When teaching how to draw the human form, the instructor tells the aspiring artist to draw two inverted triangles, one on top of the other. They represent the upper torso and the hips. At the apex of the lower triangle are the lumbars, and at the top of the upper are the traps. Those are the keystones of the body, the muscle groups responsible for stabilizing the shoulder girdle and hips, Few think about it, but it’s an effective, marvelous design. If there were only one keystone, say, in the lower body, then the upper body would be less able to perform many functions and, of course, vice versa.
While just about every strength athlete understands the value of keeping his or her lower back strong, few realize the role the traps play in building and maintaining total upper-body strength. In most programs I’m asked to look at and critique, traps are virtually ignored or are considered a minor group. If they’re worked at all, it’s with token resistance.
That can have consequences far beyond performance and appearance. Weak traps will eventually cause problems. Most start with small, bothersome dings. If the relative weakness is not attended to, it escalates into a full-blown injury.
Because of the love affair most strength athletes and bodybuilders have with the bench press and a corresponding lack of regard for strengthening their traps, there’s an epidemic of shoulder injuries—some small, some major. In several of the routines I’ve examined, the workload for the frontal portion of the upper body is often 10 times as great as it is for the upper back. When the traps are allowed to get much weaker than the chest and front deltoids, they’re no longer able to hold the shoulder girdle in proper alignment. The shoulders steadily start to slope forward. I’ve trained in gyms where every person working out displayed that weakness. A facility full of slump-shouldered trainees—not a good advertisement for management.
The first indication that something is amiss is usually a nagging pain in the rear deltoid. That group is also weak because it’s mostly involved in exercises that center on the traps. If the relative weakness is recognized and acted upon before it becomes severe, it can be easily resolved. If the upper back and rear deltoids don’t get priority until the weakness is corrected, however, several things will happen, none of them good. The weakness will prevent athletes from making significant gains in any upper-body exercise. The pain will force them to abandon many of their favorite exercises, and finally, they may have to stop training their upper body altogether. In many cases they have to have surgery to repair the damage to their shoulder or shoulders. All of that could be easily prevented simply by making their upper back much stronger. That’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.
Having strong traps has always been high on my list when I’m setting up my own training programs, partly due to an article in Strength & Health that I came across in the mid-1950s, right after I got interested in weight training. It was entitled “Strong Traps Saved My Life,” the tale of a man who was involved in a collision with a moving van. His passenger and the truck driver were seriously injured, while he walked away with only a nasty bump on his head. The doctor who examined him declared that it was a miracle that he didn’t have any type of neck or back injury. That was, by the way, before seat belts.
Naturally, I don’t recall the exact details, but the gist of the exchange went along these lines. The man said, “I have a strong neck and upper body because I compete in the Olympic lifts. That means lots of heavy pulling exercises.” “Well,” the doctor responded, ”you can thank those exercises for saving your life.”
Anyone who’s truly interested in preparing for any sport that includes lots of contact must make certain that his or her upper back is not just strong but extremely strong. One thing I’ve always been pleased and thankful for is that not a single athlete I trained in a wide variety of sports at three universities ever sustained a serious neck or upper-back injury. That was largely because I emphasized upper-back work from the very beginning and the athletes worked those exercises hard and heavy. Believe me, it’s well worth the effort.
Before Weider took control of physique competition in the early ’70s, all of the top bodybuilders had impressive trap development. That was because they all did the Olympic lifts as part of their training. The majority of them also competed in Olympic meets. That’s no longer the case, and it shows. Seldom do I see a set of traps on bodybuilders that are in proportion to the rest of their upper body. I’ve even read comments from bodybuilders who state that they don’t want big traps. They feel those mounds of muscle on their shoulders will detract from their arms and chests.
