What are the Best Exercises for Your Trapezius Muscle?


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You are probably thinking about the part of the Trapezius you see when you are looking in the mirror, the upper most part that blends into your neck and attaches at the back of your head. But in order to optimize your trapezius development, you need to think about all 3 functions of the muscle.

Part One: located mostly above the clavicle: Shrugs the shoulders and is developed by exercises such as the Shrug, Upright Rows, Overhead Shrugs, Overhead Presses, or any other exercise to “Shrug” your shoulder upward toward your ears.

The BEST exercises for Part I are shrugs performed in the Standing Calf Machine. To perform safely and effectively: Stand in the machine with your heels on the toe pad, head neutral and keep your body tight and straight. Avoid sagging in your back and hips to prevent injury to these areas. Focus on driving your shoulders straight-up toward your ears. Avoid the tendency to “Roll” your shoulders. Instead focus on keeping your shoulders back and your scapula (shoulder blades) retracted and shoulder blades as close together as possible.

For some people, the Overhead Shrug is also an excellent exercise. In the Overhead Shrug, follow the body position described above: Head neutral, body straight and tight, with the scapula retracted. Press the dumbbells overhead and arms straight, but not locked. Holding this position takes some focus, but that focus may be the reason for the effectiveness of the Overhead Shrug. You are required to focus on the contraction of the Trapezius- straight-UP and straight-DOWN, without any other ancillary movements.

You do need to be aware that any exercise with the arms pushing overhead or held overhead will increase heart rate, increase blood pressure and may be overly demanding on older and/or de-conditioned personal training clients. All Personal Trainers need to be aware of safety and effectiveness for each of the needs of their personal training clients.

Part Two of the functions of the Trapezius is to work with the Rhomboids to retract the scapula. Do not make the mistake of NON-IFPA Certified Personal Trainers, that the full isometric contraction of the scapula (shoulders back) position, required in almost all exercise, can develop the size and strength of the Rhomboids and Trapezius 2. This would be a mistake: Remember what you learned in your IFPA Personal Trainer Certification Course. Isometric contractions can only increase strength at the point of the isometric contraction and at a very small degree close to the point of contraction. Isometric contractions have virtually no impact on hypertrophy. You will always need a full eccentric contraction along the full Range of Motion (ROM) of the targeted muscle. Even a full ROM of a concentric contraction cannot equal the size and strength increases seen from the eccentric contraction.

The BEST Exercises for Trapezius 2 are the Bent-Over-REVERSE FLY and the Targeted Scapula Retraction Exercise. To safely and effectively exercise both Trapezius 2 and your Rhomboids, you will need to fully retract the scapula at the end of the contraction. Focus on a full, complete retraction of the scapula at the completion of the concentric contraction.

To maximize safety and effectiveness in the Targeted Scapula Retraction Exercise, get in position to do a Seated row or T-Bar Row, but instead of performing the “Row,” you will keep your arms straight and all the movement will be to isolate the Trapezius 2 and Rhomboids. You focus on performing an eccentric and concentric contraction for Trapezius 2 and Rhomboids by retracting the Scapula fully, pause and then a slow controlled focused eccentric contraction returning to start.. During the eccentric contraction, contract the Rhomboids and Trapezius 2 until you fully retract the scapula by “Pinching the shoulders blades together.”

Personal Trainers can cue their clients to fully contract their Trapezius 2 and Rhomboids by placing the Ulnar portion of their palms or their fingers tips on the spinal column of their personal training clients, directly between the shoulder blades. The personal trainer then coaches their personal training clients to “Pinch my hand/or finger tips” until their clients fully contract.

This is a great “Corrective Exercise” for your Personal Trainer Clients who need to correct rounded shoulders or poor posture. Personal Trainers who are using this as a corrective exercise, do NOT allow your personal training clients to do a full eccentric contraction; the reason is that their Rhomboids and Trapezius 2 are already over-stretched and weak. Therefore, the personal trainer should not want them to stretch these muscles further, at least until your personal trainer clients have improved both the strength and muscle endurance to the point of the full posture correction.

