My buddy Will was a world renowned powerlifter. He stood around 5’6 and 165lbs but he had an impressive physique.
He also deadlifted 700+ pounds, squatted 600 pounds and bench pressed 400+ pounds.
He also pulled no punches, and said exactly what he meant.
I’m not going to lie, he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. As a newbie in the fitness industry though, he was exactly what I needed.
He taught me a lot about lifting, the industry and the business. Most of all, he taught me how to check my ego and address my weaknesses.
One day Will approached me and told me to squeeze my shoulder blades together.
“No thickness.” He said.
I was throw off. First of all, I was proud of my current physique, and was confident I had plenty of muscle.
“You’re wide, and you look big, but you’ve got no upper back thickness.”
Then he walked away.
What the hell was I supposed to do with that?
Being the over thinker that I am, I pondered it long and hard. In fact, as a young prideful male I am sure I went through all the stages of grief.
At first I was in denial. “No thickness” I repeated to myself, mocking the very idea.
Then I was pissed. Even if it’s true, what kind of asshole walks up to someone and says that?
Then I made excuses. I have long collar bones and broad shoulders. It’s hard for me to build thickness in my upper back.
I would like to think I skipped the depression stage. But after continuing on with my usual training style, I wasn’t pleased with the lack of progress in the thickness department.
Next came acceptance. So what do I do about this?
I already lifted hard, heavy and had a balanced training routine. Clearly something needed to change.
As I write this I am 8 years beyond this incident. I have had a lot of time to experiment, first on myself, then on my clients.
The following advice will work, but I must warn you. To build the upper back thickness you are looking for, there are 2 requirements that don’t come easy to everyone.
1. All kinds of guts.
2. The ability to check your ego at the gym door. (This is by far the most difficult for most people)
Pump Up the Volume on Your Deadlifts
We know that the deadlift is the king. If not the king, it is second only behind the barbell back squat.
Deadlifts will work miracles for building upper back thickness. They will work even better if you do them with building muscle in mind.
Because the deadlift is a powerlift, most lifters train the movement with powerlifting in mind. That means heavy weight, low reps and a lot of rest between sets.
This is perfect if your goal is strength. If your goal is a back that looks like the Rocky Mountain range, you need to increase the work volume.
For example, a lifter training for strength may deadlift using 405lbs, and do 4 sets of 3 reps. That would be a grand total of 12 reps, and 4,860lbs lifted by the end of the workout.
If the same lifter worked with 315lbs and did 4 sets of 8, that would be a total of 32 reps and 10,080lbs lifted. More than double the total work volume done with the heavier weight.
Total work volume is an important factor to consider when training to build muscle. Not only does the second method provide twice as much volume, it also delivers more time under tension. On a big lift like the deadlift, that is going to pack a powerful metabolic punch in the form of Growth Hormone release.
I’m not saying to abandon the heavy weights and lift with nothing but total volume in mind. What I am saying is to lighten the loads a little bit, and get between 30-40 reps when doing your deadlifts.
You will build upper back thickness quickly. As a bonus, the lighter loads will allow you to perfect your deadlift technique before heading into future strength phases.
Check Your Ego Before You Row
As challenging as high-rep deadlifts are, checking our ego before we row can be even tougher.
I was a slave to my ego for many years. While I built up an impressive barbell row, I still didn’t have my desired upper back thickness.
The issue was HOW I was doing my rows. I was simply pulling the weight towards my body by any means necessary.
The rhomboids, lats and traps can be tricky to engage without a lot of focus. Hauling on the weight without any attention to which muscles are doing the work forces your body delegates the work based on efficiency.
For me, my biceps and rear deltoids were over powering, so they were doing the majority of the work during my rows.
This left me with big arms, strong shoulders, and no upper back thickness, as was pointed out by my buddy Will.
Here’s how to fix your rows.
Check your ego, and lower the weight.
To train the muscles of the upper back, you will need to have control over the weight. That means lowering your training load to a weight you can control without relying on momentum.
In the bottom position, allow the shoulder blades to pull apart. Meanwhile, be sure to maintain tension on the rhomboids and traps (between the shoulder blades). Don’t relax these muscles, just allow them to stretch.
Start the lift by drawing the shoulder blades together. Starting the lift by moving the shoulder blades together first will place the tension on the upper back. A common mistake is to start the movement by bending at the elbows.
This places the tension on the biceps, and turns it into an arm exercise. Focusing on beginning with the shoulder blades will allow you to train the muscles you are trying to train.
The muscles of the upper back respond well to constant time under tension. As you row the barbell or dumbbells towards the bottom of your rib cage, maintain this tension through every part of the lift.
This is easier said than done. We’re all guilty of finding short resting points during a lift, even if for a fraction of a second. Maintaining constant tension takes focus. Keeping this focus will reap massive rewards in the form of upper back gains.
Following these two methods are sure to spark some new progress in your upper back thickness. More important, following these methods requires you to do two things crucial to your success.
Train with a lot of guts, and check your ego at the door.
Bonus: The video below will show you how to perform some staple upper back movements. It will also provide an example of how a back training day could be structured.
It also features some amazing music which I'm sure you'll enjoy.
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