Chances are you don’t think about the muscles in your upper back as much as you do your hamstrings, glutes, and abs. These muscles may be an afterthought as you focus your efforts on chiseling a sculpted midsection or firm buttocks – but don’t be so quick to “give the cold shoulder” to some of the largest muscles in your body – the ones that make up your upper back. Ignoring them not only increases your risk for back pain or injury but can also make you look older.
How do weak upper back muscles age you? For one, they affect your posture. When these muscles lack strength, your shoulders tend to fall forward and round. Think about all the hours you spend hunched over a desk during the day. Over time, your back begins to round and your posture is thrown off balance. Just as concerning is the fact that forward-falling shoulders weaken the muscles in your rotator cuff and increase your risk for injury when you perform exercises that target your shoulders.
With a weak upper back, instead of standing proud and tall, you take on the silhouette of someone who’s older. Not to mention, weak back muscles cause your abdominal muscles to protrude more than they should, destroying the ab flatness you work so hard to achieve through training. See how a weak link in the chain can throw your whole body off balance?
Don’t forget the muscles in your back, like the trapezius and latissimus dorsi, are large muscle groups and training them burns more calories than working small muscle groups like your biceps and triceps. Now you have even more incentive to work your upper back.
Review of Some of the Muscles of Your Upper Back
The biggest muscles in your back are your latissimus dorsi, often referred to as the “lats.” Lats are V-shaped muscles that begin just below your shoulders and attach to your thoracic spine and ribs. Bending over a computer all day causes these muscles to tighten and your lats and the posterior part of your deltoid muscles to round. On the plus side, regularly working these muscles with strengthening and stretching exercises helps prevent this problem while improving your posture. You call the lats into play when you do lower body exercises like squats and deadlifts and during everyday activities like cleaning the house and lifting objects, so make sure they’re strong.
Back-up support for the lats is the teres major muscle that originates from the lower portion of your scapula and attaches to the humerus, your upper arm bone. This muscle helps the latissimus dorsi perform its functions. The teres major, with the assistance of the latissimus dorsi, has several functions. It extends your arm at the shoulder, pulls it in towards your body, and allows it to rotate medially. Even smaller in size is the teres minor muscle that lies just below the teres major and connects the lateral part of your scapula, or shoulder blade, to your upper arm or humerus. The teres minor rotates your arm outward.
The other major muscle group that covers most of your upper back is the two trapezius muscles. Shaped like a diamond, the lower portion of these muscles stabilizes your shoulder blades (scapula), while the upper part is important for moving your neck. You also use your trapezius muscles when you shrug your shoulders. If you suffer from neck pain, strengthening these muscles can help correct the problem. Strong “traps” are also important for success in sports, especially sports that involve throwing a ball.
The rhomboids are an upper back muscle that connects your shoulder blade, or scapula, to your spine. Rhomboids are important posture muscles because they pull your shoulders back, giving you a more upright, youthful appearance. When they’re weak or under-developed, your shoulders round and fall too far forward.
Strengthening Your Upper Back Muscles
When working your upper back muscles, make sure you’re training them in a balanced manner. For each pushing exercise, you do targeting these muscles, balance it with a pulling exercise.
Exercises that Target Your Trapezius Muscles
Thoracic extensions – lie face down on the mat with arms at side, squeeze shoulder blades together and lift head and upper chest off the floor. Hold for 5 seconds.
Exercises that Target Your Latissimus Dorsi
Bent-over Rows – neutral grip and reverse grip
Lying barbell pullover
Exercises for Teres Major and Teres Minor Muscles
One-arm dumbbell rows
Exercises for Rhomboids
Resistance band pull-backs
If you sit at a desk most of the day, have poor posture or have tension and tightness in your upper back or neck, make sure you’re targeting these problems by strengthening the muscles in your upper back. Even if you don’t, working these muscles will help your performance when you do other exercises and prevent future problems.
Don’t forget to stretch the muscles in your upper back. Here’s an effective stretch you can do after a workout or when you take a break at work. Bend your arms at your elbows. Raise your elbows on each side until they’re even with your shoulders. Slowly extend your elbows back behind you, bringing them as close together as you comfortably can. Hold the stretch for 10 to 15 seconds.
The Bottom Line?
Give the muscles in your upper back the attention they deserve by strengthening them and stretching them regularly. Doing so will give you better posture and reduce your risk for neck and back pain. It’ll also lower your risk for injury when you do other weight-training exercises.
Fitness RX. February 2015. page 89.
Your Miraculous Back: A Step-By-Step Guide to Relieving Neck & Back Pain. Gerald Silverman D.C. (2006)
Medical Art Library. “Upper Back Muscles”
The Pain Center of Arizona. “Upper Back Pain – Anatomy of the Back”
Strength Training Anatomy. Third Edition. Frederic Delavier. (2010)
Related Articles By Cathe:
Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs: