Lead Photo Credit: Josh Maley
They say that big traps are the true sign of strength. So why do so few lifters have impressive traps? What are we doing wrong? To figure it out, we asked our experts a simple question:
What's your best training tip for building traps?
If you want total trap development, the type that makes you hearing impaired, then heavy deadlifts alone aren't going to cut it. And neither will ultra-heavy shrugs that involve movement akin to a chicken dance.
You need time under tension. Dumbbell shrugs with a 3-5 second hold at the top – these are money. Contract the traps as hard as possible at the top of the shrug. Do 4 sets of 10-12 reps.
The shrug doesn't have a very long range of motion. So people who shrug too heavy don't spend enough time putting the traps under a significant amount of tension. When you hold the top in that 3-5 second range...
- You have to lighten the load quite a bit.
- You extend the time under tension and you can distribute more tension onto the traps.
- You actually build traps.
My other go-to is the front raise using a 25 or 35 pound plate for ultra-high reps, usually between 50-100. This will absolutely scorch the traps, but you need to take the plate all the way over your head to really get the traps to kick in hard. None of that stopping in front of your face stuff.
You'll also find out very quickly that the lateral delts do in fact work very hard with these, and will probably be quite sore as well. Big traps and big shoulders? That's a winning combo. – Paul Carter
That doesn't mean you have to go full bore and compete. It doesn't even mean you need to learn and perfect every single variation of the lifts. But adding a few athletic barbell movements into your program will light up the fast twitch fibers of the traps. Instead of only relying on shrug variations, use the following explosive exercises as staples for trap development:
Barbell Power Clean
Barbell Push Press
Barbell Power Snatch/Muscle Snatch
Barbell High Pull
The truth is, Olympic lifters' physiques speak volumes, especially where trap development is concerned. It makes sense to take a page out of their book and start performing lifts with a bit of an explosive edge rather than the slow, high TUT method you'd use with shrugs.
All of these movements should be focused on lower rep ranges – 5 or under. Feel free to up the volume by adding sets to perform a high number of loaded reps, cumulatively speaking. In this case, 8 sets of 3 is better than 3 sets of 8, and will probably be a better resistance against injury and keep the nervous system sharper for the duration of your workout. – Lee Boyce
On their own, the farmer's walk and the shrug are great trap exercises. When you combine them, you'll get a trap burn from hell.
Here's what you need to do:
- Pick about 50-60% of the weight you'd normally use on a dumbbell farmer's walk.
- Walk 20 meters while keeping a very slight shrug throughout. At the end of the 20 meters, do 5 shrugs with 3 second holds at the top of each rep.
- Walk back to the starting position with the same form. Do another 5 shrugs with 3 second holds.
- Rest 60 to 90 seconds and repeat for 3-4 sets.
This will be your lighter trap workout of the week. On another day, perform your heavy shrug and deadlift work for complete trap stimulus. – Akash Vaghela
Many lifters hammer their traps with high volume and heavy loads with little to no results. And it's usually because they're not doing the type of training the traps respond best to.
The traps function primarily as postural stabilizers of the neck, mid-back, and shoulder girdle with insertion points across multiple joints. This muscular region is diverse, consisting of the upper, middle, and lower trapezius, all with related functions.
The fluffy functional training gurus lose sleep over the functionality and activation of the lower trap in isolation, while many lifters are working towards upper to mid-trap hypertrophy to achieve the power look. Well, that look isn't achieved by doing prone T-raises for sets of 50 with pink dumbbells.
The upper trap responds well to increased time under tension, and not necessarily huge loads or velocity-based movements. This means that instead of pounding through butchered shrugs that hammer the joints more than the muscles, you first need to slow down and isolate the traps.
This starts with building stability through the hips, core, and shoulder girdle. From there, you'll have a solid base to implement shoulder elevation plus slight rotation that'll help increase the activation of the upper traps under loading.
The most effective ways to increase total time under tension are moving slowly, accentuating the eccentric (extend the negative), and doing iso-holds at the top or mid range of the movements. This also minimizes unwanted compensatory movements and joint stress. Stick to sets that take 45-75 seconds to complete. Try to develop a strong mind-muscle connection and create a metabolic pump effect.
Whatever do you, skip the loaded neck extensions and do something more effective like the trap bar tempo shrug to target upper traps in a more pain-free way. – Dr John Rusin
Do these exercises and your traps will grow whether you want them to or not! This is the best way to grow your traps, not shrugs or any other isolated trap work. The actual Olympic lifts themselves are great, but if you want to be even more specific, clean pulls and snatch pulls are the key. (Bonus: They're also great calf builders.) Here's what a clean pull looks like.
You can use a wide grip and change the variation to a snatch pull, or you can do them from a variety of rack heights. Do them with a pause at the top (for half a set or the whole set) to increase trap activation.
