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MY NEW FAVORITE TRAP EXERCISE : THE WENDLER ROW

To quote my friend Paul Carter: “Traps are the new abs”. Meaning that nowadays having big meaty traps can make you as sexy as having a chiseled six pack and building them is thus a sought-after training goal. But why is that? 

 My first theory is that CrossFit and athletes in general have a lot to do with it. A lot of serious trainees now want to look like athletes. CrossFit has made that tend even more popular and has encouraged more people to do deadlifts, cleans and snatches (for better or worse).

And with the increase in popularity of these lifts you had a spill-over effect to powerlifting and weightlifting (Olympic lifting), which have seen their membership increase exponentially in recent years. And those lifts do normally make your traps jacked. So, having big traps is a sign of being “an athlete”. 

But maybe a better reason has been highlighted in a recent study conducted in an Australian university. They gave women shirtless pictures of male torsos and they were asked to rank them in order of attractiveness and perception of strength. Not surprisingly (or maybe it was), the more muscular physiques were seen as a lot more desirable than the less muscular ones.

In fact, none of the skinny or fat torsos received any votes for being attractive. But the one cool conclusion is that it was the impression of strength that has the greatest impact on how desirable a male physique was. If a physique looked strong AF, even if he wasn’t super lean, he was seen as desirable. 

And nothing screams “strong’ like big traps! 

Ever since I can remember, I always wanted big traps. I remember being 15 and training in the first commercial gym I joined; I would start every workout with 10 x 10 shrugs on the universal machine. Sometimes doing drop sets on top of that! 

I think my love for traps came from when I got to do see an exhibition game between the Steelers and Patriots in 1989 and they showed pictures of the players on the giant screen. One of the Steelers linebacker had traps that looked almost as wide as his shoulders. And I immediately thought: “that guy is a beast”. That’s probably how my love for traps started. 

Over the years, I’ve always been on the lookout for new and effective traps exercises. From the power shrug to the Olympic lifts and high pulls, not forgetting the Zercher shrug, I’ve tried pretty much everything… or at least I thought I did. 

I recently learn a new one from Jim Wendler and it is quickly becoming my favorite traps exercise. While I call it the Wendler row, Jim himself would likely hate that name and prefers to call it the T-bar shrug. Regardless of how you call it, it’s a superb exercise. 

It is very similar to the cable standing row

 but uses a T-bar/landmine set-up. 

In a sense it becomes kinda like a Kirk shrug with the T-bar. 

Because of the line of pull you will hit not only the upper but also the middle fibers of the traps, which will not only give you traps “height” but also “thickness”.  This will not only give you a much thicker torso but will also give you better leverage when bench pressing and will help the rhomboids to keep the upper back tight when pressing.  

It is a pretty straight-forward forward movement. Using the landmine/T-bar set-up, and ideally a parallel/neutral grip set-up you stand up upright and you row the weight up, initiating the movement with a shrug. It’s not a pure shrug because, just like with the standing cable row and the Kirk row, you are pulling with your arm (bending at the elbow joint). That actually facilitates a more important trap contraction. 

I recommend keeping your elbows pointing back (which is why I prefer to use a neutral grip); this will allow you to recruit the middle fibers more effectively and will prevent internal shoulder rotation (which you should avoid when doing traps work). 

You can even do some form of mechanical drop set by changing the angle of the torso during the set. As you get fatigued, you can lean back a bit more and that will allow you to notch a few more reps. 

I like to go fairly heavy on those, sets of 6-8 reps, but with a 2-second hold at the peak contraction. I personally do these twice per week, as my 3rd exercise in a session (I currently do 4 exercises per workout: the main lift, the assistance exercise, upper back work and then a loaded carry) but it’s mostly because my main goal is strength.

Those who are more into pure bodybuilding should shoot for sets lasting 40-60 seconds under tension. So, you could do… 

8-10 reps with a 3 sec hold and 2 sec eccentric (the set would last around 48-60 seconds) 
10-12 reps with a 2 sec hold and 2 sec eccentric (the set would last around 50-60 seconds) 
12-15 reps with a 2 sec hold and normal eccentric/concentric (the set would last 48-60 seconds) 
15-20 reps with a 1 sec hold and normal eccentric/concentric (the set would last 45-60 seconds) 

All of these put you in the ideal hypertrophy zone for a targeted exercise. 

Give this one a shot, it is an awesome way to get a thick upper back. 

-CT

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…