There is a great debate amongst trainers and strength coaches when it comes to training movements or training muscle groups. Bodybuilders will typically categorize their workouts using muscle groups (back, chest, legs, arms, shoulders, abs), while some trainers and strength coaches prefer movement patterns (push, pull, squat, hinge, carry). While I prefer using movement patterns for strength training, there is still something to be said for training certain areas of the body (muscle groups) to build a durable, strong and muscular body.
One area of the body that could use some extra attention is the upper back. The core muscle group area gets a lot of attention for a good reason. A solid core will help provide a strong foundation to build off of. We know that having sufficient core strength and stability will help with all of our other movements and lifts (powerlifts, running, sprinting, etc.) But what about the upper-back? This area of the body carries a heavy load for many lifts and sports. Think Olympic lifts, powerlifts, throwing, and contact sports.
In the past, bodybuilders and athletes relied on building their traps and upper-back with shrugs, shrugs and more shrugs. But there is a better way to do this without even using various shrug variations. You also have to take into account keeping the surrounding areas of the upper-back area healthy and strong, not just the traps. This will allow you to keep those rotator cuffs strong for various lifts and sporting movements. I am sure just about everyone reading this has either had or knows someone who has torn a rotator cuff muscle from either sport or too much bench pressing.
One of the easiest ways to improve your overall physique is to grow a pair of big, durable traps and upper-back (rhomboids, scapular area, rear deltoids). A huge set of traps and upper-back area demand respect from those around you. It’s not just about having a bigger bench. with the display of a big, powerful upper-back and trap area.
Athletes such as football players, Olympic lifters, powerlifters, rugby players, wrestlers, and even hockey players typically have a robust upper-back. This is both for durability and strength. But you don’t have to be one of these athletes in order to build a strong upper back. In fact, I implement a lot of upper-back and trap training in almost all of my client’s workouts, regardless of their goals (fat loss, building muscle, general fitness, sports performance.) This is because, with a strong, functional upper-back, it allows us to train harder with big lifts and protect the shoulders from injury.
So if you want to build a huge upper-back that will give you both a great looking physique and protect you from getting injured in the weight room and on the playing field, ditch chest day and start pulling more weight with this routine.
There are a few exercises that are best to get the job done here. Let’s break them down a bit before we dive into the routine.
Hang Power Clean
Olympic lifters typically have a well-developed upper-back and trap area from all of the pulling that they do under the bar. The hang power clean is an explosive exercise that will tap into your Type IIb muscle fibers. During the first pull, you want a tight upper-back to get the weight from the hang position to the rack position. You must squeeze your upper-back by pulling your scapula down and back with the mid-traps and rhomboid area. The “shrug” motion is also needed to accomplish full extension during the lift. The fast and heavy nature of the lift is sure to nail every muscle fiber in the upper back. Make sure to do this first in the routine when energy stores are high, as it will take a lot out of you.
TRX I, Y, T
This exercise does not get enough credit. The TRX strap is sometimes thought of being a supplemental or even a beginner exercise tool. This is far from the truth. When done correctly, this exercise will tap into every muscle fiber in the upper back. Your rear delts, upper and lower trapezius, rhomboids, scapular muscles and even a little bit of your core will all need to work together to perform the movement. Not only will this build a ton of muscle but it is also one of the best exercises to build a durable shoulder girdle to help prevent injury and offset all of the pressing movements that most of us like to do.
This exercise can be considered somewhat as an “isolation” exercise as you should not use a ton of weight. This exercise should be done within the 10-15-rep range with a lot of holding, squeezing and contracting. It helps put the shoulders through the natural glenohumeral rhythm that it needs to work the traps, rhomboids and external rotators of the shoulder. A shoulder saver, posture builder and upper-back muscle builder all in one.
I wrote an article here on all of the wonderful benefits of the farmers carry. This is your one-stop shop exercise for a strong, huge and durable upper-back. It helps build work capacity, hip and core strength and a plethora of other benefits. If you need just ONE exercise to build a great upper-back and trap area, this is it.
Perform this routine 1-2 times a week along with your current strength and conditioning routine. Keep in mind that this is a specialization routine to target the upper-back and trap area, so it can be included in any current routine you are doing.
Exercise Sets Reps Rest Period
*Power Hang Clean 5 3 2-3 minutes
TRX I, Y, T 3 6-8 ea. 1-2 minutes
Face Pulls 3 10-15 1-2 minutes
**Farmers Carry 1 100-yards
- *Perform a few warm-up sets as needed. Use around 75-85% of your 1 rep max
- ** Pick a weight where you would struggle to walk about 50-yards. A pair of dumbbells or kettlebells will do. Try and put the weights down as minimal as possible during the 100-yard carry.
Time To Train
Forget about the “isolation” and “movement pattern” debates on the Internet. If you want to build a huge and strong upper-back and trap area that turns heads on the street and in the weight room, use this specialty routine to get the job done.
Justin Grinnell is the Owner of State of Fitness in East Lansing, Michigan. State of Fitness opened up just four years ago and is already one of the leading training facilities in the Midwest. State of Fitness has over 450 members who train every day under his leadership. In addition to being a facility owner, Justin has his own blog at www.grinnelltraining.com (link below), and has been a featured writer for over 6 years in the magazine Healthy & Fit and is a writer for Muscle & Fitness.