Are you one of those people that can pull just about any deadlift off the floor but the trouble is always in the lockout? Or when front squats get heavy do you start rounding over in the hole often dropping the bar? These are signs that your upper back needs to be stronger. In my opinion the most important thing that your upper back does is provide the stability or the “uprightness” needed to move big weight. By this I mean keeping you upright in the hole on a squat, reigning the bar in when a deadlift gets a little in front of you, and providing a big stable platform off which to press, whether it be bench press or overhead pressing. The upper back should be activated in almost every single movement you do.
I am a firm believer in using variations of exercises you already use in order to increase your upper back strength. I believe in using variations simply because typically learning the form of the variation will be much easier than learning something completely new, also the use of variations makes programming upper back work into your routine very easy. So what variation should we use? For me personally I have seen the most results from using the hang or muscle variations of the Olympic lifts. Muscle snatches are my favorite, followed by hang snatches, then muscle cleans and hang cleans. I prefer these movements because they increase the explosiveness of my upper back in addition to the raw strength. There are additional movements you can use though if you’re not adept at the Olympic lifts. Bent over rows and t-bar rows can also be very useful. Whichever movements you decide to use the main thing to remember is to train them for strength, which means lower reps and heavier weight. Don’t flippantly add 3 sets of 8 bent over rows at the end of your workout, this is not how you would approach squats, and if you want a monster squat I suggest you take your upper back just as seriously.