The Definitive Guide to an Upper Back That Looks Good AND Performs Well

By February 25, 2017Blog

HINT: THIS WILL HELP YOUR BENCH PRESS

It was a bright, crisp Monday morning in Winnipeg and a young Gavin McHale was walking into St. James Centennial Pool Gym.

As I changed into my gym clothes, I pulled out my workout for the day: a folded up page from the latest Men’s Health that featured then NBA prospect Nick Stauskus’ workout plan.

Hell; I’d like to look like the professionally edited photos of him. Let’s give it a shot.

I walked over to the weight room area to get my workout set up. If I remember correctly, it was a circuit that just needed dumbbells, a bench, and a little floor space.This was right up my alley as I was completely intimidated by ‘the meatheads’ that dominated the weight room, especially at this particular public gym.

But, when I got in there, I realized that all the movable benches were in use.

Hmm, I guess I’ll just have to take my dumbbells over to one of the bench press stations.

As I turned towards them, I noticed the same thing. Not one bench was available.

Everyone was bench pressing.

Fast forward a few years and you’ll find a guy who has now become one of those ‘meatheads’and long-ago learned the age-old meathead rule that Mondays are for bench press.

My apologies to the fellas at Centennial. If I took a bench that Monday to do step-ups or something useless like that, I truly am sorry.

But the popularity of the bench press among young males at the gym now strikes another chord with me, as both a meathead and fitness professional.

As a meathead, I want to help all of the guys with brutally rounded shoulders and massive upper bodies just battling to bench press as much as me; a guy with long, lanky arms who looks like he belongs in a university lab.

As a fitness professional, I feel it’s my duty to make the world a better place to bench press. If I can take the most popular movement in any weight room and make people safer and stronger while doing it, then I can feel like I’ve done some sort of service to the world in my time here.

Before we get into the movements, let me post a disclaimer.

I am all about lifting heavy shit.

Please do not take this as an excuse to move away from heavy lifting and work on “correcting” your upper back.

Use the information below to help build your warm-up and pop in as fillers between compound exercises (like bench – on a Monday).

Next; while your upper traps may work a little bit, they should not be doing the majority of the work. If they are, you’ve probably tried a variation that you’re not ready for yet.

I often find that as soon as we start adding in movement to something that people have never tried, everything we’re trying to engrain goes to hell. A good place to start is with the holds and carries, especially if you’ve never worked on your upper back before.

That’s okay, we’ve got regressions for that and we can use them to create context and prepare for the next step.

Here is a breakdown of how you should move through your upper back stability work, from least challenging, to most demanding.

Get this right and you’re guaranteed to bench more… Yeah, that should keep you reading.

Static Holds

Bottom Up Hold

This is a great introduction into the beautiful, horrible world of bottom-up kettlebells. It allows you to get used to the fact that there’s a weighted ball of metal near your cheek that only your grip strength can keep from falling.

Even a lot of more advanced lifters have never tried bottom-up anything so beware. Start light and progress, because no one likes a guy who had half his face taken off by a kettlebell.

Coaching Cues: I’ll often start in a half kneeling position to teach core tension and remove the need for flaring the ribcage out. You can press your opposite hand into your knee and create some tension through the core.

Otherwise, your elbow is your dial of difficulty here. Want to make it harder? Bring it higher.

Mini Band Holds

I spoke about my love for mini-bands and sheer joy that we had finally got some at our gym in THIS ARTICLE.

We then promptly broke about 4 yellow bands within 3 weeks and I had to rework the budget for these beauties. C’est la vie.

I actually touched on the mini band plank hold in that article, so I’ll leave that out here. But go check it out…seriously. It’s good.

After a few seconds of the mini band hold, the body will either start cheating (usually the case) or the rear delts and middle to lower traps start screaming.

I prefer the latter, obvs.

Coaching Cues: Here, we can teach the basics of keeping the core and upper back tight, not flaring the ribcage and keeping those elbows stapled to the sides.

Planks and Side Planks

Hidden amongst some horrible form is a great movement that is sneaky good for testing and strengthening the shoulders.

The main issue I have here is actually the amount of stress placed on the shoulders. Although you’re not moving in a plank or side plank, the shoulder often takes the brunt of the body weight, especially if the core is weak.

