Upper Back and Shoulder Exercises
Upper Back and Shoulder Exercises
Looking to gain strength, build muscle, and even improve your bench? Start with these exercises for your upper back and shoulders.
It probably makes sense to start out by explaining that the upper body section of the posterior chain includes your upper back & shoulders, both of which are keys to great posture and deceleration of your arm during the throwing motion. They also play an important role in shoulder joint-stability & scapula function which can reduce your risk of rotator cuff injuries and shoulder separations. However, I think it should also be noted (especially for our “chest enthusiasts”) that having a strong, well-developed back will not only help increase your bench press (as you’ll have a better surface to press off of) but will also make you look better at the beach. Not too shabby if I may say so myself.
At the University of Washington, we use 4 exercises to strengthen the upper back and shoulder area; overhand grip lat pulldown, DB 1-arm row, bent over barbell row and DB posterior delt raise. We also use two bodyweight exercises in our training; however, Coach DeMayo has done a great job explaining those exercises already, so make sure you check out his articles on the Inverted Row and Pull-up.
Ok so let’s start from the top, shall we? Ever want that V-shape that some of your favorite athletes have? Well, the Overhand Grip Lat Pulldown is where that begins. This exercise is a great for strengthening the upper back and will have a direct impact on your speed and arm strength. Just make sure you keep these points in mind when trying to get yourself a pair of T.O. “wings”:
- Adjust the seat so you are able to fully extend your arms.
- Select a weight that is light enough you can maintain upright posture, but heavy enough to recruit all muscles.
- Pull the bar down to just below the chin, and slowly extend the arms with control until they are full extended.
The next major component of the top of your posterior chain is your upper back. Whether you’re looking to dominate the tug-a-war competition at your local strongman competition (I mean, who doesn’t dream of that?) or pull down a speedy running back from behind, both will require your ability to pull. Two great exercises that’ll help increase your ability to pull are the DB 1-Arm Row and the Bent-Over Barbell Row.
Here’s a quick review of key points to remember when performing the DB 1-Arm Row:
- Select a DB you can handle with great control while maintaining great posture.
- Start with 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps on each arm; as you increase the weight, drop your reps to 3-5 reps and increase your sets to 4-5.
- Set your feet about 12 inches apart and parallel to each other.
- Keeping your back straight, bend at the waist and place one hand on a sturdy object.
- Reach down grab the dumbbell off the ground and pull the DB to your chest, keeping your elbow tight to your body.
- Pause for 1 second and lower the dumbbell down to a hanging/suspended position.
Now that we’ve got that covered, try to keep these in mind when getting after some Bent-Over Barbell Row reps:
- Start with an unloaded bar for 2-3 sets x 6-8 reps, once comfortable with the exercise, increase the number of sets to 4-5 and drop the reps to 4-6 as you increase weight.
- Your feet should be parallel and 12-15 inches apart.
- Slightly bend your knees as you bend at the waist until the chest is parallel to the floor.
- With arms hanging, pull the bar upwards until the bar touches the base of the chest. Maintain a straight/flat back the entire time.
- Lower the bar back to the starting position.
Now that we’ve got your upper back and lats out of the way, let me give an example of why building strength in the back of your shoulders with exercises like the Posterior Delt Raise is so important.
You’re the QB, the ball is snapped and the receiver runs a slant route, the corner back jumps the route so the receiver cuts outside and heads for the post route. What do you do? Pump fake, and throw the out route for a touchdown. During the pump fake, your arm accelerates, but has to quickly decelerate, and reload so you can throw the long ball. The back of the shoulder (poster deltoid) is what decelerates the arm and allows you the ability to reload quickly.
The Posterior Delt Raise is a great exercise that will help strengthen this muscle and help you in any sport that requires some sort of throwing motion. So take these key points into consideration and get after it:
- Start with dumbbells weighing 2-3 lbs for 1-2 sets x 10-12 reps.
- Stance is feet parallel and 12-15 inches apart.
- Slightly bend the knees as you bend at the waist until the chest is parallel to the floor.
- With your arms hanging down, swing them outwards until they are parallel to the floor. Keep your chest parallel to the floor and your low back flat.
- Pause at full extension, then return to the start position
Will you see any the benefits of doing these exercises the next time you get caught staring at yourself in the mirror? Perhaps not. But will you be a build muscle, gain strength, and become a better athlete because of them? Most definitely. So work on these back exercises, take them seriously, and you’ll see the results where they really matter… on the field.
To maximize your muscle and strength gains when using these posterior chain exercises 1R would recommend the following supplements:
- Cytosport L-Glutamine - Needed for immune system support, energy production, and the building and protection of the lean muscle mass when stress is increased on the body
- Optimum Nutrition BCAA 5000 Powder – Adding this product to your pre or post-workout routine will help build lean muscle mass, increase protein synthesis, and improve energy levels
- Cytosport Creatine - By increasing your body's ATP production creatine will help you become more explosive, more powerful, and more athletic when taken before or after lifts
About the Author
Hans Straub is currently an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Stanford University football team. Prior to that Hans was an assistant strength & conditioning coach at the University of Washington where he oversaw the training protocols for Softball, Baseball & Women’s Volleyball. A 2002 graduate in Kinesiology from Towson University (MD), Hans is currently a certified CSCS from the NSCA and Club Coach certified with USA-Weightlifting. He is also pursuing his Master’s Degree in Exercise Science from the University of Texas at El Paso via their online program.
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