Have you ever noticed that most bodybuilders limit their back training to mostly lat exercises? While many bodybuilders train their lats with intensity, any kind of training for the traps’the second largest muscle group of the upper body’is often an afterthought. Once they’ve completed their chins, pulldowns and various rowing exercises, they throw in a few sets of shrugs or upright rows and figure the traps have had enough. You can put that idea in the category of wishful thinking.
If you look at the trap and upper-back development of a Mr. Olympia competitor, you can be sure that it took more than a few sets of shrugs to get that massive. The traps are an unusual muscle group in that they can be seen in any position’from the front, the side or the back. Trap development gives the whole back a round muscle density. Bodybuilders who don’t train traps hard often look thin from the side and unbalanced when viewed from the rear. Let’s face it: Bodybuilders who wish to develop a complete back and, especially, large, rugged traps and thick upper-back muscularity and detail must give their traps an equal share of work’about as much as they give the lats. Only then will their backs take on that much desired round thickness and rugged appearance.
Some trainees avoid trap work because they believe it will take away from shoulder width. For most people that’s sheer nonsense. Sergio Oliva, Lee Haney, Serge Nubret, Flex Wheeler and Ronnie Coleman all have huge traps, and yet they still appear tremendously wide and V-tapered. The only people who have to be concerned about overdeveloping their traps are those who have short necks and narrow clavicles. Someone who’s built like that, with a short neck and huge traps, might take on a no-neck appearance and look hunchy. Most women won’t want to overdevelop their traps because overly large and developed traps detract from the feminine shape.
When bodybuilders think of traps and trap development, they usually focus on the upper traps, the part of the trapezius muscle that slopes into the shoulders from the neck. That’s certainly an important area to develop, especially if you want to look good in a most-muscular pose, but it’s not the full story when it comes to trap development.
For back thickness and oval fullness it’s important to build up the middle and lower traps too. While the tops of the traps respond well to exercises such as shrugs, it takes other movements to work the total traps from top to bottom. It’s also vital to develop the rhomboids, both major and minor, along with the traps. Many bodybuilders aren’t aware that the rhomboids lie beneath the traps, as do the infraspinatus muscles, so working them gives thickness and density to the traps and upper back as well.
The best exercise for developing the rhomboids is dumbbell bent-over lateral raises, on which you pinch the scapulae, or shoulder blades, together at the top of each rep. If you move the ‘bells smoothly just to deltoid height, the rear delts get the bulk of the work. By moving the weights higher and consciously pinching the scapulae together at the top, you work the rhomboids.
John Parrillo, the new guru of muscle building, says that one of the best exercises for developing the lower traps is the seated behind-the-neck press. Most people think of the behind-the-neck press as a deltoid exercise, but when you do it the way Parrillo has his pupils do it, the lower traps are developed too. Says Parrillo, ‘Many bodybuilders have shallow backs because they haven’t built their lower-trapezius muscles, which support the musculature of the back. Perform behind-the-neck presses correctly, and you’ll get bigger traps and a larger back overall.’
How do you work the traps when doing behind-the-neck presses? I’ll let John tell you in his own words: ‘The most effective way to perform behind-the-neck presses is to drop your shoulders and flex your lats as you press the weight upward. Straighten your elbows, and, as you lock out, press your hips forward while tightening your abs. Then push the weight back slightly without arching your back.’
What you don’t want to do’but what most trainees commonly do’is to arch your back excessively as the bar goes up. Arching, or bending backward, allows you to maneuver heavy weights overhead but lets your arms and lower back do most of the work, instead of the deltoids and traps, and leads to poor shoulder flexibility. For overall trap development and for thickening the upper back and bringing out cuts and detail, I think the power clean is unbeatable. Albert Beckles had one of the most muscular backs of all time, and one of his secret exercises was the power clean. He almost always included it in his routine. I’m surprised that more bodybuilders don’t use this great movement. Besides giving the traps a terrific workout and adding slabs of muscle to the upper back, the power clean also works the spinal erectors, pumps the biceps and forearms and develops balance and coordination and, as the name implies, power, as well as getting you huffing and puffing like a steam engine for an aerobic effect.
