Building The Muscles Of The Upper Back
There are five layers of muscle on the upper back but only the two larger and outer muscles of these groups are well known to the aspiring bodybuilder. These two are the trapezius and the latissimus dorsi. They form the superficial layer of muscles. The erector spinae is the chief of the deeper lying muscles.
The trapezius muscle, the muscle which is the real badge of the weight lifter or any strong man, imparting as it does the slope to the well-muscled shoulders, received its name because when well developed it forms a diamond-shaped sheet. It has its inception at the occipital bone and extends down to the twelfth thoracic vertebrae. It extends from well up the neck, across to the shoulders and down at least to the middle of the spine. On the underside the trapezius is connected to the clavicles or collarbone, the acromuim process and the spinal column. It is a very large and powerful muscle and completely covers most of the other muscles of the upper back (as well as of the neck and the upper part of the latissimus), particularly the rhomboids major and minor, which will briefly enter into our discussion of the muscles of the upper back.
Its chief function is to raise the shoulders and any weight suspended from them, and only in shoulder shrugging can its great strength really be appreciated. Any advanced weight man can shrug his shoulders while holding four or five hundred pounds in his hands. It is this muscle group more than all the others which keeps the shoulder in alignment and this is quite a task when subjected to a heavy load. When Horace Barre set a world’s record by carrying 1270 pounds resting on one shoulder across the gymnasium, the strength of his trapezius was the chief force which made this great record possible.
In addition to shrugging the shoulder or carrying weights upon the shoulder, it also will draw the head backward. Here again it demonstrates its great power when advanced strength stars set records of over 500 pounds in the teeth lift. It is assisted by the muscles of the neck and spine but it must perform the greatest share of the work. When only a part of the muscle contracts it draws the neck back toward the side where force is being exerted. The scapulae or shoulder blades are drawn back when the entire muscle contracts, thus bracing the shoulder.
The latissimus dorsi, another muscle group which is the mark of the weight lifter and strong, well-developed man, one that so many strive to develop, imparts the pleasing curve and breadth to the sides of the back. The upper portion of this muscle arises from the lower six thoracic vertebrae will up under the trapezius, and at its lower end it is connected to the three of four lowest ribs and the spine. One of the largest and widest spreading muscle groups in the entire body, the fibers pass in different directions and then converge into a four-sided tendon which is inserted into the lower part of the intertubercular groove of the humerus, or bone of the upper arm.
Its action seems simple enough, for its work is to draw the arm downward, backward and to rotate it. But this can be a difficult task at times, as is evidenced by the size and great strength to which this muscle group is developed in the advanced weight man.
The erector spinae must be included in this study of the muscles of the upper back, as their development is important in adding size to the chest measurement and in performing exercises which develop the entire chest and lungs. It has its beginning at the sacrum and extends to the two lower thoracic vertebrae. As you can easily see from a muscle chart, it is a solid muscle in the lower back and splits into three columns as it rises. These may be more simply termed than their real Latin names as lateral, intermediate and medial. They are fastened to the ribs and vertebrae at different levels the entire way up the back, extending well up into the neck.
As these muscles climb up the back they establish a goodly number of footholds to assist them in their work. This type of construction is not only continuous but overlapping as one segment begins back of the insertion of the segment below it.
The work of this long and powerful muscle is to maintain the vertebral column in the erect position. With its work to straighten the back, it will do this even against great resistance as when a heavy weight is lifted in dead weight style, or, as in the practice of the competitive lifts when the weight is pulled to the shoulder in preparation for pressing, when it is pulled to the chest in the clean or overhead in the snatch.
In the case of very corpulent men, or with pregnant women, it draws the spine back to counterbalance the forward weight.
In addition to the three major muscles of the upper back there are a certain number of other muscles situated superficially on the trunk which must be included with out study of the upper back muscles. Their chief function is to attach the upper limbs to the trunk and to move the shoulders and arms in any desired or essential way. The chief motivating muscles of arms and shoulders are of course the trapezius and the latissimus (included in this discussion) and the pectorals both major and minor (which will be discussed later).
On a muscle chart you can see some of these muscles which add to the strength and bulk of the upper back and of course to the measurement of the chest. The teres major and the infraspinatus are plainly evident. The rhomboids, rhomboideus major and rhomboideus minor are visible only when the trapezius is removed. The levator scapulae is also covered with the trapezius and although it will not add to the circumference of the chest it does come into play in practicing most chest-developing exercises and has a position in our discussion. The coracobrachialis, which connects with the arm and also with the scapula, adds some bulk to the chest measurement as do the attachments of the deltoids or shoulder muscles.
The rhomboids pull the shoulder to the rear. The teres major and minor assist in pulling the arm down, as also does the coracobrachialis. The levator scapulae, as the mane implies, raises the shoulder blade; the rhomboids also assist in this movement. The subclavius assists in pulling the shoulder down.
