As I sat on the bench to pull on my shoes and socks, I looked out the windows of the gym and saw huge, dark clouds lingering over the tops of the mountains in Ioa Valley, suggesting incoming rain. The high humidity made the air thick and muggy and I knew this was going to be one of those days where training is rough. One of those days where even chalk doesn't help in gripping the bar. The sweat runs off your hands and turns the chalk into a white much, making it even more difficult to secure your grip.
The heavy training area of the Valley Isle Fitness Center is situated at the far back of the gym and provided the poorest circulation of air in the entire facility. This area at this hour of the day, was the only portion of the gym being utilized as Kelei, an aspiring powerlifter and Milton, an Olympic lifter with one meet under his belt, were doing their stretching in preparation for the upcoming workout.
I had promised to show the two lifters an exercise to improve the top of their pull: the finish of the deadlift for the powerlifter and the topmost pull for the Olympic athlete. But before we got to the pulling segment of today's session, we all did squats, followed by shoulder work.
Kalei finished his bench presses and came over and stood quietly as I rummaged through my gym bag looking for my straps. After a few frustrating moments, I found them hiding under my chalk container.
"Are you going to show us the exercise to help my deadlift today?"
"Sure, you want something for the finish, right?"
"Right. I can pull 595 to mid-thigh, but can't bring it on home. It's really frustrating."
"Well go find Milton. I'm about to show him how to shrug and you can join us."
"I thought Milton was doing those for the Olympic lifts?"
"He is, but they are equally as valuable to powerlifters. There are very few ways to really overload the traps and shrugs are the absolute best."
We set the pins in the rack so that the bar would be positioned about two inches above our knees. We put a 45 on each side and I demonstrated as I talked.
"The important thing to learn as you are doing the shrug is to keep proper body mechanics throughout the movement. Should you rotate your shoulders too quickly and pull backward rather than upward, then your results will be minimal at best."
I did five reps and handed Milton my straps, which happened to be ten-year old ex-seat belts.
"Phew, when did these things get washed last?" he asked as he held them away from his body as far as possible.
I laughed. "They're a bit ripe, aren't they? They get lost in my gym bag and I forget to pull them out and wash them. They work just as well anyway."
Milton strapped on the bar and began his set, but he was not getting the height I wanted.
"Go ahead and just power clean this first set. It will help to set up a proper line for the heavier ones. Try to pull longer and keep pressure on the bar throughout the lift and especially at the very topmost part. That's what you are after."
Kalei stepped in and attempted to emulate what he had just seen. He, like Milton, wasn't fully extending.
"Pull longer. The idea is to get a lot of height on these lighter weights so that you have the pattern down when it gets heavy. You can never pull the bar 'too high.' "
We loaded two more 45's and each took our turn. I could see both lifters were rotating through too early and were pulling the bar back, rather than up.
"Stop just a minute. Move the bar up against the front of the rack. Now try to slide the bar right up against the metal post. You'll be able to tell quickly if you're pulling in the right line."
Which is what they did and the results were most predictable. The bar jumped back off the uprights, throwing them off balance and backward.
"You must lean out over the bar. When your front deltoids rotate back behind the bar, then you have no more upward thrust. In other words, once your shoulders get behind the bar, you're finished pulling."
Two more 45's and another set of five. Both lifters were getting the idea a bit better, but they were not SNAPPING! at the very top end of the movement.
"Much better, but try to get more explosive at the top. Don't think about simply lifting the weight, but do as my friend Tommy Suggs advises . . . punch the bar at the very top of the pull. In order to do this effectively, you need to drive your elbows up and out, not back."
The bar was still not jumping as it should, but both were improving on each set. The shrug, being a short range movement, is a difficult one to master quickly. It generally takes five or six times to get the mechanics down.
We moved on to 405.
"This will be your final set for your first workout. "These will get your traps extremely sore so I don't want you to overdo it this first workout."
"Boy, that's a switch. Usually it's bring on the deep soreness," Milton chuckled.
"This is true," I replied, "but in this particular lift, it is best to move up cautiously. I do want to put enough on the bar, however, to see just what kind of errors you are making."
Kalei stepped in, strapped onto the 405 and pulled. I could see that he was making the most common mistake in the shrug, bending his arms prematurely. As a result, there was no final snap and the bar was hardly coming off the pin.
