Top 5 training tips to enhance upper back development

By Trevor Flowers, Fitness Manager, Fitness First Motor City 

The upper back is one of the most complex muscle groups in the body. It consists of the latisimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids. Each having their individual roles that make up the entire structure of the back.  The muscle fibres all run in different directions, which means you have to train smart to get a well-developed back.

1 – Mind-to-muscle connection

When carrying out any back exercise it is always important you do so with a good mind-to-muscle connection.  Actively contracting your upper back muscles whilst performing each exercise will help develop a great structure to your back. Leave your ego at the door and lower the weight in order to achieve a good mind-to-muscle connection. Think about when you hit a nail with a hammer: You put your focus on the nail (What you are trying to hit), and not on the hammer (How hard you are trying to hit it).

2 – Lat activation

It is important to activate the lats as you initiate each exercise.  A good example where this is important is with pull ups or pull downs.  Retract your scapula back and down, which activates the latisimus dorsi.  Next time you do lat pull downs, try activating your lats by locking the elbows and moving the bar only 6-10 inches purely by retracting your shoulder blades back and down.  Repeat this for 15 reps before you even pull the bar to your chest, and you will certainly feel some lat activation.

3 – Pull with the back

In most compound back exercises, it is inevitable you will also incorporate secondary muscle groups, such as biceps, deltoids, and even forearms.  In order to minimise other muscle groups taking over in the movement, you need to imagine pulling the weight just with your back and not the arms.  To do this a great tip is to imagine your hands are hooks and the back muscles are initiating the movement (not your arms).  Try not to wrap your thumbs around the bar, which will reduce the forearms contracting through the exercises.

4 – Vary the angle of your Elbows

To get good width and thickness in the back muscles it is vital that you mix up the elbow angles in your routine.  Exercises, where your elbows are wide, will put a focus on the back width (think of wide grip pull ups).  Exercises, where your elbows are closer to the body, will put focus on the back thickness (think of narrow grip cable rows)

5 – Isolate then Annihilate

A great way to finish off your back workouts is to superset two exercises back-to-back to get a deep burn, and pre-exhaust your back muscles.  Here’s a great example: Superset straight arm pulldowns with 1½ rep cable rows.  This uses an isolation exercise to fire up the latisimus dorsi (straight arm pulldowns), then the cable rows done with 1½ reps will give you a double contraction to well and truly finish off your back.

Be sure to include these tips in your next back workout to develop a well sculpted upper back.