Try doing this sequence in the last 10 minutes of your workout:
- Clean pulls from the floor. Do 3 sets of 12 reps, 10 reps, 8 reps. On half of every set, do 3 second pauses at the top of the movement with your shoulders to your ears. Also rise up on your toes at the end of this movement for the pause.
- Superset of rack snatch pulls and rack clean high pulls. For all the snatch pulls, pause at the top. Do 6 of each for 3 sets.
- Then do a snatch or clean from the hang position. Do 3 sets of 3-5 reps.
Do this twice a week and I promise you'll have traps. – Amit Sapir
Building an impressive yoke is no easy feat. It requires several key factors: overload, stretch, and constant tension. A number of exercises can accomplish this but the single most effective movement is the Reeves trap bar deadlift.
The Reeves deadlift, which typically uses a traditional barbell, is an old-school exercise developed by legendary bodybuilder Steve Reeves. Reeves was known for having an upper back and traps that were so visually stunning he was cast as Hercules in several films.
Unfortunately, it involves such a wide grip that it tends to be fairly awkward for many lifters, making it difficult to overload. You can fix this by doing it with a trap bar since the grip placement tends to be 25-30% narrower than Olympic barbells.
With a trap bar, you can use a grip that's wide enough to crush the traps yet not so wide that it feels difficult to grip the plates. As a result, it allows you to overload the daylights out of your traps while placing them in a significantly stretched position. Your traps and upper back will be sore for days.
As an added bonus, this exercise involves a more natural starting position with solid 90-degree joint angles as opposed to the barbell variation that requires you to stoop down much lower to reach the plates.
In fact, the standard Reeves deadlift, although it involves lighter loads, is also known for being hard on the low back for this very reason. But the trap bar version allows you to maintain a more neutral spine due to a better pulling height. And the weight can be placed closer to your center of mass rather than in front – a great benefit of the trap bar.
So the starting position is lower-back friendly and biomechanically sound, which means you can handle heavy loads in a safe fashion thereby maximizing the hypertrophy stimulus to the entire body, including the traps and upper back.
If you really want to lose your neck in a mountain of traps, you can also do other unique exercises with this setup, including bent over rows, farmer's walks, RDLs, squat jumps, lunges, jump shrugs, and more. – Joel Seedman, PhD
My traps grew best initially with heavy-ass barbell shrugs. However, lifting big weight eventually leads to diminishing results. With a lower back that can't handle spinal compression, I resolved to set meathead tendencies aside to learn the most effective path to trap growth:
1 Hold the peak contraction.
This is accomplished in a couple different ways. The first and simplest is to hold the weight in the top, contracted position for two seconds on every rep. This increases the time under tension.
The second is to add bands to whatever you're using to hoist weight – barbell or trap bar. The bands are particularly good because it causes you to fight for the peak contraction vs. just holding it. You're continuously working against gravity and a band.
Lower the weight with a controlled tempo and immediately reverse direction at the bottom without resting.
2 Use a wider than shoulder width and semi-neutral hand position.
The Dead-Squat® Bar is excellent in this regard. I feel the contraction better when I'm able to lift and lower the weight from a neutral position rather than with a barbell out in front.
3 Get a loaded stretch.
Simply finish each set with a 10 second hold at the bottom of the shrug allowing the weight and bands to stretch your traps.
I'll be honest. Much of my trap development today doesn't come from direct trap work, but from regular back training with a heavy emphasis on rows. However, if all else fails and your traps are lacking, get a Dead-Squat Bar, add a moderate amount of weight, include bands, and crank out 10-12 reps where you hold the peak contraction for two seconds on every rep and finish the set with a static stretch. – Mark Dugdale
I've tried tons of exercises and methods to build my traps throughout the years. Here are five things that gave me the best results:
- Snatch-Grip High Pull: Do sets of 5 reps either from blocks when you want to go heavier, or from the hang which is better for size gains.
- Zercher Shrug: These will feel a lot better than regular shrugs. My traps have grown significantly since doing them. Avoid leaning back or cheating by bouncing the weight up.
- Externally rotate the shoulders when doing barbell shrugs. Try to show your elbow pit/biceps to the front. This puts your scapulas in a better position while also taking the tendency to use the arms to shrug out of the equation, making it more effective at isolating the traps.
- Hold the peak contraction 2-3 seconds on every rep. This is important because of the short range of motion of the traps.
- Add time under tension work. While I like to go pretty heavy on high pulls and shrugs, adding a time under tension component works even better. I do this by supersetting the heavy exercise with a pump movement. I like to use band pull-aparts at face level or overhead plate raises for 15-25 reps. – Christian Thibaudeau
Training the traps with only shrugs makes as much sense as training your shoulders with only lateral raises. Just like there's more to complete shoulder development than the side delts, there's more to complete trap development than just the upper traps, because the actual trapezius muscle takes up almost the entire top half of your back. Shrugs, the most typical trap-builder, actually ignore a large chunk of the muscle.
