There is something about a straight back that screams power. It makes me think of a person who can accomplish whatever they want. Take, for example, the venerated George Washington, who was well known for his formidable posture. To quote social psychologist Amy Cuddy from her moving Ted Talk, “Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behaviour, our behaviour changes our outcomes.”
Inside this article, we cover how having a strong upper back is important when it comes to building muscle and looking your best. We also cover how to improve your posture and strengthen your upper back with 4 instructional videos.
TED Talk by Amy Cuddy: “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”
Having a strong, mobile upper back is a worthy practice for anyone trying to feel and be perceived as attractive as well as build muscle. While some have maintained their youthful posture since birth, others have lost it due to varying causes. Your activity level, stress and occupation are all powerful contributors to your posture. While there are many ways to improve posture, this post will specifically look at how improving rib movement can help bolster your upper back.
How breathing impacts upper back posture
Read this if you haven’t watched the video: When you breathe, your ribs are designed to move based on what cycle of the breath you are in. When you inhale, the ribs are elevated and expanded by certain muscles; when you exhale, your muscles are squeezed down like an accordion. This exhalation portion is of utmost importance as it allows your main respiratory muscle, the diaphragm, to reach a dome position, which then allows you to effectively inhale. A full exhalation is also the best way to activate a key spinal stabilizer: the transverse abdominus.
The movement of your ribs directly impacts the structures of the shoulders, the head and the neck. Regardless of whether your back is straight or slightly rounded, it is possible that your ribs are stuck in a position of inhalation. This overdevelops the muscles that open the ribs, leaving the muscles that close the ribs weaker and underdeveloped. When the inhaler muscles become overdeveloped, it pulls the rib cage open and forward, stretching your diaphragm into a flattened state. This takes your diaphragm out of the inhalation equation. Without the diaphragm, your body will turn to secondary respiratory muscles like the neck and back. Where diaphragm breathing uses pressure to suck air in and fill up the ribs evenly, neck and back breathing yanks on the ribs and diverts air mostly to the lower ribs. This will significantly tighten the upper back since there is much less air expanding there. Air pressure in the upper back is also important for overall upper body strength. With this stiffness of our ribcage, we lose the ability to move our ribs effectively. This hampers our ability to bend and twist our core, meaning we need to get that flexibility from our lower back and neck instead—common places for injuries to occur.
This information has influenced my approach to improving the appearance and function of someone’s upper back. Where I would cue people to straighten their back when doing rows and lat pulldowns, I now prioritize rib movement.
Someone who has rib flare can be more likely to row in an imbalanced fashion, relying heavily on back extension and head protrusion. Below is a video detailing three exercises: one to move the pelvis in a position that allows better diaphragm function, the next to shunt air into your upper back, and the final one is a rowing exercise for the upper back muscles where you can apply these two postural exercises. For someone who is having a hard time with their upper back posture, it would be useful to run through this sequence once a day with the at-home version.
The daily protocol for a Beastly back
90/90 Hip Lift – The balloon is optional, but you gotta try it at least once.
Breathing Pit Pulls/Elbow Drive
The goal with these exercises is to increase how far you can pull your shoulders back without neck and lower back tension whilst completing full breath cycles. Until you are proficient at exhaling fully and inhaling properly, keep doing the 90/90 hip lift and All-4 Reach. Each exercise done consistently over time will improve your posture and your ability to create pressure without you having to think about it, making lifting more natural and fun.
This is best performed as a daily routine. As Dan John says: ‘If it’s important, do it every day.” Once you’ve reached a level you’re happy with, you can maintain it with normal rowing exercises and focus on something else. Still, when you do your normal upper back training, be mindful of how often you use your neck and lower back. While they can help you lift more, its good to diversify your movement to improve adaptability and decrease the occurrence of overuse.
As an experiment, I took a side photo and a back photo, did the routine for 10 days, then retook the photos. Both sets are taken in a relaxed setting: no flexing or trying to have perfect posture.
Before and after: side
What stands out to me here is how far my shoulder and arms have moved back in just 10 days. In applying the information from the TED Talk, if you can make your natural standing posture more open, not only will this place less stress on your joints, it allows you to feel stronger, more confident and more willing to go after what you want. Not to mention that if you are continuously working on your posture and mobility, you’ll build more muscle more aesthetically and with less risk of injury.
Before and after: back
What stands out to me here is how much tension there is around my neck in the before photo, and how much lower my shoulders are in the second photo. What this means is that I can separate my shoulders from my neck when I do rowing exercises. This allows for a cleaner, more athletic rowing pattern that will build muscle in a more balanced and attractive way. It’s also a big improvement in day-to-day performance. For example, being able to turn your head around independently of your body is useful when checking blind spots while driving.
The ability to move each part of your body independently is a hallmark of great athletes from every discipline, and from an aesthetic standpoint it looks much more relaxed and confident.
Here is the routine I used, performed once per day:
90/90 Hip Lift with Balloon – 1 x 6 breaths
All 4 Reach – 1 x 6 breaths
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” – Martin Luther King Jr.