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A question of strength Exercises for the upper back and trapezius

Eine Frage der Kraft Übungen für den oberen Rücken und den Trapezius

I, for one, am always on the lookout for new trapezius exercises.

The trapezius is the new six pack. These days, a big, muscular trapezius can make you just as sexy as a chiseled six-pack, which means building the trapezius is a coveted workout goal. But why is that?

My first theory is that CrossFit (and athletes in general) have a lot to do with this. A lot of serious exercisers want to look like athletes. CrossFit has made this trend even more popular and has gotten more people training deadlifts, deadlifts and snatches.

The increased popularity of these exercises has had the side effect of making powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting more popular in recent years. And these exercises usually build your trapezius. So having a muscular trapezius is a physical sign of being an athlete.

Perhaps a better reason was highlighted by a recent study conducted at an Australian university. In this study, women were shown pictures of free male torsos and asked to rank them in order of attractiveness and perceived strength.

Unsurprisingly, the most muscular bodies were considered much more desirable than less muscular bodies. In fact, none of the scrawny or fat bodies were considered attractive.

One cool conclusion, however, is that it was the impression of strength that had the biggest impact on how desirable a male body was. If a body looked strong - even if that person was super slim - then it was considered desirable. And nothing represents strength more than a strong trapezius.

Over the years, I was always on the lookout for new and effective trapezius exercises. I thought I had tried everything, including:

  • Power Shrugs (shoulder raises)
  • Olympic exercises and rowing upright
  • All types of Zercher Shrugs

But I recently learned a new one and it has quickly become my favorite exercise. These are T-bar shrugs (

Due to the direction of pull, you will not only train the upper but also the middle muscle fibers of the trapezius, giving your trapezius "height" and "thickness". These characteristics will give you a much more muscular torso and also give you a better leverage ratio when performing bench presses. They will help keep the rhomboids and upper back tight when you press.

T-bar shrugs are a fairly straightforward exercise. Use a landmine/T-bar setup and ideally a parallel grip (neutral grip). Stand upright and row the weight upwards, initiating the movement with a shoulder lift. This is not just a shoulder lift, as you pull with your arms (you bend your arm at the elbow joint) in a similar way to cable rowing standing and Kirk Rows ( This encourages a more important contraction of the trapezius.

It's best if your elbows are pointing backwards, which is why I prefer to use a neutral grip. This allows you to recruit the middle fibers more effectively and prevents internal shoulder rotation, which you should avoid when training the trapezius.

You can even perform a mechanical descending set by changing the angle of your torso during the set. When you reach the point of muscle failure, you can lean back a little further, which will allow you to do a few more repetitions.

I like to use a fairly heavy weight for this exercise and sets of 6 to 8 reps, but with a 2 second hold at the highest position. I perform this exercise twice a week as my third exercise of the training session, but this is mainly because strength is my goal. Those training more towards pure bodybuilding should aim for sets of 40 to 60 seconds under tension.

So for hypertrophy you could do the following:

  • 8-10 reps with 3 seconds hold and a 2 second eccentric/negative repetition. The set would last 48 to 60 seconds.
  • 10-12 repetitions with a 2-second hold and a 2-second eccentric/negative repetition. (50 to 60 seconds).
  • 10-12 repetitions with a 2-second hold and a 2-second eccentric/negative repetition. (50 to 60 seconds).
  • 12-15 repetitions with a 2-second hold and a normal eccentric/negative repetition. (48 to 60 seconds).
  • 15-20 repetitions with a 1-second hold and a normal eccentric/negative repetition. (45 to 60 seconds).

All of this puts you in the ideal hypertrophy range for a targeted exercise.

I also use a variation of this exercise on a cable pull station, this is a slightly different stimulus but works just as well.

Give this exercise a chance. It's a great way to build a muscular upper back.

Box jumps for conditioning

Every trainer on the internet will tell you that your body will explode if you use box jumps to improve your conditioning. However, I've never injured myself doing them and my legs were leaner and tighter than ever when I used this exercise as part of my conditioning workout (I'm a woman, if that matters). I stopped doing this exercise due to the warnings online, but I would love to add it back into my program. Is there a real reason for not doing this...other than the spontaneous explosive movements?

I have mixed feelings about this question. I spent the first 10 years of my career training professional and amateur athletes at a high level, so the strength coach in me hates it when an exercise is used for a purpose other than what it's intended for.

Olympic weightlifting exercises and box jumps with high repetitions are at the top of this list. It's not so much because of the increased risk of injury (although this can be a problem), but because it's like using a screwdriver to drive a nail.

The primary benefit of jumping is to increase power production and jump height. This is best achieved with maximum effort - by trying to jump as high as possible - or at least with 85 to 90% of maximum effort. And a maximal effort jump is very taxing on the nervous system - it is a maximal effort, just like heavy squats. This is the reason why very high repetition numbers are counterproductive to the goal of the exercise.

First of all, if you perform very high repetitions, you will never perform jumps with maximum effort. You will jump just high enough to reach the box and save energy to complete all repetitions. You never jump high enough to increase your power production. You also learn bad motor habits as most jumps are performed in an exhausted state.

So as a strength coach, my answer is that using box jumps to improve conditioning is a no-go. It's like sprinting with a 40 kilo weight vest with the aim of building muscle. I'm not saying it won't have an effect, but it will mess up your running mechanics and make you slower.

But you are not a competitive athlete. Your goal is to get leaner - not to jump higher. So I'm tempted to say "who cares if the exercise isn't effective at making you jump higher?" What we have to do here is look at box jumps with high reps and determine if the risks are greater than the benefits. You mentioned that your legs were at their leanest and tightest when you used box jumps as part of your conditioning workouts. What does the body composition of the rest of your body look like? If your upper body is just as lean or leaner, then we can potentially say that box jumps have a specific effect on your lower body.

