functions of the traps mentioned above is to keep the humerus attached to the shoulder. When you perform a deadlift, the traps are working like crazy to ensure that the weight you are holding on your hands doesn’t rip your arm out of its socket. Big deadlift numbers are often associated with big traps. Powerlifter Pete Rubish, who is well known for his monstrous deadlifts, is also well known for his cobra like traps
Going back to shrugs, it is important to recall the functions of all fibres of the traps. Remember that they not only elevate the shoulder, but they also retract the scapula. When doing shrugs, it is important to keep your shoulder blades retracted the entire time. Neglecting this will not only hinder your trap development, but it will also have a negative impact on your posture over time. Here is a good video explaining how to keep perform shrugs correctly. I have personally found Medows Shrugs to the best shrug variation to develop my traps. Paul Carter explains them here.
A very common mistake when doing shrugs is rolling your shoulders as you do them. This is not safe for your shoulders can result in injury very quickly.
The lats are one of the most important muscles in the body for healthy movement and athletic function. In almost any professional sport that involves a need for power or physical contact, you’ll see big lats. This is visible even in smaller fighters, like Manny Pacquiao.
90% of my back training revolves around my lats. When training them, it is important to perform both overhead movements, as well as rows in the horizontal plane.
If you clicked on the videos linked for the exercises above, you’ll notice that almost every single video is linked to Kai Greene. This was done intentionally because I believe Kai has perfected back training.
When you train a muscle, you need to stretch it, and then contract it. The lats are stretched when your arm moves overhead. It is important to apply this to your rows when you are targeting your lats. Kai demonstrates this perfectly in both his barbell and dumbbell rows. At the bottom of each rep, he lets the weight hang forward. You can see this here on his barbell row, and here on his dumbbell row. This type of movement lets you stretch the lats as much as you can during these exercises, which allows for a much better contraction when you pull the weight. You will also notice that he pulls the weight to his stomach. Again, this lets you contract the lats fully. When you pull the weight to your chest, you will be using your upper back at a higher scale than your lats. Here are thebarbell row and dumbbell row videos again.
Pull Ups are arguably the best lats exercise there is. You can fully stretch the lats through their range of motion and fully contract them as well. I like to super set these with lat pull downs. I like to alter my grip width for both of these exercises regularly to target different parts of my lats/back (yes, I know its broscience, but I believe in it). Most people believe that pullovers are primarily a chest exercise, but when done correctly, they are an excellent lats exercise. They are also a great way to teach yourself how to really “flare” your lats.
UPPER BACK TRAINING
I don’t spend a lot of time specifically on upper back training because I feel that it is hit sufficiently through all of my movements that are targeted for my lats. I usually perform one exercise specifically for my upper back.
The function of the upper back is specifically to retract the scapula. When you perform a row, it is important to really squeeze your shoulder blades together to fully work the muscles you want to. With people who are new to this concept, I like to put a finger in the middle of their back, and tell them to try and squeeze my finger with their shoulder blades with each rep. To fully maximize this, you can protract your scapula, as seen in image A, at the beginning of a row, which will fully stretch the upper back muscles, and then only squeeze the scapula together when you pull towards yourself.
- Splitting the back into upper back, lats, and traps
- When training traps, retract your shoulder blades, and then shrug
- Don’t roll your shoulders as you shrug
- Most of your back training should revolve around lats
- Watch Kai Greene’s form on dumbbell and barbell rows to learn how to fully engage the lats
- Upper back training should emphasize squeezing your scapula as hard as you can
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