Saturday, October 26, 2019

Zap The Traps - Paul Kelso

Zap the Traps with the Gerard Trap Bar
by Paul Kelso 
(IronMan July 1988)

I didn't know what to expect when the UPS man came banging and clanking up the steps. He was lugging a mummy-wrapped contraption that looked for all the world like my father's description of the crankshaft of a Reo chain-drive truck. 

It was, in fact, Al Gerard's Trap Bar (pictured above, and yep, that's how straightforward they first were), which I had ordered from a weight training magazine. In the ad, the construction and shape of the bar appeared perfect for certain shrug movements I had been thinking about playing with in the gym, but my immediate response upon seeing the bar was, "It's too small.' 

Al Gerard is a deadlift record holder in the ADFPA (drug-free) competition in the South. He has had lower back problems in the past, and had been searching for a way to train without aggravating the situation. By developing the Trap Bar, Al has not only solved his training worries  but has greatly increased his deadlift. In addition to doing shrugs with this bar, Al performs deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, upright rows or high pulls, and variations of the deadlifts while standing on a three inch block.

This oddly shaped bar, which allows the lifter to stand inside, appears to be too small for a grown man to use. 

Note: I got one off a guy who, after first seeing the Gerard Trap Bar, had a welder buddy make an identical one for him. And yes, at first these older models look too small to be of use. They work fine! 

Actually, it has the potential to have a tremendous impact on the way we think about training. The theory is simple: moving the weights in closer to the body means that not only is balance improved, but also less effort is needed to move the weight. By standing inside the bar, the weight is located to the rear of its normal path of movement. This reduces lower back stress and shearing forces on the spine and knees. An improved leverage advantage is produced, providing higher intensity muscle stimulation. In short, a person can train more effectively and in greater safety.

Al is familiar with my work on shrug techniques and was kind enough to send me a bar with which to experiment. The first thing I did with it was load it up and try the bent-over or "Kelso" shrug for the middle and lower trapezius area. The response was just terrific!

The palms-facing or parallel grip feature provides the desired angle for maximum stretch and contraction while the braced bar delivers stability. Some think that machines provide the stability needed. My problem with machines has always been that they tend to train the targeted muscle or even the whole body to do what the machine does, not necessarily what I would like it to do.

Regular Trap Bar shrugs can be done straight up toward the ears without dragging the bar up the body. With the iron closer to the body and moving vertically parallel to the spine without body drag, a more effective contraction can be achieved with less lower back stress. 

In the bent-over or "Kelso" position the focal spot of contraction can be varied: to the lower, middle, or upper traps or lats. This type of focused contraction is difficult to do on a machine and nearly impossible with dumbbells without starting them swinging or having to change one's body position The best way to perform any bent-over shrug variation is face down on a high rowing bench or on an incline bench set at a low angle. This takes the lower back and legs out of the exercise and isolates the targeted muscles.

I had known for a long time that one of the most effective ways to shrug, at any angle, was with heavy dumbbells held with parallel palms. But, there are several problems with dumbbells

1) It is sometimes difficult with big poundages to get to bells into position without a spotter;

2) Too much effort is bled off into the lats and other torso muscles as the trainee tries to stabilize the weights and keep them in the groove, and

3) very few gyms stock dumbbells over 150 pounds.

Many top powerlifters can rep-shrug as much or more than they can deadlift and top Olympic-style lifters can shrug more than they can clean. (They better be able to or they won't get very far.) I know many experienced weight coaches hold that dumbbells are more effective than a straight bar for shrugging, but if 200 to 300 pounds is all that's available then there is a problem.

Most advanced bodybuilders need more weight than that for optimal development. I have seen Dr. Glen Bill Williams, a former Mr. Texas, doing shrug-reps with 800 pounds at a bodyweight of 225. That is not a misprint. So how can a trainee, on any level of advancement, handle maximum poundages with stability and still get maximum intensity. 

With the Gerard Trap Bar, that's how.  

It is an old habit of mine to experiment with recently developed gadgets and machines. I often discover that it is possible to use the machine in ways the manufacturer never intended. The Gerard Trap Bar is not only terrific for bentover shrugs, but overhead presses as well. This was the second movement I attempted with the bar (other than those listed by Gerard). The shape of the bar allows it to be lowered to a point below that possible when performing behind the neck presses and for the hands to be lowered to a point below and to the side of that possible when front or "military" pressing. One gets the benefit of heavy dumbbell pressing with palms facing each other and much greater stability. 

