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The Ultimate Upper Body and Back Workout

body workout

Story at-a-glance -

  • Upper body and back muscles are essential components to posture and reducing upper back pain, often located between your shoulder blades.
  • Using compound exercises to simulate real-world muscle movement, you can improve your ability to do activities every day and reduce the potential for injury during strength training.
  • Using the super slow technique will increase the effectiveness of the exercises and the efficiency of your workout.
  • The upper body and back exercises are the lateral pull downs and bench press. Combined with three other exercises done with proper form and technique, you can experience growth and development in your upper body and back muscles.

By Dr. Mercola

Most of the time when you go to the gym you may be focusing on body areas that might have a higher estimated value, such as your abdominals, butt, and biceps. Some men call it doing "curls for the girls."

But, a secret that most fitness trainers and chiropractors know is that a strong upper body and back will be your best defense against injury, poor posture, and back pain. In the past five years, a new upper back problem has emerged, resulting from the number of hours you may spend on your smartphone.

This "Text Neck" problem isn't just from texting, but also from poor posture while using your computer or gaming.1 While problems with your neck related to "screen time" represent a relatively new phenomenon, issues with upper back pain do not.

Poor posture and slouched shoulders lead to overstretched upper back muscles and tight chest muscles.2

This is a vicious cycle that makes it more difficult to sit with good posture. Upper body and back workouts will help to strengthen muscles essential to proper posture and add definition to your back and chest muscles.

Focusing on your upper body and back will help to improve your muscle tone and build more muscle, which burns calories even at rest.

Compound Movements Are Best

Strength training can either work a muscle in isolation or as a compound movement. During an isolated lift or isometric contraction, one muscle is targeted and often only one joint, which moves during the exercise.

Although believed by bodybuilders to add proportion to their workouts, at no other time does your body move one muscle in isolation. On the other hand, a compound movement involves at least two joints, between which the main muscle group is located.

For instance, consider your quadriceps muscles. These are the four large muscles on the front of your thigh. To work these muscles completely you need to be able to move your knee and your hip.

This makes the movement a compound motion. Performing squats will also work your gluteal, abdominal, hamstring, and calf muscles.

Using compound movements during strength training has additional benefits of burning more calories and simulating real-world activities. It will also allow you to get a well-rounded workout, will improve your coordination and balance, and help improve your joint stability.

Using compound movements also reduces your risk for injury when the movements are performed correctly and will keep your heart rate up, providing you with a cardiovascular workout as well.

How Slow Is Slow Enough?

Did you know the rate at which you lift weights will determine how quickly you experience results? It turns out that super slow workouts are the way to improve your muscle gains and reduce your risk of injury. And it requires less time to accomplish more results.

During a super slow set you are aggressively working your muscles to fatigue. This triggers adaptations in your muscles that improve the metabolic capacity at a cellular level and cause your muscles to grow.

At the cell level your body has access to the maximum number of cross bridges between protein filaments that produce the movement in the muscle. This means you're using more of your muscle during the exercise and getting greater benefits.

Safety is the first priority when you're strength training. If you don't have a good deal of experience using free weights, you can seek the guidance of a personal trainer or start out by using a weight machine. Here's how to do a Super Slow Workout:

1. Choose a weight that you can lift at least 8 times but not more than 12 using this technique. You might have to experiment over a couple of workouts when you first get started to determine what weight is the right weight to use.

2. You can do a Super Slow Workout using free weights or on a quality machine. If you aren't used to using free weights already, then you should start with a weight machine which will guide the placement of the weight.

This allows you to concentrate more fully on the effort and not have to pay attention to the motion.

3. If you are using free weights it is important to use excellent form and a spotter who can watch your form. Using free weights increases the risk of injury when the weights become unbalanced, which a spotter can help prevent.

4. The motion of the weight should not stop at the top or the bottom of the lift. The idea is to keep the weight moving at a slow pace. If you are using a weight machine, the weight should not come to rest until you have completed your set.