You must take some precautions when doing power cleans, though, because cleaning the weight’that is, throwing the weight up quickly’places tremendous stresses on connective tissues. It’s important to warm up properly. I suggest you begin with a light weight and do an easy 20 repetitions on your first set. I also recommend one light set of reverse curls for 15 to 20 repetitions. That warmup will heat up the tendons and ligaments and get some blood flowing to lubricate the joints. An easy set of hyperextensions to warm up the lower back would be prudent too. If you’ve never done power cleans before, try to find an advanced lifter at your gym to show you how. For those who train at home or who don’t have an advanced lifter handy, I’ll describe briefly how to do them.
Get into position as if you were about to do a deadlift. The bar is on the floor, your knees are bent, your back is flat, and you have a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip on the bar. Pull the weight off the floor, and just as it gets to about knee height, suddenly snap, or clean, the weight upward, catching it at shoulder height. It’s vital that, at the time you snap the bar up with your arms, you shrug strongly with your traps and upper back. When you lower the weight, do it with control. Pause and lower the bar to midcalf, which is called a dead-hang, and then clean the weight again. The power clean is not the type of clean done by Olympic weightlifters; they do clean and jerks. There’s no diving under the weight, as there is with that movement. The knees bend a little, but that’s about it.
The power clean is not a high-repetition exercise. The best combination is to do sets of four to eight reps. After completing one light warmup set of 20 repetitions, add some weight to the bar and aim for eight reps. For the third set add more weight and go for six repetitions. Add more weight to the bar so it’s a real struggle to get five to six reps for the fourth set. Add more weight to the bar, and try to get four reps on your final set. Believe me, after a few weeks’ hard work on power cleans your entire back will be thicker and more muscular. You’ll kick yourself for not adding this great exercise to your routine long ago.
The barbell upright row has always been considered a good deltoid and trapezius exercise and good for tying in the two bodyparts. Many people seem to be unaware, however, that, depending on the style, you can place more emphasis on the delts and less on the traps or more on the traps and less on the delts. To work the deltoids primarily, use a medium-heavy weight and move the bar up and down in a smooth, pistonlike motion, with no heaving of the weight or shrugging of your shoulders. Your shoulders should be down and back, and your grip should be 12 to 15 inches wide. There should be no deliberate pauses at the top or bottom. The bar stays in constant motion and goes just to shoulder height, not to the chin or nose. You simply row nonstop until muscular fatigue forces you to stop. Because there is no shrugging of the shoulders, trap involvement is minimal.
To work your traps with barbell upright rows, use a narrower grip’say, six to eight inches’and a heavier weight, one that forces you to heave the weight to get the bar to chin height and to shrug hard with your traps. Lean forward at the start of each repetition and really shrug hard with your shoulders as you heave/row the bar to your chin. Really get your back into the movement. Keep your repetitions in the six-to-10 range; for example, 10, 8, 6, 5-6.
Power cleans and upright rows followed by several sets of shrugs make for a pretty damn good trap-and-upper-back routine, but I have a couple of other exercises that turn a pretty damn good trap-and-upper-back routine into a great trap-and-upper-back routine.
One movement I particularly like because it works both the upper and lower traps is the power upright row. Pick a fairly heavy weight, one that limits you to five or six repetitions of the barbell upright row as described above. Do as many repetitions as you can. When you fail’and by fail I mean when you can no longer get the bar to chin height no matter how much you cheat, heave and shrug with your traps and shoulders’lower the bar to the floor with control as if you were doing a stiff-legged deadlift. You can even bounce the bar off the floor a little bit. Then, using speed and momentum, lift the bar from the floor all the way up to your chin. What you’re doing is using the speed and momentum to help you drive the bar past the sticking point until it gets to chin height. Lower with control again and then explode up from the floor to chin height again. Keep going until you hit failure again’that is, you cannot pull the bar to your chin even when you use the speed and momentum of lifting it off the floor.
