Super Strength - Chapter 9 - The Upper Part of the Back

By Alan Calvert

Posted on NaturalStrength.com on 28 March 2002

If you have been a steady reader of the magazines devoted to body-building, you must have noticed that they constantly publish pictures of athletes displaying the upper-back development; and that most of the athletes pose as in Fig. 43. There are two reasons for this. The first one is that when you raise the arms in that position, you can flex both the upper-arm and forearm muscles so as to make your arms look big from wrist to shoulder. The act of holding the upper arms horizontally makes the deltoid muscles flex in a pleasing manner. Another reason is that this is the accepted position for showing the muscles across the upper part of the back. It is easier to build muscles across the upper back than on almost any other part of the body. So most men who take up exercise show results there more quickly than in their arms and much sooner than in their legs. Again, upper-back exercises are so easy, and cause such little fatigue, that the beginner is tempted to spend all his time at such exercises. Many a man has had a reputation as a "Strong Man" because he shows up well when he has his picture taken in this pose; whereas, if he had a full-length back view taken, it would reveal that the lower part of his back, his haunches and his legs, showed no more development than that of the average 16-year-old boy. Understand me, upper-back development is important, but not nearly as important as development in the lower part of the back.

First, we will consider the trapezius muscles, which are situated along the upper third of the spine. The two muscles together look something like an old-fashioned kite. Their business is to raise, or shrug, the shoulders, or to pull the shoulder-blades closer together. When the vertical fibers of these muscles flex and pull the shoulder-blades together, the appearance is as in Fig. 44. When the upper fibers are flexed, the appearance is as in Fig. 45.

While everyone knows what is meant by "round shoulders," there are only a few people who know what is meant by "square shoulders." Some people think that "square shoulders" means that, when you look at a man from the front, his shoulders go out in a straight line from the base of his neck; whereas, "square shoulders" are shoulders which are flat across the upper back. Well-posted novelists have a trick of saying, "His shoulders were sloping, as is that case in every real 'Strong Man.'" That is true enough. If viewed from the front, the line of the shoulders should slope from the sides of the neck downwards and outwards to near the points of the shoulders; and when this slope is pronounced, it means that the athlete has properly developed trapezius muscles.

The simplest way to develop the trapezius is to hold a fairly heavy bar-bell in the hands and shrug the shoulders, as in Fig. 46. The exercise is amazingly simple. Your arms are simply ropes which attach the weight to the shoulder muscles. Every time you shrug your shoulders the hands are lifted two or three inches, and after the shoulders are raised high as possible, you squeeze the shoulder-blades together. The trapezius muscles are very much stronger than their size would indicate. They are called into vigorous action every time you raise a weight from the ground. If you practice the Jefferson exercise or a hand-and-thigh lift, the trapezius muscles are developed very rapidly. If you do a hand-and-thigh lift correctly, the only place you feel it is in these trapezius muscles and in the thighs. When you carry a very heavy weight in one hand, it is the trapezius that keeps your shoulder up. I have seen an athlete fasten one end of the chain to a 400-lb. weight, wrap the other end of the chain around his wrist, and then, while standing erect, raise the weight an inch from the floor just by shrugging the shoulder. Naturally, he gripped the chain with his hand, and the turns around his wrist were just to keep the chain from slipping out of his grasp. He stood straight-legged, and did not bend his arm at the elbow, and all the lifting-power came from the contraction of the right half of the trapezius muscle. The trapezius muscle and some of their smaller neighbors help to move or control the position of the shoulder-blades; and if the shoulder-blades protrude almost like sails, as they do in some people, it means that those individuals have probably caused that condition by unconsciously hunching the shoulders in a way that makes certain muscles contract and lifts the shoulder-blades out of their normal position. I know bar-bell users who can do the most astonishing things in the way of controlling the appearance of their upper back. They can move their shoulder-blades around as easily as you would move your thumbs. They can raise the blades, lower them, and make them project or lie flat at will. Later on I will have a few words to say about the so-called "muscle control."

