Whenever I’m helping an athlete set up a program to improve strength in his back, I tell him to think of the back as having three parts. I know, of course, that the muscles that make up the back consist of one continuous plane, with the various groups often overlapping one another. Yet, I’ve found that when selecting exercises for any area of the back, it’s useful to break down the movements into lower, middle and upper and have at least one specific exercise for each area.
In this installment I want to talk about middle back—as you probably figured out from the title. That’s the portion that is most frequently overlooked when athletes are trying to build a stronger back. When the middle back is mentioned, most think in terms of the lats. Yet there are many other muscle groups in that section of the body. The traps, for example, extend down over several groups, including the lats, and connect to the spine in the middle.
The rhomboids also are of great importance to the overall integrity and strength of the middle back. Then there are the serratus anterior, serratus posterior, teres major and infraspinatus. Also keep in mind that when you work your middle back, you are strengthening your rear deltoids and the small groups that make up the rotator cuffs. That by itself is a sufficient reason to make sure you include at least one specific exercise for your middle back.
My favorite middle-back exercise has been around for a very long time and is still one of the best—the bent-over row. I seldom see it done now because there are machines that duplicate the movement; however, using free weights is far more productive for the simple reason that the tendons and ligaments get in the act much more than when you do rows on a machine.
You can do bent-over rows in a limited space and with a standard or Olympic bar. There is no need to have expensive equipment in order to benefit from the exercise, but you must use correct technique. It’s an easy lift to learn.
Set your feet a bit wider than shoulder width; that will help with balance—and angle your feet slightly outward.
Bend you knees and lean forward while making certain that your back is flat and tight. Your back should be parallel to the floor.
Let your arms dangle so the plates on the bar you’re holding touch the ground.
You can use straps. While you may not need them for lighter weights, you will once the poundage gets heavy—you might as well get used to using them.
Your grip should be somewhere between a clean and a snatch grip. The main consideration in terms of hand spacing is that you want to be able to do a full-range movement.
Pull the bar up to touch your chest; it should touch your chest on every rep. If it doesn’t, adjust your grip and/or the weight until it does.
You should look straight ahead at all times and pull the bar up in a straight line.
Do the first few reps with a smooth up-and-down motion; always lower the bar to the start with control. Allowing it to crash downward is potentially harmful to your shoulders and elbows.
Until you have the form down pat, pause after each rep to make sure everything is as it should be.
The most difficult part is keeping your back in the exact same position throughout the exercise. The tendency is to the raise your shoulders when the reps get demanding. Do not do that while you’re learning the exercise. Be extremely strict, even if it means using less weight. Form is always more important than numbers when learning a new skill in the weight room.
Make sure you bend your knees slightly. They don’t have to be bent very much, but they should never be locked, as that places your hamstrings at risk. One rule every strength athlete should learn: Never do any pulling exercise with locked knees.
I like five sets of five reps on bent-over rows as the learning set-rep formula. Once athletes become advanced and display perfect form with considerable weight, I have them finish with a couple of sets of threes and throw in a back-off set of eight to boost their workload.
In addition, when they’ve mastered the form on these and have made significant progress, I let them move their torso upward on the final reps of a heavy set. “But isn’t that cheating?” When you cheat on an exercise, you end up with poor results. In this case you get better results as you’re hitting the upper back more. It’s a way to overload those powerful muscle groups, but don’t do it until you’ve established picture-perfect form and have built a solid midback foundation.
A strong middle back is crucial for long-term progress in strength training. The power generated by the legs, hips, glutes and lumbars has to pass through your middle back to be used by your upper body. Plus, you must have a strong middle back in order to support heavy weight for all types of squats, overhead lifts and, of course, every pulling exercise in the book.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com.