I find that I can usually do double the number of reps I used for the upright rows on their own. If I did six reps of cheating upright rows, I can do another six reps of power upright rows. Sometimes even more than double. The power upright row is a fantastic trap exercise and works both the top and the bottom of the muscle. If you do it after power cleans, you’ll really hammer your traps. Without a doubt the favorite trap exercise of most bodybuilders is the shrug. There are many variations of the shrug. You can do it with a barbell, with dumbbells or on a bench press station of a Universal Gym unit. You can do them while holding the weight in front of your body, to the sides of your body, or behind your body. You can do them with an overhand grip or underhand grip (a favorite of Lee Lebrada, who claims it works the lower trapezius effectively). You can do them standing or sitting. You can do them bent-over, parallel to the floor or with your body at a 45 degree angle.
No matter which style of shrugging you do, there are a few basic rules to follow. Try to keep your arms straight and shrug your traps as high as possible’as if you’re trying to touch your ears. Since the range of motion of the shrug is fairly short to begin with, do all you can to shrug as fully as you can. The one exception to that might be when you handle extremely heavy weights in the power rack. If you can shrug 400 to 600 pounds’using straps to reinforce your grip’then even if your range of motion is shorter, you’ll still work your traps quite intensely. Here’s a good trapezius tri-set routine:
(warmup) 1 x 15-20
(work sets) 4 x 8, 6, 5-6, 4
at top) 3 x 8-10, 6-8, 6
rows 3 x 6-8, 5-6, 4-6
rows 3 x 6-8, 5-6, 4-6
Shrugs 3 x 10
I have one final exercise to share with you. I call it the trap pulldown. It brings out upper-back detail and muscularity like crazy and also carves out separation. I discovered this exercise almost by accident one day in the gym. People think of the pulldown as a good lat exercise, but when they perform the behind-the-neck variation, they actually work their traps more than their lats. That’s because they use weights that are too heavy for proper form. When they pull the bar down to the back of their neck, they hunch over and lean forward, chin pinched to chest. That style works the traps and upper back more than the lats.
To work your lats, it’s vital for you to keep your torso vertical throughout the movement and pull your elbows down and back. You can’t use as much weight, but at least you work lats.
If your goal is to work the traps, however, go ahead and use as much weight as you want, and don’t worry about remaining vertical. Hunch forward so the brunt of the work goes to the traps. Just drive the bar down to the base of your neck while squeezing and tensing your traps and upper back.
The trap pulldown is the cheating lat pulldown taken to its logical conclusion. I was fooling around with the lat machine one day, trying to find a good finishing movement for the traps. That’s when I hit on the trap pulldown. It’s all about contraction and squeezing the traps and upper back. The range of motion is relatively short. Here’s how to do it.
Kneel on the seat support of a lat machine. Bend over until your traps and upper back are almost parallel to the floor. Pull the bar straight down until it touches your traps and upper back. Pause and squeeze with all your might for a count of three. Allow the bar to return to the starting position and repeat for several sets of 6 to 10 repetitions.
All that tensing and squeezing will bring out not only the cuts and separation of the traps and upper back but also the rear delts’and the biceps and triceps to some degree. When you’re doing trap pulldowns and you’ve pulled the bar to your traps, do a rear double-biceps pose for a count of three or four, and then relax and return to the starting position. Believe me, you’ll really notice an improvement in your upper back and trapezius development.
To ratchet up the intensity a bit more, do a triple drop on your last set of trap pulldowns. You can also tri-set trap pulldowns with power upright rows and shrugs’but always do your power cleans first. Believe me, your traps will burn. IM