Best Trap Exercises – Build Towering Trapezius

Best Trap Exercises

When it comes to Trap training, a lot of bodybuilders are guilty of doing nothing more than a few sets of shrugs at the end of back or shoulder day. Then they wonder why their traps are so unimpressive! 

The truth is that the traps, which is short for trapezius, is a large and complex muscle group with three distinct parts and functions. While shrugs ARE a good exercise, they are just one of many you can use to get yoked.

If you are serious about building traps you can be proud of, it’s time to stop treating them as an afterthought and make them a training priority.

Here are the 10 best exercises for building mountainous traps!

Trap Anatomy Basics

The trapezius is a broad, diamond-shaped muscle that covers a large area of your upper back. It’s a single muscle but there are three sections that can function independently. Within these sections, the fibers run in different directions, which determines their main function (1). Most people refer to these sections as the upper, middle, and lower traps.

All three sections of the traps affect your shoulder girdle. The shoulder girdle is the scapulae and clavicles, better known as the shoulder blades and collar bone. The shoulder girdle should not be confused with the shoulder joint, which includes the arm. The traps do not affect the arm as they are not connected to it.

Trapezius Muscle Anatomy

Upper Traps– the upper traps are responsible for elevation of the shoulder girdle. In other words, they shrug your shoulders upward. When well developed, the upper traps can be seen from the front and the rear and make your upper back and neck look very masculine and powerful.

Mid Traps– running horizontally across your upper back, the mid traps are responsible for retraction of the shoulder girdle. This means they pull your shoulders back and together. Mid traps give your upper back thickness and are also important for posture.

Lower Traps– the lower traps are responsible for depression of the shoulder girdle. This means they pull your shoulder girdle downward. Like the mid traps, the lower traps are important for posture. They also hold your shoulders in place during exercises like pull-ups and pulldowns. Without strong lower traps, your shoulders would rise up during overhead pulling exercises.

The 10 Best Trap Exercises

Because there are three trap sections, and each one has a different function, you should treat them as separate muscles. You don’t need to train them all with the same volume, or even train them in the same workout. However, you should include exercises for each area in your training. Not sure where to start? No problem! Here are the ten best trap exercises.

1- Barbell shrugs (upper traps)

This classic exercise is most people’s go-to trap exercise. Emphasizing the upper traps, this is a good exercise for building mass and strength, but it’s just one of several effective upper trap exercises. Use barbell shrugs, but don’t abuse them. If you’ve been doing this exercise for a long time, consider replacing it with one of the other exercises on this list.

Barbell Shrugs

How to do it:

  1. Grip and hold a barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Stand tall, brace your abs, and keep your arms straight.
  2. Shrug your shoulders and try and touch your ears with your traps. Hold the point of peak contraction for 1-2 seconds.
  3. Lower your shoulders and repeat.
  4. You can also do this exercise with dumbbells or using a trap bar or Smith machine.

Benefits:

  • Easy to learn and perform
  • Allows you to use heavy weights
  • A proven exercise for building mass and strength

2- Overhead shrugs (upper traps)

Variety, they say, is the spice of life. It turns out that this saying is true for training too. Studies have revealed that exercise variety is every bit as important as rep ranges and weight for building muscle and strength (2). Add some variety to your upper trap workouts with this unusual exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Grab a barbell with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Press it overhead to arm’s length. Brace your abs and bend your knees for stability and balance.
  2. Without bending your arms, shrug your shoulders up toward the ceiling. Imagine you are pushing the bar away from you.
  3. Lower your shoulders and repeat.
  4. You can also do this exercise with dumbbells.

Benefits:

  • A very unusual exercise that will shock your upper traps into new growth
  • Also works your deltoids and triceps
  • Good for core strength

3- Farmer’s walk (upper traps)

Often thought of as a grip and general conditioning exercise, the farmer’s walk is also great for building strong upper traps. During this exercise, your traps work isometrically or statically to stop your shoulders being pulled downward. Go heavy with this exercise, and wear straps if your grip becomes a limiting factor.

