Midback Muscle and Might

Bill Starr

Beef Up Your Squats, Pulls and Presses

Page 1

Building a strong, functional physique is a process that requires constant scrutiny. Since certain exercises are more enjoyable than others, some bodyparts or areas of the body get considerably stronger and better developed than others. Some disparity in strength doesn’t pose a problem. Should that difference get way out of proportion, however, then some changes are in order.

Your relative weakness may not reveal itself as an injury or even cause pain, but you could experience diminished performance. Let’s say your squats have hit a standstill because your back rounds excessively when you get to the heavy work sets. The form breakdown causes you to get out of the proper positioning needed to grind the bar up through the sticking point. Same deal for the deadlift. When you get to the max poundage, your back rounds so much that you’re no longer in a position to bring the bar to the finish. 

Only the Strong Shall Survive

Those are common problems if you’re handling heavy weights on squats, deadlifts or any other heavy pulling exercise, and they’re caused by weakness in the middle back. So this month I want to focus on that frequently overlooked area of the body. Not only will a relatively weak middle back adversely affect a number of exercises in your program, but if you don’t give it the proper attention, you’ll eventually experience pain in that area. That could be a boon to M.D.s and chiropractors but not much fun for you.

To be sure, the back is one continuous plane, with the various muscles often overlapping, but I believe that when you’re setting up a routine, it helps if you think of it as having three parts: upper, middle and lower.

Anyone I talk with about middle-back exercises invariably thinks I’m referring to movements for the lats. True, the lats are one of the major groups in the midback, but there are lots of others. You may not realize that the traps form a large portion of the middle back. They originate at the base of the skull and spread out and down—hence the name trapezius, a type of quadrilateral. It sweeps down and connects to your spine at the last thoracic vertebra, right in the middle of your back. The traps extend over some of the latissimus, too, which means what works for one group usually works for the other.

Another muscle that makes up a part of the middle back is also named for its shape, the rhomboid. It lies beneath the middle of the trapezius. Here are the others: serratus anterior, serratus posterior, teres major, infraspinatus. They all extend into the upper back and are strengthened when you work that area. Anytime you work your middle back directly, you’re also strengthening your rear deltoids and the small groups that comprise the rotator cuffs—another excellent reason for doing some specific exercises for that area of your body.

That’s especially true if you’re infatuated with the bench press to the extent that you forsake all back work. The combination of hammering away on bench presses and neglecting to keep your back proportionately as strong leads you down the path to shoulder and rotator cuff problems that could easily have been prevented by including one or two core exercises for your middle and upper back.

You must have a strong middle back in order to squat, pull or press heavy weights. Yes, I include presses. If you doubt that you need a strong middle back for overhead exercises, try doing some when that area of your back is hurt. If you can do them at all, you’ll be restricted to very light weights. Should your midback injury be severe, you’ll discover that even some of the tamest exercises, like curls and crunches, are impossible to do.

A strong middle empowers you to maintain a perfectly flat back during the execution of a max attempt. A weakness may not show up until you try a really heavy weight. One thing is sure, though: If the signs are there that your middle back is lagging way behind and you don’t do something about it, you’re asking for an injury. Not only that, but a hurt midback has no mercy. You won’t be able to find a comfortable position: Standing, sitting and lying will all be painful.


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More Pop at the Top

Bill Starr

More Pop at the Top

All serious strength athletes include at least one dynamic pulling exercise in their routines. They understand that by handling heavy weights in an explosive fashion, they build much stronger and more functional muscles. Of course, some sports require more powerful back, hip, leg and shoulder muscles than others. Those who participate in contact sports absolutely must prepare their entire bodies for stress on the playing field, and Olympic-style weightlifting is all about developing the muscles and attachments used in pulling big numbers in the snatch and clean.

Lateral Strength

Bill Starr

Lateral Strength

You probably realize the necessity of maintaining proportionate strength among various muscle groups. It’s common knowledge that if you let your hamstrings lag too far behind your quads, you’ll have problems in the form of strains or pulled muscles. The same deal applies to the muscles that make up the upper portion of the chest and those in the top of the back. Understanding the traps’ relationship to the pecs and deltoids helps you lay out a program that produces results and limits the risk of injury. Additionally, you need balance between your upper and lower body if you want to keep making strength gains.

Put Up or Shut Up

Bill Starr

Put Up or Shut Up

I am frequently asked what the most important factors in strength training are. My reply? “There are several: a functional program, knowing how to perform all the exercises correctly, applying yourself diligently to every workout and being consistent.”

A functional program is one that works for you. Each of us has individual requirements in strength training and should design programs to fit those specific needs as opposed to just following a routine written by a top bodybuilder or strength athlete or an armchair authority. Two people with the same body type, bodyweight, height, age and training background won’t respond to a program in exactly the same way. It’s okay to start a group off with a set program, but as they progress, adjustments must be made for continued success.