After 3 sets of 8 with the Trap Bar the lateral heads of my deltoids were screaming. Just when I was feeling smug about my "discovery" I received a copy of Doctor Ken Leistner's "Steel Tip" containing an article recommending overhead presses with the Gerard Trap Bar. 

Note: I'm looking for my Steel Tip issues in the randomly heaped piles I jokingly call a collection. It not there, I also had a digital copy of them all. Somewhere. One-a those external hard drives somewhere. 

The good doctor was way ahead of me, as he usually is. Differences in body proportions can make some devices less effective for some trainees. Very large or extremely heavy-shouldered people may find the hand spacing too close together for overhead pressing.

It is common for people seeing the Gerard Bar for the first time to think it is too small. But for the exercises it was originally designed for it will accommodate huge men. The bar is becoming very popular in football weight rooms and is currently in use by the professional Bears, Broncos, Bengals, Chiefs and Dolphins. There are some monsters on those teams. 

The Gerard Bar is a plus for football training because of the number of knee injuries and the widespread bias against squatting among athletic coaches. As the Gerard Bar greatly reduced shearing forces on the knees as well as lower back stress, it provides heavy hip and thigh exercise with greatly improved safety.

One other feature of the Bar is that no spotters are needed. The bar is adaptable to a wide variety of racks and stands in the gym if they are needed. It depends on what the lifter is trying to accomplish.

At age 50, I am trying to get back in shape to compete again. As I only have time to train twice a week, and want to develop both size and strength, it is important to avoid a workout so grueling that it takes me a week to recover. I have put together a program I believe will produce these results. 

Due to knee and back problems in the past (plus an inner ear operation that made squatting and overhead lifting a risky business for several years due to faulty balance), the Gerard Bar has come along at the right time for me. 

Here is my current routine: 


Squat - 8, 6, 4, 12
Gerard Bar Stiff-Legged Deadlift - 3 x 8
Bench Press - 3 x 6, then 10
Gerard Bar Upright Row - 3 x 8
Deltoid Cable Pull - 2 x 10
Wide Grip Pulldown to Front - 3 x 10
Gerard Bar Bentover Shrug - 2 x 8
Incline DB Curl - 3 x 8
superset with
Triceps Pressdown - 3 x 8
Standing Calf - 3-4 x 15-20
superset with
Waist Work - 3-4 x 15-20

I can hear the snickers now. This guy Kelso is trying to do a complete body workout every session. Only 30-32 sets? Well friend, if you don't think this type of training will work you haven't been following Bradley J. Steiner in IRONMAN. Wait 'til you see what I do Thursday. 


Gerard Bar Deadlift - 2 x 8
Gerard Bar Deadlift standing on three inch blocks - 1 x 8, 2 x 6
Incline Bench Press - 1 x 8, 3 x 6
One Hand Cable Crossover - 2 x 10
Gerard Bar Standing Press - 3 x 6-8
Bentover DB Row - 3 x 8-10
Gerard Bar Standing Shrug - 2 x 8
Barbell Curl - 3 x 8
Close Grip Bench Press - 2 x 8
Various Calf Work - 3-4 x 15-20
Waist Work - 3-4 x 15-20

On Saturday I do sets of cleans, benches and Gerard Bar deadlifts with moderate weights and afterwards play basketball and touch football and hike up in the hills. 

This program is working for me, as I have gained five pounds in two months while losing an inch off the gut. My knees have quit hurting and I've gained 40 pounds in the deadlift. 

After a few more months on this program I will gradually shift to a more specific powerlifting routine and then into a full power cycle. I've always wanted to lift in the National Master's. Heck, I may even enter some Master's bodybuilding meets. My last physique competition was 30 years ago. That's long enough.

Now let's talk about training for competition powerlifting using Al Gerard's system. 

Here's how I would set it up: 

Pre-Cycle Phase: Twice a week, heavy-and-light for squat and bench.