Even though it’s considered a hold, I’d be wary of including this if someone has major shoulder pain. If it’s pain-free but really challenging, have at ‘er!

Coaching Cues: Keep the abs and bum tight. Elbows directly beneath the shoulders at all times, and think of pulling your elbow(s) down towards your hips; this will fire up some stabilizers.

Carries

“The most effective way to prehab your core and bulletproof your back and shoulders is to pick up heavy shit and carry it, plain and simple…” – Dr. John Rusin

If you truly want to stay injury free – to steal another line from John – you’ve got to stop majoring in the minors. Get strong and develop resiliency in your joints and muscles.

Carries are a great way to do that.

Farmer Carries

While farmer carries still provide a challenge for the upper back (mainly because of the volume of weight that can be used), they’re a great segway into carries because the arms are by the sides and both sides are loaded equally.

Along with the upper back, farmer carries will test glenohumeral stability, forearm and grip strength and core stability.

Not to mention, if you go for a long walk with some decently heavy weights, you’ll be fighting for breath like that one time you tried to run on the treadmill for longer than a warm-up.

Coaching Cues: Chest tall, eyes on the horizon and armpits and core tight.

Suitcase Carries

Now, we can start testing out some oblique slings while keeping the arm at your side. If there’s a difference between sides in either shoulder or core stability, we should see it on a suitcase carry.

The most common form of cheating is pushing the hips towards the weight and essentially resting it on the booty. Not cool, man.

Coaching Cues: Same as the farmer carry, but make sure the entire body stays dead straight.

Rack Carries

Now, we’re starting to move the weights a little higher relative to the body and testing the shoulders a little more.

With that said, let’s lock those babies in as close to your collarbone as you can get ‘em and go for a walk.

Remember, you can carry both or just carry one at a time. Up to you, kid.

Coaching Cues: Thumb on the collarbone, elbow on the ribcage. Keep the shoulders over the hips and lock in your ribcage! The most common compensation here is to flare the ribcage and lean the upper torso back.

Kevin also mentions a goblet carry variation that I really like in the description, so I’ll include it here as a bonus.

Bottom Up Carries

I touched on a bottom-up hold earlier, but now we move on to my favourite carry variation for shoulder stability.

Again, this can be quite advanced and should not just be tossed into a program, especially for those with bad shoulders. You will be exposed.

Eric Cressey made a great video on coaching up this movement, so I will let the master do it himself.

Yeah, he’ll science the shit outta ya.

Staying ‘Low’

Next, we have a few dynamic options that will allow you to challenge shoulder stability and scapular control, but won’t cue the upper traps to go crazy.

Bottom Up Carries*

We already spoke about the bottom up hold and the bottom up carry, but I feel it bears repeating here.

While this is a somewhat advanced movement, the shoulder is actually completing an isometric hold throughout the length of the carry.

For the most part, we will also have the upper arm below 90 degrees and the elbow below the shoulder, meaning this is manageable for more people than something like a waiter carry or even some exercises below.

Band W’s

Although you feel like you’re not doing much, there is a frenzy of activity below the surface in the rear delts, lower and middle traps and even the lats with the Band W’s. You’ll probably start shaking after 5 to 6 reps if you’re doing it right.

Bonus points if you caught the Saturday Night Live reference.

Coaching Cues: Keep high tension on the band the entire time. Look in a mirror and make sure you create a W with your arms every rep. Go. Slow.

Band No Monies

As we move into more dynamic movements such as band no monies, the threat of cheating increases.

This is where a mind muscle connection really comes in handy. You need to focus on what you’re doing and try to feel the right muscles working.

Coaching Cues: Keep the ribcage locked in and remember to bring the band to the ribs, not vice versa. I like to start people on a long roller lengthwise or even a doorframe so they can maintain contact with their lower back. Otherwise, pinch the shoulder blades but keep those shoulders away from the ears.

Cable Scapular Row

Here’s one that really targets and almost force feeds scapular control.

The ability to protract and retract the scapula is a huge player in shoulder health. It sets up the context for a lot of other dynamic pulling movements and should be hammered home at every opportunity.

Coaching Cues: Keep the elbows locked in full extension to avoid compensation. Make sure the movement comes from the shoulder blades and not the ribcage flaring out. Think about wrapping your shoulder blades around your ribcage, then pulling them back and together.