This should be sufficient discussion of the muscles of the upper back, by name and position. If the reader wishes to know more, there are many good books on anatomy which can be had at moderate prices.
This book includes a number of good photos of the upper back, which, in the cases of Fred Rollon and Michael Sullivane, will serve as human anatomical charts. The photo of John Grimek, while possessing muscles so much deeper and less evident than the more finely drawn individual’s, gives more than a hint of the development and position of the major back muscles. The common way to show the muscles of the back best is to stand with the upper arms at right angles to the body and the lower arms at right angles to the upper arm, for this shows the arm, particularly the forearm, to best advantage. The upper back should be spread to make the most pleasing display possible.
The muscles of the upper back can be built easier than any other muscles of the body. Men who launch upon a physical training program show favorable results so much more quickly on the upper back than on the arms or even the legs. I receive so many photos, which would be considered very impressive to the uninitiated, of veritable beginners displaying their back muscles. With this rapid progress and the fact that it is so easy to practice exercises which build the upper back, many men are tempted to spend more than their share of time exercising these muscles. There are a great many men like those to whom I have referred in the previous paragraph who have gained a reputation as real strong men by showing photos of themselves posed with just the upper back. The experienced bodybuilder, or any man who knows anatomy and the well-developed male physique, could easily see the lack of real development in the upper body and particularly the legs. While this chapter is devoted to developing the upper back and will contain almost no discussion concerning the lower back, don’t lose sight of the fact that from a number of angles developing the lower back is far more important. The developmental effects of lower back exercises will not be as evident as those of the upper back, but a man’s vital region is in the lower back, it’s the seat of his sexual powers and it givers him strength, spring, power and pep, so don’t neglect the lower back entirely in your enthusiasm to develop the more conspicuous muscles of the upper back.
We’ll start at the top. The trapezius muscles are shaped like a diamond or an old-fashioned kite, their chief work is to raise the shoulders or to hold them in place in spite of all the weight that is placed upon them. Therefore the simplest means of developing these muscles is to take a barbell in both hands with the knuckles front. Your arms serve only as connecting links between the shoulders and trapezius and the weight. They should be permitted to hang as straight as ropes with hooks on the end. While this exercise is simple to perform, the results it produces are little short of astounding.
With each upward movement you raise the shoulders as high as possible, trying to touch the shoulders to the ears as the muscles are raised two to four inches, depending upon your size and the range of your muscles. Harden or tighten the muscles of the middle back by drawing the shoulder blades together. These muscles are extremely powerful and can be subjected to very vigorous work.
All weightlifting movements are highly beneficial. In fact weightlifting is the only way in which these muscles can be developed to their limit. All advanced weightlifters can display these muscles in an astonishing way. Their constant practice of the three lifts, when heavy poundages are reached, are sufficient to develop the muscles to their limit.
In pulling weights to the shoulders or overhead, the trapezius group, assisted of course by the legs, back and arms, are the chief motivating force. Men like John Grimek and Stanko, so often mentioned in my books, have tremendous development of these muscles. When the arms are flexed and the shoulder blades drawn in somewhat, a round deep depression which would hold a full pint is evident. These men not only practice very heavy single attempts as in competitive lifting (Stanko has records of 310 and 390 in the snatch and clean and jerk respectively), but they practice a great deal of lifting exercises. Stanko will perform five of six repetitions with 260 in the two hands snatch and several with 350 or more in the two hands clean and jerk.
In single attempts as well as repetitions, they strive to obtain all the pull they can and if you will closely examine the action pictures of leading lifters which appear in the book “Weight Lifting,” you will see that the shoulders are pulled high and the trapezius is under tension as in performing a shoulder shrug. Practicing repetitions in various ways in the three lifts, from the stiff-legged position, with the back only, starting slowly and finishing fast with a strong second pull and lift of the shoulders, will produce splendid results in building these muscles.
The three lifts – two hands press, snatch and jerk – are the chief lifts which are practiced today, but all lifting is highly beneficial in the developing of these muscles of the back, shoulders and of course the spine. Two other quick lifts, formerly a part of the official lifting program – the one hand clean and jerk and the one hand snatch – are good trapezius developers. Repetitions with the one hand snatch will develop chiefly one side at a time, so exercise both arms successively. The one arm swing is another good lift to practice.
Very heavy lifting such as the straddle lift, or the seldom practiced hand and thigh lift, provides excellent work for the trapezius. Over a thousand pounds can be handled by a strong man in this manner. Five or six hundred in the straddle lift can be utilized, while even the smaller men make repetitions with four hundred pounds. A strong man could fasten his hand to a bar bell, aiding the grip by means of a handkerchief or other cloth, lift the weight first as a one hand dead weight lift, and then raise it inches more just by shrugging one shoulder, even if the bar bell weighted four hundred pounds. I have seen such a feat of strength performed. Lou Schell, a member of the original York team, who still lifts occasionally and is most famous for being the father of thirteen children (no multiple births) by the time he was thirty-two, weighs only 135 pounds, but he can perform this feat with 350 pounds.
