By Saravana Sekar

Our backs can tell a lot about our lifestyle. Having a strong and flexible back is crucial for athletic performance, and more importantly everyday life. Yet finding a balance between these two can become a difficult task for many. Regular back pain and stiffness create a laundry list of other underlying issues; shoulder injuries, lack of pelvic tilt, misfiring glutes, poor overhead strength or range of motion, and let’s not forget the aches and pains from sitting or standing too long. It has become a part of many peoples everyday lives, but it doesn’t have to!

Regardless if you are an accounting manager, premier athlete, or somewhere in between the lines, a strong back is essentially fundamental to reach peak performance. It is necessity to fully develop the lats, erectors, traps, and rhomboids to fight performance plateaus. But there are two sides here; by developing larger and stronger muscles, maintain their ability to move and be functional will crumble if not worked on. Even if you have never experienced back back musclespain or problems in the past, it is still important to load your arsenal up with preventative methods. And for those of you w
ho have back issues, keep on reading to find some combative methods. No matter your activity levels, it is important to always keep moving throughout the day to fight sedentary habit formation.


Back and Bi’s Twice a Week Won’t Cut It

Yes, the scapula is a more dominant part of shoulder function, but it has a LARGE influence on the ability to develop upper and mid back strength. Think about it; if you are going into any type of deadlift motion, you have to be able to pack your shoulder blades down and back to take the slack out of the bar, prevent a rounded back and maintain a lockout position. These are difficult areas to work, seeing how they are teeny tiny muscle that you can’t grow by simply throwing more weight on the bar. They are delicate and require special attention to make them the pure building blocks of back strength.

Pull-ups, chin-ups, rows, shrugs, and whatever contortionist movements you see people in their training to engage their back simply isn’t enough. The back plays a role in nearly all forms of strength and powerlifts; whether for stability, support, or force production. Our scapulas, a.k.a. our shoulder blade, have more function than moving up and down. Elevation and depression, protraction and retraction, upward and downward rotation, or anterior and posterior tipping; this is how our scapulae move!


After recently undergoing extensive shoulder surgery, I had atrophy throughout my entire upper half on the right side. Sitting in a sling for 8 weeks, 4 months of physical therapy and some torturous manual therapy has given me back (almost) the freedoms I took extremely for granted. If any of you have been throughout physical therapy, you know how slow and daunting it can be sometimes, but just as necessary. That is where a lot of band work takes place, and there should be a larger involvement in resistance training. A lot of people see them as “weak” since they aren’t labeled like a 75lb dumbbell. What a resistance band offers is escalated tension as it is held longer, stretched further, or displaced from its original shape. Time under tension is a huge factor in muscle growth as well as tissue health.

In order to attempt regaining my full mobility, I had to re-develop the essential muscles that control the arm, shoulder complex, and any pulling movement. These are some movements I learned to use to my advantage, either programmed on their own, or programmed into a training routine. Be sure to give these a shot to reap the benefits of having an indestructible back that is ready for war with iron! To see how to perform these movements, follow the link to my video after the descriptions of each. There, you can see the proper movement of the back and scapula and how to set up for them all.

2 KB Farmers Carry: “Easy to learn, challenging to execute”. There are a few carry variations in this article (I can’t expose all of my tricks just yet) and there is more than meets the eye. They require a great deal of strength, control, stability and focus to mastering its performance. The upper back and lats are continuously contracted throughout the entire distance by packing your shoulders back and down to remain stable. There are soo many benefits from carries for anti-core movement, legs, grip, and joint stability.

Front Rack Farmer Carry: Core stability plays a large role here, but since we are in a racked position we call upon our lats to support the load as well. Since the weight is partially resting on our chest, the ability to take deep breaths becomes more difficult as time goes on. This will require our upper back and shoulder muscles to stabilize the load as our core tension dissipates.

1 Arm Farmers Carry: Strengthen your grip, core, trunk, lats, delts, traps erectors, and body awareness with one of my all-time favorite variations! This is highly beneficial for athletes ad clients for increased performance of even rehabbing an injury (ahem). It is very common to begin to lean and compensate since only one side of the body is loaded, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T! If you ever find yourself looking like the leaning tower of pisa, lower the weight, drop the ego, and reassess your movement pattern. The amount of weight is not the deciding factor of success for every single carry. Proper body alignment and tension will be the main focus points.

1 Arm Front Rack Carry: This is a perfect hybrid of the 1 arm farmers carry and the 2 kettlebell front rack carry. Nearly all of the unilateral benefits from the 1 arm carry still exist in this variation. What makes it special is the added load on our chest; forcing out engaged upper back to stabilize much, much more than if both were held. Also, for the side with “nothing’, it has to do a hell of a job to stabilize and maintain an upright posture throughout the walk.

Trap Bar Farmers Carry: This variation is great to add some heavier load to your carries without compromising execution. The weight is more stable than individual hand weights, and your body is under symmetrical load. Since both sides of the body are working in tangent, your lats, traps and erectors work together to keep this beastly carry in place.

Banded Low Pulls: I’m a huge fan of using resistance bands during training. Whether it is a warm up or programmed movement, there is always a use for them. I took these band variations straight from my baseball dugout days. The focus for all of these is the movement of the scapula. To develop a strong upper back, the scapulas need to move correctly and efficiently to help avoid injury as well as work the correct musculature. Low Pulls engage the lower portion of the lat as well as control of the shoulder blades.

Banded ‘T’ Pulls: Same principles are covered as low pulls. This time, since the resistance is at shoulder level, the trunk and spinal erectors are necessary for stability and to resist hyperextension through the lumbar spine. Also focus on protracting and retracting the scapula before and during each concentric part of the pull.

