It was a holiday weekend and all the commercial gyms were closed, but the shed at Sam Fielder's dairy farm on the Johns Hopkins campus was open as usual. Walking in, I was surprised to find Jack and Allen working out. I gave them a friendly nod (that was my first mistake) and started my regular Friday program (my second mistake). "Say, coach," Jack said, coming over to me, "could we ask you a couple training questions?" I sighed. "Fire away." That was my third mistake. What was coming my way wasn't a couple of random shots but a fusillade, a broadside.
"A lot of the guys we see in the gyms don't seem to have balanced physiques," Jack said. "They have big chests and arms and maybe legs, but something's wrong." "No traps," I said. "That's right!" he exclaimed. "How'd you know?" "It's been that way since bodybuilders stopped doing some of the Olympic-style exercises like power cleans, snatches, high pulls and especially shrugs." "How come bodybuilders did Olympic lifts?" Allen asked. He had come up on my blind side.
I took a deep breath. "When the Amateur Athletic Union controlled the sport of bodybuilding, the contestants who competed in the top shows, Mr. America and Mr. USA, were required to prove that they had accomplished a certain level of proficiency in another sport. These athletic points were critical. The easiest way to gain them was simply to lift in Olympic contests, since most of the physique men also did many of the lifts as part of their training anyway.
And some were amazingly strong. Vern Weaver power-cleaned 380 pounds before jerking it overhead. Sergio Oliva -- perhaps the strongest of all the great bodybuilders -- snatched 290 and clean-and-jerked 360 in the 198-pound class." "Wow!" Jack said. "So why don't bodybuilders still do Olympic lifts?" Allen asked. I laid down the barbell. "When Joe Weider took control of the sport," I said, "he dropped the athletic-point concept and as a result, the physique contestants stopped doing heavy pulling exercises.”
Without the heavy pulls, especially the heavy shrugs, trap development declined. Thick traps just make your entire upper torso look more massive and powerful. Look at photos of Sergio in his prime. traps as thick as the hump on a Brahman bull." "How come more people don't do those exercises then?" Allen asked.
"Two reasons," I said. "Building big traps requires handling heavy weights. traps just don't respond to light weights. Most guys are content to use 225. Second, doing heavy shrugs correctly takes practice, and this can be discouraging. Instead of looking awkward, they stay with lighter weight. But that doesn't feed the bulldog."
"Traps are real important to football players, aren't they?" Jack asked. "To help protect their necks?" "Absolutely," I said. "And not just football players. Almost every athlete needs strong traps. You can hurt the neck in so many ways in sports: diving into a base in baseball, getting thrown to the floor in basketball, a collision in soccer.
Even noncontact sports like tennis and swimming can place the athlete in a situation potentially harmful to the neck. So maintaining a strong neck is not a luxury for any athlete, but a necessity." "We do shrugs," Jack pointed out, "but from what you say, we don't use enough weight." "No, they're much more involved than that," I told him. "The traps are made up of four overlapping layers of muscle. They originate at the base of the skull, swing out and tie in with the deltoids at the shoulders, then form a wide triangle all the way down to the middle of the back.
That's why they have to be worked with heavy weights. You have to punish traps. They're capable of moving, in explosive fashion, over a quarter of a ton. My boys aren't satisfied till they can move six big plates on each side of the bar." Allen and Jack exchanged glances. "That sounds like a lot of weight, coacht." "They don't start with that amount," I said. "First they have to master the technique. Most stay with 315 for two or three weeks before adding weight. But once they have good form, I let 'em load the bar. If their traps aren't sore after a workout, they didn't do enough.
But when the traps are worked hard, they respond almost instantly, better than any other muscle group." "We've been doing those high pulls you wrote about in Muscle & Fitness, and they get our traps sore," Allen said. "High pulls are good to do along with shrugs because they fit into a second day of back work nicely," I told him.
"Will you show us how to do dynamic shrugs?" Allen asked me. "Sure," I said. "You two can do them along with me. The best place to do dynamic shrugs is inside a power rack. But since we don't have one here, we can do them off the bottom rack of the staircase squat rack.
The power rack is best because it allows you to position the bar at the exact height you want, and it's also very safe since if you happen to lose your balance, you can just step away from the bar. But that also holds true when you do them off a squat rack. If you ever happen to lose control, just let the weight go. "What's the right starting height?" Jack asked. "Mid-thigh," I replied. "If it's too high, you won't be able to get as much action out of the bar; if it's too low, you won't be able to get the bar in motion properly. Use straps because you can't shrug correctly without really being locked to the bar.
