Want to Age Well? Do This Upper Back Exercise Every Week

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older couple doing band pull-aparts with their trainer at a gym
Band pull-aparts are one of the best exercises for strengthening your upper back and shoulders.
Image Credit: Moyo Studio/E+/GettyImages

In the era of smartphones and computers, most of us have our upper backs in a constant state of flexion (read: rounded forward). While poor posture doesn't seem like a big deal, it increasingly becomes a problem as we age.

That's because poor posture can make lifting heavy groceries off the ground, pulling doors open and other everyday activities that much harder — not to mention, it can put you at risk for serious injury.

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Fortunately, doing pulling exercises, like the band pull-apart, can help strengthen your upper-back muscles, including your rhomboids and traps, and shoulders, which are crucial for maintaining good posture, says Michelle Ditto, a California-based training development manager at Pure Barre.

The band pull-apart is one of the safest exercises for working your upper back and shoulders because it uses a resistance band instead of a dumbbell or kettlebell, reducing the impact on your joints.

So whether you're 20 or 60, you'll want to make sure the band pull-apart is a regular in your upper-body workout routine.

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How to Do the Band Pull-Apart

All you'll need to do this exercise is a long-looped resistance band, but make sure to choose the resistance wisely.

"If there's too much tension in the band, good chances are you won't be able to execute the exercise properly and in full range of motion," says Jessica Mazzucco, CPT, founder and head trainer of The Glute Recruit in Scarsdale, New York.

A kit like this Allvodes Resistance Bands Set will allow you to progress as you gain strength. You could also use a tube-shaped resistance band (as seen in the video) or a lightly resistant rubber loop band.

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Aim to perform 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 20 reps at least two non-consecutive days per week, Mazzucco recommends. Or try it as part of your upper-body and core warm-up before a full-body strength training workout to activate your core, prep your shoulders and maintain a strong posture.

Band Pull-Apart

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Body Part [ "Back", "Shoulders", "Abs" ]
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees soft (rather than locked).
  2. Hold a resistance band with one hand near each end, at a comfortable shoulder-width distance apart.
  3. Reaching your arms straight forward with your palms facing up, pull your shoulders back and down to activate your back muscles and rotator cuff. (Starting in this engaged position helps with proper alignment.)
  4. While maintaining the shoulder blade retraction, pull the band apart at the same speed and force with both arms at the same time.
  5. Pull as wide as your mobility allows while maintaining your posture. Hold the extended position for one breath, then slowly release the movement back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for desired reps and sets.

Tip

Adjust your grip to target different muscles: “Palms facing down will ignite the triceps more, and palms facing toward your body will highlight the deltoids,” Ditto says.

5 Tips for Better, Safer Band Pull-Aparts

1. Brace Your Core

Form check: Before performing any band pull-aparts, exhale and pull your navel in and up to brace your core, prevent your rib cage from flaring open and keep momentum out of the movement.

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2. Don’t Snap Back

"Movement in both directions matters," Ditto says. "Pulling the band laterally contracts the back muscles. The 'release,' or eccentric contraction, on the way in also engages the muscles. Both parts are equally as important to overall alignment and to build strength."

3. Make Your Breath Work

To amplify the deep core contraction, consider your breath pattern as you perform each rep. Forcefully exhale as you pull the band apart.

4. Listen to Your Body

There's a big difference between "good pain," when your muscles are engaged, challenged and ready to grow, and "bad pain," when your muscles and joints feel tense, overly stressed or achy.

If it hurts, take a pause and try some dynamic upper body stretches before you attempt another set. If this becomes a pattern, consult with your doctor or a physical therapist.

5. Make It Your Own

If you notice any pain in your neck or shoulders, adjust the range of motion or the elevation of your arms.

Performing the pull-apart slightly below shoulder height can be a great place to start if you tend to feel tension in your neck. Or make it easier by simply swapping in a lighter resistance band or walking your hands wider.

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