What are the most important muscle groups in your body? Overall, there are three groups that demand the greatest amount of attention:
Pushing Muscles. Any time you try to push anything, your chest, shoulders, and triceps are engaged. Your abs and back also do a lot of work, but it’s the chest and shoulders that bear most of the strain.
Pulling Muscles. When you pull something, your back, shoulders, and biceps are doing the work—along with your core, of course. The back and shoulders handle most of the strain.
Lower Body. Your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves control all of your lower body movements. Developing strong quads and hamstrings is the key to better leg strength and endurance.
Did you notice something in the upper body movements? That’s right, your shoulders are engaged in both pushing and pulling. Your shoulders are engaged for almost ANY movement of your upper body. If you want to have a stronger upper body, you need to spend time on your shoulders.
But the muscles of your shoulders don’t work on their own. Aside from the deltoids (the muscles around the shoulder joint), there are the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboid muscles. These all work with the shoulders, but they’re considered the “upper back muscles.” Basically, your shoulders and upper back work synergistically to perform all pulling movement—along with a lot of pushing movements.
See where we’re going with this? You need to work on your shoulders AND back if you want to have a strong upper body.
Below, we’ve got an introduction to basic shoulder and back workouts. Don’t worry if you’re a beginner: you can find exercises that anyone can do, no matter what their level of fitness. Good luck, and happy training!
The Ultimate Back and Shoulder Exercise: Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups
When it comes to developing a strong back and shoulders, NOTHING can beat pull-ups and chin-ups!
Pull-Ups are performed with your palms facing away from you, and your hands spread just slightly wider than shoulder width apart. This form places most of the strain on your upper back and shoulders.
Chin-Ups are performed with your palms facing toward you, with your grip on the bar at or slightly closer than shoulder width apart. This form focuses more on the biceps, but the upper back and shoulders still do a lot of the work.
Take a minute to find something around your house to do a pull-up on. Feel the tension in your muscles as you try to pull up. Can you tell which muscles are doing the work?
- You’ll feel it primarily in the front of your shoulders, which contract as you try to pull upward.
- Your upper back (the latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscles) will have to tighten more the higher up you get.
- Your biceps and forearms do a lot of the work of gripping the bar and pulling upward.
When it comes to developing “pulling” strength, nothing beats Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups. The exercises use your own bodyweight, so you’ll develop functional strength rather than muscle mass.
Note: “Functional strength” refers to the strength needed to move your body around, rather than sheer power or strength for lifting heavy objects.
Bodyweight exercises are ideal for developing functional strength, but don’t think for a minute they’re not as hard as exercises using free weights! In fact, with Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups, you’re lifting your entire body off the ground. DEFINITELY not an easy thing to do, especially if you’re carrying a few extra pounds.
Be warned: newbies aren’t going to have an easy time doing these exercises. Some people will be able to knock out a set or two of pull-ups, while others won’t even be able to do one. So how can this be the best workout for anyone?
Easy! It’s all about versatility:
- For beginners, place a weight bench beneath your feet as you do pull-ups. This will take weight off, making the pull-up easier, and you can use your legs to supplement your arm, shoulder, and back strength. These assisted pull-ups are easier to complete, and they’ll help you build strength. Use your legs less and less every time until you’re eventually doing pull-ups unassisted.
- For intermediates, start off doing as many reps of unassisted pull-ups as you can, then use the bench for the last few reps until you hit muscular failure.
- For advanced trainees, do sets of more complicated Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups to engage the muscles even more. If you want to develop a strong upper body, you should do Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups on a regular basis. Throw in a few sets on Back Day, and do them two or three times a week. The more you do, the stronger you’ll be. But it won’t be the kind of strength you get from just lifting weights. It will be the functional strength that will translate into more efficient upper body strength all around!
Top 5 Back Exercises
Doing Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups is a good way to start, but it’s not ALL you should do. In fact, if you want to avoid plateau-ing (hitting a weight/load where you are no longer able to increase), you need to keep mixing things up and adding in different exercises.
Here are the best of the upper back exercises to add to your workout:
Lat Pull-Down. This is a classic upper back exercise that is as versatile as it is effective!
