Having strong upper back muscles is imperative to performing well and preventing injury during sports, especially upper-body-dominant activities like racquet sports, golf and swimming. Daily life tasks, such as carrying heavy groceries, also depend on a strong back.
Older adults would do well to strengthen their upper back muscles for three more reasons:
1. A Strong back improves posture.
Our back muscles, which include the rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius, latissimus dorsi, infraspinatus, teres major and minor, and rear deltoids, are largely responsible for good posture. Poor posture later in life can lead to falls and compress the vertebrae of the spine.
2. A strong back improves overall muscle mass.
The back is one of the body’s main muscle groups, so there’s great bang for your buck when you’re increasing overall muscle mass and bone density, and counteracting some of the muscle and bone loss that comes with aging.
3. Compounds movements.
When you strengthen your back doing compound movements like the ones described below, you’re working additional muscles too, such as the biceps, forearms and shoulders.
Two Exercises and a Stretch for Your Upper Back
1. Cable Seated Row
The seated row is a classic strength move for your upper back muscles. Aim for 3-4 sets of 10 repetitions, where the move feels challenging at about repetition number seven. If you can perform 15 reps with good form, the weight is too light. Many of my older clients prefer this move to the dumbbell bent-over row, which targets the same muscle group, because there’s much less potential strain on the lower back.
Sit at the seated row cable machine and grasp the close grip handle. Your palms should be facing each other. With your feet planted on the foot rests, slide back until your legs are only slightly bent. Your arms should be straight out in front of you. Maintaining a neutral spine position, squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the cable attachment toward your waist. Hold for a second, then return to the start position and repeat. In the start position, make sure you don’t let the weight pull your shoulders forward. In the finish position, make sure you’re not bringing your elbows so far behind you that your shoulders round forward.
2. Cable Face Pull
This move targets the smaller upper back muscles that prevent injury during bigger lifts, like the seated row, and helps to keep the shoulders in a healthy position. Attach a rope to a pulley at the cable machine and set it to about head height. Grasp the rope ends with an overhand grip, and step back until you’re supporting the weight with completely straight arms. Assume a staggered stance (one foot forward) with your knees slightly bent.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the rope toward your face. Focus on pulling the ends of the rope apart as you finish the movement. Hold the contraction for one second, then slowly return to the starting position. Make sure your elbows stay elevated throughout the movement, so they’re in line with your shoulders. I have my clients aim for a slightly higher repetition range (12-15 repetitions).
3. Foam Roller Thoracic Spine Extension
Having tight muscles in the upper back not only feels uncomfortable but also leads to a decreased range of motion. Often, other muscle groups like the low back will take over movements that are supposed to be completed by the upper back. You can improve your upper back (a.k.a. thoracic spine) mobility by performing this foam roller move after your strength workout.
Lie on a foam roller placed crosswise under your upper back. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands behind your head and move your elbows toward each other as far as you can. Brace your abdominals and tuck your pelvis in to prevent arching your lower back. Slowly lean backward, dropping your head toward the floor. Slowly roll back up to the starting position and repeat. Try moving the foam roller up or down slightly to target different areas of your upper back.
We typically find it more difficult to connect with muscles we don’t see in the mirror, so you’ll need to focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and feeling your upper back muscles working as you complete your repetitions.