Thick Backs are the New Six Packs

Thick Backs are the New Six Packs

-Matthew Cavalier

In the world of strength and power performance, having a well chiseled set of abs might look good, but the carry over to performance is negligible. Do you know what has great carry over to building power and raw strength? Having a back like silverback gorillas. The back is an amazing producer of power, strength and stability. Many people may only think of the body parts that are clearly and visibly moving during a given exercise. For example, you can clearly see the chest and arms during the bench press or overhead press and the legs during a squat or deadlift. While those body parts are certainly moving and working, the back plays a major role. The back provides a source of power and stability that is vital to anyone that wants to be able to lift heavy weights. The muscles of the upper back, the mid back and lower back create the posterior chain. Elite strength athletes all have that in common, a thick, strong back. The problem, as it seems, is that a lot of people either do not give enough attention to their back, or they don’t train it properly. For some people, pushing their capabilities to the next level could very well be accomplished by building up that posterior chain.

The Upper Back

Developing the muscles of the upper back play a vital role in building stability and power in the pressing movements. That includes bench press, overhead press, log press, jerks, circus dumbbells and any other pressing movement. This muscle group includes the rhomboids, the rear deltoids, the traps and all the other little muscles that move and twitch between the width of a person’s shoulders. When properly contracted and packed together under a heavy load, these smaller muscles do a magnificent job of creating a firm base on which to press weights. For example, while a lifter is performing a bench press, all of the muscles in the upper back will contract and be driven hard into the bench. This allows the shear load of the weight to be displaced into the back instead of the shoulders and give the lifter a stable base to press from. This allows the lifter to press heavy weight safely and with tremendous force. The same can and should be done when performing a standing overhead press. Using the muscles of the upper back helps create a stable platform to press from and protect the shoulders. Even though the shoulder and arms are moving the weight, like on the bench press, the shear load is placed on the back. The upper back also plays a major role in the back squat and deadlift. During a back squat, it is ideal for the lifter to once again use the upper back to create a base to support the bar. Doing so will lock the lifter into the bar and prevent any shifting that could compromise the integrity and safety of the lfit. Great tightness should be maintained throughout the duration of the lift. Something I like to say is to bend the bar across the back, or squeeze your triceps into the middle of your back. The back squat demands a high degree of stability and tightness. Making sure that the upper back is locked in will do wonders to keep you safe and strong during the lift. The same can be said for the deadlift. So many people find themselves in compromised positions while performing the deadlift simply because they do not generate enough stiffness in their upper back. Again, a simple cue that can help a lifter engage their upper back is to bend the bar around their shins during a deadlift.

The Mid Back

The mid back is what protects the thoracic spine, the longest chain of vertebrae in the body. This is where your lats and obliques are located. Activating the muscles in the mid back play a great role in creating stability and stiffness, which protect the safety and integrity of your spine. Like the upper back, making sure that you can properly engage your lats and obliques will help to ensure proper stability and stiffness while lifting heavy loads. Many lifters have a problem with engaging their lats and staying tight while lifting. When that happens, especially during a deadlift, you can visibly see a person’s back bend and round while moving the load. Over time, that will lead to an injury. It is important to always engage the lats while performing exercises under load. Overhead presses and bench presses are not exempt from this. It is important to maintain stiffness of the thoracic spine even while performing upper body pressing movements. An easy cue that I find helps to engage the lats is to bend the bar. If performing a deadlift, bend the bar across your shins. If performing a bench press or overhead press, bend the bar inwards, and while performing the squat, bend the bar across your back. While it’s not possible for anyone to bend a barbell, the act of the attempt should activate the lats and help create stiffness to protect the spine.

The Low Back and the Glutes

The low back and glutes go hand in hand and are a tremendous source of power. To ignore development of the low back and glutes is doing a huge disservice. Together, they help lifters lift heavy weight and protect that lumbar. Every major lift will involve the low back and glutes. While performing deadlifts, the low back is what helps you extend, but the glutes are what drives those hips through the bar and taking the shear load off of the lumbar. The same is done during a squat. The low back helps extend; the glutes drive the hips forward. During the overhead press, it is imperative to squeeze the glutes as hard as possible to maintain stiffness. The low back area is the weak point during an overhead press. Driving those glutes forward like you’re trying to hold in a fart on your first date with your crush will prevent you from collapsing under the load. During the bench press, activating the glutes help maintain stiffness and build stability while trying to press. The low back and glutes are not only intended to be observed and spanked. They are meant to be serious producers of power. Go observe any elite level lifter, male or female, and you will see an ass you can bounce a quarter off of.

How to Train the Posterior Chain?

Instead of treating your back like an afterthought, train the entirety of the back with great effort and intensity. The beauty of the back is that it can handle a lot of volume. Every day of training should include some part of the back. When I bench press, I do rows. When I press overhead, I do pull downs. When I squat, I perform Romanian deadlifts. When I deadlift, I do good mornings. Constantly training the back will pay dividends in terms of stability and power. There are some things that should be noted, however. Not every exercise needs to be heavy. In fact, I find it better to lighten the load and focus on muscular contraction on certain lifts. For example, whenever I perform exercises like face pulls, lat pulldowns and rows, I like to use lighter weights and focus on squeezing the muscles as hard as possible. Instead of programming reps schemes of five to ten, I prefer to use rep schemes of fifteen to twenty. At the point of contraction, I will pause for a two second count and let the muscles burn. When performing exercises like good mornings, back extensions and Romanian deadlifts, make sure that the glutes are properly engaged. Those exercises can be performed with a higher degree of intensity, but if the glutes are not part of the movement, the lower back can be overloaded to a point of injury. Fire those glutes when performing low back exercises, and you will get stronger while being safe.

If you’re someone who needs a wide variety of implements to turn your back into a slab of iron, check out the Atlas Strength Shop. We have dumbbells, barbells, pulldown machines, chest supported rower and all kinds of back building implements. Send an email to

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“There are two pains in life. There’s the pain of discipline and there’s the pain of regret. You choose which one.” -Nick Saban