½ Kneel Cable Row

This is an excellent regression I picked up from my man, Harold Gibbons. In the past, I’ve had a lot of trouble helping clients “feel” the single arm dumbbell row if they have shoulder or neck issues.

The movement just ended up bothering their neck unless I guided them through every little bit of the movement with my hands.

By removing gravity – along with placing a heavier emphasis on core stability and an easier time ’staying tall’, this allows clients to feel the movement where they’re supposed to.

Coaching Cues: Press the opposite hand into the knee, stay tall and lock in that core. Squeeze the armpit and remember you don’t need to pull the elbow way past the body. If you have the control, try pulling the shoulder blade into the back pocket.

Seated Cable Row

Finally, the most ‘meathead’ exercise of this section is also one you’ll most commonly see at commercial gyms. Don’t let the heavy lean and huge shrug fool you; those jacked guys don’t know everything.

Coaching Cues: After watching the video, I feel like it’s time to upgrade. Not only is it sideways, but I pull my elbows way too far back, allowing the humeral head (shoulder) to dump forward in compensation.

My poor technique aside, stay tall and get a good squeeze through the upper back. Any grip is fine, but I find overhand grip often leads to compensations.

Movin’ On Up

Now, we move into some more challenging territory. As we move the arms up and away from the comfort of the torso, we introduce a whole new set of potential compensations.

As an overall theme to this section, always focus on the mind muscle connection and keep in mind that regression is always there if you need it.

Bottom Up Pulse/Press

Now that we have an unstable kettlebell above your head, let’s move it around!

If you want to test shoulder stability and control as well as grip and forearm strength, this is your guy.

Coaching Cues: Move slowly and under control, only use as much range as you can control and keep your elbow directly under the kettlebell at all times.

Regression: Bottom Up Hold or Carry

Band Face Pull (with press)

If you get this one right, your mid to lower traps (and possibly your rear delts) should be screaming to the high heavens after a set of 6 to 10 reps.

But, get it wrong and you’ll be feeling that sore neck for days with nothing to show for it in the bench press department.

Coaching Cues: Pull to a level that allows you to keep it out of the upper traps. If you need to pull lower, so-be-it. The upper arms should be like a rotisserie for the external rotation, focus on pulling the shoulder blades into the back pockets.

If you’re going to add the press, think about depressing the shoulders as you press up.

Regression: Band W’s

Band Pull Aparts

This is a classic upper back exercise but I see it butchered so often because people are just trying to get it done.

When done correctly, these are great for teaching scapular control and building up the upper back. But when done poorly, the muscles we want to target basically go for a ride on the upper trap train.

This isn’t my favourite, mainly because it forces the scapulae to retract (come together) but doesn’t have a built-in mechanism to teach them to depress.

Coaching Cues: Hold the band at a level that allows you to keep a tall, proud chest throughout. Lower is often better. Keep the elbows at the same angle of flexion the entire set.

Regression: Band No Monies

Wall Slides (with or without Mini Band)

You may have to check the ego at the door here and grab the lightest band your gym has. If done correctly, most people may not even need a band!

Coaching Cues: Chest proud, with the hands just scraping the wall. Keep the wrists outside the elbows and slowly slide up the wall. Don’t let those elbows leak out!

Regression: Mini Band Holds

Hanging Reverse Shrug

If you’re able to do it without feeling like you’re going to fall, this is one of the best ones for teaching scapular depression and prepping for pullups (since it so closely resembles the movement).

Coaching Cues: Keep the chest tall and elbows totally straight. All the movement should come from the shoulderblades.

Regression: Cable Scapular Row


So, you came here hoping to bench press more (because we all want to bench press more) and found 2500+ words on your upper back.

Either I have some sort of exercise dyslexia or all those world-class bench pressers are onto something with the meaty upper backs they sport.

Try tossing a couple of these into your warm-up or between sets of compound lifts and come back to me in a month. My guess is it won’t just be your bench press that improves.

Happy Benching!

GM

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Gavin McHale

Author Gavin McHale

Online training and nutrition coach, retired semi-pro hockey goalie, and ex-skinny kid. Currently a beer league superstar, and lover of lifting heavy things, Gavin will help you reclaim that athletic, dead sexy body, and shrink your clothing budget. Because tarps are always optional.

More posts by Gavin McHale

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