I disagree. Sergio Oliva had traps any European Olympic lifter would covet, and they sure as hell didn’t take away from his arms and chest. Same for Val Vasilef, Bill Pearl, Vern Weaver, Bob Gajda, Steve Stanko, Dave Draper, Serge Nubret, Franco Columbu and many more. If you really want to see the ultimate upper-body development, check out the classic photo of John Grimek posing against a Roman column, shown above. The eye is first drawn to his massive upper arm, instantly pulled up to his mind-boggling deltoid and then on to the mass of muscle on his shoulder. Without that huge trap, the effect is lost. He became a bodybuilder with great arms. With the traps, he became a legend.
While it’s obvious that anyone engaging in such sports as football, lacrosse, soccer, hockey, basketball and baseball needs a strong upper back to prevent serious injuries to the neck and upper spine, those muscles are also valuable to those who engage in noncontact athletic activities. A strong set of traps is certainly beneficial to throwers in field events and to tennis players who want to improve the power of their swings, as well as to golfers, swimmers, runners, volleyball spikers and diggers, wrestlers and on and on. It’s never a detriment to have extrastrong traps. It’s always a detriment to have weak traps.
Of all the athletes who benefit from large, powerful traps, those competing in Olympic weightlifting recognize their value the most. They also provide feedback on just how much work these muscles can handle and how thick and strong they can become. One thing they have conclusively taught the athletic community is how much workload they can endure. Many foreign lifters do heavy pulls in some manner three times a day. Then they come back the following day or perhaps the day after a rest day and hit their traps again for three sessions. Those athletes are proof that the traps can handle an enormous amount of abuse and thrive.
Well-developed traps indicate that athletes have been doing their homework. When I watch a boxing or mixed-martial-arts match on TV, I observe the contestants’ traps and bet on the person who has the best set. I’m almost always right. I do the same thing for powerlifters and those competing for strongman titles and usually pick the winner.
Speaking of powerlifters, a great many of them are guilty of neglecting their traps. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it? Yet lots of them contend that traps aren’t that useful since they aren’t directly involved in the three lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. Not so if you examine those lifts closely. Strong traps are critical for handling heavy weights in the squat. A weak upper back will cause lifters to lean excessively on limit poundages. They’re unable to maintain a strict upright position throughout the lift, and that adversely affects technique once the weights get demanding.
Traps are also most helpful when you’re deadlifting heavy poundages, although very few powerlifters know how to use them fully. Almost all of them wait until the very end of the lift to activate their traps, and that usually results in a hitching motion, which is grounds for disqualification in competition. A better move is to bring the traps into play just as the bar passes the knees. Then all you have to do is drive your hips forward, and the deadlift is completed without any hitching.
Few think of traps in terms of bench pressing, but a strong upper back is necessary in order to lift anything heavy. That’s mostly because when you work your traps diligently, you’re also involving your rear deltoids. That often neglected group is rather hard to strengthen except for when you pull heavy weights up quite high. Proficient benchers know to contract their traps as they prepare to take the bar off the racks; they know that assures them of a very solid foundation from which to press the weight upward.
Strong traps are beneficial to anyone who trains with weights, even those who aren’t interested in moving anything heavy and aren’t seeking an award-winning physique. Strong traps provide a solid ledge of muscle on which to position the bar for squats, lunges and good mornings. My female athletes invariably told me that they didn’t want the big traps that the males had, and I assured them that the only way that would happen was if they gained a great deal of weight. Traps can be made considerably stronger without making them extremely large. They will, however, become defined. That the ladies didn’t mind at all. In fact, they seemed to enjoy the attention it brought them.
Few understand or appreciate just how many functions the traps take part in until they ding them. Then they suddenly are aware that any movement of the upper torso, shoulders and arms is dependent to some degree on their traps.
Trap, of course, is the commonly used term for trapezius. The name derives from its shape, a trapezoid. The muscle originates at the back of the skull, parallel to the top of your ears. That’s why working the traps provides protection to your neck and upper spine. The muscle then swings downward to form a V and connects with the last thoracic vertebra in the middle of the back and on the way links up with the rear deltoids. When worked hard and heavy, it can become one of the strongest muscles in the entire body.
While the traps must be greatly overloaded to make them appear like mounds on your shoulders, you must first establish a firm foundation before trying to move really heavy poundages.
