Special exercises series - No.13 The upper back deadlift for overall thickness
I was introduced to the exercises “Dorian deadlift” by my friend Paul Carter. It is essentially a deadlift the way that Dorian Yates naturally does it (I don’t think Dorian tried to invent a new exercise, he just did his deadlift this way instinctively). Paul wrote a good article on this movement here.
Basically, he does something similar to a Romanian deadlift (starting from standing and lowering the barbell slightly below the knees). The main differences from a Romanian deadlift are that he bends the knees a bit more, making it more of a back than hamstring movement, and he lets the shoulder blades protract the low position and pulls them back together as he stands up. This greatly enhances the stimulus placed on the upper back, mostly rhomboids and traps.
I began to do this form of deadlift earlier this year and liked it, but I recently tweaked it a little to increase the focus on the upper back even more. It has now become my favorite exercise. Which is really saying something because I’ve always hated any type of deadlift!
Please read on if you want to learn about this amazing thickening exercise.
What is the upper back deadlift good for?
- It is the best exercise to increase the overall thickness of the back.
- Specifically, it hits the rhomboids, rear delts, teres minor, teres major and traps hard. It’s also one of the few exercises that allow you to load these muscles with very heavyweights.
- Of course, being a deadlift variation, it also heavily involves the lower back, glutes and hamstrings.
- For those who are “strength-oriented” or training for powerlifting, I find the upper back deadlift to be a great assistance exercise for the deadlift, particularly if your weak point is passing the knees.
- Since you are not putting the barbell on the floor after each rep, the target muscles stay under constant tension (especially with the upper back deadlift modification that I use) which makes it a more effective hypertrophy tool than a regular deadlift. I also believe that the transition between the eccentric and concentric phases plays an important role in stimulating muscle growth, and this transition is present in this exercise whereas it is not in the regular deadlift (from the floor).
How is the upper back deadlift performed?
- Pick up the barbell from the floor or from pins. Your starting position will be from the top of the deadlift (standing position).
- You should use a slightly wider than shoulder grip with shoulders are pulled back and elbows pointing back.
- From there, slowly lower the barbell to just below the knees. This is done similarly to a Romanian deadlift but with slightly more knee bend (you want to feel some tension in the hamstrings, but not as much as in a Romanian deadlift). As you are going down you also want to allow the shoulder blades to protract slightly. Not to the point of rounding the upper back, but enough for both blades to move away from each other by about 2-3”.
- When you reach the low position (below the knees) pause for a second and initiate the upward pull by pulling the shoulder blades back together (retraction) first. When the shoulder blades start to move inward, start to stand up (that is, don’t wait for the shoulder blades to be pulled back to stand up).
- So far, it’s the same as the Dorian deadlift. Here is the difference: stop about 10-15 degrees from the fully upright position (before your torso is perpendicular to the floor). Hold that position while aggressively pulling the shoulder blades together and making sure that the elbows are pointing backwards. This is your finish position (so essentially you’ll never get back to the original starting position).
Are there any variations to the upper back deadlift?
There are two that can be used: the same movement can be used with a wide/snatch grip (Upper back snatch-grip deadlift) to hit the teres and lats a bit more. In fact, it might proportionally involve the upper back muscles more but you will also use less weight so the effect on hypertrophy is likely going to be similar, but as a change of pace, you won’t lose anything from it.
You can also do it from the safety pins in the power rack (Upper back rack pull). It’s not just a deadlift from pins; you must respect the same mechanics as the upper back deadlift: starting the bar 1-2” below the knees, opening up the shoulder blades in the low position, closing them on the way up, not standing up all the way. Since you aren’t maintaining tension for the whole set (you reset the bar on pins after every rep) and there is no eccentric-to-concentric transition, it will not be as effective at building size, but you will be able to use more weight so as a strength exercise to help your deadlift go up or your upper get stronger it can be a good addition.
What do you need to avoid with the upper back deadlift
- While you need to let the shoulder blades protract in the low position, you don’t want to get to the point where you look like Quasimodo! The trick is to let the shoulder blades move away from each other while maintaining tension in the upper back. Do not relax completely (it would defeat the purpose of the exercise anyway).
- Do not keep the legs too straight. If they are, the tension will shift mostly to the hamstrings. You will also have to use a bit less weight and the goal is to really overload the upper back. And the more weight you can use while respecting the proper form, the more effective the exercise will be.
- Don’t hyperextend the cervical spine in the low position (extend the neck to lookup). This holds true for any type of deadlift but even more so with this one since the whole thoracic and cervical spine area is emphasized. Keep the head in line with the spine. A very slight extension is okay and can increase recruitment of the upper body flexors (including several upper back muscles) but hyperextension is a no-no.
- Do not stand up completely at the end of the rep. While still an effective exercise (Dorian deadlift), you will lose tension in the upper back muscles, slightly reducing the muscle growth stimulation.
What is the best loading parameters for the upper back deadlift
This is meant to be a heavy loading movement even when used as a muscle-building tool (which it should be). For hypertrophy purposes, I feel that sets of 4 to 8 reps are ideal. Since it is a higher risk exercise (it’s a deadlift after all) I like to pyramid the weight up from set to set.
Depending on how much volume I’m doing in that training phase I might do something like:
Normally only the last 3 sets are challenging, the first 2-3 are normally used to groove technique and improve the mind-muscle connection.
I also personally like to do this exercise last in my back session (à la Dorian Yates). Don’t forget that the reason I’m using this exercise is to overload the upper back. When my upper back muscles have been trained, it is much easier to finish stimulating them with a compound movement. I don’t have to use as much weight to get the same effect (even if the weight is, let’s say 70%, it still feels like 85% for the upper back but only 70% for the lower back/legs reducing the negative carryover and risk of injuries). Since the upper back muscles are pumped and activated, it’s also easier to involve them in this exercise, which is something that a lot of people have a hard time with during deadlifts.
That having been said, if you have not yet built a good strength foundation, it is likely smarter to use this exercise earlier in the session (first or second exercise) and increase the reps (8-10 per set).
I always hated deadlifting because I felt like I got nothing out of it and for me, it is important to feel like the exercise is doing something while I’m doing it (not just because I read it on the internet!). This variation does that. And although technically it’s not a “real” deadlift, my goal is to build thick muscle, not to be good at a specific skill. However, even powerlifters specializing in the regular deadlift can benefit from this great exercise. It will never leave my program (at least not for long!)