The Posture Cure: Build Your Back, Save Your Shoulders

What you need to know

  1. Everyone can benefit from postural training.
  2. Use proper back exercise programming. Traditional back training principles such as pull-ups and lat pull-downs can contribute to the problem. Focus training on upper back and horizontal rowing.
  3. Use a 2:1 ratio pulling to pushing. Program into your training pulling movements twice as much as pushing movements focusing primarily on upper back and posterior shoulder.
  4.  Focus on higher rep ranges and time under tension.

What causes poor posture

In today's society, even in the most active of populations, many of us spend many hours a day sitting and using objects like cell phones, tablets, laptops, etc. The excessive amount of time spent in these positions, fit or not, leads to chronic postural dysfunction that often leads to achy shoulders, neck and back pain.

Muscle imbalances resulting in weakness and stiffness, commonly recognized in the rehab world as upper cross syndrome, can be a recipe for disaster resulting in chronic pain and decreased performance. Unfortunately, most training programs do not address direct upper back training, and the ones that do often program it incorrectly.

Most back training regimens target primarily the latissimus dorsi in an attempt to program an acceptable push to pull ratio. While it is true that the "Lats" are located on the posterior aspect of the body, there is one huge anatomical detail that is overlooked. The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle along the posterior aspect of the torso with a humeral insertion point making it a very strong internal rotator when contracted. Training programs with "back days" focusing primarily on the lats are actually contributing to postural dysfunction.

Although the lats are an essential component to overall back development, continuously cranking away at vertical pulling variations will reinforce internally rotated positioning of the shoulders. Over time, this type of training will provide no benefit other than simply strengthening a dysfunction.

What to do

Program into your training isolation exercises for the rear deltoids, rhomboids, mid and low traps. Adding size and strength to each muscle in this category is the most effective way to improve your posture overtime and reduce shoulder pain and dysfunction.

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When programming exercises for this region of body, a general rule of thumb to follow is a 2:1 pull to push ratio. Targeting your upper back with horizontal pulling exercises twice as much as pushing will help improve shoulder joint positioning and ultimately lead to a more balanced physique.

The muscles in the upper back respond well to higher volume and rep ranges utilizing controlled range of motion and time under tension. These training principles are essential to strengthening this region as these muscles function as postural stabilizers, holding your thoracic spine upright while maintaining proper shoulder joint position. 

Here are several upper back specific movements focusing on the rear delts, rhomboids, mid and low traps. Program these movements into your training regimen so you can look better, feel better, and perform better.


Banded Pull Apart

Programming: 2-3 Sets/10-20 Reps 

Coaching Points: This is a staple movement for maintaining strong, healthy shoulders. Place a band shoulder height and pull both hands with palms down straight to your face, driving your elbows back and bringing the shoulder blades together.


Face Pull

Programming: 2-3 Sets/10-20 Reps 

Coaching Points: Place a band just below shoulder height, keep elbows tucked at your side and pull both hands with thumbs up to your chest while driving your elbows back and bringing the shoulder blades together.


Banded External Rotation

Programming: 2-3 Sets/10-20 Reps 

Coaching Points: Place a band just below shoulder height. Keep elbow tucked at your side, bent to 90 degrees. Rotate your hand away from your body, while keeping your elbow tucked. Try to keep shoulder blades pinched throughout.


Prone T's

Programming: 2-3 Sets/10-15 Reps 

Coaching Points: For this exercise, we want to focus on using the muscles of the posterior shoulder, middle back and base of your shoulder blades primarily. Avoid using your upper trap (upper shoulder) muscles, neck muscles, and low back muscles — these should stay as relaxed and unused as possible.

Put your hands directly out from your shoulders forming a “T”. With our thumbs turned and shoulders in an externally rotated position, slowly pinch your shoulder blades together.


Wall Angels

Programming: 2-3 Sets/10-20 Reps 

Coaching Points: Stand up against the wall with your arms at a 90 degree angle and level with your shoulders while maintaining contact against the wall with your tailbone and shoulder blades. Raise your arms above your head trying to keep your elbows and wrists as close to the wall as possible. Lower your arms to the starting position and repeat.

You're not limited to these exercises. They simply show how you can begin to program upper back specific sterngthing into your workout routine. 


About The author

Dr. Dale Bartek

Dale Bartek is a Physical Therapist and performance enhancement specialist with nearly a decade of elite-level training experience and advanced skills in manual therapy and functional dry needling.

Dale is currently working at Fyzical SPORTS in Las Vegas, Nevada where he has helped treat some of the world's top athletes including MLB All-Stars, Olympic Gold Medalists, and top NCAA athletes from around the country.

Dale is committed to continued learning and helping people achieve their physical therapy, fitness, performance and personal goals. He has a strong passion for baseball and weight training with a vision of combining high performance strength training principles, elite sports performance physical therapy, and pain free training approaches to revolutionize the way athletes look, feel, function and perform.

Dale BartekHealth & Fitness