Back Exercises to Compliment your Bench
Due to today’s deskbound culture and desire for anterior aesthetic development, exercise enthusiasts are more likely to perform forward sagittal and overhead pressing actions rather than pulls. Without complimentary pulling actions, this greatly increases the risk for shoulder injuries and long term postural deviations. Shoulder horizontal abduction and hyperextension often go by the way side.
This is not to say that some people do not enjoy pulling more than pressing, but most people can attest to the fact that it is easier to find an open pull-up bar at the gym as opposed to a bench press (especially on Mondays).
Strength balance obtained from proper push-pull programs is vital to healthy skeletal function, posture and joint health – and can even serve to improve aesthetics to a greater degree in the long run from a greater quantity of large muscle group improvement throughout the body. Cooperative muscle groups including those serving agonist/antagonist roles along with those that function for stability need healthy strength relationships.
When constructing exercise programs for any given goal a focus should still be placed on maintaining and optimizing function. Without regulating proper musculoskeletal function, all other goals become increasingly unattainable over time (especially with increasing age). Essentially, maintaining proper joint function allows for optimal expression of force and reduces undue stress that can impact task performance and the risk for various injuries.
The shoulder complex is not as stable as the hips and is therefore exposed to a greater risk for imbalance and especially forward displacement; the magnitude of which are associated with both acute and chronic conditions (e.g., shoulder impingement, forward head, rounded shoulders, trapezius dysfunction, neck pain).
Pulling exercises can significantly aid many clients - especially those with current imbalance or occupations that promote forward digression such as desk jobs - in reducing their risk for postural distortion and unintended yet self-imposed strength imbalances. Strengthening the upper back musculature in a strategic way will help improve shoulder muscle balance and forces placed upon the glenohumeral joint as well as improve overall scapular function; including scapulohumeral rhythm.
Popular exercises such as seated rows, lat pull-downs, and angular machine rows can all effectively improve back strength, but closed kinetic chain exercises integrate stability and force couple efficiency between the trunk and peripheral muscles – maximizing the functional effect. Bent-over free weight rows, pull-ups and chin ups all reflect closed kinetic chain activities.
However, a potential problem with some functional, closed-kinetic chain exercises such as pull-ups and bent-over rows is they come with pre-requisite strength and flexibility requirements. Many people lack the trunk strength and hamstring flexibility to properly perform bent-over rows; likewise, pull-ups and chin-ups demand higher levels of strength and stable trunk responses.
Intelligently-modified exercises can provide the best of both worlds - allowing for localized and global stability improvements while permitting the novice client to safely and successfully accomplish closed-chain pulling tasks. Modifications can be used to alleviate range of motion deficiencies as well as reduce strength requirements.
Modified inverted rows or pull-up exercises provide needed stability and reduce loading while still maintaining goal-specific stress for functional push-pull strength balance. The exercises can be adjusted to reflect different muscle groups and actions. Different angles of pull reduce local fatigue when multiple back exercises are used the same day. Simply modifying the grip, angle of pull or foot/trunk position will adjust the effort and outcome.
A client who is new to high-volume functional pulling needs to progressively adapt to dealing with the applied stress – if the client cannot fully extend their arms the next day or they experience an acute issue such as epicondylitis – the trainer has most likely been over-zealous. It is recommended to ease into the elevated training volumes permittable when training the back.
The following exercises provide examples of functional pulling which can be used to help a client establish better muscle balance in the upper body and developing their functional pulling efficiency.
Inverted High Row (pronated grip)
Purpose: The relatively higher abducted shoulder (elbow) position allows for greater activation of the posterior deltoids, upper rhomboids and trapezius when compared to other pulling positions. It might be considered a “closed kinetic chain face pull”.
Inverted 45° Row (pronated grip)
Purpose: The lower elbow positions allow for greater shoulder hyperextension and therefore transverse/sagittal activation of the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids.
Inverted Reverse Grip Row (supinated grip)
Purpose: The supinated grip will enhance the relative contribution of the biceps as well as increase the ROM potential due to mechanical advantage.
Bench Pull-ups (pronated grip)
Purpose: The feet on the bench allows for a moderate reduction in loading while the pronated grip pull-up action functions to promote frontal plane latissimus dorsi development.
Bench Pull-ups (supinated grip)
Purpose: The feet on the bench reduces loading while the grip increases biceps contribution as well as the potential to attain a greater ROM.
Stability Ball Pull-ups (pronated grip)
Purpose: The ball increases stability requirements in the hips and trunk while providing the same upper body benefits as the pronated grip bench pull-ups.
Stability Ball Pull-ups (supinated grip)
Purpose: The ball increases stability requirements in the hips and trunk while providing the same upper body benefits as the supinated grip bench pull-ups.