By Joshua Trentine
With Commentaries by Ken Hutchins and Al Coleman
[Editor’s note: Consistent with the convention applied in The Renaissance of Exercise—Volume I, exercise names are written in lowercase and machine names are in uppercase.]
The trapezius musculature is named for its shape as it is shaped trapezoidally. In other words, it is diamond-shaped.
We refer to the trapezius as a “musculature” as the word, “muscle,” seems to imply a singular gross direction of fiber orientation. However, the trapezius possesses three major groupings of fibers possessing different orientations. They are the upper (superior), middle, and lower (inferior) groupings.
The upper grouping functions to elevate the shoulder girdle. The trapezius is the major shoulder elevator.
The middle grouping functions to draw the scapulae together, thus retracting the shoulders.
The lower grouping functions to depress the shoulders. Shoulder depression by the lower trapezius is powerfully assisted by the latissimus dorsi as well as by the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor.
The upper and lower trapezius fibers work in tandem with the serratus anterior to upwardly rotate the scapulae, such as during an overhead press. When activating together, the upper and lower fibers also assist the middle fibers (along with other muscles such as the rhomboids) with scapular retraction/adduction.
I will first present exercises that involve the trapezius in some manner and then discuss strategies to involve the entirety of the trapezius musculature in synergy with the entirety of the back musculature. First off I will discuss the so-called king of them all, the deadlift.
I have always been fascinated by the deadlift. I’m not sure where the root of this fascination began. It may be just the fact that it is such an eye-catching, macho demonstration. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been very good at moving very heavy weight on this exercise.
I tend to think the biggest influence that provoked my fascination with this exercise is my reading of Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty II around 1994.
The deadlift is the most stressful exercise of the program-for it involves the most muscles. The considerable stresses involved make the deadlift the most productive exercise of all. –Mike Mentzer-
At the time I was certainly convinced this was the most complete and practical exercise on which I could focus my efforts. I believed that this exercise was going to be the best stimulus of not only the growth mechanism for the entire body but also for development of the entire upper back. More specifically, this included the latissimus dorsi and, most noticeably, the trapezius, both of which were weak points in my early bodybuilding days.
This belief led me to seek ways to maximize this exercise in the early to mid-90s. I followed Mike’s advice with regard to progressing loads and added days of recovery. I tried many different types of apparatus to allow me to do the best bio-mechanical version of the deadlift. At that time it was the Gerard Trap Bar.
Generally, I would say that focusing on the deadlift was a good approach for me at that time in my life as I think I gained some muscularity. Relative to the equipment I had available to me at that time, this may have been the best way to go, although I came to find out this was not a sustainable plan.
Perhaps the most notable change during that time was the visual appearance of my upper trapezius. Today, I’m not sure if I would attribute this to the performance of the full deadlift or if it was the result of suspending such massive loads through my shoulder girdle. More on this to come…
I am certain that, in spite of my fascination and willingness to perform the deadlift, I have never been able to sustain the use of the deadlift for any consistent period of time. Also, I could not see the type of physical changes that I expected from “progressing” so well with this exercise. Over time, I either had back issues that were exacerbated by the exercise or the sessions were just beating me up for too long. Eventually, it seemed necessary to wait a whole month after performing a heavy set of deadlifts to failure.
Mentzer’s suggestion for dealing with this was periodically inserting shrug in place of deadlift.
Mike Mentzer’s Consolidated Routines:
Mentzer consolidated Workout Routine #1:
- Squats or leg press.
- Close-grip, palms-up pulldown.
Mentzer consolidated Workout Routine #2:
- Deadlift (alternated periodically with shrugs).
- Press behind the neck.
- Standing heel raise.
Translated to RenEx, which by the way, is the best way to make long-term gains on an abbreviated program:
Mentzer-inspired RenEx Workout Routine #1 (exercise machines used):
- RenEx Leg Press (with feedback) or RenEx TSC Leg Press (with feedback).
- RenEx Pulldown or TSC Pulldown (with feedback).
- RenEx Overhead Press or TSC Overhead Press (with feedback).
Mentzer-inspired RenEx Workout Routine #2:
- Heel raise on RenEx Leg Press.
- RenEx Trunk Extension.
- SuperSlow Systems Neck & Shoulder.
- RenEx Ventral Torso or push-up.
The sequence above is the one that I recommend for the Overload Fitness staff if they believe it will be a suitable program for their clients. We reference a helpful flow-chart to make these determinations.
Note the RenEx workout above is my interpretation of what I consider the most complete version of a Mentzer-type consolidated workout, and, to this day, these are my favorite routines to run for my own personal workouts. My interpretation is slightly different than Mentzer’s, and I will explain more while simultaneously answering a submitted question about the trapezius. It relates to deadlift, shrug (Neck & Shoulder) and Overhead Press.
