Most lifters know the importance upper-back strength plays when it comes to the “Big 3” lifts — bench press, squat, and deadlift — and for keeping the shoulders healthy. But those who just train chest and biceps don’t fully grasp the importance of the upper back until their shoulders hurt. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.

A well-developed and strong upper back gives you a broad set of shoulders, helps with your squat, bench, and deadlift, and will help keep your shoulders healthy. Here we’ll go into the muscles that make up the region, their importance in the big 3, five upper back exercises, and a workout to build it.

Upper-back muscles and functions

Rhomboids: They originate from the cervical (neck) vertebra and run diagonally down and attach to the inside of the scapula. They’re functions include scapula adduction (coming together), scapula inward rotation (when you’re bringing your arm down from a lateral raise) and scapula elevation (shrugs).

Trapezius: This is a large, flat, triangular, superficial muscle on each side of the upper back. It originates from the cervical spine and all 12 of the thoracic vertebrae. Its main functions are Scapula adduction, elevation, depression (lower fibers) and Scapula outward rotation (overhead pressing).

The Upper-Back Muscles and The Big 3

Although the upper back isn’t directly trained with the Big 3 like with rows but they still play a huge role in the set up and performance of these lifts.

The contraction of the upper-back muscles plays an important role in keeping a neutral spine while doing the squat and deadlift. Tightness of the muscles keeps the bar close to you when pulling from the floor, which is essential for lower-back health and a stronger deadlift.

During the squat, upper-back muscle provides a place for the bar to sit without the need for a pad. Plus, keeping the muscles tight prevents you from leaning too far forward in the squat and turning it into more of a good morning.

For bench pressing, the upper-back muscle provides a solid foundation to press from. By keeping the region engaged, it supports and controls the bar path, allowing for good technique.

5 upper-back exercises for size and strength