It is common in weight rooms around the world to focus training on the muscles you can see in the mirror – arms, chest, abs, etc. – while giving less love to the muscles on the back side. These muscles, referred to overall as the ‘posterior chain’ in the strength coaching world, ironically are the greatest drivers to athletic performance.
For high school athletes and coaches, one critical mistake to avoid is focusing all your real effort and attention on upper body pressing movements while minimizing pulling strength.
And by pulling strength, that doesn’t mean bicep curls! We’re talking about pull-ups, rows, and other grip-intensive drills here.
It’s still far too common for younger athletes to judge their strength based on their bench press numbers, with substantial time and energy devoted to increasing that number, while maybe hitting some easy rows or lat pulldowns with about 20% of the same passion and intensity.
You need to start giving the pulling movements more of your heart and soul if you wish to thrive in the higher levels of your sport. And to be honest it really doesn’t matter what sport we’re talking about here, because if you strength train then pulling power is going to play a role in your success.
In the hopes of getting you all fired up to devote more energy to back training, I want to give you 5 key reasons to do so.
Reason #1 – It Will Lower Your Shoulder Injury Risk
Attention contact sport athletes! That’s you, football, hockey and lacrosse players. And you too, overhead sport athletes! Baseball, softball, volleyball and basketball in particular.
You’re all at major risk for a serious shoulder injury, and imbalanced workouts are only going to increase that risk.
The humerus, or upper arm bone, tends to sit nicely in your very mobile shoulder socket when we’re younger. Throwing movements tend to pull the humerus forward with enough repetition and intensity over the years, making it either slightly or a lot less stable.
Focusing on pressing strength without a counterbalance of equal gains in pulling strength creates the exact same issue.
If you have both, your shoulders are ticking time bombs.
And contact sports athletes, I am certainly not saying that pressing strength is bad for you, or causes shoulder injuries. What I am saying is that you need to keep your training in balance. Train just as hard to do more quality pull-ups as you do for your bench.
Reason #2 – Surprise!!! Back Strength Actually Helps Your Bench Press
OK, so maybe the “I won’t get hurt in the future” argument isn’t all that exciting.
How about this – the greater your pulling strength the higher your potential to bench more weight.
As you lower the bar, it is the back muscles that best help you to control that descent by keeping its movement at a controlled speed. Without sufficient back strength the bar would lower faster than you may want, giving it downward momentum that will make pressing it back up harder to achieve.
When you see people bouncing the barbell off their chest it is a function of poor use of their back muscles, either intentionally to create momentum or due to weakness. That bounce is a classic example of developing weight room strength and not real, usable strength for sports because it uses a spring effect to partially lift the bar for you.
Just developing more back strength would allow you to create greater control, leading to a more stable platform on which to drive yourself to ever higher weights on your bench press.
Reason #3 – A Stronger Back Can Make You Faster
Your upper body strength plays a big role in your ability to accelerate up to top speeds. Powerful arm drive, especially the arm that goes behind you, helps your legs to overcome inertia and get rolling far better than those with poor arm drive.
And since the key phase is the backward motion of the arms, it is the pulling muscles in your back that have the greatest influence on your upper body’s contribution to getting up to top speed quicker.
Reason #4 – It Enhances Rotational Power
Hockey slap shots.
Field hockey passing and shooting.
They all are rotational in nature. And although the power created for these movements comes first and foremost from the legs and core, your back muscles play a key role, too.
I first put this together listening to an NHL strength coach at a training conference about a decade ago. He told us that at the NHL combine one of the two major factors he looks for in a prospect (body fat percentage between 6-13% was the other) is how thick and strong their back is.
Fast forward to five years ago when one of our athletes, who previously played at the University of Notre Dame, told me every single player on his team could do at least 20 pull ups.
And if you are a Boston Bruins fan, you know the legend of Zdeno Chara and his powerful slap shot is fueled by an ability to bang out 25 pull ups despite having insanely long arms.
Pick any rotational sport and the transfer is going to be the same. Strong back, more powerful sport-specific movement.
Reason #5 – Back Strength Goes Hand In Hand (Figuratively & Literally) With Grip Strength
Research on grip strength is finding that a stronger grip correlates with lower shoulder and elbow injuries. And, it appears to correlate very highly with overall strength throughout the body.
Beyond this, increasing your grip strength can help you in a range of sport skills where you hold a bat, club, racket or stick. Higher grip strength also helps with tackling and grappling for sports like football and wrestling.
And of course there is one more key benefit – a stronger grip lets you go heavier on exercises in the weight room, most notably deadlifting.
Pulling drills by their nature also develop grip strength. They are essentially 2-for-1 exercises when it comes to the development benefits you receive from them.
Clearly there are a lot of reasons you should give back strength a more prominent place in your athletic development programming.
And when you get to the point where you care just as much about how many pull ups you can do compared to how much you bench, you know your mind is in the right place.