The prominence of the anterior muscles of the upper body in many explosive sporting actions such as handing off in contact team sports and striking in combat sports can often result in the back muscles being neglected.
This is frequently the case for boxers who throw high volumes of punches, repeating the same types of muscular contractions using their pectorals and anterior shoulders.
Whilst strong anterior upper body muscles are a pre-requisite to performance in a sport like boxing, complete disregard for the condition of the posterior muscles during training can contribute to muscle imbalances.
Therefore, at Boxing Science we place emphasis on the development of the back muscles in the two strength sessions our athletes will perform each week.
In this article we will:
Provide an overview of the anatomy of the key back muscles.
Outline how the role of certain back muscles contributes to a boxer’s performance and helps to prevent injury.
Offer examples of back exercises we incorporate into our programs and important coaching cues to consider when performing these movements.
The back is comprised of a combination of large and small muscle groups that maintain scapular stability/motion and contribute to the function of the trunk in protecting the spine.
The main muscles groups we are concerned with as S&C coaches in boxing are the posterior deltoid/shoulder, rhomboids and latissimus dorsi.
The latissimus dorsi, more commonly known as ‘the lats’, form the widest muscle group in the body, covering the majority of the lumbar spine.
The lats’ muscle fibers originate from the upper back (T7 – T12) and insert on to the humerus between the pec major and teres major muscle groups.
The primary function of the lats is arm adduction or bringing the arms back towards the midline.
At the shoulder joint the lats also contribute to arm flexion, internal rotation and extension.
Antagonists to the function of the lats are the anterior shoulder and pectoralis major.
Compared to these two muscle groups the lats may be deemed as an under-active muscle group in boxing.
However, amongst the back musculature, the lats are probably one of the most frequently recruited muscles due to their synergistic role in arm flexion and internal rotation which are prominent during the punching action.
The lats are also responsible for swiftly returning the hands back to the guard position following a mistimed and assist in flexion the shoulder when performing what is commonly known as a ‘Salute’ defence to block hooks and powerful straight shots.
Eccentric strength of the lats at the end range of a punch has a considerable influence on stiffness of the punching arm, thus helping to optimise the second impulse highlighted by Mcgill and Colleagues (1).
This second peak in muscle activation is augmented by actions of the rhomboids and posterior shoulder.
The rhomboid muscle group is comprised of two functionally similar muscles, the Rhomboid major and Rhomboid minor.
Both are shaped like the head of an arrow and are situated in the upper back, separating musculature of the cervical and lumbar vertrebrae and are aligned centrally, between the scapulae.
The Rhomboid major is notably thicker than the minor muscle and is also located below the Rhomboid minor.
The superior (higher/above) position of the Rhomboid minor means that it originates from a more cervical position compared to the thoracic origin of the Rhomboid major.
The muscle fibres of both muscles run downwards and spread laterally, away from the spine, to insert on to the inside of the scapula with the Rhomboid minor inserting higher up along the the shoulder blades.
These two muscles groups are primarily responsible for retracting the scapula i.e bringing the shoulder blades towards the mid-line and inferior rotation of the glenoid cavity which accommodates the ball-like surface of the shoulder.
In simpler terms, the Rhomboids facilitate the cue of ‘pulling your shoulder blades back and down’ when setting up for exercises such as the deadlift.
Retraction of the scapular is important for maintaining a correct posture when sitting, standing and walking.
For boxers, maintaining strength in the scapular retractors is important to prevent the development of poor shoulder mechanics as a result of excessive scapular protraction associated with the guard position.
A constant protracted posture places excessive strain on the rhomboids and can cause them to become dysfunctional over time leading to injury, instability and pain around the shoulder joint which can be detrimental to a boxer’s preparation.
Thus, retaining the ability to retract the scapula using appropriate resistance exercises is a key component of our strength training and serves to preserve shoulder function throughout an intense training camp.
Aside from boxing, the rhomboids are pivotal to performing some key exercises correctly due to their influence on scapular movement.
Specifically, olympic lifting variations, deadlift patterns, vertical pulling and pressing all require stabilisation of the scapular to maintain postural control and get the most out of these movements from a force production and muscle activation perspective.
The posterior shoulder comprises one of three surfaces of the shoulder or deltoid muscle.
This muscle originates from the spine of the scapula and primarily functions as an extensor of the upper arm at the shoulder joint.
