Building The Back

Part 1: The Upper Back

Tom McCullough MEd., MSS


I will start out this three part series on "Building The Back" with the upper back. The muscles of the upper back include:

• Trapezuis
• Levator scapula
• Rhomboid

The Trapezius

While the trapezius is just one muscle, it actually consists of three different fibers. The upper fibers, the middle fibers and the lower fibers. Each set of fibers has a slightly different purpose. Therefore, we have to do several different exercises to strengthen all the fibers in the trapezius.

Upper fibers

The upper fibers originate from the base of the skull and insert at the lateral third of the clavicle. These fibers are responsible for elevation of the scapula. Knowing this, the two most obvious exercises for developing the upper fibers of the trapezius would be the upright row and the shrug.

Middle fibers

The middle fibers originate about at the base of the neck in the spinous process of the seventh cervical and upper three thoracic vertebrae. They insert just below the upper fibers on the medial border of the acronium process and upper border of the scapular spine. The middle fibers also work to elevate the scapula, but also serve as strong scapular adductors. Thus, not only will the upright row and shrugs hit the middle fibers, but any exercises that is done by moving the pulling the shoulders back, like pronated (overhand) or neutral grip bent over rows, pronated or neutral grip dumbbell rows, and seated cable rows with a pronated or neutral will further activate the middle fibers of the trapezius muscle.

Lower fibers

The lower fibers of the trapezius originate just below the middle fibers at the spinous process of the fourth through twelfth thoracic vertebrae. It inserts in the middle of the back at the triangular base of the scapular spine. Since the lower fibers also work best as scapula adductor, the bent over row, dumbbell row, and seated cable row all with a pronated or neutral grip work very well to strengthen these fibers.

The Levator Scapula

t;br> The levator scapula is a small muscle in the upper back. It originates at the base of the scull or at the transverse process or the upper four cervical vertebrae, close to the upper fibers of the trapezius. As with the upper fibers of the trapezius, the levator scapulaÕs job is elevation of the scapula. Therefore the upright row or shrug would be about the best exercises to strengthen this muscle.

The Rhomboid

The last muscle in the upper back is the rhomboid muscle. The rhomboid is located underneath the trapezius and originates at the base of the neck at what is called the spinous process of the last cervical and first five thoracic vertebrae. This is much the same location as the middle and lower fibers of the trapezius. The trapezius and rhomboidus work to gether anytime the scapula is in adduction with slight elevation. So naturally any exercise that uses scapular adduction or pulling the shoulders back will with the arms slightly raised will strengthen the rhomboids. Again, bent over rows, dumbbell rows, and seated cable rows with a pronated grip or neutral could be used to strengthen this muscle. Chin-ups (pronated grip) and dips are also excellent exercises.


Now let's put all of this together and make it real simple. To build the upper traps and levator scapula we can do the following exercises:

Shoulder shrugs; or
Upright rows

To hit the middle and lower fibers of the traps and the rhomboids we can do any one of the following:

Bent over rows (pronated or neutral grip);
Dumbbell rows (pronated or neutral grip); or
Seated cable rows (pronated or neutral grip)


1. Chek, P. (1997). Rows, pulls, chins, & the deadlift. In: Gym Instructor Series, v3. Chek, P. Prod. La Jolla, CA: Paul Chek Seminars.

2. Thompson, C.E. and Floyd, R.T. (1994). The shoulder girdle. In: Manual of Structural Kinesiology, 12th ed. Smith, J.M. Ed. St. Louis, MS: Mosby-Year Book.


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