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Straight-Arm Pushdown Master Class

Target your lower traps for balanced shoulder development and reduced injury risk by pushing down as often as you shrug up.

straight arm pushdown lower traps exercise technique

Note: The above video was recorded as a Facebook Live tutorial in conjunction with the Train With Jim Full-Body Shortcut to Size program.

Straight-Arm Pushdown Key Points

  • The straight-arm pushdown is an isolation exercise for the lower trapezius muscles; it’s the opposite movement of a shrug, which hits the upper traps.
  • Isolating the lower traps in the gym is important for eliminating strength imbalances to reduce injury risk and help keep your shoulders and back pain-free.
  • The straight-arm pushdown is a fairly subtle movement, entailing a relatively small range of motion. To maximize the contraction of the lower traps, the key is to keep your arms extended (and stationary) throughout the exercise.  

Most people are concerned with building big upper traps, primarily through shrugging movements (barbell shrugs, dumbbell shrugs, etc.), but also with upright rows. When you focus only on the upper traps, though, you create a problem: an imbalance between the upper traps and lower traps.

That’s why I’m a big proponent of regularly incorporating exercises for the lower traps, like the straight-arm pushdown. That way, you have better balance between the upper and lower traps, and you reduce your risk of injury.

Anatomy of the Straight-Arm Pushdown

Most people are concerned with building big upper traps, primarily through shrugging movements (barbell shrugs, dumbbell shrugs, etc.), but also with upright rows. When you focus only on the upper traps, though, you create a problem: an imbalance between the upper traps and lower traps. That’s why I’m a big proponent of regularly incorporating exercises for the lower traps, like the straight-arm pushdown. That way, you have better balance between the upper and lower traps.

When people reference the “traps,” they’re usually talking about the upper traps. But there are actually three different trapezius muscles on the posterior side of the torso: the upper, middle, and lower traps. All three need to be sufficiently developed for optimal performance, movement patterns, and joint health. It all comes down to balance.   

Strength imbalances anywhere in the body can cause problems. Before I get into traps, let’s discuss another more common example: the quadriceps and hamstrings. One of the reasons the hamstrings are so frequently pulled in runners is because the quadriceps tend to overpower the hamstrings. There are typically strength differences between the quads and hams. When it's a significant difference, it leaves one muscle group susceptible to injury (usually the hamstrings, but not always), and you also tend to get a lot of pain.

Back to the traps. When people who work in offices complain about shoulder and neck pain, its often due to an overpowering set of upper traps, which are being used all day to pull up the shoulders while you’re typing on the keyboard, using your computer’s mouse, and talking on the phone. As a result, the lower traps become weak compared to the upper traps, and it causes a lot of neck and shoulder pain.

For those who train in the gym, a similar imbalance can occur if you train the upper traps hard with different variations of shrugs but ignore lower trap-strengthening exercises. When doing shrugs, you’re lifting your shoulders upward (“elevation” of the shoulder girdle, to be technical), which is targeting those upper traps. The lower traps do the opposite: They pull the shoulder blades down (“depression” of the shoulder girdle).

Just as you isolate the upper traps with shrugs, so too should you isolate the lower traps with the opposite movement. And one of the best exercises for doing this is the cable straight-arm pushdown – the exact opposite movement of a cable shrug.

Straight-Arm Pushdown Step-by-Step Overview

  1. Secure a bar attachment to a pulley on one side of a cable crossover station, and then adjust the pulley to roughly shoulder height.
  2. Standing facing away from the weight stack and grab the bar with your hands just outside shoulder-width and your arms fully extended.
  3. Keeping your arms and body stationary, let the weight slowly elevate your shoulders upward (the negative portion of the lift), then focus on and contract your lower traps to pull your shoulder blades down.
  4. The range of motion here is relatively short – same as the shrug, just in the opposite direction.

How to do the Straight-Arm Pushdown

Setup

One of the easiest ways to do straight-arm pushdowns is on a cable crossover station where the pulleys are adjustable up and down the side columns. If the pulleys aren’t adjustable and you’re stuck using the high pulley setting, getting the bar down and in proper position behind your back can be really awkward, if not impossible. (Go to the 6:30 mark in the above video to see what I’m talking about.)

If you've got an adjustable pulley, you can set it up so that the bar is lower and you’re able to get in the proper position to start the exercise.

If you don’t have an adjustable pulley, however, there is one thing you can do: Use a length of chain to bring the bar down lower while still originating from the high pulley. (I demonstrate at around the 8:00 mark of the video.) You can buy some chain for pretty cheap at a hardware store, and many gyms have chains lying around for a variety of purposes.

If your cable pulley is fully adjustable, here's what the start position of each rep will look like:

Execution

When you're doing the straight-arm pushdown (or the straight-arm dip, for that matter), the whole concept is to NOT bend your arms. You don't want to lower the weight by bending your elbows. You want to keep your arms completely straight.

When you lower the weight without using your arms (ie, triceps), you’re using your lower traps to initiate the movement – your lower traps are pulling your shoulder blades down. That’s all that’s going on here; it’s a pretty subtle movement, but it’s an important one.

At the bottom of each rep, you really want to make sure to focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and down; that's how you feel those lower traps and get a full contraction in them.

Straight-Arm Dip: Bodyweight Version of the Straight-Arm Pushdown

The straight-arm dip, which I demonstrate in the above video at around the 5:00 mark, is another great lower trap exercise. It’s essentially the bodyweight version of the straight-arm pushdown. 

What you're doing here is lifting your body up with straight arms using your lower traps. Like the straight-arm pushdown, it’s a pretty small range of motion.

The issue with straight-arm dips, however, is that because it’s a bodyweight movement, it can be too heavy for some people. That’s what the straight-arm pushdown is for – to mimic the same movement as the straight-arm dip, but to allow for different resistances to be used depending on your individual strength level.

Lower Trap Choices

So there you have it – two great options for hitting the lower traps to minimize injury risk and stay pain free. If you don't want to do it on the pulleys, go over to the dip station at your gym and do the movement with your body weight.

But the main reason I like the cable version is because in my programs I constantly change up the rep ranges. And if on straight-arm dips you’re not able to get more than, say, 8 or 10 reps with your bodyweight, you’ll have a hard time doing a workout that calls for 12-15 or 20+ reps per exercise.

Straight-Arm Pushdown in Action

Find this exercise on Day 3 (shoulders and traps focus workout) of all four weeks of my Full-Body Shortcut to Size program. For a great opposing-muscle-groups superset, pair straight-arm pushdowns with cable shrugs.

 





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