Experts at muscle control can execute the most astounding feats in moving the shoulder blades, which of course is done by the trapezius muscles.
As the trapezius is designed to lift the shoulders, all exercises which cause the shoulders to be raised under the resistance of weights or cables are beneficial. An alternative way to practice the usual shoulder shrug is to pull the weight as high as possible, bend the shoulders far to the rear while keeping them high, then lower them while holding the shoulders back, raise again, move the shoulders forward, and continue with this movement until tired. It should be possible to perform trapezius movements at least twenty repetitions.
Dumbells permit a greater range of movement than bar bells but they cannot be loaded quite as heavily. With dumbells, shoulder elevating can be practiced alternatively, and a much greater range of rotation in conjunction with shoulder raising is possible. With cables, the two arm press with the cables behind the back is a good developer for the trapezius, particularly when you bring the shoulder blades in as far as possible and expand the back as far as you can with the alternate movement. Employing the stirrups, the shoulder shrug and upright rowing motion are good exercises for this important muscle. One of my favorite exercises is the upright rowing motion with dumbells. Pull the dumbells from a position in front of the thighs with the knuckles front until they are chin high, the shoulders raised and the bent arms held out to the side.
Most body-building exercises involve the trapezius in some manner and it will obtain a fair share of development without specialization of any sort. For the trapezius and most of the other muscles in the body, particularly the upper body, are brought into play with nearly every exercise. Chinning, dipping, rowing motion with bar bells, dumbells or cables (particularly when the shoulders are drawn well back at the completion of the movement), all the lifts, hand balancing, understanding in pyramid building, rope climbing, wrestling, in short any good exercise, will have some beneficial effect in developing the trapezius as well as other muscles of the upper body.
Prior to the advent of the various courses which I offer to the strength and development seeking public, there were courses which informed the world that a man could obtain all the strength and muscle he wished by practicing a few key exercises. Frequently they offered a man as exhibit A, who had primarily practiced with a few well-known exercises such as the dead lift, deep knee bend, and the two hands press – all good exercises. There are an estimated number of four billion muscular fibres in the body, all planned to assist in moving some part of the body against resistance of some sort – 720 muscles, designed to move the body in every conceivable and diverse manner – so the practice of many exercises is essential.
We are born with all the muscular fibres we will ever have, and the difference between the immature frame of the slender, undeveloped young fellow and the powerful, beautifully built body of John Grimek is simply the strengthening and enlargement of these muscular fibres through movements which bring as many of the 720 muscles as possible into play. So isn’t it logical to believe, as we do, that best results are had with the practice of a wide variety of exercises? I usually term it the “100,000 exercises.”
It’s been definitely proven that men who practice a few exercises, using and developing the muscles in the same groove always, will not become as strong as the man who practices many diverse movements. A combination of heavy lifting, with lifting motion exercises and many body-building exercises, has built the magnificent bodies, great strength and athletic ability of the York Bar Bell Club champions who hold all the
If you were to delve into the lift and training of any well-built man whose friends claim that his physique is the result of the practice of only twelve or fourteen good bar bell exercises, you would learn many things. You would certainly find that he was a skilled hand balancer (practically all exceptionally well-built men are); very likely he is the understander in practicing hand to hand work, and the understander in pyramid building at the beach. At times he shows his ability with the cables and exceptional ability at strand pulling comes only from practice. In his home gym he has a chinning bar and, quite likely at least, a pair of two by fours to practice dipping, as with a parallel bar. He has a rope for rope climbing, and quite a bit of special apparatus to improve his grip and forearm strength, even a teeth lifting outfit, a hip lifting belt and plenty of weights to use with it. It is quite likely you will find that he practices tumbling and has done considerable wrestling. Although it is claimed that he “body builds” only with bar bells, his friends will enthuse over the way he pulls up heavy weights in the snatches and cleans and the way he jerks the latter overhead.
This reminds me of a man who had been one of the heaviest advertisers of his physical culture course for many years. He claims to have built his formerly splendid physique through his own system of exercises to which the name “Dynamic” has been applied in various manners. He denies that he has followed other forms of exercise, yet when we brought a great deal of proof, many witnesses who knew how he trained, he stated under oath that he did not train with weights – he only used them to demonstrate his strength. Three times a week at least, sometimes four, he demonstrated his strength with weights and cables. But the story of his life and training which brought his physique to the point where it was selected as the best built in
The few illustrations I am offering point to just one fact: Although there are some best exercises to build the shoulders, the upper back, the pectoral muscles, to internally increase the expansion of the chest, the practice of a great many exercises – the thousand exercises – is invariably responsible for the development possessed by the leading men of might and muscle. Men like Klein, Sansone, Asnis, Deutch, Schusterich, Thaler, and our own