5. Lift the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. The first couple of inches should take up to 2 seconds so you are deprived of using momentum to bring the weight up.

6. The motion during contraction of the muscle and again during extension should last 7 to 10 seconds. You can do a variation in which the motion takes 4 to 5 seconds, but it should not go below 4 seconds.

In other words, if you are doing a chest press, when the weight is being pushed forward it takes 7 to 10 seconds. Then, without pause you reverse the motion and bring the weight back to your chest taking another 7 to 10 seconds.

7. Work your muscle to complete fatigue, which means that you'll get to a point where you can't move the weight any farther. When you get to this point you should continue to contract your muscle for the full 7 seconds to get the most benefit from the workout.

This slow movement keeps your muscle under a continuous load so fatigue accumulates rapidly. The focus is on the contraction of your muscle and not the movement of weight, which reduces your risk of injury.

Perhaps best of all, when you slow down your strength training to this extent it becomes a high-intensity workout.

This not only significantly boosts your fat-burning potential but also results in an excellent boost in human growth hormone (HGH), otherwise known as the "fitness hormone."

You only need about 12 to 15 minutes of super-slow strength training once a week to achieve the same HGH production as you would from 20 minutes of Peak Fitness sprints, which is why fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff are such avid proponents of this technique.

You can even tweak your super-slow workouts to focus on attaining upper body strength and definition.

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The Ultimate Workout for Upper Body Strength and Definition

Although there are many different exercises you can do to improve the muscle tone and definition in your upper body, there are a select few that will get the job done more efficiently.

Two of the best exercises for your upper body and back are the pull up and the bench press. If you aren't able to do a pull up, then using a weight machine for a lateral pull down will help accomplish similar results. With the addition of a few other exercises you can fully work the muscles in your upper body and back.

1. Pull Up (and Chin Up)

Total video Length: 0:18:38 Download Interview Transcript

The pull up is an intermediate gymnastic move that can humble the toughest of men and women. However, with some time and training you can overcome the pull up bar, finishing with strong chest and back muscles.

Although there is some disagreement about what the difference between a pull up and a chin up is, the end result is essentially the same.3 In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, electromyographic signals (EMG) from the muscles were measured during both pull ups and chin ups.

The only difference was more activation of the biceps and pectoralis major muscles when using the reverse grip (hands facing you) on the bar, commonly thought of as the chin up.

It can be overwhelming to consider hanging from a bar and lifting your entire body weight with your arms and shoulders. Until you can accomplish this move, it's best to incorporate the lateral pull down using a weight machine, described below. Here is a program you can use to achieve the goal of incorporating chin ups or pull ups into your workout routine.

Start by practicing hanging from the bar in a controlled manner, activating your shoulder muscles. Hanging will help to stretch any tight muscles in your upper body. Tight muscles can increase your risk of injury.

Increase the time you are hanging on the bar to build shoulder stability and grip strength. However, don't let your form suffer. You might want to use gloves to protect your hands and improve your grip on the bar.

Incorporate the lateral pull downs described below during your training to do a pull up as a means of increasing muscle strength. Don't try to do too much too quickly or you will increase your risk of injury.

While building strength on the lateral pull down machine, continue to build hang time on the bar, focusing on form.

While building your pulling strength, try rope climbing, which incorporates holding your body still and hanging on the rope while your feet push your body up. To effectively accomplish rope climbing, you only need to be able to hold your body up without pulling up.

With consistent work at hang time and lateral pull downs, you should be able to start pulling your body up for a pull up in a couple of weeks or a month.

Resist the temptation to use momentum to do more pull ups, because it loads the shoulder muscles dynamically, putting a greater force on the muscles and increasing your risk of injury.

Once you've accomplished the pull up you will see improvements in muscle strength in your:

Latissimus dorsi



Lower trapezius

Pectoralis major

Erector spinae

External oblique

2. Lateral Pull Down  

The lateral pull down is an exercise done on a weight machine that allows you to build strength in the same muscles listed above. It prepares you to do pull ups, and can be done using the Super Slow Workout method for greater gains. In fact, if you prefer the lateral pull down machine, you don't have to do the pull ups.