Start with power cleans, which serve multiple functions. They help build a solid base, not just for the traps but also for all the other groups in the back, as well as the hips, legs and shoulders. They’re an explosive movement, which means they activate more muscle fibers than a more deliberate exercise. The form learned from doing power cleans makes it easier to learn lifts that will be used later on, like high pulls and shrugs.
Start with your legs touching the bar. To find your best foot position, shut your eyes and set your feet as if you were about to do a standing broad jump. If you’re using an Olympic bar, extend your thumbs so that they’re barely touching the smooth center. That’s your ideal grip. Should you not have an Olympic bar, grip whatever you do have just outside your legs, basically shoulder width. Flatten your back, look up, and make sure your front deltoids are slightly in front of the bar. With very straight arms, bring the bar off the floor smoothly. Try not to jerk it upward because that will cause your arms to bend, and you don’t want that yet. As the bar passes your knees, drive your hips forward, and contract your traps forcefully. Your arms must remain straight to this point. Only after the traps have been involved do you bend your arms. At that same moment extend high on your toes to get added height from your calves. That combined action of traps, arms and calves will make the bar jump, and that’s when you bend your knees and rack the bar across your shoulders.
You need to learn to rack the bar across your front deltoids rather than on your clavicles; the latter action will result in considerable pain and, if done repeatedly, dings to those bones. Your elbows will be up and arms parallel to the floor. Never lean back when racking a power clean. That can be harmful to your lower back. Rather, keep your torso upright and dip somewhat forward to meet the bar. Once it’s secure on your shoulders, lower it to your waist, then on to the floor. Don’t let it crash from your shoulders to the floor. Invariably, when that’s done, the lifters round their back excessively. Keep in mind that you can hurt your back lowering a weight as well as lifting it if you employ faulty technique, and rounding the back is a form mistake.
Since power cleans classify as a high-skill exercise, keep the reps fairly low. Five sets of five work well, with occasional heavy triples and doubles. Concentrate on form and don’t try to run the numbers up too rapidly. Mastering the technique is of greater importance in the beginning.
Power snatches are also good for learning the correct line of pull and for working all the back muscles equally. You won’t be able to handle as much weight on power snatches as on power cleans, but there are other reasons to include them in some manner in your routine. Power snatches have to be pulled much higher than power cleans, and that means some different muscles get into the act. The wider grip used for power snatches also forces some groups to do more work, such as the lats and the wider part of the upper traps.
Those are the main differences between the two quick lifts: The grip for the power snatch is much wider, and the bar has to be pulled considerably higher than for power cleans. Your starting foot stance and body mechanics are identical. On most Olympic bars there is a score 10 inches from the collar on each side. Wrap your ring finger around that. Of course, those with broad shoulders will need to grip the bar a bit wider and those with narrow shoulders a bit closer. Some trial and error will reveal the best grip for you.
For all of the pulling exercises done from the floor, set your hips as high as you can, just as long as you can hold that position when you break the bar from the floor. The higher you can set your hips, the longer the lever. Some are able to fix their hips so that their backs are parallel to the floor; however, if you cannot hold that position, lower them. The main point to remember on any pulling movement is that the bar should travel upward at the same rate as your hips. Should your hips rise too fast, the bar will run forward and seriously affect the finish.
Get set, then pull the bar off the floor and bring it up over your head and lock it out with straight arms. Same deal with the arms as with the power cleans. Keep your elbows locked until the traps have contracted. Think of throwing the barbell upward, which, in effect, is what you’re doing. The bar has to stay snug to your body. If it moves away even a couple of inches, it will not be in a position where you can drive it higher. When the bar has reached its highest point, bend your knees and rack it overhead, being sure to lock your arms as you do so. Don’t just hold the bar overhead but extend up against it and keep it under your control. Fix it at a spot directly up from the back of your head. Lower it in the same manner as power cleans—first to your waist, then to the floor.
Key form points: Keep your back flat throughout the movement. The bar must be very close to your body as it travels upward. It should almost be touching your chest as it passes through. Elbows go up and out, not back. The power snatch should resemble a whip—slow off the floor, picking up speed through the middle and a blur at the finish. At the end of the pull you should be high on your toes, and your body should be perfectly erect.