To hit the entire trapezius, build total body strength, and improve athleticism, power cleans are the right choice.
Start your back workout with 4-5 sets of power cleans, working up to a heavy set of three. Lower reps work best for cleans because they're an explosive exercise and you want to keep some pop in the movement without cumulative fatigue from moderate to higher reps.
It also wouldn't be a bad idea to do a few very low-rep sets right before deadlifting. It'll serve as a dynamic warm-up since it's the same basic movement pattern and you'll fire up the CNS, leading to a better deadlift session. Turning any "overhead press" into a "power clean and press" – or at least cleaning the first rep of each overhead press set – is another way to increase your overall trap and upper back work.
You can basically sneak in low-volume power cleans a few times a week without rearranging your entire program. Try it for a month or two to really focus on growth. It's impossible to do power cleans consistently and have small traps, but it's very common to do shrugs and not see your traps grow. – Chris Colucci
This is a bodybuilding movement that involves a seated shoulder shrug, followed by a hammer curl, followed by retracting and externally rotating the shoulders.
I learned this from a buddy in college. He told me that Brian Urlacher, a former NFL linebacker, used this to get his monster traps. Whether or not this was true I'll never know, but it worked and I was hooked.
The trick to preventing shoulder injury with this is to make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together as you rotate your palms forward. Also, maintaining the shrug the entire time will intensify the contraction in the traps. – TJ Kuster
The trapezius is made up of three regions. Here's what they are and what they do:
- Upper – Shrug shoulders upwards
- Middle – Squeeze shoulder blades together
- Lower – Bring shoulder blades downwards
The upper region originates on the back of the skull (occipital bone) and connects along the spine and ligaments of the vertebrae of the neck. It then inserts on the outer part of the clavicle (collar bone). The upper trapezius works by:
- Shrugging the shoulders upwards. Think shrugs.
- Extending the neck backwards. Think neck extensions.
- Rotating the shoulders upwards as you go past 90 degrees. Think laterals or overhead flyes.
The middle and lower trap originates along the mid spine and inserts along the outer to inner part of the shoulder blades (spine of the scapula). The lower trapezius works by:
- Retracting the scapula. Think of squeezing the shoulder blades together during seated rows.
- Lowering the shoulders or scapular depression. Think of a reverse shrug using a lat pulldown.
Another point to consider is the muscle fiber makeup of the traps. They're made up of 45% fast twitch and 55% slow twitch muscle fibers. This means they should be trained with both heavy weight and low reps as well as lighter weight and high reps.
Half the time you should be training traps with 6-12 reps at 60-80% of your 1RM. The other half you should be training traps with 12-30 reps at 50-60% of your 1RM (to near failure).
Finally, regarding where trap activation is greatest on a deadlift, if you look at the deadlift as three different parts you'll see the beginning (floor to mid-shin), middle (mid-shin to mid-thigh) and end phase (mid-thigh to lock out). Research shows that upper traps are maximally activated during the middle phase of the lift. So rack pulls starting at the mid-thigh are a good addition to target peak upper trap activation. – Michael Warren
When I see a guy with huge traps and a thick neck, I know he hasn't been just hitting the pumper, fluffy exercises in the gym. To get thick traps you have to use big compound movements. Plenty of snatches, cleans, and deadlifts. You can make the Dead-Squat® Bar a mainstay in your back and trap development.
My favorite movement for full, thick, and functional traps is the farmers carry.
It's like killing three birds with one stone – big traps, huge forearms, and the grip strength to carry heavy loads. You can hit farmers for heavy short runs, lighter distance runs, or somewhere in between. At the end of it all your traps will have no choice but to grow! – Chad Coy
When lifters talk about "building traps" they're usually talking about the upper traps as opposed to the middle or lower traps. The general functions of the upper trapezius is scapular upward rotation and elevation.
So, loading those actions dynamically or isometrically (like in a deadlift) is what you'd want to do. That said, research shows that during scapular abduction, upper trapezius activity progressively increases from 0 degrees to 60 degrees, remains relatively constant from 60 degrees to 120 degrees, and continues to progressively increase from 120 degrees to 180 degrees.
That means you should increase the range of motion on front and lateral shoulder raises if you're wanting to build bigger traps.
This means going all the way above your head and stopping when your wrists are directly above your shoulders instead of stopping when your arms are parallel to the floor. – Nick Tumminello
- Reinold MM1, et al. Current concepts in the scientific and clinical rationale behind exercises for glenohumeral and scapulothoracic musculature. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2009 Feb;39(2):105-17