Form and Function

Few things espouse more masculinity than a set of mountainous traps. But most lifters train their traps insufficiently from both an aesthetic and functional standpoint.

The trapezius plays critical roles in preventing shoulder and neck injuries as well as in pressing performance.

Trapezius Anatomy

Think the traps are just for shrugging?

The trapezius, originates from the external occipital protuberance (the back of your skull) and attaches to the ligamentum nuchae (your spine). It connects to the spinous processes behind the neck all the way down to the mid-back.

The upper traps, which many novice lifters wrongly assume is the entire muscle, inserts into the lateral third of the clavicle and into the acromion of the shoulder. It elevates the scapula for upward rotation.

The middle and lower traps join the rhomboids inserting into the spine of the scapula to retract them. It pulls the scapula back during movements such as rowing and climbing, and will enable a lifter to keep a stable upper back during horizontal and overhead pressing exercises.

The lower traps also assist with upward rotation of the scapula, which occurs anytime you raise your arms overhead.

Larger traps provide an illusionary effect. Check out the physiques on lightweight boxers, wrestlers, and mixed martial artists and you'll see astounding upper trap development in spite of their low body weight.

Novice lifters often say they're getting enough trap work with deadlifts, rows, and squats, but when I've trained clients with hypertrophic goals in mind, the traps have immense growth potential that's not realized without direct training. So why not train them directly?

Big Traps

For lifters with injury prevention in mind, such as athletes who engage in contact sports, trap training has crucial. Unresolved whiplash symptoms and chronic neck pain have been linked to trapezius weakness.

Weaker trapezius muscles, specifically the middle and lower trapezius, can beget shoulder impingement syndrome, scapular winging, and scapular dyskinesis.

Relevant to powerlifting or those desiring a bigger bench, shoulder impingement and dyskinesis will alter normal functioning of the glenohumeral joint, thus throwing a wrench in one's bench-pressing progress.

Also, remember that stronger traps translate to bigger pulls. A lifter with strong lower traps will be able to pull the scapulae back and down during a deadlift or row, thus keeping the bar from traveling too far from the body. Strong upper traps will help lifters with their deadlift lockout, again keeping the bar closer to the body.

Paper pushers and online coaches need trap training too. Aside from just yoking-up their necks, trap training will give them better posture. It'll help address scapular instability, and it'll ward off the common upper back and neck pain associated with being anchored to a desk for the bulk of the work day.

Bodybuilder Traps

Prioritize trap training. Do it at the beginning of your workout. Since these areas are never worked with high volume or to failure in strength programs, you won't have to worry about their training affecting performance on subsequent lifts like the Olympic lifts or squats, presses, and rows.

When I've had lifters train these groups through stretching and performing isometric holds, it's been easier for them to get into a neutral neck position during lifts occurring later in the workout. And shrugging heavier loads in lower volumes will prime the CNS for the work that's yet to come.

Nothing is more yawn-worthy than seeing "Barbell Shrug 3 x 10" in a workout program. If you have the flexibility in your program, or equipment, try these upper trap variations instead.

Dumbbell Jump Shrug

Barbell Shrug Walk

Dumbbell Shrug Walk

Dumbbell Saw Shrug

Plate Saw Shrug

Seated One-Arm Dumbbell Shrug

One-Armed Smith Machine Shrug

Unilateral Low Pulley Shoulder Extension Shrug

Note: Unilateral shrugging exercises were found to produce the greatest EMG activity in the upper trapezius.

Banded Lateral Raise to Shrug

For the oft-neglected middle and lower aspects of the trapezius, throw these movements in along with your upper trap work:

Mini Range Lat Pull-Down to Isometric Hold

Voyeur Shrug

Half T-Raise


These work wonders in recruiting the middle and lower traps. EMG activity in the middle and lower trapezius is greatest during shoulder external rotation and flexion in the prone position.

Alternating Forearm Wall Slide

Prone Tennis Ball Tension I, Y, T Raises

Standing Calf Raise Shrug

Trap Stretch

Add these to the end of your trap work for an intense stretch.


Exercise Sets Reps
A 4-Way Neck Machine 2 * 10
B Dumbbell Jump Shrugs 2 5
C Heavy Barbell Shrugs / Rack Pulls 3 3

* each direction


Exercise Sets Reps
A Prone Tennis Ball Tension Y, T, I Raises 2 5 *
B Wall Slide To Iso Hold 2 10
C Trap Stretch 2 * * 10 - 20 sec.

* each letter
* * each side

Trapezius Hypertrophy Workout:

Add this mini-session to your workouts twice weekly, performing them as a continuous rotation. End with a two to three minute rest period before repeating the sequence again. You'll be happy with the results.

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Dumbbell or Hex Bar Jump Shrugs 3-5 3
A2 One Armed Seated Dumbbell Shrugs 3-5 10 *
A3 Prone Tennis Ball Tension Y, T, I Raises 3-5 5 * *
A4 Standing Calf Raise Shrug 3-5 15

* each side
* * each letter