A simple exercise you should use daily
Band pull aparts are a simple exercise that you can (and probably should) as a part of your pre-workout warm-up. They will help improve your posture, keep your shoulders healthy, and increase your upper back strength. If that’s not sexy enough for you, all of that will help you squat, bench and deadlift more weight, so don’t ignore this.
Many exercises are given silly names that don’t really tell us what they are or how to do them. Bulgarian Split Squats anyone? Somehow the fitness community has accepted that “Bulgarian” refers to elevating your back leg. Thankfully, that is not the case for band pull aparts.
As the name implies, you’re pulling… the band… apart. Of course there’s more nuance than just that. So maybe the perfect name would be: Standing Pronated Grip Straight-Arm Rhomboid/Mid-Trap/Rear-Delt Band Pull Aparts. Even then, I’m sure even someone who understands those anatomical terms would find a way to misinterpret that… oh the wonders of language.
Band pull aparts are an exercise that you can and should master. Certain exercises have a lot more to think about, and will still be somewhat beneficial even when they’re not done perfectly. If not done correctly, band pull aparts are pretty much useless. Avoid these common mistakes:
Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears. Our body likes to make things easy, so it defaults to stronger or tighter muscles. Due to our use of devices and technology, almost everyone has tight upper traps. If you don’t actively prevent it, you will simply turn this into a shrug with your shoulders coming up to your ears, which doesn’t effectively use much of what we’re trying to focus on.
This is why we pull in a slightly downward motion. Pulling in this direction is opposite of the motion the upper traps produce, and helps us to better engage our rhomboids, middle traps, and rear delts. Drop your shoulders down before you start, and keep them there.
The bending and straightening of your arms turn the band pull apart into a tricep exercise. And not even a good tricep exercise.
To avoid this, straighten your arms and lock your elbows tightly before you begin. Squeezing your hands in a tight grip helps to maintain stability through your elbow to avoid the tendency to bend and straighten. Maintain this elbow rigidity throughout the exercise to keep the focus in your upper back.
Leaning backward or arching your back brings your chest closer to the band, effectively reducing the range of motion to “complete” the rep. Except for the part where you didn’t even really do it; all you did was lean your weight around instead of engaging any upper back muscles. These are probably the same people who stick out their necks to touch the ground on pushups while barely bending their arms.
Stand up tall and only pull the band backward, it’s not about “completing” some arbitrary number of reps, it’s about doing it right. If you feel the urge to lean backward or arch during band pull aparts, in all likelihood the band is just too heavy. Either widen your grip or use a lighter band.
There is a saying among strength coaches that goes “You can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe.” It essentially means that if you have a weak base, then you won’t be able to exert a lot of force. This concept can be applied to many different situations but I think one of the best is with reference to the upper back. If your upper back is weak, it will limit nearly every other lift you’d do in the gym. Now, nobody ever developed a super strong upper back from only doing band pull aparts, but it certainly can contribute.
It’s one thing to know that you should engage your upper back, it’s another thing to know what that feels like and how to do it on command. When done correctly the band pull apart isolates the muscles of the upper back without a large amount of external load.
This allows for a great deal of sensation, in other words, you should be able to feel it. Once you can recognize this feeling, you can then reproduce it in heavier exercises where upper back engagement is required. Sensation is not something we should chase, but it can be a great teaching tool. Take a deadlift for example. The primary muscles worked are not those of the upper back and you shouldn’t feel your upper back working. However, the upper back must be working in order to maintain a neutral spine, vertical bar path and overall perform the exercise well. Band pull aparts can teach you how to engage your upper back, so that you can apply that to every other exercise.
Doing some band pull aparts for 3 sets of 10 once a week is not nearly enough to offset sitting in a hunched-over position for 10+ hours per day. Our modern life tends to not be great for posture, upper back and shoulder health overall. None of us are about to go live in the forest, so we’ve got to find other ways to offset our behavior.
Band pull aparts are easy enough that you can do them every day. Keep a band near your desk or somewhere readily available. You don’t have to get dressed in workout clothes or do a warm-up or anything. My best advice is to simply sporadically do them throughout the day. Maybe once an hour, every time you check social media, every time you take a phone call, or whatever works for you.
How many should you do? As many as you can. I tell people to aim for 100 per day. That’s only 10 per hour over 10 hours, which is very achievable. More is better. You can reasonably do a set of 25 every hour. Remember, we’re trying to offset hours and hours of sitting hunched over, so it’s going to take quite a bit of volume to even make a dent.
This is not meant to replace heavier upper back training, but you can’t do that every day. (However, I recommend you train back about twice as much as much as you train chest.) Band pull aparts are easy enough physically and logistically to accumulate tons of reps throughout the day.
Band pull aparts can be part of a warm up for every workout. As previously mentioned the upper back is almost always involved to some extent, so it’s a good idea to get those muscles warm before getting into your workout. Aside from all the benefits of warming up in general, it’s also going to reinforce the engagement of those muscles. Even for an experienced lifter, there’s value in getting that upper back engagement sensation before a lift as a mental and physical reminder to keep it tight during the workout.
Certainly a less relevant use here, but worth noting nonetheless. There is a time and a place to use sets with reps as high as 50-100+ and naturally you wouldn’t select big heavy exercises for this purpose. Something simple like a band pull apart works well here to really train the endurance of those crucial upper back muscles. I would consider “burnout” or “finisher” sets the same way, if you’re into that sort of thing. You’re not doing big heavy exercises for those, so something like a band pull apart works great as a finisher for a back focused workout.