Day 1 - Heavy
Gerard Stiff-Legged Deadlift
Bench Press
Gerard Upright Row
Assistance Exercises

Day 2 - Light
Gerard Deadlift, heavy
Bench Press
Gerard Standing Shrug
Heavy Rowing or Pulldown
Assistance Exercises 

After three weeks, the stiff-legged deadlift and Gerard deadlift movements are to be performed while standing on a block or small platform at least three inches in height. This will insure greater range of movement in both exercises and produce much more thigh involvement in the deadlift. At this time I would drop the upright rowing and replace it with bentover "Kelso" shrugs on an incline bench at the end of the bench press workout.

Al stays with his Trap Bar training for about three or four more weeks and then converts to a full cycle of about eight weeks to peak out at the contest he's been shooting at all along. 

Lifters who feel they need more squat training might want to set up a three day program, squatting and benching on Monday and Friday and using Wednesday as deadlift day. 

Remember, the deadlift can be trained with the Gerard Bar as much as twice a week due to the reduced lower back stress. Now what about poundage elevation? 

Here's what Al Gerard recommends: 

Off-Season Phase

Trap Bar Stiff-Legged Deadlift- 4 x 8 with 20 to 40% of your maximum single regular deadlift. Off blocks after two to three weeks.

Trap Bar Upright Row - 4 x 8 with 20 to 30% of deadlift maximum.

Trap Bar Deadlift - 4 x 6 with 30 to 50% of deadlift maximum. Off blocks after two to three weeks.

Trap Bar Shrug - 4 x 12 with 30 to 40% of deadlift maximum.

Pre-Cycle Phase (Start about 12 weeks before competition)

Trap Bar Stiff-Legged Deadlift - 4 x 8, top set 50% of deadlift maximum (blocks)

Trap Bar Upright Row - 4 x 8, top set 35% of deadlift maximum

Trap Bar Deadlift - 4 x 6, top set 60% of deadlift maximum

Trap Bar Shrug - 4 x 12, top set of deadlift maximum

Peaking Cycle

The final eight weeks of the cycle should be used to implement a program found to be most successful in the past. The Trap Bar could be employed in this for shrugging or deadlift warmup sets. Drop standing shrugs from the routine at this time and use only bentover "Kelso" shrugs on an incline bench set at various angles. These are performed as an assistance exercise on the Squat-Bench day before my deadlift day. The standing shrug is excellent for maintaining bar height. But the key function of the trapezius and other scapular retractors in the deadlift is getting the shoulders back, not up! That is why I practice several sets face-down on an incline bench set at 35 degrees and several with it set at 55 degrees. These correspond to my body position during the initial pull and secondary pull of the lift as the body drives toward the vertical.

There is no reason why bodybuilders cannot benefit from using the Gerard Bar, even if it was obviously designed for powerlifting. Stiff-legged deadlifts, upright rows, shrugs and overhead presses are all standard movements. The change in leverage provides advantages not found with straight bars. 

This bar is a real winner for home training, especially with the deadlift standing on blocks for heavy hip and thigh work as spotters and squat racks are not needed! The bar can be loaded to 650 pounds, which is enough for anybody to get a workout. 

Proper Form

1) Stand inside the Trap Bar, feet shoulder-width apart.

2) Your ankles should line up just behind the yokes that hold the weight plates.

3) Your grip should be in the center of the handles, if not, the bar will tip. 

4) Use lighter weights until you are familiar with the feel of the Trap Bar.

5) Use good form at all times! It becomes second nature as you go along. 

Trap Bar and Shrug Movements Explained

1) Trap Bar Deadlift - Perform as you would a conventional deadlift with the straight bar. Your leverages are better, so you will use better form in that your legs and hips will do most of the work. Start in the low position, back straight, arms straight, and drive with your legs as if you were trying to push your feet through the floor. 

2) Shrugs With Trap Bar - Start the lift like the deadlift. After standing erect, shrug your shoulders upward toward your ears. Keep your arms straight.

3) Trap Bar Upright Row - Like the shrug movement except you bend your arms and lift the elbows high as you pull toward your ears. Looks like you are doing dips with the Trap Bar in hour hands or perhaps, negative dips.

4) Trap Bar Deadlift Standing on Blocks - Perform as your would  the deadlift except now you are standing on two to four inch blocks. Even more leg and hip force will be used because of the extended range of movement. Keep the back as straight as possible, arms straight, look up and again "push your feet through the floor." 