  • Adjust the weight on the lateral pull down machine as described in the Super Slow Workout above.
  • Sit down facing the weights and adjust the knee pad for your height. This pad keeps you stabilized while pulling the weights.
  • The width of the grip you use will change the muscles you are working. If you are working the muscle to fatigue described above, you might rotate your grip with each workout, using a wide grip, medium grip, and narrow grip at every other workout.

A wide grip is wider than shoulder width but still comfortable to use, medium grip is shoulder width apart, and a narrow grip is closer than shoulder width apart.

  • Grab the bar with your palms facing away from you.
  • While holding the bar, bring your torso back 30 degrees and curve your lower back for stability.
  • Slowly bring the bar down to touch your chest as you exhale. Only your arms should be moving.
  • Slowly extend your arms to the starting position as you inhale.
  • This is one repetition.

3. Bench Press 

The bench press is a classic strength training exercise that primarily activates your pectoralis major (chest muscles) and triceps. Secondary muscles involved include your posterior deltoids, rotator cuff, and rhomboids.4 How you position yourself during the bench press affects the effectiveness of the motion and the possibility of injury. Your arm placement will also affect the muscles used.

During a barbell bench press, when your elbows are closer to your body, your pectoralis muscles are used less and your triceps are engaged more. With your elbows too far out, it places greater stress on your shoulder capsule. When your elbows are at a 45-degree angle it allows more strength production and reduces stress on your shoulder.5

Using the bench press machine helps to position your elbows correctly and reduces your risk of injury.

  • Choose the weight based on the criteria described above.
  • Lay back on the bench and position your hands on the bar.
  • Plant your feel firmly on the floor. You will use your feet to the floor during this exercise.
  • Pinch your shoulder blades together under your back and slowly lift the weight.
  • Do not extend your elbows completely, but stop and return the weight to the starting position when your elbows are between 10 and 15 degrees flexion.


  • Avoid keeping a flat back; instead have a mild arch.
  • Keep your feet under the bench and use the floor for traction
  • Keep your shoulders pinched together.
  • Avoid lifting your hips off the bench while using the floor for traction. You aren't pushing up against the floor to lift the weight, only using the floor to stabilize your body.

4. Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row will develop your latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboid muscles to support your posture and stabilize your spine. Strengthening the muscles in your back, which are often overstretched from poor posture, will help to reduce upper back pain and increase the definition of those muscles.

  • Start with a weight you can complete 10 repetitions with.
  • Start with a dumbbell in each hand, feet shoulder width apart.
  • Tighten up your glutes and push them out while curving your lower back slightly. This helps protect your lower back.
  • Squat down about halfway and drop your head down to stretch the muscles in your back. Legs are not completely straight but knees are bent approximately 30 to 40 degrees.
  • Hands are facing your knees and weights are parallel with the ground.
  • Raise your arms and head up, pulling the weights to your side, and rotating your hands so they are facing your side. Pinch your shoulders back together.
  • Inhale before pulling the weights up and exhale as you are lifting the weights up.

5. Planks  

This is another simple exercise that works your shoulders, back, and core muscles. Planks increase the flexibility in your posterior muscle groups and strengthen the muscles used to develop strong posture.

  • Hold your elbows directly under your shoulders and place your wrists in line with your elbows.
  • Push your body up into your upper back and hold your chin close to your neck (like you're holding an egg between your chin and your throat).
  • In this position, brace your abdominals — contract them like you're expecting a punch in your stomach, squeeze your gluteal (tailbone) and thigh muscles simultaneously while continuing to breathe normally.
  • Hold a plank at least 20 to 30 seconds. (When using correct form, it is not necessary to hold it for longer than this amount of time.) Rest for approximately one minute and repeat three to five more times.
  • Start doing the plank using your elbows and toes (feel free to drop to your knees if necessary) and progress up to a high plank when you feel you have developed the necessary strength.6