However, if your lower body is slightly softer and less lean, then we are talking more about a more general effect and box jumps may not be the reason for the difference in leanness. Then diet and overall training are probably the cause, but your brain is focusing on the one thing that you think is the answer.

I will say one thing: I believe that explosive workouts like box jumps and sprints will make your lower body harder, leaner and more toned. I have observed this over and over again.

I can't explain exactly why. It could be related to increased insulin sensitivity of the muscles (some studies suggest this) or a targeting of the fast contracting muscle fibers that are further from the surface. However, the effect appears to be real.

So box jumps with high reps are an inferior form of explosive training, but they are still explosive training, so I don't rule out their potential effect on leanness.

Let's look at the potential dangers

"I've never been injured doing them" has never been and never will be something that proves something isn't dangerous. I have coached many CrossFit athletes and have seen many injuries from box jumps.

Injuries to the shin area from missing the box are common: People land a little too close to the edge of the box and slip. Although most people only suffer superficial (but very painful) injuries, some can also suffer structural damage to the shin bone.

This was the case for me 20 years ago when I was preparing for the national weightlifting championships and was using box jumps as an activation exercise. It hit my shin hard and I had to miss two weeks of training.

The other source of injury is landing. We've seen high level CrossFit athletes who were much fitter than you and I tear their Achilles when landing after a box jump. I've also seen knee injuries.

If you land after a 50 to 60 centimeter drop (the height of a regular training box), the force during the absorption phase will be at least four times your body weight and may even be eight times.

If you weigh 60 kilos, this corresponds to a force of at least 240 kilos acting on your knees, hips and ankles. So the potential for injury is there - especially because most people don't focus on the landing phase of a jump.

The risk of injury is probably not as high as the internet "experts" would have you believe. But it's still higher than most exercises you could use instead.

A better way

Sprints with a weighted sled or sprints uphill will probably give you the same results. Sprints with a weighted sled are one of the best ways to make a woman's legs lean and hard.

If you still want to use box jumps, you should use them in a smart way: don't perform them for speed or super high reps. You can still incorporate them into a conditioning workout. Here's an example:

Four rounds:

  • 10 box jumps (10 is the highest number I would use)
  • Note: Stay on the box for 2 seconds and on the floor for 2 seconds (to avoid rushing yourself during the jumps and landings). Concentrate on correct landing mechanics both on the box and on the floor.
  • 250 meter rowing
  • 20 repetitions of Russian kettlebell swings
  • Pause for 1 minute and repeat three more times

You can continue to benefit from the advantages of explosive training and at the same time greatly reduce the risk factor.

German Volume Training

Is German Volume Training really effective? Well, few programs are surrounded by such a myth as German Volume Training. This type of training has been around for over 50 years. It was first used by the German Olympic weightlifting team during the off-season in the sixties of the 20th century.

I would like to point out that at that time steroids were already being used by Eastern European weightlifters and this was also true for American weightlifters as Dr. Ziegler had developed Dianabol. The Soviet weightlifters used testosterone injections at the 1956 Olympics and this quickly spread to the legal part of Eastern Europe.

Vince Gironda used the 10 x 10 system around the same time and it is still debated who came up with the idea first - the Germans or Vince Gironda. While Vince Gironda was strictly against steroids (at least publicly), a lot of bodybuilders he trained used steroids: Larry Scott, Mohammed Makkawy, Rick Wayne, etc.

I'm not saying that steroids were the reason that German Volume Training worked, but you have to keep this in mind when analyzing the effectiveness of the program.

Those familiar with my articles know that I believe excessive volume is the enemy of the steroid-free trainee. The more volume you do, the more cortisol you release.

Using a program with too much volume could lead to lower gains in steroid-free exercisers. This is one of the reasons why a recent study observed better results when 5 sets of 10 repetitions were performed instead of 10 sets of 1 repetition.

Let's first take a look at the total volume of a German Volume program to assess whether it is too high. In the original German Volume Training you have 2 alternating exercises (A1 and A2) for 10 sets of 10 reps. This is followed by two more exercises with 3 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions

The whole thing looks something like this:










90 sec.


Lying leg curls




90 sec.


Leg press




90 sec.


Reverse Hyper




90 sec.

That is 200 repetitions with about 70% of the maximum weight for the A1/A2 part and 60 to 72 repetitions with 60 to 65% for the B1/B2 part. That's a total of 260 to 272 repetitions for one training session. Is that a lot? You bet it is.

If you read the Russian weightlifting literature, then 100 repetitions in a training session is a very high volume. So 272 reps is a deadly amount. Okay, maybe not quite, but it's a lot.

Some people can cope with this. Only a few can grow through it. If you're working with a young athlete who's full of testosterone and doesn't have a family or a job, then they can probably build with the help of German Volume Training. But the average trainee who is steroid free, older, has a job, etc., will not be able to make good progress with this system. If you're on substance, please, give it a try...if boredom doesn't kill you.

An adaptation with 10 sets of 3, 4 or 5 repetitions is much better because the volume is 50 to 70% lower. Far less cortisol is released. If you choose this approach, however, you should be conservative in your choice of weights. A set should never reach more than an 8 out of 10 on the perceived fatigue scale - keep about 2 reps in reserve.

Your first few sets will probably be more in the 7 out of 10 range and the last 5 sets in the 8 out of 10 range. If you go all out on every set, you'll have a hard time recovering neurologically as you'll either deplete your dopamine stores or desensitize your adrenergic receptors. The next day you will suffer from a hangover.

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