5) Stiff-Legged Trap Bar Deadlift - Stand inside the bar with your knees just slightly bent (knees unlocked), bend over at the waist, round your back and then pull straight up with control.

6) Stiff-Legged Deadlift on Blocks - Same as above, except by standing on blocks you extend the range of movement and make the exercise more intense. 

7) Overhead Press with Trap Bar - It is a little awkward to get the bar into position. It is not built for cleaning. You can place the bar on free-standing squat racks set close together or inside a power rack depending on how far apart the uprights are. Place your head and shoulders inside the bar and grasp the handles with the palms facing inward. Allow the bar to sag as far as possible, so that the handles are even with or below the top of the deltoids. Grab the handles just forward of center so that the bar tips slightly to the rear. This enables you to press straight up with very little lean-back. Return to the "sag" position for every rep. The outer deltoid will be strongly affected, with lesser benefits for the traps, triceps and upper chest. Sets of 6 to 8 seem best.

8) Bentover or "Kelso" Shrug - Take the position for the bentover row or lie face-down on an incline bench set at 35-45 degrees. Select a weight that could be handled in rowing for eight reps. Keeping the arms straight, pull or shrug with the back muscles and force the scapulae (shoulder blades) together. Concentrate on a point directly between the scapulae, focusing on the middle or lower traps. Lower the bar for a full stretch and contraction. Varying the angle of the bench calls different muscles into play as does changing the focus and direction of the contraction. You may use the Gerard Bar, dumbbells, a straight bar or other bars with a variety of hand spacings and grips. For instance, a close curl or palms up grip will affect the lats. A knuckles up, overhand grip is excellent for Olympic-style lifters while powerlifters may want to practice with their over-under competition grip.

9) Bench Shrug - This movement was originally called the Bench Crunch because the pectorals are "crunched" together at the completion of the movement. As it is pretty much the negative of the shrug explained above, I renamed it a few years ago. Take the pressing position on the bench and choose a weight you can bench normally for eight reps. Take the bar off the rack and hold at arms' length. Now, do not bend the elbows. Lower the bar by forcing the scapulae apart (sort of a lat spread with resistance) and forcing the shoulders off the bench while contracting the pectorals. Be sure that you keep the bar under control at all times and keep it on an up and down groove. You get off-line and the bar can end up in your lap. For that reason I insist that you always use a spotter or do it inside a power rack. The bar only travels three to four inches during this movement so you and your spotter can easily lock out from the pins set just below the range of motion. 

After several workouts with the Bench Shrug you will be able to begin adding weight. I, and others, have been able to use as much as 10-15% above maximum best single for several reps. This movement will greatly strengthen the shoulder girdle, increase stability and control for handling maximum singles, and help the lifter develop the lat flair and "shoulder roll" utilized by many great benchers. I repeat, work the weights up slowly over time and always have a spotter.

A few comments are in order as I begin to wrap this up. Yes, you can use dumbbells while doing bench shrugs. You can use the Gerard Bar for bench shrugs and "Kelso" shrugs. You cannot, I say again CANNOT bench press with it. Got that? You can, carefully, use it for incline presses, maybe. It depends on the person. I suppose an extremely tall of very short person might be able to bench with it, but 99 out of 100 people are going to risk smashing themselves right between the eyes with the bent section of the bar. 

The Gerard Bar has several unique qualities: 

 - It is designed as a deadlift training bar which provides reduced lower back stress and knee-shearing forces. When practiced with the "pushing your feet through the floor" technique it could be very useful to Olympic-style lifters for increasing the drive off the floor. This would also be of aid in training for the squat, when using the deadlift movement on blocks. 

 - It may be used in place of equipment or in addition to that already in use. 

 - Because of the Bar's balance it provides leverage advantages that result in increased training intensity. 

 - The bar is safer to use with certain high-poundage movements; this is especially true in home gyms. 

That wraps up my report. I believe the Gerard bar will become a standard piece of equipment in the Iron Game, and will bring back lost enthusiasm for a lot of people who, like myself, were getting a little discouraged because of lingering physical problems. Besides, it's fun to use. Also expect to see some deadlifting records broken, as the word gets out about the Gerard Trap Bar.       



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