Like any great machine, your body works in a series of checks and balances. Overwork one area and you’ll have to spread the love to the rest of your body at some point; unless you don’t care about injury prevention or looking imbalanced.
Sure, you try to work your entire body. And you use a wide variety of movements. But there’s always a reason why–despite your best efforts–you still don’t look the way you want.
Whether, you want to really look strong and powerful, sexy and sleek, or just be better about injury prevention so you have fewer aches and pains, it’s oftentimes the muscles you don’t see in the mirror that are most important (and most often underworked).
Before you suggest that rows, pullups, and deadlifts have you covered (all great exercises, by the way), it’s important to know why overtraining your backside muscles could be the smartest upgrade you ever make to your workouts.
Consider this a step-by-step process to help you identify common flaws or gaps in your training, and what you can instantly do to shift one of the most common weaknesses into a strength.
Mistake #1: Ignoring Mobility
Poor postural habits such a slouching for extended periods of time result in a forward bent upper back posture called kyphosis. It’s a messy name with some equally ugly ramifications. (Just think severely rounded upper back, which leaves you slouched over.) Spend enough time in a kyphotic posture and your spine will adapt and stiffen in this alignment.
Not a fan of the hunchback look? Good, then keep reading.
This common problem not only causes upper back pain but also weakens the important muscles that move and stabilize your shoulder blades, which can cause shoulder problems. Keeping your thoracic spine mobile (the section from your shoulders to your tailbone) not only keeps your shoulders healthy but also provides a more effective foundation for performing your pulling exercises so that you can see better results.
Your Exercise Rx: Bird dogs, side lying windmills, thoracic rotation, thoracic bridge + prone cobra
Mistake #2: Not Adjusting Your Push-Pull Ratio
Heavy, frequent use of pressing exercises like bench presses may result in the appearance of better-looking muscles, increased size, or strength, but they also increase stiffness in your chest and front shoulder muscles. Without an equal balance of stiffness and muscular development across your shoulder joint and upper back, you’ll inevitably develop rounded shoulders that not only looks bad but also turns your back on a foundational principle of injury prevention.
Here’s why: pressing exercises typically call for a push and cause internal rotation of your shoulders. It’s the internal rotation (which is part of so many exercises) that eventually causes your shoulders to round inward.
While everyone is different, a good ratio to consider is 2 pulling movements for everyone 1 pushing movement (at a minimum) for upper body exercises. If you’re looking at your lower body, the same idea applies, as you’ll want to do 2 to 3 pulling/posterior chain movements (think deadlifts) for every 1 pushing/quad dominant movement (like squats).
Most importantly: making sure you include exercises with external rotation. That’s because even though pulling exercises can be done at a high frequency, many of them (like pulldowns or pullups) force a lot of internal rotation of your shoulders, which can still lead to unwanted rounding, altered posture, and even pain and injury.
Your Exercise Rx (for external rotation): Face pulls, Prone ITY
Mistake #3: Forgetting the Bottom Half (Of Your Traps)
It’s easy to think of your back as just one giant muscle, but that’s not quite how it works. One of the most well known is the trapezius (traps), which most people just think of as the muscle that bridges the gap between your neck and shoulders.
Your trapezius muscle actually has three parts. Most people (especially guys) only attend to upper trapezius by doing endless sets of shrugs in an effort to look “yoked.”
If you really want to look yoked, keep your shoulders healthy, and improve your pressing strength, you have to hit your lower traps at least as hard as your upper traps.
Problem is, you don’t recognize the importance of your lower traps (or how weak they are) for injury prevention.
Think of it this way: your lower traps exist to help strengthen, support, and provide stability to your shoulder blades (scapula). Remember, how you just learned about the important of doing more pulling exercises than pushing? Well, you can do that just right, but if you don’t have strong lower trap muscle to stabilize your shoulder blades, you’re not only more likely to lift less weight, you’re also more likely to ignore one of the most important muscles for injury prevention
Ever had a bench press injury or shoulder injury from overhead pressing? One of the first places to look is your lower traps.
Your Exercise Rx: Hanging scapular retraction, scap pushups, and all the exercises from mistake #2.
Mistake #4: Cheating on Your Chinups
It’s not uncommon for you to be better at the shrugging upward motion than shrugging downward. Unfortunately, this is a big problem for almost all back exercises.
The upward motion weakens your shoulder girdle (the structure that helps control movement), thus making a strong pull almost impossible.
Want to know why you can’t pull more weight and remain stuck at the same weight? Here’s what you can fix to change that.
You can overcome this imbalance by positioning yourself at the top of the chinup with your chest touching the bar and your shoulder blades pulled backward and downward. Perform prolonged holds (isometrics) and even weighted holds in this position and in no time you’ll find that you can pull more weight.
Your Exercise Rx: Isometric chinups (palms facing toward you) and pullups (palms facing away from you)
Mistake #5: Oversimplifying Your Rowing Technique
This is what most rowing looks like: Your arm hangs down to create a stretch in your back. Without much thought, you pull your arm back, leading with your elbow, and try to bring the weight back as far as possible and work your muscles.
It looks right. And it sounds right. But the result is actually causing a forward shift of your shoulder joint and increasing stress on the front of your shoulder, as well as creating a weaker pull. By initiating pulling exercises with retraction, or a pulling back of your shoulder blade and then completing the pull, you’ll have your arm in safer, stronger position to move more weight and build more muscle. Now, this does not mean you have to keep your shoulder in a retracted (pulled back) position the entire time. Every person’s body is a little different, so it’s important to allow you to move within your own range of motion. That means you have a stretch at the bottom, pull your elbow and shoulder blade back, squeeze at the top, and then return back to the starting position.
Your Exercise Rx: Dumbbell Rows and Cable Rows with scapular retraction
Mistake #6: Your Never Practiced Deadlift Progressions
Do a quick video search for deadlift on YouTube and you’ll find a myriad of gym stars showing off their horrible, injury-in-the-making technique. I’m not talking about serious lifters going after max lifts that are superhuman. No one is picture perfect when lifting 600 pounds. This is about correct movement.
Rounding your lower back to pull a barbell from the floor actually turns off the supportive musculature of your spine and exposes the passive structures (like the ligaments and the spinal discs) to excessive loads that–given enough time–could possibly end your strength training career.
It also gives you a much weaker pull from the floor.Try this quick exercise to improve your spinal alignment and increase your pulling potential.
Set up an empty barbell in a squat rack at knee level. Assume a baseball short stop’s stance with hands on your knees. Keeping your shins vertical, arch your back and drive your hips upward to increase the stretch in your hamstrings. This is your proper pulling position.
Take the bar from the rack in this position and stand by driving the hips forward. Practice this pulling technique and start adding load to the bar. Once you’ve ingrained this technique, start pulling from a lower position until you can pull from the floor with perfect technique.
Your Exercise Rx: Rack pulls
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