Let’s begin with the question and see if the answer gives any clue to why the workout organization might change slightly.
In the RenEx text (page 302), you make mention of the Nautilus Neck & Shoulder machine, and are looking towards revamping this machine. I am very interested to hear your take on the training of the trapezius. Is this a muscle that requires direct stimulation? What is the proper training for the muscle?… Scapula elevation as in traditional shrug?… or more of a retraction, as per DeSimone’s recommendations? Does the trapezius receive enough stimulation if a proper horizontal row or horizontal TSC is employed?
Al Coleman’s response:
My take is that the trapezius may benefit most from TSC as would other skeletal muscles. This doesn’t mean that they would not benefit from dynamic movement as well. If you look at the structure and function of the traps in most human movement, they are statically activated much of the time to support the scapula.
Retraction work alone is inadequate. To limit the trapezius to retraction exercises makes no sense when looking at what the traps do for the scapulae.
I hate to add a bit of bro science in here, but I’d be willing to bet that a physique athlete who ignores elevation won’t end up with the same trapezius development around his yolk as he would if he added elevation.
I’m someone who suffers from poor trap development. Anytime I regularly include the Neck and Shoulder machine in my routine, I experience some semblance of neck-region trap development. No amount of horizontal rowing does that. Again, I know that might not suffice the Internet biomechanics experts, but muscle is muscle. It’s there or it’s not.
It is also worth mentioning that the elevation of the scapulae is the only way to get at certain tension-related neck issues.
Ken Hutchins’ response:
The major purpose of the trapezius muscle is to prevent the entire shoulder girdle from falling to the ground. It suspends the shoulder girdle off the back of the upper spine and head as not much else does. It also opposes the depressive force, tonically and actively, of the powerful latissimus dorsi and lower trapezius fibers.
Yes, the trapezius has a host of functions.
Yes, it is the most powerful extrinsic upper spine (cervical) extensor.
Note that there are intrinsics for extending the spine but none for flexing the spine. Some might insist that the psoas is intrinsic, but it inserts off, not on, the spine. Therefore, it is extrinsic.
Yes, the trapezius has lower fibers that function in shoulder retraction.
Note the word, “girdle” as in “shoulder girdle” and “pelvic girdle.”
“Girdle” is an intended descriptor. And just what is a “girdle?” It is something that girds, binds, encircles, surrounds.
Note that the torso is—more or less—a fuselage likened to that of an airplane. To correctly envision the fuselage, we remove the arms and legs and head and neck. The shoulder girdle encircles the top of the fuselage and the pelvic girdle encircles the bottom of the fuselage.
Note that the upper fuselage tapers toward the top. This is not apparent unless we remove the shoulder girdle from the fuselage—as though the shoulder girdle is not integral to the torso—and observe that the circumference of the ribcage becomes smaller as we measure it progressively superiorly.
Now replace the shoulder girdle atop the fuselage. What holds it there?
To answer this question we might need to answer another. Just what comprises the shoulder girdle?
We are quick to assign the scapulae and clavicles to the composite we call the “shoulder girdle.” But effectively, we must not stop here, because our composite forms an incomplete encircling.
To completely encircle the superior fuselage we must somehow fasten the clavicles together in the front and fasten the scapulas together in the rear. One might liken this to a bra that hooks in the front as well as in the back.
If we bridge across the gap between the clavicles through the sternum and bridge across the gap between the scapulas through the rhomboids, middle trapezius and the thoracic spine, then we get a complete girdle—aha!
Now again, what holds the shoulder girdle in place?
If we imagine the shoulder girdle to be shaped like a lamp shade that is the hollow section of a cone, then its inside taper just fits on the outside taper of the upper fuselage. These tapers keep the shoulder girdle aloft.
In fact, my study skeleton—since it lacks the rhomboids and middle trapezius—has metal screws holding each of its scapulas to posterior ribs. Without this, its shoulder girdle would fall down and around to the front of the ribcage where it would hang off the clavicular attachments to the sternum.
Nevertheless, the outside taper of the ribs supports the inside taper of the shoulder girdle. But this is barely enough vertical support for bearing the forces required by the actions of the arms.
There is one remaining and ultimate vertical support for the shoulder girdle: the upper trapezius!
There are scapular retractors other than the middle trapezius. There are other more-powerful shoulder depressors than the lower trapezius. But the major role and need of the trapezius is found in its superior fibers in the function of supporting and raising the shoulder girdle.
It is amazing to me that this is not blatantly obvious to anyone who has ever paid the slightest attention to the human skeleton!
And this function imparts major implications for the health of homo sapiens. Whether homo sapiens cradles a baby to nurse, types with the arms and hands held forward, plays a piano, or deadlifts a barbell, the vertical support for the object held, the hands, the arms and the shoulder girdle is largely through the trapezius suspended off the occipital and upper cervical vertebrae. Should we be surprised by the tension and irritation experienced in this area of the body?
