Many years ago, I recall the multi-meet frustration of banging against a 180kg bench plateau. Providing some measure of chronological context relative to my career as a lifter, these struggles pre-date the CPU allowing bench shirts, I was lifting in the 82.5 and 90kg class and there was no Google on which to seek a solution. I may or may not have had hair and possibly sideburns.

During this time, I recall receiving the benefit of the shared pearls of wisdom regarding my lack of back development from a pair of hormonally augmented pizza slices suffering through some kind of lower body neurological muscle wasting disease and unfortunate levels of cystic acne. Such was Golds Gym, Edmonton in the early 90’s. Sometimes it’s the message not the messenger. I began doing upper back assistance work. Based on my understanding, this meant pull-ups, chin-ups and dumbbell rows. Initially, a few sets of 6-8 done twice a week was deemed sufficient. Over time, frequency, volume, specificity and load increased significantly. In hindsight, action driven by a bruised ego had significant impact on my lifting career. Over the next few years, my in-competition bench increased by +50kg resulting in a bronze medal in the bench at IPF Open Worlds in 1997. Progress in the bench continued for years to come.

So much for anecdotal  evidence regarding the necessity of upper back assistance work. However, this does not provide the “why”. Why does increasing your upper back strength improve your bench press?

The importance is found in the stabilizing influence back assistance has on the shoulder blades. Strong upper back muscles allow for strong shoulder blade retraction therefore improving bar control, bar placement on the chest and improved mechanical advantage. Improved mechanical advantage provides for the recruitment of a greater number of muscle motor units for an explosive start. This improved mechanical advantage also provides opportunity to maintain good form and optimum bar path resulting in higher bar speed from the press command through to lock-out.

A shortened muscle is a weakened muscle. In the context of the bench press, this is demonstrated by Upper Crossed Syndrome. Upper Crossed Syndrome occurs when chronically over-activated pectoralis major/minor and upper trapezius muscles become tight and shorten. Muscles in the neck (cervical flexor muscles) and upper back (rhomboid and lower trapezius muscles) become weak and deformed. With the inability to retract the shoulder blades, mechanical advantage in the bench is negatively impacted and other parts of the body (typically the shoulders) work much harder for much lower levels of performance. The results; poor technique, chronically inflamed shoulder joints, no progress, injury and kilos lost on the total.

The solution; muscle/soft tissue release techniques, exercises to strengthen the neck, rhomboid and lower trapezius muscles and appropriately designed training program while consciously and continuously working to improve lifting technique.

Yours in strength and health,
Mark Giffin, The Vault Barbell Club
with contributions from Brook Bennie, Active Relief Centre

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