"Step out of the rack. The mechanics of the muscle groups involved in the lift go like this:
First the hip drives the bar off the pins, then the big muscles of the back come into play, and finally, the arms give it the very last upward lift. If you use your arms before you fully activate your traps, you won't get the bar as high. Hyperextend your arms and don't let your elbows bend until you feel your traps contract fully."
MIlton started getting a good snap at the top of his shrug, but Kalei was still utilizing his arms a bit too early.
"That's okay, Kalei. Milton has a slight advantage in that he has been doing power cleans and high pulls. It will come to you with a bit more practice. We'll stop there today. Where do you feel it?"
"My traps are already tightening up, so I guess that's where they hit," said Milton. "How often should we do these?"
"Once a week, at the end of the week when you have a couple of days of rest in behind them. They are very condensed work and are somewhat deceiving in just how sore you will get from doing them."
"How many sets and reps," asked Kalei.
"Today, you did 4 x 5. Add one set each week until you're doing 6 x 5. Then keep that set and rep figure and move the top-end weight up each week."
"What should be my end goal?" said Miltion.
"For Olympic lifters, 200 pounds over what they plan to clean & jerk. And moved with authority. This means you will be seeking lots of top-end action. The bar should be jumping and you should be fully extended on your toes and the bar should be sitting in the exact same position as it is when you are cleaning it."
Kalei handed me my smelly straps and asked, "Is that the rule for powerlifters too?'
"No. A powerlifter should be handling at least 100 pounds over his projected deadlift, for 5 reps. Again, the bar should be moving with some degree of action and with perfect body mechanics. It does little good to move a heavy weight if you are merely hitching it backward with your hip. This does not correlate with the finish of the deadlift."
"Are we finished?" asked Milton.
"Sure, till Monday."
"You want me to take those straps and wash them?" he asked with a grin.
"No, I got the message. I never leave my trusty straps so I'll make it a point to wash them over the weekend."
Since it was Aloha Friday on Maui, both lifters were showered and long gone by the time I did my remaining sets. I enjoyed the solitude and pushed my own shrugs up another 90 pounds over the previous week. I wanted to gain a bit of soreness myself.
I enjoy the feel of trap soreness for some strange reason.
The following Monday, as i walked into the lobby, I saw that both lifters were waiting for me at the front desk. Milton had his back turned to the door as his full attention was riveted on Peggy. Or to be more exact, on Peggy's most revealing tank top. So I took this opportunity to give his traps a nice squeeze. It was my way of testing, scientifically speaking, to see if the shrugs had, in fact, done this job.
His response indicated that they had. He let out a scream, scaring poor Peggy, and dropped to his knees.
"Got a tad sore?" I asked.
"Sore isn't the proper word. My entire back is like a giant boil. I've been applying ice, getting massages, even sitting in the sauna, but nothing seems to help. My traps still hurt to the touch."
"We'll get rid of that with a few pulls today. Aren't you happy you found out about the shrug?" I teased.
"I'm not sure today. Will I get this sore every week?"
"Nay, just for the first month," I reassured him. "Where did Kalei go? I want to see if he's as sore are you are."
Kalei peeped around the corner and said, "You don't have to test my traps. I can assure you that today they are just as sore as Milton's. Please don't squeeze them. They hurt just sitting on my shoulders."
"So we do them every Friday, just like we did last week?" asked Milton, who had moved in front of me to make sure I didn't get behind him again.
"After about six weeks of doing them just as we did Friday, you can begin moving the pins up and down a hole so that you are not always pulling from the same position. For my powerlifters, I eventually have them alternate the shrug with another pulling exercise in the power rack that is most useful.
"I have them place the pins just below the knees and have them pull through as if they were finishing the deadlift. In this exercise there is no snappy motion. The primary concern is keeping the shoulders out over the bar so that it follows a line similar to the finish of the deadlift."
"So, one week shrug, one week pull from the pins below the knees," said Kalei.
"That's correct. By alternating the two lifts, you will avoid getting stale on either. And they influence each other rather positively."
"What's on the program for today?" asked Milton.
"Squats, presses, and hi-pulls," I replied.
"Oh NO, not more pulls!" they both said in unison.
"Hey, you're the guys that wanted to get strong, remember?" I said as I checked out Peggy on the lat machine.
"No one ever said that it was going to be easy."
Enjoy Your Lifting!