Yes, the levator scapula muscle helps to support the shoulder girdle via its scapular attachment, but it is dwarfed by the immensity of the trapezius’ size and its surface area of both clavicular and scapular attachments!
I also somewhat disagree with sources that emphasize the levator scapulae as a “scapular elevator” as its name suggests. Assuming that the lateral end of the scapula is fixed at the acromial-clavicular joint, the levator scapulae is more a scapular rotator than an elevator. Its contraction causes a counter-clockwise rotation of the right scapula and the opposite of the left. Perhaps its name should be appropriately renamed “rotator scapulae?”
If you’re trying to grossly strengthen your trapezius by restricting your exercise to shoulder retraction exercises, you’re probably also doing something similarly inane such as performing wrist curls to strengthen your biceps.
This revolutionary analysis of the trapezius is included in much more detail in my Renaissance of Exercise—Volume II. It is due to be released next summer.
I would like to add a bit to Ken and Al’s excellent explanations.
Ken and I were recently discussing what happens on the Neck & Shoulder exercise when the cam varies enough to allow us to elevate our shoulder girdle adequately to congest against ourselves in the exercise. We agreed that if you are allowed to get that far into the exercise and inroad effectively, and recruit deeply enough, you will not only call upon the muscles that elevate the shoulder girdle, but also the ones that retract it.
Experientially there is something really cool about this exercise. When RenEx protocol is used and when cam effect allows utilizing the entire available range of motion, this exercise is felt all the way from the back of the skull to the tailbone and deep into the musculature… so much so that it is momentarily difficult to even stand up straight for about 30 seconds after the exercise.
SuperSlow Systems Neck & Shoulder 340# x 4 Reps
In my opinion this effect makes this particular exercise a homerun for Mentzer-type consolidation programs. It acts like a compound movement in the way that it stimulates the entire back musculature. This machine still requires some tweaking, but we believe it will eventually be just as much of a staple in our programs as a leg press or pulldown, especially when following the Mentzer template.
In the year 2013 and over the age of 40, I will not be performing many deadlifts, but with the sequence above we have a far better solution… a more complete solution… a safer solution.
The other amazing aspect of this program is that I’ve had all of these machines in a little 11’x13’ room attached to our main studio. With little overhead and a very reasonable investment the ambitious trainer may open a RenEx studio specializing in Mentzer-inspired consolidated routines.
This leads me to another related question that may further explain why I slightly reorganized Mentzer’s sequence. Before I do I would like to explain that, from my experience, the effect of using our machines for this type program is far more complete than what could ever be imagined with a barbell-type program and must be felt to be believed. The barbell program still acts too much like a quasi-isolation program not to mention the mechanical speed bumps that exist when dealing with free weights.
Q: Al recently made a comment about the possible need for specific elevation exercise in order to maximize the development of the trapezius. This made me think about the overhead press exercise. Some experts teach their clients to deliberately shrug during the overhead press exercise. Mark Ripptoe wrote the following in Starting Strength regarding the press:
Once the bar is over your head correctly, lock your elbows and shrug up your shoulders to support the bar… The combination of locking out the elbows and shrugging the traps up at lockout, with the bar directly over the ears, produces a very firm, stable position at the top that involves all of the shoulder girdle muscles and prevents shoulder impingement. To learn this [lockout] position, you might find it helpful to feel a gentle upward and inward squeeze on the humerus from either side, along with hearing a reminder to “shrug” the bar up.
Is scapulae elevation intended at the upper turnaround on the RenEx Overhead Press? To Al’s point, if this action is included in the exercise, would an isolated shrug exercise be necessary?
A: While the shoulder girdle must elevate some during the overhead press and while the trapezius is certainly heavily involved in this movement pattern, the idea of shrugging the shoulders is not part of the exercise, nor is it encouraged. Furthermore I believe doing so could even lead to faulty recruitment patterns and shoulder impingement syndrome.
The Neck & Shoulder exercise will provide a more-complete stimulus for the entirety of the trapezius (upper, middle and lower) as well as providing a compound-like effect to the entire back. This is why I do not like placing Neck & Shoulder in the same workout as either overhead press or deadlift.
I do think that our Neck & Shoulder has a tremendous synergy with our Ventral Torso. I also believe that our Simple Row is a great feeder exercise for getting the most from Ventral Torso or push-up or even chest press, but that is for a different article.
What if I don’t have one of the rare SuperSlow Systems Neck & Shoulder machines?
Shoulder Shrug Performed on the OME at The Strength Room in Toronto, Ontario
I hope this article gives you an idea of how to get trapped by RenEx!