Banded ‘Y’ Pull: Since the resistance is now overhead, the erectors are reaaaally working hard to resist hyperextension. Many people struggle with training overhead, so the space between hands may vary from person to person. Always focus on movement through the scapula and lats, and don’t rely on your arms to work this movement.

Banded Face Pulls: Working and conditioning our upper back is important for overhead mobility and strength for sure. Think about how often we pull vertically and horizontally? These are great compliments for pressing movements, but help create a better structural posture too! Keep your elbows at shoulder height and be sure to retract/squeeeeeeeeze your scapula together at the pulled position. *tip* try to imagine you are cracking a peanut between your shoulder blades when bringing them together.

Supine Banded Rows: This horizontal pull is great for isolating the lats to build them stronger, plus learning to get them to ‘fire’. By lying supine, it disengages the neck, traps and other anterior muscle groups of the body used to stabilize us during movement. These should be executed with control and with maximal contraction, as well as protracting and retracting the shoulders.

Seated Band Pull Downs: Packing the shoulder blades down and back will engage the lats to tightly pack at the full contracted portion of this lift, especially the middle and lower lat. The reason why we should focus on protracting and retracting our shoulders (abducting and adducting) is to reinforce the proper movement of our scapulae while engaging in muscular tension against resistance. This will support overall back health while increasing performance!

Controlled Chip Ups: Okay, so I could not execute this one 100% how I would have liked since I am not fully recovered from surgery. For this movement, it is more beneficial to take a pullup grip, with your palms facing away from you and gripped wider than shoulder width. This style will focus on growing the width of your back to engage the lower lat, often neglected and ‘imaginary’ on many people who train. This wider grip helps mimic a deadlift, clean&jerk, snatch, and even when back squatting to initiate a crossover effect during training. You should take a 1-2 moment pause at both the top and the bottom of this pull. The pause at the top is for isometric muscular contraction, while the pause at the bottom is to fully disengage before returning to the upward pull, requiring more work than just keeping a steady pace throughout.

Bent Over DB Shrug: Your trapezius, or traps, connects the vertebral column to the scapula, from below your ear to mid back, and the rhomboids are below traps, connect the vertebral column to the scapula also. They both are responsible for anchoring the scapula and for muscular symmetry. Many people perform this shrug while standing upright and shrugging their shoulder up to their ears to look like a turtle. Well, that will get them big and bulky, but not functional in the least bit. By performing these with a slight forward bend/lean, the alignment of muscle fibers is more favorable. This position sets us up for greater muscular contraction, muscular development, and fiber recruitment (basically, a whole lotta good stuff).

Scapular Retraction Rows: There are also essential to anchor your scapula to position it correctly for movement. It is very easy to develop a ‘winged’ scapula to do muscular imbalances and posture deficiencies. Over time, our anterior muscles can overpower our slammer, posterior muscles of the shoulder, leading to the inability to move out scapula efficiently. These can start light to feel how your shoulder blades glide through position, then work into heavier controlled steps.

Front Rack Dip + Hold: For success on front squatting, sweet and simple, you need lat engagement. The front rack position that we see also with cleans, jerk positioning, and other variations need lat stabilization to avoid collapsing forward and crumbling. Always try to maintain your elbows pointed forward and up; many let their elbows sag down towards the floor and can cause pain in the wrist and hands while disengaging the lats. Find a comfortable width for your hands on the bar so you can remain upright throughout the movement. Plus, this helps build confidence under some heavy loads in that position. This is a bit more intense than the previous movements, so don’t throw a ton of weight on the bar before being comfortable. Maintain tension from the ground up in your body, and stay focused to the movement.

The next 3 movements I feel are essential to warm up and/or cool down. Your spine will thank you after paying it some special attention with these movements. They are a bit coordinated, so I encourage you to break them into steps before diving right into the meat and potatoes of it (mmmm).

Quadruped Back Circles: Start balanced on all fours with your weight evenly distributed between hands and feet. If you have done the cat/cow yoga movement, those two positions are used in this movement, in a circular fashion. The circle is made by rounding your back, pressing into the earth and tucking your tailbone underneath your hips. You create that position on one side of your body, then continue to the other side before dropping down into a reverse curved position at the bottom. Then repeat to continue the circle back to the beginning. This is not a race, the goal is to move slow and controlled and to notice how your body responds. Some areas may be tighter than others, and you might even hitch at certain points. This is perfectly okay, but rather than be frustrated, be aware of it and make it a principle to make it less difficult each session.

Upward Dog + Squat: A great back-bending exercise to release tension in the lumbar and thoracic spine as well as a core stretch. When combined with the transition into a squat, it causes active mobilization of the hips to get into position, coordinated movement, and stability to maintain those positions. In upward facing dog, the goal is to lift your chest while bending at midback, elongating the lower back. Transition starts by bracing your core, coming up into a pushup position while tucking your knees just outside of your elbows, landing softly on your feet into a deep squat position. By taking us from a backward bend to neutral position, into a squat where we are challenged to maintain a flat back with optimal hip position is a great tool for spinal health.

Squat + Forward Bend: The focus is to start at the bottom of a squat, to forward bend, to partial stand. You control the position of flexed spine (bend over) and neutral (squat and partial stand) in a cycle pattern. The focus is to try and pair your breathing with movement. Maintaining a deep breath and braced trunk in the squat positioning, allowing the breath out to stretch in the bent over position, and again taking a breath in when we come to a neutral spine, partially standing (our body will be a 90º angle). This sounds nice and easy, but trying to coordinate them while moving smoothly between the stages is no easy task, be humble!


Try to implement any or all of these golden back building movements into a training, rehab, or warm up program to reap the benefits. If we don’t have a strong back, do we truly have anything at all? Combat that dreaded sitting posture, cure your ability to struggle overhead, and maximize your results on lifts you already have success in!

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