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Health and Fitness Tips

Working on the V Shape - Back and Traps

The most widely recognized parts of the back are the wide, thick sheets that some attempt to mimic by walking with their arms pushed-out. A strong back is an important part of the V-shape for men and lend to a great sculpted body.

The back is a very complex body part that, when fully developed, is nearly as large in muscle as the thighs and hips. Like leg training, back workouts are extremely fatiguing. A rapid building-up of fatigue toxins invariably occurs when you work your back this makes the pain barrier a very real enemy in back training. As a result, many individuals have failed to carry their back development to the level necessary.

Back training can also be a problem for individuals (usually those who have an inherent structural weakness in their spines) who have suffered from lower-back injuries. While it's possible to train around a lower-back injury by avoiding those movements that aggravate the injury, it is much more difficult to achieve maximum back development when you have a chronic spinal problem.

When working-out back muscles I encourage my clients to treat their backs as three separate muscle groups - upper back (primarily the trapezius muscle complex), the middle back (primarily the latissimus dorsi group), and the lower back (primarily the erector spinae muscles). So they don't necessarily train all three areas in the same workout. Many clients do their trap work the lower-back training with hip and thigh work.

The trapezius is a large kite-shaped muscle that covers the upper back, giving a sloping look to the shoulders of a powerfully developed body. The top and bottom points of the kite originate at about the base of the scull and insert of the spinal column and near the middle of your thorax. The traps contract to pull your shoulders upward and backward.

The latissimus dorsi muscles give a wedge-like shape to the torso when viewed from the front or back. In a front or back lat spread pose, they look almost like wings. The lats originate from the sides of the spinal column and attach via thick tendons to the upper arms downward and backward. You can't fully contract your latissimus dorsi muscles unless you arch your back during the movement, so you should keep this fact in mind as you train lats.

Your erector spinae muscle group lies like two thick columns of muscle on either side of the spine along your lower back. The spine erectors primarily to straighten the spine from a bent-over position in relation to your legs and to bring your back into an arched position.

Before we get into our exercises remember how important stretching is. A good 10 minutes of upper-body stretching is a great way to warm-up those back muscles. Also, make sure that you complete 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise before you begin your workout.

Finally, remember to drink lots of water, at least 30-40 ounces from the start to finish of your workout.

Seated Cable Rows

This is an excellent movement that develops all the back muscles: trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and erector spinae. Strong stress is also placed on the posterior deltoids, biceps, brachialis, and forearm flexors.

Starting Position
Most commonly this movement is performed with a handle that allows you to take a narrow grip with your palms facing each other. Grasp the handle in this manner. Place your feet against the foot bars at the front end of the seat, straighten your arms, and sit down on the seat with your legs slightly bent throughout the entire movement. Sit upright at a 90-degree angle to the floor. Remember to always wear a lifting belt and maintain an arched back.

Movement Performance
Keeping your elbows tight against your sides, pull the handle back toward your lifting-belt buckle. Once the handle touches the buckle, squeeze the upper back together and slowly, under control, lower the weight back to the starting point. Repeat the movement for 12 reps and a total of three sets.

Many opinions exist to how far forward you should lean toward the actual weight stack. The best advice is that, since any excess bending of the waist in other moves such as bent-over rows is not good, neither is bending forward at the waist to perform seated pulley rows. It stands to reason that you are attempting to build thickness in the latissimus dorsi area, not to perform a modified deadlift. In general, don't lean forward past a point slightly beyond 90 degrees. There is no mistaking the stretch placed on your upper and midback areas when this exercise is performed correctly as indicated.

Dumbbell Shrugs

Dumbbell shrugs are also a very direct movement for stressing the trapezius and other upper-back muscles. Secondary stress is on the gripping muscles of the forearms. You will have more mobility in the shoulders when using a pair of dumbbells, so in some ways dumbbell shrugs are superior to barbell shrugs.

Starting Position
Wear your lifting-belt. Grasp two heavy dumbbells and assume the basic pulling position, and lift the weights to the front of your thighs. Hold your arms straight and your torso securely erect. Allow your shoulders to relax and sag downward as far as comfortable.

Movement Performance
Slowly shrug your shoulder upward and backward as far as possible. Hold this peak contracted position for a moment, then lower the dumbbells back to the starting point. Repeat the movement for 12 reps and a total of three sets.

Upright Rows

All variations of upright rows exercise the trapezius and deltoid muscles. Secondary work is performed by the biceps, brachialis, and forearm flexors.

Starting Position
Wear your lifting belt. Take a narrow overgrip in the middle of a barbell about six inches between index fingers. Stand erect with your arms straight down at your sides and your fists resting on your upper thighs.

Movement Performance
Being sure to keep your elbows well above the level of your grip on the bar at all times, slowly pull the barbell directly upward close to your body until the backs of your hands contact the underside of your chin. In the top position, roll your shoulder blades backward and squeeze them together. Lower the weight slowly back to the starting point and repeat the movement for 12 reps and a total of three sets.

Remember to take the time to work-out your back and traps. A strong back and traps complete the perfectly sculpted body. Remember these three things when body sculpting - form, resistance, and breathe.

Rick Gusler is a certified personal trainer and diet nutritionist who serves his clients through Gusler Body Sculpting Fitness Center in central Denver. To schedule a free consultation, or to learn more about the Gusler method of body sculpting, spin yoga, or Rick's Boot Camp, please contact him at 303.860.7131 or online at

Gusler Body Sculpting Fitness Center, LLC
459 Acoma Street · Denver, Colorado 80204 · 303-860-7131
Hours: Monday-Friday: 6am-8pm · Saturday: Closed · Sunday: Closed