Written by Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
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The Path to Massive Traps
The One Neglected Exercise You Need
Even if you are not where you want to be yet, by pounding iron in the gym, your sweat and effort will eventually pay off with a thick chest, arms that will give your shirt stretch marks, and carved mass across your middle back. When it comes to the back, usually it is the latissimus muscle that garners most of the training attention from bodybuilders. As a result, the trapezius muscle often receives indirect work from other back exercises, but little direct work. To avoid imbalance in your back symmetry, this muscle needs some direct work.
You can tell the guys who have clocked many hours at the gym pounding their trapezius. A few are genetic freaks who have trapezius mounds that seem to rise from the top of their shoulders to almost touch their ears. These guys seem to have taken a cue from the Hulk, the comic book green mammoth who was illustrated with huge, monstrous traps that overshadowed his clavicle and buried his neck.
Perhaps you don’t want quite the extreme size of that green fellow, but if you choose to target this area, your trapezius can thicken toward Hulk-like portions— and this will make you a standout far beyond the average bodybuilder. Barbell shrugs behind the back provide an alternative to dumbbell and machine shrugs, and allow you to home in on your upper and middle trapezius muscle fibers.
Anatomical Activation by Shrugs
The trapezius has several parts, but it is primarily the superior (upper) fibers of this muscle that are activated by barbell shrugs behind the back. The superior trapezius begins along the base of the skull and the seventh cervical (neck) vertebrae. The fibers angle downward to attach on the lateral part of the clavicle (collarbone) and along the scapula (shoulder blade). The superior fibers lift the scapula and shoulder structures toward the ears (shrugging), and this is the portion of the muscle that is targeted by barbell shrugs.
The middle one-third of the trapezius muscle stretches from the upper thoracic spine, laterally to the posterior side of the scapula and clavicle. These fibers “squeeze” the two scapula bones toward the midline of the body (adduction of scapula). While the middle trapezius is affected very little if the barbell is in front of your body, placing it behind your back forces these fibers to pull the scapula together. The most inferior (lowest) parts of the trapezius muscle extend from an inferior medial position at the lower thoracic vertebrae, and attach to the scapula from below. The function of the inferior fibers of the trapezius is to forcefully depress (lower) the scapula.
Guide To Barbell Shrugs Behind the Back
Step 1. Place a barbell behind your thighs. Your hands and your feet should be spaced about shoulder-width apart. Take an overhand grip (palms facing the floor) on the bar, and stand with your knees slightly bent. You can also take the bar off of a power rack.
Step 2. Allow your elbows to straighten almost completely. You may want to consider using wrist straps to prevent grip failure during the heaviest sets, but they are not needed for the lighter warm-up sets.
Step 3. Raise your shoulders and both scapulae simultaneously, as high as possible. Your shoulders will come up and back during the lift. Try to squeeze the scapulae together as you are coming up. Although it will be nearly impossible, attempt to touch your ears with the superior part of your trapezius. Bend your neck just a little forward as the weights come up.
Step 4. Hold the top position for two seconds.
Step 5. Continue to squeeze the scapulae together as the weight is lowered about two-thirds of the way down to the starting position, and then let the scapulae slide forward as the shoulders are moved downward. Do not let the weight drop haphazardly, but control the weight on the way down.
Step 6. You are not quite done with the first repetition. At the bottom, let the barbell pull the scapulae and clavicles downward toward the floor even further, so that you are able to feel a good stretch across the superior trapezius muscle. This stretch between reps will fight off any cramping in your scapular muscles.
Step 7. After a two- or three-second stretch, repeat the movement and start the barbell moving upward as before.
Step 8. Exhale as the weight is lifted upward, and inhale as the weight comes down.
Any version of the shrug will activate the superior trapezius as you lift the shoulders upward. However, with the barbell behind your back, you are forced to squeeze the shoulders together (scapular adduction) as you lift upward, and this strongly recruits the medial fibers of the trapezius muscle. The inferior fibers of the trapezius muscle are not activated very strongly in this movement; however, they do see some work as they eccentrically (during the lengthening portion) resist lowering the bar in each rep. Try to get as much of a range of motion as possible in each rep.
Merely thinking about acquiring trapezius mass will not get the job done. However, the trapezius muscle is one that responds very well to regular hard and persistent work. Barbell shrugs behind your back will transform a thin and narrow trapezius and shoulder frame to a new thickness and power with Hulk-like proportions. Look at a most-muscular pose of Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath, and ask yourself if traps are important to a bodybuilder. The thick traps that explode above his clavicles quickly tell you that he has not neglected training the trapezius, and this makes his back look great from any angle.
Maybe you are not ready to challenge Phil on the Mr. Olympia stage yet. Nevertheless, if you are serious about adding some hulking mass to your trapezius, barbell shrugs behind your back will get the job done— and will add towering trapezius mass that cannot be easily camouflaged in clothes.