Are you struggling to activate your muscles during your workout?
This “Muscle Activation” Series is meant to explain the science behind mind-muscle connection and provide you tips to build a balanced strong, beautiful body.
Just as the glutes, the upper and lower back are areas that are harder to activate.
Especially men tend to workout solely their Chest muscles. As many people sit a lot nowadays, building and activating the Chest muscles is no issue. When you are sitting and bending over your desk to write or read something, your chest muscles contract and pull the shoulder blades forward.
Over time, this leads to bad posture, as well as back and neck pain, not to forget shoulder injuries.
Let us focus on the Upper Back muscles today. As I have scoliosis, training the Back muscles has been my biggest obstacle but also the most effective at decreasing pain.
The Upper Back: Rhomboids, Latissimis dorsi, Trapezius muscles
These muscles all work together to keep your shoulder blades in place and pull them back.
Try to draw your shoulder blades closer to each other: Feel that contraction? Those are mainly the Rhomboid muscles.
Now put your arms overhead and try to push your shoulder blades down, without moving your arms. You should feel a contraction right at your armpit. That is the latissimus dorsi muscle.
The trapezius muscle also keeps the shoulder blades in place and mainly works when you shrug your shoulders upwards. As we do that a lot in our everyday life, I will not address them specifically in this post.
Complete Beginner exercise
My PT showed me this exercise when I first visited her with extreme pain (I could barely walk). I had literally no back muscles at all back then.
- Take a broomstick and hold it overhead. You can also do this with a Resistance Band, but I find the broomstick much more effective. You can also take a light barbell.
- Now, try to push the broomstick/barbell apart with your hands. Really put some force into this, as the broomstick/barbell will not give in and break. At the same time, push your shoulders down as much as you can. Hold this contraction for 5-10 seconds and then relax. Do this 30-50 times.
- You should keep your whole body stable with this exercise. Contract your Abs and Glutes, slight bend in the knees to engage the Quadriceps and don’t shrug your shoulders upward.
- If you do this right, your whole Upper Back should be on fire, and you should be trembling while holding the contraction. The Back muscles are one of the biggest muscle groups in our body (after the Lower Body), so this exercise uses a lot of energy and needs focus.
The Rhomboid Muscles
Exercises to target this area: All kinds of Rows
Before you initiate the movement, push your shoulder blades down and rotate the shoulders outward. Keep your arms very close to your sides, as if you had a purse under your armpit. Contract the Abs and Glutes at all times. Only row the weight with your Back muscles, not your arms!
Bent over Rows:
Only bent over as much as you can hold the contraction in your Glutes and Abs. It does make the exercise harder the more you bent over, but it is not worth it to risk injuring your spine!
Dumbbell bentover Rows:
Keep the weights close to your sides. This is very important to prevent spine injuries.
Barbell bentover Rows:
Like with the broomstick, push the barbell apart with your hands while rowing. This will further engage the Lats and your whole Upper Back.
One arm Rows:
Again, hold your arms close to your sides. Contract your abs very hard with this one, as your body will naturally tend to turn to the opposite side. Keep your body parallel to the ground at all times and only row the weight with your back muscles. Try to raise your elbows above your torso to fully engage the Rhomboids. Start with light weight!
This is a tricky exercise, but works your whole upper back, core and glutes. Make sure to resist the urge of turning your body to the side that rows the weight. Keep your body parallel to the ground and only use your upper back muscles.
Back Bows/ Reverse Hyperextensions:
Excellent for the entire back (upper and lower), as well as the Glutes and Hamstrings. Try to push your shoulder blades together and tilt your pelvis posteriorly to engage the Glutes and Abs.
With all these exercises, try to use as much weight as you can feel the muscle working. That can be 1kg or 20kg, it all depends on your strength. The only person your are competing with is yourself, so try your best to become a better version!
Also, utilize burnouts and pulses.
As you are using lighter weight, these burnout techniques will really help to build the muscle. For example, do 20 repetitions of an exercise, then 20 Pulses at the top of the motion. Your back will be on fire after that.
Exercises to target this area: Pulling movements
Here is how I set up for this exercise:
- Lie down on the floor or on a bench and keep the weight above your head.
- Now press your lower back against the ground and contract your abdominal and pelvic muscles.
- Slowly drop the weight overhead until you feel a stretch in your Lats (armpits).
- Now, using force with your upper back and Lats, bring the weight back until it is above your head again.
Underhand Grip Row:
The different hand position really activates the Latissimus dorsi. Try to push the barbell apart with your hands and keep the Glutes and Abs contracted at all times.
This is the Lats Pulldown that is done at a machine in the gym. It can be done with Bands as well and is just as effective. Make sure to contract your Core and Glutes first, push down your shoulder blades, then row the bands towards your body only using your back muscles.
The king of all Back exercises. This is extremely difficult and I can only do 1 TRX Pull up. Build your strength by doing Rows and Band Pulldowns at first.
Sample Upper Back Workout
2 sets of:
- Bodyweight Reverse Fly -25x
- Bird Dog -10x on each side
- Scarecrows – 25x
Complete 3-4 sets of each exercise:
- Lats Pulldown (Machine or Bands) – 15x -12x -10x (start light and use heavier weight/bands for the next sets)
- Bent over Rows – Underhand-grip 10x super set One arm Rows – 15x -12x- 10x
- Back Bows – 15x super set with Pull overs -10x
- Seated Band Rows -15x super set with Bent over Rear Raises – 10x with 10 Pulses
⇒ Burnout: Reverse Fly weighted – 15x, then 15 Pulses
I hope you liked these tips to activate your back muscles. Make sure to check out the other parts of this series: