It seems your lower back often gets put through the wringer, but not much credit is given to the muscles of the upper back. Lat pulldowns and seated rows go a long way toward sculpting the upper back, but even these basic exercises can be varied to add even more to your arsenal. Mix and match exercises and grip widths to yield an upper back worthy of your best backless dress.
Anatomy of the Upper Back
The majority of visible muscles in the upper back start at the neck and shoulder region and extend down into the area of the upper back. The major muscle that blankets the center of the upper back is the trapezius. This diamond-shaped muscle covers a large portion of the back extending down as far as the middle of the spine and all the way up to the base of the skull. Other visible muscles include the infraspinatus, the teres major and the rear deltoids, which are all part of the shoulder family though they appear at the outer edges of the upper back. The rhomboids are back muscles in and of themselves that work to stabilize the shoulder blade and nestle beneath the cozy blanket of the trapezius. The latissimus dorsi — or lats- -- are also independent back muscles that cover the rear of the rib cage on either side.
The lat pulldown is an “old faithful” exercise that targets the lats. Using a wide grip focuses work across the entire shoulder girdle as well as putting an extra squeeze on the small muscles of the rear shoulder. However, there are multiple versions of the lat pulldown you can play with that place emphasis on different sections of the upper back. Taking an underhand grip on the pulldown bar shifts the focus to the lower part of the lats. Using a narrow grip with either a triangle attachment or two, or independent cable handles also shifts the focus to the lower lats while still targeting the rear shoulder muscles at the bottom of the motion. Straight-arm pulldowns are another option that keep the focus up high at the center of the back while still waking up the lats.
As with the lat pulldowns, the seated row has several incarnations that move the focus of the exercise higher or lower on the back. The traditional narrow grip immediately spreads the “wings” of the lats with the first pull. Attaching a lat bar to the cable and taking a wide grip instead with the same motion shifts the work to the upper lats and muscles at the center of the back. The farther behind you can pull your elbows while keeping the elbows parallel to the floor, the deeper you’ll be able to nail the upper lats. Keeping strict form by pulling the shoulder blades together and puffing out the chest while using either a wide or narrow grip ensures your efforts go to the rhomboids and trapezius at the center of the upper back as well.
Always be sure to start any weight training properly warmed up with light cardio and stretching. Since many back exercises involve pulling the elbows back behind the shoulders, be sure proper form is used with each exercise to prevent rotator cuff injuries or strains and pulls to the neck. Ask a fitness professional about proper form if you’re not sure and start conservative with the amount of weight you move, especially if you’re just starting out.
- Human Anatomy and Physiology; Elaine N. Marieb
- The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding; Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Bodybuilding.com: Back Training: What Exercises Do You Need to Perform?
- MuscleMag: Wide-Grip Seated Row vs. Close-Grip Seated Row
Jullie Chung writes regularly for various websites. She is a nationally certified fitness trainer and performance enhancement specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and trains regularly in yoga, flatwater kayaking, boxing and mixed martial arts. An avid outdoor fan, she regularly hikes, climbs and trail runs.