Bodybuilding Back for Healthy Shoulders

A common theme I see in the gym is when people mindlessly blow through their upper back work.

Whether it’s rows, chins, or even something as simple as a face pull, people don’t put in the focus necessary to really develop the muscles surrounding their shoulder blades.

At best, you’re leaving some upper back development on the table.

Worst-case scenario? Your scapulae and shoulders become unstable, needlessly exposing you to injury.

This is one area where I firmly believe we can learn a lot from bodybuilders. And before you blow me off, hear me out for a second.

Many powerlifters are performing their upper back work after some heavy pressing, and as a result, their focus may not be up to snuff.  On top of that, they’ll often short-change the range of motion (failing to get full retraction and/or depression) in lieu of using more weight.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, often dedicate an entire training day to upper back (or at the very least, the start of their training day) to their back. Not only are they fresher because they haven’t pressed first, but they’re also more focused on that first exercise in their training session.

Beyond that, bodybuilders are often more focused on getting a full range of motion on their lifts. If they’re rowing, they want a full protraction/stretch at the bottom, and a full retraction/squeeze back of the shoulder blades at the top.

If they’re chining, they want a full stretch in the bottom position, and a depression of the shoulder blades/chest touching the bar at the top.

Now this isn’t to say that bodybuilders don’t get injured, because they do. However, I would argue that powerlifters and other people focused on benching heavy weights could learn from bodybuilders, get more bang for their training buck, and end up with more stable and healthy shoulders in the long run by employing some of these tactics.

To summarize, here are some quick and dirty tips that should help:

1 – On rows, let the shoulder blade “glide” around the ribcage at the bottom, and get a stretch through the upper back. When rowing, think about leading with the elbow (versus the bicep) and try to “squeeze” the shoulder blade back. If you can’t hold it for a one count, you’re using too much momentum, too much weight, or both.

2 – On chins/pull-ups, get full extension in the bottom. Pull through the elbow (versus the bicep) and try to “tuck your shoulder blade in your back pocket.”  Your chest should touch the bar, and you should be able to hold for a one count at the top.

3 – If you’re in the off-season, or not trying to hit a PR any time soon, consider starting your training sessions with an upper back exercise versus a pressing exercise. Doing this for even a few months can make a profound difference in your upper back strength and stability, as well as improving structural balance between the muscles and joints of the upper extremity.

4 – Finally, if you didn’t check this out before, please do so now. These basic exercises can make a profound difference in your ability to properly recruit the muscles surrounding your scapulae:

Give a few of these tips a shot, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results!

Stay strong

MR

(Lead Photo Courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik)

14 Comments

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  1. This is a really good wake-up call. I’ve been cheating on bent over rows for the past couple of weeks by jerking my hips slightly to make sure the bar touches my body and not keeping my body strict and tight. You practically called me out there.

  2. When’s best to use the Y-T-I shoudler exercises – pre or post workout and/or are they ok to use between sets of more traditonal exercises (rows, push ups , benches etc) which I’ve seen people do? Also, should you look to do them unloaded or loaded (and then look to progress weight.) Thanks

    • Chris –

      We typically use them towards the end of a workout, but I’ve used them pre-workout as well if someone is very unstable and/or if they have poor motor control in the area.

      I wouldn’t suggest using them in between sets of chins/rows, because I feel that’s going to unnecessarily fatigue the muscles you’re training.

      Finally, you can load them a bit, but that’s not really the goal here. Improve your motor control and recruitment with these exercises, and then use the big-bang exercises to load and strengthen the muscles.

      MR

  3. Mike,

    I’m curious – do you teach any “anatomy” to your athletes before they train with you? I noticed on a lot of your cues you give anatomical references (e.g.: letting the scapulae glide, shift, pro/retract, etc.) and was wondering if you ever have issues with clients losing time either from misunderstanding a cue or interrupting their training to learn a definition. On a personal level, to stick with the above example, I know my definition of the scapulae was much different before getting a degree in Ex Phys. and wanted to know how in depth you get to avoid any such issues.

    Thanks!

  4. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for this article.

    At commercial gyms you often see really poor form on rows/pull ups. It’s nice to hear somebody talking about the how and the why we should pay attention to these things and implement them.

    You article on Tnation ‘Top Priority for Lower Traps’ was a huge one for me as well.

    Thanks man!
    -Mitch

  5. Mike,

    I agree that we can learn from both disciplines, good post.

    When you are coaching rows and cue the elbow to be pulled, I have found that I went one step further and got better results for anyone able to “get it”. All rowing for me now is a scap exercise. I focus my attention on moving the scapula and the elbows just do what they are supposed to do. The result is auto-regulation of load. If scap movement quality decreases the load is too high.

    Shoulders have never felt better.

  6. Important point for making the most the lift, Mike! I liken it to incorporating an acute corrective movement within the bigger picture and therefore killing to birds with one stone. Most coaches instruct there clients to retract/depress and simply keep them there for the duration of the set…

    Quick question: in essence is this somewhat of a PNF stretch within the movement? In other words, should the lifter be careful not to overstretch in the transitory phase? Poliquin recently posted no more than 25% force at full stretch to prevent soft tissue injury, is this something the lifter should keep in mind in the context of the movement? Keep doing what you’re doing, Mike 🙂

    • Derek –

      First, thanks for the kind words! Much appreciated.

      As for your question, I’m not sure I’m following. When you say PNF, you mean contract/relax? I wouldn’t say you’re relaxing to the point where you actually injure the tissue, but you should go through a full ROM.

      Does that make sense?

      Good luck!

    • Apologies for the confusion, I suppose I was questioning the similarities of the EQI’s you’ve spoken of before with the “bodybuilding” style of full JROM you mentioned here. In other words, if it was possible to get too much of a stretch benefit and outweigh the strength benefit if that makes sense. Ignore me if I’m just splitting hairs here…

  7. Mike –

    Great post!

    Quick question: are there any populations in which a full stretch at the bottom of the pull-up is contraindicated? After two shoulder surgeries, I feel a bit nervous if I don’t stop short with this movement.

    Thanks!

    -Jon

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