By LaReine Chabut

You use your upper-back muscles whenever you pull anything toward you, whether it’s a piece of furniture, a stubborn Golden Retriever on a leash, or the mountain of chips you won at your Thursday-night poker game.

Your upper back consists of several muscles:

[Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born, MA]
Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born, MA
  • Latissimus dorsi (lats): The largest muscles in your back run from just behind each armpit to the center of your lower back. Olympic swimmers, particularly those who swim butterfly, have well-developed lats. These muscles give swimmers that V-shaped torso. The main purpose of your lats is to pull your arms (and anything in your hands) toward your body.

  • Trapezius (traps): Above the lats are your two traps. Together, your traps look like a large kite that runs from the top of your neck to the edge of your shoulders and narrows down through the center of your back. Your traps enable you to shrug your shoulders (like when your spouse asks how you could’ve forgotten to pay the phone bill).

    More important, your lower traps stabilize your shoulders and help prevent shoulder injuries and your upper traps help you to move your head to the back or side, or to look behind you.

  • Rhomboids: Your rhomboids cover the area between your spine and your shoulder blades. Along with your traps, you use your rhomboids for squeezing your shoulder blades together. You have to call them your rhomboids, because boids somehow never caught on. Most people who work long hours at computers or in other seated positions have overstretched and weak rhomboids.

Strengthening your back muscles has important advantages.

  • Real-life benefits: With a strong upper back, you’ll find it easier to drag your kids into the dentist’s office or lug your suitcases through endless airport terminals. You’ll say goodbye to slouching as your posture improves and get rid of tension in your neck and shoulders.

  • Injury prevention: Strong upper-back muscles play a significant role in keeping your shoulders healthy. Your lats handle most of the work in pulling movements, so you don’t overstress your shoulders. For example, well-developed upper-back muscles could save you from injury when unfolding the sofa bed for a houseguest.

  • The confidence or the “feel good” factor: Upper-back exercises make your back broader, which, in turn, slenderizes your lower body. These exercises also improve your posture by helping you stand straighter and taller, open up your chest, and give up slumping as a pastime.