5 Moves to a Strong, Pain-Free Back

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The latissimus dorsi and the lower trapezius, or more commonly called the lats and lower traps, are the keys to building a big, superhero back. But more than that, they're responsible for keeping your shoulder blades in the proper position — an equally important job. When they are working correctly, this muscular dynamic duo fights hard to keep your body strong, balanced, and pain free.

While your lats are more of a power muscle (think pull-ups or push-ups) and your lower traps are more of a stability muscle (think sitting posture) they both function to downwardly rotate and depress your shoulder blades toward your pelvis. This function keeps your shoulder blades in the proper position.

Unfortunately, most people are incredibly weak in their lats and lower traps. If you think about it, it makes sense. If you don't focus on those lower traps and work at a desk day after day, you're bound to weaken these muscles significantly. An inability to use the lats and lower traps because of poor posture leaves your upper traps alone as the main muscles left to work. This then creates further imbalance and weakness of the lats and lower traps, perpetuating the poor positioning of your shoulder blades. It’s a vicious cycle.

If you don’t care about the position of your shoulder blades, you should. The consequences are significant and can include neck, shoulder, and low back pain and injuries. Beyond pain and injury, the effects can follow you into the gym. If your shoulder blades are out of position, you won’t be able to use your upper body as efficiently. Imagine trying to use a shovel with a wobbly or broken handle. The lack of stability makes it kind of difficult, right? Your shoulder blades create stability, giving you a steady base to generate more force through your arms. When you go to do those push-ups or pull-ups, you’re going to be limited and not going to get the optimal results you could get if your shoulder blades were in the right place. If that isn’t enough of an incentive, your abdominals can also be affected by weak lats since the lats and the external obliques share an attachment site on the ribs. Tension on one activates the other, so when your lats are firing, it’s easier to use your obliques. In other words, stronger lats equal a better core.

Now that you know the significance of your lats and lower traps, it’s time to do something about it. Here's your guide to releasing tight muscles and building strength so you can have a big, pain-free back.

Upper Trapezius and Levator Scapulae Release

  • Stand with your shoulder under the bar or with a lacrosse ball placed half way between the neck and edge of the shoulder on the restricted side.
  • Move left and right until you find a tender area.
  • Shrug your shoulder up and down for 45 seconds or until the tension resolves.
  • For the levator scapulae, look down and toward the armpit opposite the bar and back up. Repeat for 45 seconds or until the tension resolves.

Pectoral Release

  • Stand facing the wall. Place a lacrosse ball two inches below the collarbone and toward your armpit.
  • Move the ball right and left until you find a tender area.
  • Move your arm and shoulder forward and back, then up and down.
  • Lean your body into the ball as tolerated.
  • Do these movements for 45 seconds or until the tension resolves.

Wall Dip

  • Stand facing the wall with your feet shoulder width apart and a slight bend at the knees.
  • Place palm against the wall with thumb facing up and fingers pointing to the side.
  • Bend forward at your waist while dropping your chest toward the ground, moving your hips and backside away from the wall.
  • Shrug your shoulder blade down your back as you bend.
  • Come back to starting position. Repeat.

Kneeling Lat Pull-Down

  • Exercise can be performed using resistance bands or a cable resistance machine.
  • Kneel with both knees on a pad, chest upright, shoulders down and back, abs engaged, feet hip width apart and behind you.
  • Lead with elbows and pull down until your elbows form a 90-degree angle, forearms parallel to the ground.
  • Keep arms and elbows close to your body throughout exercise. Hold and repeat.

Prone Lower Trap Slides

  • Lay on your stomach with your arms out to the side and elbows bent to 90 degrees.
  • Gently prop your upper body off the ground so that your chest is just off the ground.
  • Keeping your forearms and elbows on the ground, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down, pulling your body forward.
  • Remain in the same position. Push your body back to the starting position.
  • Repeat.