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How to Properly Train your Back

I see this so often and it drives me crazy. Stop training only your lats when you exercise your back! Learn how to properly train. The latissimus dorsi muscle is one of the biggest back muscles and creates a wide, built back. However, what most people don’t understand is when training the back, the most common exercises performed are all predominantly for the lats. Even more, a common misunderstanding is that the lats help with posture when they actually do the opposite.

What is the latissimus dorsi of the back?

Now I’m not saying training your lats is a bad thing. They can make you faster and better at many sports and increase overall back strength in general. However, when many people train their back, they target the lats and believe they are improving posture by helping pull their shoulders back. Unfortunately, the latissimus dorsi muscle is actually a protractor and internal rotator. The muscle inserts into the bicipital groove of the humerus which is located in front of the arm. This insertion point makes the lat responsible for extension of the arm, but also internal rotation. This anatomical position of the muscle can make forward rounded shoulders, or kyphosis, even worse when trained often.

Anatomy of the back

The back is huge. We obviously have the lats, but there is also the rhomboids, trapezius, serratus anterior, and small muscles in the rotator cuff. Some people include the posterior deltoid as part of the back too. For the purpose of postural corrections and balance, we are only going to talk about the middle and lower trapezius, and the infraspinatus and teres minor of the rotator cuff.

All these muscles have slightly different actions. When they are all trained and strengthened, a much more balanced and developed look can be achieved. In addition, posture will improve due to many more retractor muscles being targeted.

What do all of these muscles do?

  1. Rhomboid Major and Minor: Retraction and slight elevation of the shoulder blade, or scapula
  2. Middle Trapezius: Retraction of the shoulder blade
  3. Lower Trapezius: Retraction and depression of the shoulder blade
  4. Serratus Anterior: Protraction and downward rotation of the shoulder blade
  5. Posterior Deltoid: Extension and external rotation of the humerus
  6. Infraspinatus and Teres Minor: External rotation of the humerus

Look at how much retraction we have here! Despite the serratus anterior doing protraction, it is extremely important in scapular winging and keeps the shoulder blade close to the body, so it is an important muscle to train. 

What exercises come to mind when you think of back exercises? Close grip rows, wide and close grip pull downs, bent over rows? All these movements target the lats more than any other back muscle. 

Exercises to properly train your back

When training, you typically want a 2:1 ratio of rectraction to protraction exercises. This means that for every lat pull down, you must do two exercises that target retractor muscles.

  • First and foremost, I need to go over rows. The elbow placement for rows makes a huge difference on whether you are targeting predominantly the lats or the rhomboids. Any kind of row with the arm by the side of the body and the elbow down is lat focused. Rows where the elbows are out and at chest height allow you to really target the rhomboids. You want to initiate the movement by pinching your shoulder blades together and then pulling with the elbows. Starting with a light weight is most effective to try and feel this in your back rather than your biceps. Rows with elbows out can be done just like any other row. With a cable system, TRX, bent over with a barbell or dumbbells, you name it! Just get those elbows out!
  • For the trapezius muscles, reverse flies are the king. To target the middle traps, you want to use a cable system, band, or dumbbells on an incline bench. The fly movement should be straight out at chest level pinching the shoulder blades directly back with hands parallel. High to low flies with a band or cable system target the lower best. For these you want to ensure that the arms are externally rotating.
  • For the posterior deltoid, reverse flies with dumbbells can target the muscle effectively with the thumbs pointed toward each other rather than parallel. In addition, face pulls are great to include as they also get the external rotation component. 
  • The serratus anterior can be targeted with pullovers and cable pull downs. These two exercises are the exact same movement. One is done on a flat bench on your back and the other is standing with a cable system. With the arms overhead, arms straight but elbows not locked, pull the dumbbell or cable down past the chest.
  • To target the external rotators of the rotator cuff, you do external rotations, imagine that! The infraspinatus and teres minor muscles sit on the back of the shoulder blades and are best strengthened with a band or cable system. Keep the arm close to the side of the body, the elbow at 90 degrees, and simply externally rotate the arm.

All these muscles can be targeted in many different ways, but none work in isolation. When doing a row, you get a little rhomboid and lat. When doing a reverse fly, you get a little trap and rear delt. The importance is to keep variety in back training, making sure every muscle is getting targeted to a different degree. Now properly train your back so that balance is achieved! For more info, talk to our personal trainers now!