By Aaron Hallett, MuscleTalk Contributing Writer
Achilles heel, chink in the armour, weak point; call it what you like, we all have them. Every bodybuilder has an area that when they look in the mirror and see it, they will draw a long sigh and ponder on what they have to do to bring it up in parity with the rest of their physique. For anyone who has followed my progression over the years they will know that my weak area has always been my back, the middle back more so.
The ‘middle back’ area is actually an extension of the trapezius muscles that start at the back of the head, spread across the tops of the shoulders and run down between the shoulder blades in a diamond shape. The rhomboids play a part in the thickening of the middle back but not to the degree of the traps.
The trapezius has three functional regions: the superior region (descending part), which supports the weight of the arm; the intermediate region (transverse part), which retracts the scapulae; and the inferior region (ascending part), which medially rotates and depresses the scapulae.
Developing these different regions requires different movements, for instance:
- The upper portion of the traps is for supporting the weight of the arms and elevating the shoulders, therefore any movement that adds to the weight of the arms and requires elevation will add to their development. Exercises such as shrugs and upright rows will target this area.
- The middle portion of the traps inserts into the scapula and by bringing the shoulder blades together this area is worked, but with stress still placed on the upper and lower portions of the traps as it is impossible to isolate. Rowing movements will help towards working and developing this area with a focus on squeezing the scapular together at the end of the movement.
- The lower portion of the traps can be developed by drawing the shoulder blades downwards while keeping the arms almost straight and stiff. Think of a low pulley row but instead just keep the arms straight and bring your shoulder blades backwards.
When I approached IFBB Pro Harold Marillier with regards to bringing up my middle back area he gave me a number of exercises with certain twists to the technique to help bring the focus onto this area.
See this YouTube video for the form and technique:
- Straight Arm Pull-Downs: By leaning forward by 10 degrees of so in front of a high pulley, bring the arms down to the waist and incorporate an upward shrug movement at the end. You’ll feel these in the lats as you bring the bar downwards and as you shrug upwards the sensation is shifted through the traps.
- Low Pulley Rows: Start off with a really good stretch at the bottom of the movement and then while leaning back, pull the close grip handle to your chest rather than your abs. At this point you pause and then bring the handle vertically downwards to your abs before pausing again and then returning to the start. This will use a lot more of the trap muscles during the movement and you feel the shift as you change the position of the handle.
- Dumbbell Rows: Conventional dumbbell rows are moving the arm up and down in the same horizontal plane, the twist with these is to start by raising the dumbbell in front of you like a front raise and then without swinging, bringing the elbow in an arc backwards and up.
- Lat Pulldowns: You would start off the movement as normal but you have to use a visualisation technique of bringing your shoulder blades together at the bottom of the movement for a pinch and then feeling them spread back outwards at the top. The weight will be less than you usually use as the pause at the bottom is needed to engage the lower traps as the scapular pulls inward.
With all of these exercises you will find that the weight you use will be significantly lighter than usual because there is the need for focus on the form and feeling where the stress is being place on the back. If you are using a heavier weight there is the temptation to use momentum to get the lift started which is primarily generated by the biceps on pulling exercises which negates the focus of what we are trying to work. The speed of the repetitions is crucial as a slow movement ensures you are using your back muscles and focusing on engaging the scapula to really work the middle and lower trap areas.
The pictures below show the result of introducing these movements and form into my back workout over the space of a few months, the left hand picture is ‘after’ and the right hand side is ‘before’.