The biggest muscles in the back are called the "latissimus dorsi," which means the "broad of the back." Their main function is to pull the arm backwards and downwards; and, therefore you find these muscles highly developed in gymnasts who have done much work on the Roman-rings. These muscles, like all others, work in two different ways, depending on which end of the muscle is flexed for the time being. In climbing a rope, the forearm is the fixed point in this case, and the contraction of the latissimus dorsi muscle helps to pull the body up towards the forearm. On the contrary, if you are standing on the ground and pull downwards on the rope of a hand-power elevator, your body is the fixed point, and the contraction of the muscle pulls the forearm down to the body.

The next chance you get to watch a man pulling up a hand-power elevator, be careful to notice the way he does it. Any man who is not used to the job pulls entirely by arm strength, but a workman who does it every day bends his body forward from the hips with each downward pull of the arms. In this way he adds some of the weight of his upper body to supplement the strength of his arms. (You can get a lot of points on strength economy and muscular efficiency by watching the methods of men who earn their living by doing heavy labor.)

These latissimus dorsi muscles are so big that they control the shape of your sides. The side-line of the body from the arm-pit to just above the waist is dependent on the size and shape of your latissimus muscles, and the ultimate size of your chest is influenced by the development of these muscles and other muscles in the back. Suppose, for instance, that the pectoral muscles on your breast and the upper back are each one-half inch thick. By developing them to a point where each is one inch thick you add one inch to the diameter and, consequently, more than three inches to the circumference of your chest. I remember one authority on physical culture who said that, while he acknowledged that the use of bar-bells and weights would develop all the muscles used in raising the weight from the ground, he did not see how, by using bar-bells, you could develop the muscles which would pull weights downward. (I suppose he meant the muscles you would use when pulling on the rope of a hand-power elevator, or in climbing a fixed rope.) In such stunts the work is done largely by the flexors of the arms (the muscles that bend the arms), and the muscles on the upper body which pull the arm downwards. When you lie flat on your back and do the two-arm pull-over, which was illustrated in Fig. 42, the work of raising the bell is done by the muscles just referred to. Steady practice of the chest-developing exercise would give you a fine pair of latissimus muscles; and if you wish to accentuate the development, all you have to do is to use a bell almost as heavy as you can raise with stiff arms, and repeat the lifting movement three or four times in succession. (You must not, however, use a heavy bell when you practice the two-arm pull-over as a chest-expanding exercise, because with a really heavy bell it is impossible to lower the arms as slowly as you should.)

You will find the latissimus muscles highly developed in most first-class oarsmen, and one of the best bar-bell exercises is somewhat like pulling on a pair of oars. You bend the body over at right angles, letting the bar-bell hang at arms' length, as in Fig. 47. Then you pull the bell up to your chest, as in Fig. 48. When raising the bell you should be careful to point the elbows outward, as well as upward, instead of bringing the elbows close to the side of the waist. The above exercise is for the beginner, and you can start with 20 or 30 lbs. and increase up to 75 or 80 lbs. That exercise is a favorite with German and Austrian lifters; but in my opinion it has a restricted value. One objection to it is that when the bar-bell gets heavy (more than half your own weight) you waste too much energy in trying to keep yourself from toppling over on your face. Another objection is that it does not give a full contraction of the back muscles, because the motion stops when the bar-bell handle touches your chest. It seems to me much better to use a kettle-bell or a dumbbell, and exercise one arm at a time. When you lean the body over at right angles, and rest one hand on the seat of a chair, then when you raise the kettle-bell in the other hand, you can bring the elbow of the lifting arm much higher, as in Fig. 49, and since the chair acts as a brace you can put a great deal more energy into the lifting movement. Also you can use very much heavier weights and get greater development without waste of energy. If you start with a 35-lb. kettle-bell, you will fin that in a few weeks you can pull up 75 to 100 lbs. almost as easily, and that there will have been a great improvement in the development and the shape of your back.

There are a number of smaller muscles in the upper back, but the ones I have mentioned are the main muscles, and in working these main muscles you involve the smaller ones. If I had the space I would tell you all about the other back muscles, but if I once got started I would be apt to write on that subject to the end of the book.


IRON GAME/PHYSICAL CULTURE: HISTORY

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