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Want a Thick Upper Back? Change Your Training

When people think of building a big back, they probably think of deadlifts. While that isn’t inherently wrong, there are some nuances present that tend to get overlooked. This article will help to illuminate those nuances in order to get you a thick and juicy upper back, or what I like to call, the Mantle.

I feel comfortable talking from a position of experience when it comes to building an upper back: when I started lifting, my jacket size was 42 Long. Now, my jacket size is 54 Extra Long, and my dress shirt sleeve measurement has increased from 35 to 37 inches. Both the increase in suit jacket length and dress shirt sleeve length are due to the thickness of my upper back.

As I stated, when people think of building the upper back, deadlifts seem to be the go-to, with pullups usually added to that. While people aren’t wrong, some folks seem to be going about it the wrong way.

I want you to think about something. When you want to flex your lats and upper back to look as big as possible, do you keep your hands and elbows close to your sides, or do you spread yourself wide? Obviously, you’re going to spread wide, hence the term “lat spread.” Knowing this, then, why do people keep insisting that a deadlift is going to work on that upper back thickness? Sure, it hits the area, but more than anything else, it’s going to hit your lumbar, erectors, and posterior. Plus, a deadlift means your hands are in front of you, so the middle and center of your back are going to be hit hardest.

What’s missing? The spread.

The lifting world has put so much focus on things like CORE! CORE! CORE! and HIP DRIVE, that oftentimes the small things get overlooked, such as something as simple as the hands. I’ve touched on hand placement for squats before as well.

If you really want to focus on that upper back thickness, you need to get your hands AWAY from your hips, just like a lat spread. Remember ILATS (Invisible Lats And Traps Syndrome)? When people try to fake having them, they move their hands away from the body. That’s essentially what you need to do with your movements to have VLATS.

This means hammering movements like heavy farmer walks, trap bar deadlifts, and the almighty snatch-grip deadlift. You can also spice up that last one by adding a high-pull to the snatch-grip deadlift, but I recommend straps for that as grip will always be the limiting factor for any snatch-grip deadlift movement.

By moving your hands away from your body, you’re guaranteed to engage the lats, rear delts, traps and teres minor/major much more effectively. To put it simply: you’re engaging in a lat spread just by grabbing the weight, and a flexed muscle during a rep is a more-thoroughly engaged muscle. Just holding on to the weight is more difficult because the weight is no longer being held by an arm that is straight down from the shoulder socket. You have to flex and flair your lats without even trying just to hold on.

Lat pulldowns are another effective way to target the lats and upper back spread, but there is something VERY important to remember with any pullup or lat pulldown movement in order to get the greatest benefit from it: you have to pull WITH the middle of your back. That may sound odd, but again I want you to visualize a lat spread. This time, try to spread your lats with your shoulders up near your ears. Not very effective is it? How do you get a bigger spread? by sucking down those shoulders into the base of the socket. The same goes for pullups and lat pulldowns. The best way to effectively target your lats is to think about pulling with the middle of your back on every rep. If you know the cue “active shoulders” from Olympic lifting, then this is the same thing. Suck the shoulders down into the socket, and visualize the weight being moved from the muscles in the middle of your back, along your spine and at the base of the lat. As you pull up (or down), think about touching the bar to your chest, and driving your elbows behind you, rather than straight down. Flex your lats at the bottom as well, that is vital.

The rep will (and should) move slower, and you may need to use less weight, but who cares? Better to use less weight and actually hit the muscle you’re trying to work, instead of turning it into a rear delt and bicep movement.

Another very effective way to train lats, especially nagging lats, is to do one-arm pullups or pulldowns. You can use a pullup assistance machine for that, or put your feet in a resistance band. This will keep your dominant lat from overcompensating for the weaker one.

Finally, another way to train the upper back is to change the way you do shrugs. Rather than using a neutral or pronated grip, switch to a supinated (palms forward) grip. I find this to be most effective with a barbell, as it keeps my shoulders from slumping forward. Do this one right, and you’ll feel the pump by rep #5. Make sure to keep your shoulders retracted, and go slow on the way up, pause for 1sec, and slow on the way down.

In closing: if you want to get a thicker mantle, you need to change the way you train it. Spread those hands, visualize your lats and upper back muscles flexing as you go through the movements (seriously, it works), and actively flex the muscle group at the top of each rep. I promise you that if you implement these into your training correctly, you’ll get the mantle you’ve always wanted.

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