Thursday, 10 October 2013

Symmetry for the Strength Athlete - Thoughts on Training the Traps and Rhomboids

First Point.  If you aren't deadlifting heavy once a week or more (or at the very least maximal once every fortnight and deadlifting for speed or reps on the weeks in between) then you should address that first, locate your balls (in the proverbial sense) and incorporate the most effective posterior chain exercise available into your programme.

Whether you deadlift conventional stance, sumo stance, from blocks, in a rack off the pins, with a clean grip, with a mixed grip, with a snatch grip, with a hex/trap bar, from a deficit or any other variation, you will get the most bang for your buck in terms of trap/upperback development by performing any variation of this lift. 

I am not however going to go into deadlift variations in this article, but instead focus on what other exercises and how else to train your traps to maximise the development of strength and size of this 'show piece' muscle group.  Virtually everyone lifting weights both for strength and for size wants an impressive set of traps.  Aside from simply the aesthetics, a strong and large set of traps/rhomboids will improve posture, reduce risk of injury and improve all your lifts (squats, deadlifts, bench press and especially overhead pressing).

Too often I have heard people say, "oh if you want big traps then just deadlift heavy".  Whilst I agree wholeheartedly that not deadlifting would be a case of neglecting the best exercise available to you, I do have a problem with hearing this advice being given out.  Specifically the words "JUST deadlift heavy".  The problem I have with this is the following…..

If we all were the same size and shape, and had zero muscular imbalances, all had the exact same technique, and full ability in the neuromuscular sense to achieve maximal muscular contraction, for every rep performed,  in all muscles involved in any given movement, then one could argue that the 'big lifts' or compound exercises would be all we need.  We could survive and train muscles to equal proportions using the squat, bench press, overhead press, deadlift and perhaps bent over row.

The unfortunate fact however is that we do not live in this fantasy world.  We are all different, in shape, size, build, strength, flexibility (not an exhaustive list).  We all have different thought processes in terms of how we approach lifts.  We do not all relate to the same coaching cues, and do not all have the ability to be able to 'feel' every muscle working when we so wish.  We do not all possess 'textbook' lifting technique (whatever 'textbook' means, as text book is individual and more often than not based on whatever enables the greatest efficiency for a particular lifter).  The main point is that we need to also incorporate other exercises to bring up lagging muscle groups.  Now this is by no means a new concept in the slightest.  This has been known as 'weak point training' or 'assistance exercises' or 'special exercises'. 

What I want to speak about in this article refers to looking at addressing weak points in the upper back in particular the traps and rhomboids.  

The reason for this article is because I have recently changed the way I train this muscle group, having managed to finally break the cycle of picking up multiple nagging minor injuries which albeit weren't stopping me from train but we at the very least slowing my progress.  You would think that I fell into the stereotypical meathead category and was training all the pressing muscles with no regard to the postural muscles but this was not the case.  For a long time I have been aware of a muscular imbalance, and I took all the advice from multiple sources that i could.  I performed hundreds of face pull exercises and more band-pull-aparts than anyone else in the gym because these were regarded by many as to be the 'go-to' exercises for developing these muscles to assist in the bench press.  

However, despite performing a large amount of work using these exercises I still kept getting injuries in my neck and upper back.  

Finally I started thinking for myself,  and instead of banging my head against the wall convincing myself that if  **enter any well known T-Nation article author here** said that it was face pulls and band pull-a-parts I needed, then i'd keep doing them until the problem went away.  Eventually, I reviewed my exercise choice and concluded that in actual fact despite the fact that indeed these exercises on paper should be ideal for my corrective exercise programme, they weren't doing the job.  The problem, largely, was because I could not make a significant 'mind-muscle' or neuromuscular connection or link.  I could not 'feel' these exercises working in the way I should.   I revisited some of the older training methods that I used to use when training for muscle gain was my main priority (notice I do not say bodybuilding, because I never had any intention of getting on stage, I just wanted to be bigger).  Years of strength training had caused me to lose sight of some of the training wisdom which comes from the bodybuilding side of the training world.  

Symmetry, muscle tension, being able to feel a muscle working and being able to consciously contract a muscle or muscle group on demand when required were all principles which I had always been aware of but perhaps had pushed to the back of my mind because my training was now solely focussed on powerlifting and subsequently I cared more about movements rather than muscles. Bodybuilders tend to aim to hit a muscle from multiple angles, using different limb and joint positions, different use of levers, different movements  , different training tools and equipment, and a huge variety of exercise variations to 'attack' a muscle in so many different ways in the attempt to achieve well-rounded muscular development.

With this in mind, I revisited my corrective exercise regime to address my Traps and Rhomboids and decided to play around with a few alternatives to what I had been using in an attempt to find more suitable exercises for myself which I could genuinely feel the the muscles working and could make a connection and learn to more powerfully contract the traps and maintain a retracted shoulder position.

My goals were that in addition to improving my bench press by addressing my muscle imbalance, I wanted to develop the muscles significantly for two reasons.  Firstly because I believe it will reduce my chance of injury in this area, and neck and trap strain has really been a problem in the past. Secondly big traps are impressive and building a big 'yoke' is always a good thing.

So after playing around with multiple exercises I discovered that despite the fact I felt it was more my lower traps and rhomboid thats were weak.  If I combined exercises which are traditionally thought of to develop the upper traps with the exercises specifically targeting the rhomboids and lower traps, it was much easier for me to make the mind muscle connection and 'feel' a better contraction throughout the full muscle group.

I will list below the best combinations of trap and rhomboid exercises I have found which work for me, but if you take nothing else from this article, take this point.  These exercises are the ones which worked FOR ME, I advise you to play around with multiple exercise variations until you find the ones which enable you to genuinely feel the muscles working.  During a set you should be able to consciously feel the muscle contracting and in corrective exercise, just as in bodybuilding, this should be prioritised over volume, intensity or any other parameter.  Bottom line, if you can't feel it working, it probably isn't.

Power-Rack Single Arm Lean-Away Kettlebell or Dumbbell Shrugs.  Notes.  Keep head upright,  externally rotate shoulder, draw shoulder up and back, focus on squeezing trap up towards the ear. Keep rep range between 8 and 12. PLus 1 set for higher reps 30-50.

Rope-Grip Kettlebell  Upright rows.  Notes. Place a length of rope through a kettle bell handle. Tilt body forward slightly as this gave me the ability to feel my mid and lower traps working more. The rope grip took stress off my wrists and elbows.  I had a problem with barbell upright rows where I felt pain in the front of my shoulder and this worked much better for me.

Banded Face-pull into External Rotation into Overhead Press (taken from Joe Defranco) Hold in each position for 3 seconds to give time to feel contraction.
Keep reps between 12 and 20.

Sled Rear Delt Crucifix Walks (L shape, Y shape and T shape) + YTWLs with DB Prone on Incline Bench.

Neck harness Sled Walks + Regular Neck Harness Neck extensions (seated)

Trap Bar Bent Over Shrugs (head supported on bench)

Supinated Rope Grip Face Pulls

Also do not neglect stretching the muscles of the neck, traps, levator scapulae etc.