The set-and-rep formula I use for power snatches is two warmup sets of five followed by three to five work sets of three. The triples will let you use more weight than fives, and more weight means more muscle and attachment involvement.
After doing power cleans and/or power snatches for six to eight weeks, you’ll be ready to overload your pulling muscles. Snatch and clean-grip high pulls fill the bill. I recommend including both in a routine because they work the back, including the traps, in a slightly different manner. Use straps. While you may not need them for the warmup and intermediate sets, you will once you get to the really heavy poundages, so it’s a good idea to get accustomed to using them.
On both forms of high pulls the objective is height. You can never pull the bar too high, a notion many lifters and coaches seem to miss. From the very first rep, pull the bar as high as you can. That may mean pulling it up over your head. Good, that’s exactly what you want, as it establishes what you’re attempting to accomplish. The longer the pull, the harder the traps and rear deltoids have to work, and very few exercises activate those two groups so completely.
Extend fully even when the weights get demanding. At the conclusion of the pull, your body should be erect, not bending down to meet the bar. The sequence of traps before arms is more critical on high pulls than it is for power snatches and power cleans because the weight is so much heavier. So if you want to handle big numbers, the movement has to be smooth and coordinated. Your eventual goal is to use 100 pounds more on the clean high pull than you’re power-cleaning and 75 pounds over what you’re power-snatching on the snatch high pull. Stay with three reps on those. High pulls can be worked separately or plugged in right behind power cleans or power snatches. Three to five sets are enough in the beginning.
Take time to hone your technique on the high pulls before moving to shrugs. When you’re able to master the top pull on high pulls, shrugging comes easily. Shrugs can be done with a snatch or clean grip, either inside or outside a rack. Whenever I was confronted with shrugging in a gym that didn’t have a power rack, I improvised by taking the bar off the bottom rung of a staircase squat rack or even the end of a bench. I dubbed them “Hawaiian style” shrugs, as we didn’t have a power rack at the University of Hawaii for the first two years I was there. The athletes had to take the bar off two small pins on the back of our squat rack.
Set the pins inside the rack at midthigh. Strap on with whatever grip you choose, flatten your back, make sure your front deltoids are slightly in front of the bar and pull it upward just as high as possible, If you haven’t learned the traps-then-arms sequence, you won’t be able to shrug much weight. Once you do and have the weights jumping, however, pile on the plates. The goal I set for my male athletes and one that nearly all achieved in an off-season strength program was to be able to give 585 a good ride on the clean-grip shrug. That’s six 45-pound plates on each side of the bar. The athletes loved it because when they went home and trained at a local gym, they got lots of attention when they shrugged.
Again, your goal is height. I’ve found that it helps to have a target to aim for, so I either hold a stick at the height I want the lifter to try to reach or set a pin loosely at that spot. Don’t lock the pin in the rack, or you may end up jarring your wisdom teeth. Five sets of five, working to limit. Obviously, the final set or sets aren’t going to travel more than a few inches. That’s okay. Just so you’re putting max effort into the movement. If your traps aren’t sore the day following a shrug session, you didn’t handle enough weight.
In my series on older athletes, I stated that I didn’t think they should do any dynamic pulling movements, which includes all those covered in this installment. Yet strong traps are extremely valuable to older athletes. Solution: Shrug deliberately with a bar or dumbbells and do a sufficient amount of work to get them a tad sore. I’m not a fan of trap machines for younger athletes, but they’re beneficial for older ones. Older athletes can also benefit from doing isotonic-isometric or just isometric holds on shrugs. Whatever it takes—just make sure you’re providing some direct attention to your upper back. A nice by-product of doing lots of heavy pulling is that it increases arm strength. When the elbows bend using big numbers, the prime movers of the arms are forced to work harder. When the attachment gets stronger, building a larger and more shapely upper arm becomes much easier. That deal should appeal to strength athletes and bodybuilders alike.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym