Bill Starr - Midback Muscle and Might

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Midback Muscle and Might Bill Starr Beef Up Your Squats, Pulls and Presses Building a strong, functional physique is a process that requires constant scrutiny. Since certain exercises are more enjoyable than others, some bodyparts or areas of the body get considerably stronger and better developed than others. Some disparity in strength doesn’t pose a problem. Should that difference get way out of proportion, however, then some changes are in order. Your relative weakness may not reveal itself a
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  Midback Muscle and Might    Bill Starr Beef Up Your Squats, Pulls and PressesBuilding a strong, functional physique is a process that requires constant scrutiny. Sincecertain exercises are more enjoyable than others, some bodyparts or areas of the body get considerably stronger and better developed than others. Some disparity in strength doesn’t  pose a problem. Should that difference get way out of proportion, however, then somechanges are in order.Your relative weakness may not reveal itself as an injury or even cause pain, but you could experience diminished performance. Let’s say your squats have hit a standstill because your   back rounds excessively when you get to the heavy work sets. The form breakdown causesyou to get out of the proper positioning needed to grind the bar up through the sticking point.Same deal for the deadlift. When you get to the max poundage, your back rounds so much that you’re no longer in a position to bring the bar to the finish.   Only the Strong Shall Survive  Those are com mon problems if you’re handling heavy weights on squats, deadlifts or anyother heavy pulling exercise, and they’re caused by weakness in the middle back. So this month I want to focus on that frequently overlooked area of the body. Not only will arelatively weak middle back adversely affect a number of exercises in your program, but if  you don’t give it the proper attention, you’ll eventually experience pain in that area. That could be a boon to M.D.s and chiropractors but not much fun for you.To be sure, the back is one continuous plane, with the various muscles often overlapping, but I believe that when you’re setting up a routine, it helps if you think of it as having three parts: upper, middle and lower.Anyone I talk with about middle-back exercises invariably thinks I’m referring to movements for the lats. True, the lats are one of the major groups in the midback, but there are lots of others. You may not realize that the traps form a large portion of the middle back. Theysrcinate at the base of the skull and spread out and down  —  hence the name trapezius, a typeof quadrilateral. It sweeps down and connects to your spine at the last thoracic vertebra, rightin the middle of your back. The traps extend over some of the latissimus, too, which meanswhat works for one group usually works for the other.Another muscle that makes up a part of the middle back is also named for its shape, therhomboid. It lies beneath the middle of the trapezius. Here are the others: serratus anterior,serratus posterior, teres major, infraspinatus. They all extend into the upper back and are strengthened when you work that area. Anytime you work your middle back directly, you’re also strengthening your rear deltoids and the small groups that comprise the rotator cuffs  —  another excellent reason for doing some specific exercises for that area of your body.  That’s especially true if you’re infatuated with the bench press to the extent that you forsake all back work. The combination of hammering away on bench presses and neglecting to keepyour back proportionately as strong leads you down the path to shoulder and rotator cuff  problems that could easily have been prevented by including one or two core exercises for your middle and upper back.You must have a strong middle back in order to squat, pull or press heavy weights. Yes, Iinclude presses. If you doubt that you need a strong middle back for overhead exercises, try doing some when that area of your back is hurt. If you can do them at all, you’ll be restricted to very light we ights. Should your midback injury be severe, you’ll discover that even some of the tamest exercises, like curls and crunches, are impossible to do.A strong middle empowers you to maintain a perfectly flat back during the execution of amax attempt. A weakness may not show up until you try a really heavy weight. One thing is sure, though: If the signs are there that your middle back is lagging way behind and you don’tdo something about it, you’re asking for an injury. Not only that, but a hurt midback has no mercy. You won’t be able to find a comfortable position: Standing, sitting and lying will all  be painful. Even if you’re quite sure that your middle is as strong as your upper and lower back, it’s still a smart idea to have at least one specific exercise in your program for that part of your body. Can’t hurt, and it may save you some grief later. I’ve never heard anyone complain that his  back was too strong. An ounce-of-prevention idea.Some of my athletes were unable to handle much weight on specific exercises for their middle backs because their lumbars were too weak for them to hold the proper position on suchmovements as bent- over rows or long pulls on a machine. That’s especially true for older  trainees and those trying to rehab their middle backs. In those cases I lay out a program of specific exercises for both the middle and lower back in equal doses. It works nicely. As their lumbars get stronger, they can handle more resistance on their midback exercises.Which reminds me  —  since the lower back is involved in any exercise for the middle back, it’s always a good idea to warm up your lower back thoroughly before moving to whatever youhave planned for your middle back. A high-rep set of hyperextensions  —   back hypers or reverse back hypers  —  will fill the bill.My favorite exercise for the middle back is bent-over rows. You can do them with dumbbells,  but unless your back is very weak or you’re rehabbing it, use a bar. It’s much more effectivesimply because you can use so much more weight. It’s an easy li ft to learn, yet there areseveral key form points. Place your feet at shoulder width, toes straight ahead. Bend your knees and lean forward while keeping your back tight and flat. Very flat. Let your armsdangle. That tells you where you should place the  bar. It’s one of the few pulling exercises done with the bar away from your body.The grip: Use straps. Although you may not need them for the lighter warmup sets, you willonce the weights get heavy, so you might as well get used to them on the way to the higher numbers. I have my athletes vary their grip on each set. I have them start quite wide and, asthe weight increases, slide their hands in a few inches until they end up using a clean grip, which is approximately a thumb’s length from the smooth cent er knurl on an Olympic bar. Ialter the grip for a couple of reasons. The change works the back muscles in a slightly  different manner, and the closer grip will be a bit stronger than the wider one, thus enablingyou to handle more weight. More weight is always a good thing. After you’ve set your feet firmly into the floor and made sure your back is flat and parallel, grip the bar, taking care that your grip is even. Look straight ahead, and pull the bar upwarduntil it touches your chest. It should be hitting right at your nipples. Do the first few repsdeliberately until you get the feel of the line, and then start being more aggressive with theupward motion. Try to bang the bar into your chest, but lower the bar back to the floor in acontrolled manner.  Never let it crash downward. That’s potentially harmful to your shoulders and elbows. Pause a brief moment at the bottom to make sure your back is flat and parallel before doing the next rep. The hardest part of doing bent-over rows is learning to keep your  back in the same position throughout the lift. Your torso should not bend down to meet the  bar or rise up at the end. I’ll amend that advice later; for now, maintain very strict form.   If you have bumper plates, use them. They’re easier on your joints, ba r and floor. With  bumper plates, however, there’s a tendency to rebound them off the floor to get a jump -start on the next rep. Don’t do that. It will adversely affect your line of pull and cause your back to move out of position or to round.Start out with light weights so you can concentrate fully on your form. Do as many sets as youneed to find the best way to lock your back in place, where to set the bar relative to your feet and where you want to grip the bar. During the learning stage, while you’re u sing light weights, use the same grip for all your sets. There’s a score on most Olympic bars 10 inchesin from the collars. It’s there to help Olympic weightlifters find their correct grips for the snatch. Grip the bar so that your ring finger is around t he score. That’s the ideal bent -over-row grip for most people. The bar should travel in a straight line from the floor to your chest. I’ve seen many pull in a backward stroke so that the bar touches right at their navels. That’s not nearly as effective.  Another important point is often abused: Your knees must be bent. Not much, but they shouldnever be locked. Models in magazines are frequently shown doing bent-over rows with locked knees, and young readers copy their form. It’s not only less beneficial, bu t it puts undue and unnecessary stress on the hamstrings as well. You’ll be able to handle much more weight when you bend your knees and at the same time will be lowering the risk to your hams.I mentioned that your torso needs to stay parallel throughout the lift. After you’ve been doing rows for six to eight weeks and have added a considerable amount of weight to your final sets,you can cheat a bit.Breaking from strict form might be a better term than cheating  . When you cheat on a lift, youget inferior  results. In this case, you get better action, and it’s safe. On your heavy sets do the first couple of reps with your back parallel to the floor. On the final sets elevate your torso atthe end of the row. Not much, just enough for you to move heavier wei ghts higher. That’shelpful because you’re still working your target muscles, and the upward movement is ameans of overloading those muscles and attachments. Don’t adopt the technique, however,until you’ve established perfect form and built a solid base.  If you have a very weak middle and lower back or are in the process of rehabbing those areas,dumbbells might fit your needs more than a barbell. You can do dumbbell rows one arm at a  time or both arms together. You can use more weight with one hand, but I believe doing themtogether is useful as well, since you force all parts of the middle back to work at the same time. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t do both styles, alternating them from week to week or workout to workout.I have a friend who was recovering from back surgery. The bar was too heavy, and he felt thatrowing the dumbbells simultaneously was more advantageous than doing them separately. His problem was that his back was too weak for him to hold the bent-over position long enough todo any reps. So he rested his forehead on the padded back of his recliner. That gave him thesupport he needed, and he was able to rebuild his back.Another good midback exercise is long pulls done on a machine. As with all exercises, formis everything. If you let your upper body swing back and forth and use your legs to provide much of the force, then you’ll only get marginal results. Keep your upper body locked in an upright position, and make your middle back do all the work. If possible, vary your grip onthe sets. Start wide, and move your hands in as the poundage gets heavier. I prefer higher reps on this one, four to six sets of eight to 10 reps. If you’re really piling on the resistance either  in stacks or plates, though, lower the reps to five. Fewer reps done right are more productivethan higher reps performed in sloppy fashion  —  a truism for any exercise in weight training.What about T-bar rows? My answer has everything to do with the design of the machine. If the lifter can release the weight without having to twist sideways, fine. On the other hand, if he has to swivel his body in order to move the weight from the side and position it directly in front of him before commencing the rows, then I don’t like it. Twisting your torso while moving an y amount of weight is potentially dangerous, and when you’re attempting heavy weights, the risk factor soars.Against my advice, that type of T-bar rower was put in the Hopkins weight room, mostly for crew and swimmers. Not surprisingly, a number of athletes from those sports began coming to me and the trainer complaining of dings to their backs. Since I couldn’t get rid of the machine or discourage them from using it, I suggested that they get someone to assist them in movingthe weights from the side to the starting position. Those who listened to me did all right. Those who didn’t continued to end up with aggravated backs.   Then there’s the method of doing T -bar rows that was used long before the variousspecialized machines came along. One end of an Olympic bar was fixed against the base of awall. Weights were placed on the other end, and a bar from a lat machine or something similar was locked above the weights or under the collar of the bar. The lifter straddled the bar and proceeded to do rows. Sometim es, when a cross bar wasn’t available, the lifter just gripped the bar and rowed. Here’s my view: If the bar and wall belong to you, well and good—  go ahead and do them. If  you’re training in someone’s facility or a university weight room, however, don’t do them.They wreck the expensive Olympic bar and damage the wall. Why not just do bent-over rows? Rowing machines are especially good when you’re rehabbing your back, since the resistanceisn’t that great. You get your workload in through the repetitions, w hich is what you want when you’re dealing with a hurt area.  
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