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: Notice the position of his hands? This is the classic “neutral grip,” which places most of the emphasis on the traps, lats, and shoulders. However, to change the focus of the workout, all you have to do is change your grip. Widen the position of your hands, and you’ll focus more on the Lats and Rhomboid muscles. Pull your hand’s closer together, and the shoulders and traps do more of the work.
Mix and match the position of your hands according to the muscles you want to focus on!
Seated Cable Row. This is an exercise that hits the Rhomboid muscles (along the rear of your ribcage) highly effectively.
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: The grip attachment you use on the cable will change the focus of the work. A wider grip will hit the Rhomboids more, while a close grip (such as with a Double D-Ring) will focus on the Lats and Traps more. Once again, another very versatile movement that can serve multiple purposes.
Bent Over Row. This movement hits both your upper and lower back like a boss.
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: The fact that you’re bent over means your lower back (and abs) have to engage to protect and stabilize your spine. Your biceps, shoulders and upper back do the work of rowing the weight to your chest. The result: one heck of a good workout for those “pulling” muscles.
One-Arm Dumbbell Row. This exercise is designed to focus on your back one side at a time.
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: Notice how the free hand supports your upper body as the other hand works? This takes the strain off your spine, placing all of the emphasis directly on the shoulder, upper back, and biceps. A few sets of this amazing exercise can do wonders to help develop strength in both arms, but individually rather than using a barbell.
Deadlift. The ultimate back exercise that EVERYONE should do!
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: Deadlifts are designed to hit the lower back, but they engage the muscles that run along the middle of your back—the ones protecting your spine. Having a strong lower back is the key to not just a strong core, but also a strong upper back as well. After all, the lower back is the support base upon which the upper back rests. Deadlifts help to develop that power that gives your upper back the “pulling” strength it needs.
Top 5 Shoulder Exercises
Your shoulders already get a good deal of attention on Back and Chest Days. After all, they are required to push or pull anything.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay extra attention to your shoulders. The fact that they’re engaged in every upper body movement makes it even more essential for you to develop shoulder strength.
Here are the five best exercises to do for strong shoulders:
Shoulder Press. This is the ultimate exercise to develop raw shoulder power and strength!
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: The beauty of this movement is that it can be performed with both barbell and dumbbells. Those who want to develop power will work with a barbell, while those who find the barbell inflexible or limiting can use the dumbbells to accommodate less mobile joints.
The beauty of this exercise is that it hits both the front (anterior) and back (posterior) shoulder muscles. Most of the focus is on the anterior deltoid, but it leads to better overall shoulder development.
Side Raises. This is the exercise that gives you the power to lift/raise objects out to the side.
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: The beauty of this movement is that you don’t need a lot of weight. With just a few pounds, you can hit the outside (lateral) part of your shoulder muscles and develop that lateral strength in a way Military Presses and Pull-Ups never could. It’s another way to round out your shoulder strength.
Pike Push-Ups. This variation on regular push-ups is amazing for developing anterior deltoid strength.
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: If you want to develop more pushing power, try this variation on push-ups. It’s surprisingly difficult, and it will hit the front (anterior) deltoid muscle effectively. It also doubles as a killer triceps workout.
Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise. Use this exercise to pay extra attention to your rear deltoid muscles.
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: This is the movement that will develop strong posterior (rear) deltoids. The back of your shoulders don’t do as much work as the front, but you still need to develop strong posterior deltoids if you want to have 1) strong shoulders overall, and 2) a rounded, heavily muscled look.
This is another exercise that can be performed with very little weight, but you’ll feel the burn in the back of your shoulders in no time!
Arnold Press. A variation on the classic Dumbell Press that increases the effectiveness of the workout!
Here’s the basic form of the exercise: This is a move developed by the Governator himself. Instead of the classic “straight up and down” of a regular Shoulder Press, the Arnold Press has that twist as you push the weight up. The twisting movement hits the sides and front of your shoulder muscles than conventional shoulder presses. It also helps to develop greater joint mobility and a better range of movement.
The truth is that your shoulders and upper back do easily 60% of your upper body work. While your chest is engaged when you perform “pushing” movements, there are a lot of things that involve “pulling.” To be able to carry out those activities of daily life, you need to pay extra attention to your shoulders and back. Not only will they help you have more functional fitness, but these two muscle groups are vital for the “fit look”! They’ll make you look bigger and better-developed than any amount of chest or arm workouts will.