The third function of the Trapezius is to depress the scapula. The BEST exercises for Trapezius 3 is the Targeted Depression Exercise performed in the Lat Pull Down, but you keep the arms straight while pulling the bar downward by depression of the scapula (arms remain straight). This is the concentric contraction of Trapezius 3. You then perform the eccentric contraction by allowing the scapula to elevate (arms remain straight throughout the entire exercise).

The other BEST exercise for Trapezius 3 is a bit more complicated, but is a great “Corrective Exercise” that personal trainers use to correct poor posture. This is the One-Armed-Extended-Back-Extension performed on a Roman Chair.  You should first review the anatomy charts for the back in your IFPA Personal Trainer Manual to fully visualize the tremendous benefits to your muscles in this exercise. In particular, the personal trainer should visualize the segmented muscles in the Erector Spinae muscle group, the Quadratus Lumborum in the low back and Trapezius 3 located inferior (below) the scapula.

To perform safely and effectively, the personal trainer will instruct their clients to get on a Roman Chair facing downward with their stomach, hips or upper thigh on the pod.  Personal Trainers need to be aware that the longer the “Movement Arm,” the more difficult the exercise. Therefore, the stomach on the pad equals a short movement arm and makes the exercise easier. Conversely, the thighs on the pad extends more of the torso beyond the pad, equals a long movement arm and makes the exercise harder.  The Personal Training client puts one arm extended fully overhead and the other arm behind their back.

The movement is significantly different than the way Back Extensions are typically performed.  Typical Back Extensions with the back straight, head neutral, scapula retracted are for the Quadratus Lumborum and keep all the other muscles of the back in Isometric Contraction.

To work Trapezius 3 and Erector Spinae muscle group, the One-Arm-Extended-Back-Extension (also called the “Reverse Crunch”) will require you to “Curl” the body down and under, in the eccentric contraction. Begin curling downward at the hand, then arm, head, shoulders and then curling the back down and under, visualizing each segment of the ERECTOR SPINAE, Trapezius 3 and Quadratus Lumborum. Pause at the bottom, and begin a concentric contraction beginning at the Hand and then each body part down to the Quadratus Lumborum and lowest segments of the Erector Spinae. Focus on the muscles concentrically contracting to move the hand, arm, head, shoulders, scapula, ribs and the segments of the Erector Spinae down to the Quadratus Lumborum upward.  It will require the personal trainer to watch closely and instruct their clients in detail to maximize the benefits of this exercise, but it can be one of the best Personal Training exercises to correct your clients’ posture and back pain. There are few exercises that can target Trapezius 3, the Erector Spinae and other muscles of the back.

For the same reasons described above, do not allow your personal training clients to over stretch their muscles at the bottom (completion of the eccentric contraction).

Once your client can do 15 Reps with their thighs on the pad, you can increase the intensity of the Reverse Crunch by having your personal training client hold a light weight (1.0-2.5 pounds) in their overhead hand and gradually increase the weight as they get stronger.

One additional warning that all IFPA Certified Personal Trainers have previously learned in the IFPA Personal Training Certification course is that “Rolling” the shoulders on the Shrug or any exercise is not Safe or Effective and should always be avoided whenever there is significant load pulling the shoulders downward.

The IFPA has developed numerous Advanced and Specialty Certification Courses to provide you far greater knowledge, skills and abilities on these and many other topics.  The brand new IFPA Website makes it easier than ever for you to find the courses you need to expand your Scope of Practice along with your reputation as an IFPA Certified and Accredited Personal Trainer. This is solid evidence for your personal training clients and prospects to know you are credible, reliable and a valid fitness professional. Please take the time to look over the new web site to find the courses the most interest you!

Good Luck,

Dr. Jim Bell, CEO, IFPA

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