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How to do Band Pull Aparts: Benefits, Mistakes, Coaching Cues

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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.

band pull apart

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What are Band Pull Aparts? 

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 Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Stand up straight and hold a band out in front of you. Use a pronated grip (overhand grip, palms facing the floor). 
  2. Your arms are straight, and will remain straight the whole time. The band is just above your eye level. 
  3. Begin to pull the band apart by squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  4. Pull the band at a slightly downward angle so that it ends up drawn across your collarbone with your hands outstretched to either side of your body.
  5. While controlling the band, begin to release it in the exact opposite path back to the starting position allowing your shoulder blades to separate and your hands to come forward. 

Coaching Cues:

  1. To engage your upper back muscles, imagine trying to squeeze a pencil between your shoulder blades. 
  2. The width of your hands is dependent on the tension of the band. If using a very light band, have your hands closer together for more tension. If the band is very heavy, take a wider grip to reduce the tension. The width of your hands doesn’t actually matter so long as you can use a large range of motion and appropriate band tension. 
  3. Don’t let the band snap you back. When the band is drawn across your collarbone it will be at peak tension, and the tendency will be to let the band snap you back to the beginning. Don’t let this happen, be in control of the band the entire time. Resisting the eccentric portion of the band pull apart is equally as important as the pull apart itself. 

Common Mistakes

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: 

Shrugging your shoulders

band pull apart mistake

Don’t shrug your shoulders

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.

Bending your arms

band pull apart mistake

Don’t bend your elbows

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.

Don’t lean backward, keep your body upright

Band pull apart mistake

Don’t lean 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.

Why You Should Do Band Pull Aparts

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 teaches you how to properly engage your upper back

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. 

band pull apart

Squeeze your upper back

How to Include Band Pull Aparts in Your Workout Program

Do them every single day

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. 

As part of your warm-up

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. 

Ultra high reps or burnouts

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.

About the Author

Daniel Yores is an online fitness coach and wannabe philosopher. His focus is coaching people to build more muscle, more strength and become leaner and healthier. He believes fitness can be the foundation to build one’s best life. He also hosts a podcast, The Daniel Yores Podcast, where he speaks to experts on how they use fitness and health to improve lives. You can check it out on iTunes or Spotify.

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