Similar to the rhomboids, the posterior shoulder muscles are often underactive and underdeveloped among boxers due to the frequent recruitment of the opposing anterior muscles, specifically the anterior deltoid and pectorals.
Weakness in the posterior shoulder is a primary cause of postural imbalances among boxers, contributing to the rounded shoulder posture that many combat athletes display.
Prolonged periods in this posture can impair shoulder function and stability due to constant internal rotation of the humeral head.
Thus frequent strengthening of the external rotators i.e the posterior deltoids is important to counteract the tendency of the shoulders in becoming internally rotated.
Lastly, the posterior shoulder muscles also play a key role in maintaining postural stability during key lifts such as the deadlift.
Therefore, from a strength training perspective posterior shoulder strength should be emphasised in the training phases leading up to maximal or near maximal loading in the weight room.
STRENGTHENING THE BACK
Now that we are aware of the importance of strengthening the back muscles for boxers from both a performance and injury prevention perspective, determining the correct loading parameters, training frequency and exercises is the next step.
Firstly, the initial aim when training the back musculature is to enhance muscular activation rather than overload these muscle groups.
This will help in correcting the upper body postural imbalances commonly seen in boxers (i.e rounded shoulder posture as eluded to previously).
To optimise back musculature activation and muscular endurance during a session we prescribe higher volumes and lower loads compared to that of pressing movements in our general preparation and strength development phases.
This helps athletes understand how to recruit their postural stabilisers under load without relying on more prominent muscle groups such as their trapezius and lower back muscles.
Similarly, appropriate exercise selection is a key component of maximising strength training of the back musculature for boxers.
At Boxing Science, we use a combination of horizontal (rowing variations) and vertical (pull up/pull down variations) pulling exercises to optimise back development throughout a training camp.
We incorporate horizontal pulling variations in our programs to primarily target the rhomboids and posterior shoulder muscle groups, whilst also promoting some latissimus dorsi recruitment.
The standard horizontal rowing movement we include in our programs is the TRX or inverted row, which has been previously shown to elicit high levels of upper back and lat activation whilst minimising stress on the lower back (2).
This is a basic exercise that typically features in our general preparation/foundational strength phases and can be easily progressed/regressed by adjusting the position of the feet, relative to the anchor point.
More advanced horizontal pulling exercises that serve to expose the upper back musculature to greater loads whilst limiting input from the lower back include chest supported rowing variations.
Chest supported rowing variations can help reduce load through the erector spinae (3), therefore allowing the athlete to isolate the desired muscle groups which are the rhomboids and posterior shoulder.
The main chest supported row that we include in our programs is the dumbbell prone row.
We have found this exercise to be extremely effective in promoting higher loads through the upper back, posterior shoulder and latissimus dorsi without sacrificing muscle activation.
It is important for the lifter to think about rowing the dumbbell back towards the ribcage in order to maximise upper recruitment.
Single arm rowing variations also feature in our programs and involve greater core activation in order to resist rotation towards the weight bearing limb (3).
Additionally, we can address potential imbalances between sides when performing uni-lateral pulling movements.
The main single arm rowing movement we incorporate into our sessions is the single arm bent over row.
When performing the single arm bent over row it is important to adopt a flat back posture by pushing the hips back and retracting the shoulder blades whilst maintaining a firm core brace throughout the movement.
For horizontal pulling exercises we typically program 8-10 reps (each side for uni-lateral exercises) x 3-4 Sets, paired with a horizontal pressing exercise such as a chest press.
During maximal strength phases where pressing movements are performed at or close to the athlete’s three repetition max (3RM), horizontal pulling exercises (usually a prone row) may be performed with a heavier load for six reps.
Vertical pulling movements are the most effective means of targetting the latissimus dorsi (4, 5) which are an important muscle group for boxing as referred to previously.
Classic examples of vertical pulling exercises that we use in our programs include the pull up and pull down.
The pull up is a standard exercise many boxers will have performed before joining the Boxing Science program.
However, there are often numerous faults with their technique which is usually caused by an attitude of getting their chin over the bar by any means possible.
We commonly say at Boxing Science if you wouldn’t allow athletes to squat or deadlift with ‘the get it up at all costs mentality’ then why would you permit it when performing pull ups?
To optimise lat recruitment during the pull up it is imperative to avoid extension of the lower back.
This can commonly occur when the athlete is fatigued towards the end of a set and is desperate to complete the given number of reps.
