The upper back, sadly, is one of the most neglected parts of the body in most people. Have you ever seen a really buff guy walking down the street but with a slender neck leading straight into his collar bones? Or someone with really wide lats, but they don’t have that 3D physique because the upper back is flat? Building up your traps is essential to a balanced and proportional physique. Having strong traps will also assist in several exercises for stability and pulling movements. “How do I build great traps, pray tell?” Why bent over shrugs, of course!
The Trapezius Muscle
The trapezius muscle is the triangle-shaped muscle that spans your upper back from shoulder to shoulder, overlapping your shoulder blades and down to a point in the middle of your back. Not only does this muscle provide a stacked, 3D look to your upper back when exercised adequately, it serves several functions.
Try and bring your shoulder up to your ear; do you know what muscle just did that? That’s right. Your trapezius. Your traps are also responsible for moving your head and neck backwards, supporting your arms through rotation of the scapula (shoulder blade) and they are also an accessory muscle involved in breathing.
Ever notice how your shoulders go up and down when you are catching your breath after extremely strenuous activity? That motion is a result of activation of the trapezius muscle, triggered by your huffing and puffing.
There are several exercises that indirectly exercise the trapezius muscle, but there are few that target the muscle specifically. The most effective way to target the trapezius muscle is using a different variety of shrugs to target this muscle.
Dumbbell shrugs, barbell shrugs and bent over shrugs are all effective ways to build the traps. However, the bent over shrug offers an increased range of motion, and thus gives access to a greater stretch in the muscle, leading to increased hypertrophy – this is the reason we are discussing this exercise today.
How To Do Bent Over Shrugs
Many bent over exercises can be intimidating due to the form involved, and the fact that you’re bent over with weights in your hand. However, with good form, this exercise is very beneficial for your upper back, and lower back as a support system.
Here is the written version on how to perform the bent over shrug:
1. Grab some dumbbells and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
With upright shrugs, it’s go big or go home; however, with bent over shrugs, start a little lighter to get the feel for the movement. The range of motion is going to be different than with upright shrugs, and you want to make sure you can complete your reps with good form before stacking on the weight.
2. While standing, bend 90 degrees at the hips, or until your back is parallel to the floor.
Yes, I realize this goes against what Sean recommends in the video above, but hear me out and you’ll see why I suggest starting at 90 degrees first. Bending over at 90 degrees ensures that your arms are going to be hanging straight down. Proper shrug form, no matter if it is a bent over shrug or standing shrug, is a VERTICAL motion. Straight up and down. If you’re bent at 45 degrees and you’re trying to do shrugs with bad form, you can injure your shoulders as they try to stabilize the weight. After you get used to the movement and the vertical form, then feel free to bend down at between 30-45 degrees as Sean does, but start at 90 to get the movement down and get that full stretch in your traps.
3. Keeping your back straight, pull your shoulder blades back and together.
A mistake many people with shrugs is focusing on pulling the weights up, which can lead to recruitment of the arms, jerking motions, the use of momentum and all that other bad stuff that can really kill an exercise. Instead, focus on pinching together your shoulder blades. If you can pull your shoulder blades together, the weight will come up on its own. Make sure to keep your arms your arms slightly bent to protect that elbow joint, but DO NOT use your arms to pull the weight up. This is an isolation exercise, so just focus on those traps.
4. When you get to the top of the rep, SQUEEZE!
Another hiccup a lot of lifters face with their trap exercises is not squeezing at the peak of contraction. Really squeeze those traps together to get the full benefit of the exercise. Squeeze for a whole second (count out Mississippi if you have to) at the top of your contraction. This is a great safeguard against hitting those reps too quickly so you can see the benefits of this exercise more quickly.
5. Lower the weight back down.
After you get that nice contraction at the top of the motion, it’s time to get the stretch on that eccentric part of the rep by slowly lowering the weight back down. Use a 1 second up, 1 second squeeze, 1 second down tempo for this exercise. Remember, the eccentric portions of exercises are just as important as the concentric (the initial push or pull/1st half of the rep), and cutting them short will decrease your time under tension, which will show in your results.
These isolation exercises are best performed in mid-to-high rep ranges – anywhere from 8-15 reps per set will be fine. If you can’t get 8 reps with good form, decrease the weight. If you can get 15 reps easily, grab some heavier dumbbells and crank up your workout (to beef up those traps).
That’s it! Remember to maintain strict form, keep an eye on your tempo and use an appropriate weight and rep range. As long as you’re eating right and giving yourself an adequate amount of recovery time, you’ll definitely see growth in your traps from this back blaster.