A strong upper back is arguably THE most important physical attribute for any strength endeavor. You can have monstrously strong legs, but without a strong back, you’ll never squat or deadlift impressive weight. And no matter how big your arms are chest are, you’ll still look like a weenie in a t-shirt if your lats and traps are tiny.
The upper back can handle a ton of training volume. It takes a lot of sets and reps to make your upper back grow. But here’s the problem: all the other muscles (biceps, forearms, deltoids) and joints (wrists, elbows, shoulders) involved in many upper back exercises can get beat up if you do too much hard-and-heavy upper back work.
The solution? Sneak more upper back training into your workouts with these not-so-obvious methods:
1. DEADLIFT TWICE A WEEK
Nothing builds the back like deadlifts, which is saying something because your back works isometrically while deadlifting (i.e. it doesn’t move, it just holds a static position). If you’ve only been training the deadlift once a week, try pulling twice a week instead.
Few people can handle deadlifting heavy more than once a week, so if you’re doubling up, go heavy for low volume (between 10 and 20 total working reps) one day, then go lighter the second day. The simple benefit of warming up to deadlift twice a week will significantly increase your upper back volume too without wearing you out.
Another option is to do a less-intense deadlift variation on the second day, such as:
- Trap bar deadlifts
- Block pulls/rack pulls
- Romanian deadlifts
2. LOADED CARRIES
It’s hard to overstate the awesomeness of picking up heavy stuff and carrying it around. Farmer’s walks and overhead carries of all types will build your upper back, improve shoulder stability and strengthen your core all at once. They also fit nicely into upper- or lower-body sessions, so you have plenty of freedom to do them in almost any workout.
Try doing a farmer’s walk variation on lower body days…
…then an overhead carry on upper body days.
3. CONCENTRIC-ONLY EXERCISES
Exercises that are concentric-only (i.e. there’s no “lowering” phase) can be done for lots of volume because they don’t make you nearly as sore or fatigued as movements that use a slow eccentric.
If you’re used to rowing variations that have you lower the bar down slowly, try adding in more rows that only focus on the “up” portion, like:
- Pendlay rows
- Rack rows
- Sled rows
4. LIGHT PULLING BETWEEN PRESSING EXERCISES
I’m a big fan of doing light, low-level pulling exercises between sets of heavy presses such as the bench press or overhead press. I think of it as a continuation of the warm-up where I focus on my mid traps, lower traps and rotator cuff.
The following exercises are light enough to be non-fatiguing while still warming up the muscle groups opposite to those used during presses:
- Band pull-aparts
- Prone trap raises
- Face pulls (with band or cables and an emphasis on external rotation)
SAMPLE 4-DAY PROGRAM
Here’s an example of a 4-day lifting routine that utilizes these methods to beef up the upper back volume:
Day 1 – Lower Body
A1. Squat – 5 sets x 3-5 reps
A2. Prone Trap Raise off incline bench – 3 sets x 8 reps
B1. Romanian Deadlift – 4 sets x 6 reps
C1. Barbell Reverse Lunges – 3 sets x 8 reps/side
C2. DB Farmer’s Walks – 3 sets x 40 yards
D1. Ab Wheel Rollouts – 3 sets x 10 reps
Day 2 – Upper Body
A1. Bench Press – 5 sets x 3-5 reps
A2. Cable Face Pulls – 3 sets x 20 reps
B1. Rack Rows (bar at midshin) – 4 sets x 8 reps
B2. 1-arm DB Rows – 4 sets x 10 reps/side
C1. Lat Pulldowns – 3 sets x 12 reps
C2. DB Triceps Extensions – 3 sets x 15 reps
Day 3 – Lower Body
A1. Deadlift – 4 sets x 2-4 reps
A2. Prone Trap Raise off stability ball – 3 sets x 8 reps
B1. Block Pulls off 3 mats – 3 sets x 3-5 reps
C1. Glute Ham Raises – 3 sets x 8 reps
C2. 1-arm DB Farmer’s Walks – 3 sets x 40 yards/side
D1. Hanging Leg Raises – 3 sets x 12 reps
Day 4 – Upper Body
A1. Close Grip Bench Press – 4 sets x 8-12 reps
A2. Band Pull-Aparts – 3 sets x 20 reps
B1. Chest-Supported Rows – 4 sets x 8 reps
B2. 1-arm DB Waiter’s Walk – 4 sets x 40 yards/side
C1. Triceps Pushdowns – 3 sets x 20 reps
C2. DB Hammer Curls – 3 sets x 12 reps
D1. Sled Rows – 10 minutes with moderate weight (continuous)
This program utilizes all the above methods to add in lots of volume to build your traps, lats and midback. Like what you see but want customized programming? Apply for my online coaching program today.