However, it is much more preferable for the athlete to tuck up their knees slightly to gain extra momentum but also to maintain core tension throughout the range of motion.
Secondly, to optimise the stretch shortening cycle of the lats, which is more applicable to a boxing context, it Is important for the athlete to display long arms at the bottom, moving through a full range of motion.
Also, to exploit the stretch of the lats and upper arm muscles, the athlete should avoid pausing at the bottom and immediately pull up towards the bar once a fully lengthened position has been achieved.
Lastly, the head should be kept neutral and the athlete should avoid extending the head, looking up towards the bar as this tends to be synonymous with lumbar extension.
Other than pull ups, cable machine pulldowns are an excellent option for novice trainees, those who struggle with overhead mobility or heavier athletes who cannot perform pull ups with correct technique.
We also incorporate bi lateral and uni-lateral pull down exercises during taper phases to reduce load whilst prioritising muscle activation and overhead mobility.
Similar to row variations, vertical pulling exercises are usually performed for 8-10 reps x 3-4 sets and are paired with a vertical pressing exercise such as a dumbbell shoulder press.
Athletes may progress to weighted pull ups during maximal strength phases for 5-6 reps x 3-4 Sets.
Weighted pull up drop sets are also a great strategy to use during general preparation and strength development phases to maximise muscle tension throughout a set and promote type two five recruitment.
When performing this drop set, athletes will perform 3 weighted pull ups followed by 5 unweighted reps and will repeat for 3-4 Sets.
POSTERIOR SHOULDER ISOLATION
Despite rows and pull ups/pull downs being effective compound exercises for the back musculature, we also strive to isolate and develop the posterior shoulder using specific exercises.
This is because bigger muscles such as the lats, rhomboids and biceps are likely to takeover during compound horizontal and vertical pulling movements, therefore inhibiting recruitment of smaller muscles such as the posterior shoulder.
As such, we use accessory back exercises to directly target the posterior shoulder during our strength sessions.
An example of this type of exercise is the TRX T-Raise or reverse fly.
More examples include band pull aparts, dumbbell Y raises, incline reverse flies and TRX Y-Raises.
For a range of exercises that can be performed to isolate the posterior shoulder using only mini bands check out the video below.
BACK EXERCISES FOR BOXING – UNLIMITED OPTIONS
In this article we have provided some of the basic horizontal and vertical pulling exercises that we use to develop the rhomboids, lats and posterior shoulder.
It must be stressed, however, that many other variations can and should be performed to stress the desired muscle groups in a different way and expose them to differing demands by manipulating the base of support, addition of transverse plane movement and varying the tempo with pauses and slow eccentrics.
See the video below for a comprehensive compilation of the back exercises we have used and continue to use with our athletes at Boxing Science.
In conclusion, the back musculature should be viewed as one of the key pillars of strength training for boxers and should be targeted in each strength training session.
The primary back muscles of concern for boxers are the rhomboids, latissimus dorsi and posterior shoulder.
At Boxing Science, we use both horizontal and vertical pulling exercises to place sufficient stress on these muscles to promote adaptations in strength and muscle endurance.
These back exercises are prescribed with higher volumes in order to help balance out the frequent recruitment of the anterior muscles displayed by boxers in training and competition.
Horizontal pulling movements include the TRX row, dumbbell prone row and single arm bent over row whereas chin ups, pull ups and lat pulldowns are standard examples of vertical pulling exercises for the back.
- McGill, S.M., Chaimberg, J.D., Frost, D.M. and Fenwick, C.M., 2010. Evidence of a double peak in muscle activation to enhance strike speed and force: an example with elite mixed martial arts fighters. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(2), pp.348-357.
2. Fenwick, C.M., Brown, S.H. and McGill, S.M., 2009. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(5), pp.1408-1417.
3. Saeterbakken, A., Andersen, V., Brudeseth, A., Lund, H. and Fimland, M.S., 2015. The effect of performing bi-and unilateral row exercises on core muscle activation. International journal of sports medicine, 94(11), pp.900-905.
4. McGill, S.M., Cannon, J. and Andersen, J.T., 2014. Muscle activity and spine load during pulling exercises: influence of stable and labile contact surfaces and technique coaching. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 24(5), pp.652-665.
5. Youdas, J.W., Amundson, C.L., Cicero, K.S., Hahn, J.J., Harezlak, D.T. and Hollman, J.H., 2010. Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(12), pp.3404-3414.