Without straps, your grip will fail with the really heavy weights. Step in close to the bar. Very close. Set your upper body in the correct position with your frontal deltoids slightly ahead of the bar; keep your arms straight and think about pushing your feet down through the floor. As soon as the bar breaks from the pins or rack, drive your hips forward. This will elevate the bar to belt height. Using this momentum, pull the bar as high as you can, concentrating on keeping the elbows up and out. Remember, once the elbows turn back, the traps will no longer contract." "How high should I try to pull the bar?" Jack asked.
"As high as you can," I told him. "Pull exactly as you do for the power clean. Some like to warm up with a set of power cleans to get the feel of the explosive movement. Obviously, the heavier weights will not travel very far upward, but once you've formed the pattern of pulling dynamically with the lighter weights, the heavier ones will climb a bit higher. The higher the weight is pulled, the more muscle fibers get into the act. Which, in turn, builds stronger, thicker traps."
Jack did his set correctly, but he allowed the bar to crash back to the rack after each rep. I cautioned him: "Control the weight more at the very top. Don't let it jerk you around so much. When you allow that to happen, you're running the risk of hurting your shoulders or elbows. And it's not necessary. When the bar reaches the top of the pull, resist it slightly and hold it briefly like you would a heavy deadlift. Lower it in a controlled manner back to the rack, reset, then do your next rep. Don't rebound the bar off the rack either. Pause momentarily to make sure your body is in the correct pulling mode before doing the next rep. Do five reps." Allen then took a turn, but wasn't pulling the bar nearly high enough.
It looked more like an upright row. "Don't think of this as an exercise, but as a feat of strength," I told him. "You are really using your entire body to elevate the bar. Your feet have to be planted firmly, your legs, hips, back and shoulders have to be tight and you have to really grit your teeth and try to move the bar higher and higher. Once it passes your belt, I shouldn't be able to see the bar move. It should be a blur. Your motion isn't bad; it's just too deliberate. When you lift your elbows up and out, do so forcefully, as you would to throw a punch." On his final few reps, Allen did better.
When he finished, I said: "The elbows are really the key to doing this lift correctly. With your frontal deltoids out in front of the bar, the elbows have to be driven upward, with the idea of trying to touch your shoulder caps to your ears. This isn't possible, of course, but this is what you should be thinking at the top of the pull." For their second set, we put 225 on the bar. Jack did one rep, then had to step forward to control the bar. "This is a great teacher for the top of the pull," I told them. "If the bar runs forward, you're not keeping it close enough to your body and not bringing your hips through correctly.
If you have to step backward, you're allowing your elbows to turn backward too soon." He did the rest of his set correctly, remarking, "I'm hitting my belt." "Which means you're pulling right," I replied. "I don't recommend using a belt for shrugs because you'll hit it, but some people insist they just don't feel comfortable without one." "Could we vary our grip to hit different muscles?" Jack asked. I nodded. "The basic grip is the same one you would use on the power clean, but altering the grip will allow you to work different groups.
Some like to do the regular grip one-week and a slightly wider one the next. Others prefer to change their grips on successive sets in the same workout. When you do this, it's best to start with the wider grip and work inward since most people are stronger with the clean grip."
We moved on to 315 pounds, and while I was doing my set, I told them: "I use another form of dynamic shrugging for variation or when I don't have any type of rack to hold the weight for me. I call them Hawaiian shrugs because that's how we did them at the University of Hawaii till we got a power rack.
These are done outside a rack without any support between the reps. They are also beneficial for anyone who has trouble learning the exercise inside the rack, since they force you to do them correctly. They're done exactly like those inside the rack, but you have no relaxation time between reps. The first few times you do shrugs outside a rack, stay rather light. You want to make sure you have the form down before loading up the bar, and also Hawaiian shrugs work the shoulders a bit differently. This is a plus if the form is right, but if the bar starts to move around too much, you can get hurt."
"Can you think of an instance where the static type of shrug is better than the dynamic kind?" Jack asked. "Sure," I said. "People with shoulder problems often can't do the explosive movements. Or they may have bad knees or sore backs and the explosive type of exercise aggravates those bodyparts. The static form of shrugging can be effective if it's worked hard enough and heavy enough. Too many trainers think they're getting the job done with 225. Even 315 isn't enough to build larger traps. You have to get up in the 400-pound range to get results.
When doing the static version of the shrug, lift the weight as high as possible, then resist it at the top for a couple of seconds on each rep. If you get an electric jolt through your neck when you do shrugs, you're doing 'em right. And, of course, the true test of whether you handled enough weight or pulled hard enough is if you're sore the next few days. "Should we do the high pulls on one back day and the shrugs on the other?" Allen asked. "Or should we ever put them back-to-back on the same day?" "Either is fine, but you might want to cut down on the sets the first time you try training them back-to-back.
Four sets of high pulls, then three or four sets of heavy shrugs. That would certainly attack the traps." Jack and Allen nodded. "That's what we want. Traps make the man." "You said it," I agreed.