Farmer Walk Exercise

How to do it:

  1. Grab a heavy dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet together. Brace your abs and set your shoulders back and slightly elevated. Do not relax your upper body!
  2. Keeping your arms straight, take your dumbbells for a walk around your training area.
  3. Continue until your traps or your grip starts to fail.
  4. You can also do this exercise with a kettlebell in each hand, using a trap bar, or with specially designed farmer’s walk handles.

Benefits:

  • A great full-body exercise
  • Allows you to lift heavy weights
  • A good finishing exercise after other trap exercises

4- Calf machine shrugs (upper traps)

A lot of bodybuilders use their arms too much when doing shrugs. The upper traps do not affect the arms so this is not just a waste of energy, it could even lead to injury. Yanking with your arms could result in a torn bicep. This variation takes your arms out of the equation, so you are free to focus on working your traps.

How to do it:

  1. Using a standing calf raise machine, duck down and put your shoulders under the pads. Stand up and brace your abs. Keep your legs straight and still.
  2. With your arms by your sides or gripping the handles, shrug your shoulders up toward your ears.
  3. Lower your shoulders and repeat.

Benefits:

  • No need to grip anything so your forearms get a break
  • A good way to isolate the upper traps
  • Much harder to cheat than with regular shrugs

5- Face pulls (mid traps)

Face pulls work your middle traps, posterior (rear) deltoids, and rhomboids. The rhomboids are the muscles located between your shoulder blades and beneath your mid traps. They are also involved in retracting your shoulder girdle. Go light with this exercise and focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together. If you use too much weight, you may end up using your legs and lower back more than your mid traps.

Face Pull Exercise

How to do it:

  1. Set the adjustable pulley to around head-height. Attach a rope handle. Take one end of the handle in each end. Step back and into a stable, split stance with your arms out in front of you.
  2. Bend your arms and pull the handles toward you. Lead with your elbows and pull your shoulders back and together. Imagine you are going to stick your thumbs in your ears. Keep your torso upright throughout.
  3. Extend your arms and repeat.

Benefits:

  • An excellent postural exercise
  • Works the opposite muscles to the bench press
  • Good for shoulder health.

6- Bench shrugs (mid traps)

This mid trap exercise supports your back, which makes it very spine friendly, even if you go heavy. Also, because your arms are straight and you can’t use your legs or back, it’s hard to cheat doing this exercise. Use light to moderate weights and really focus on pulling your shoulders back and together. Focus on mind-muscle connection to get the most from this movement – picture your mid traps working.

How to do it:

  1. Set the back of an adjustable bench to around 30-45 degrees. This will ensure your arms can hang down without the weights touching the floor.
  2. Lie face down on your bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Extend your arms and keep them straight throughout.
  3. Shrug your shoulders back and together.
  4. Lower the weights and repeat.

Benefits:

  • Very easy on your lower back
  • A useful postural exercise
  • Minimal stress on the biceps

7- Band pull-aparts (mid traps)

As far as mid trap exercises go, band pull aparts are one of the most convenient you can do. With nothing more than a regular resistance band, you can do this exercise almost anywhere. Do some pull-aparts between sets of bench press to keep your shoulders balanced and healthy, or even keep a band in your desk drawer to train your mid traps at work.

How to do it:

  1. Hold your resistance band with an overhand, hip-width grip. Raise your arms in front of you so they are level with your shoulders. Keep your arms straight and your shoulders down and back.
  2. Open your arms and stretch the band out across your chest.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Benefits:

  • Do this exercise almost anywhere and any time
  • A very good posture exercise
  • Also works your posterior deltoids
  • No special equipment required

8- TYIs (mid and lower traps)

This exercise gets its name from the shape your arms form as you are doing it. It’s actually three exercises rolled into one which is why it works your lower and your mid traps. You won’t need a lot of weight for this exercise. In fact, at first, your arms may provide all the resistance you need.

How to do it:

  1. Set the backrest on an incline bench to around 30-45 degrees. Lie face down and let your arms hang straight down to the floor.
  2. With the palms of your hands facing one another, raise your arms out to your sides to form a T-shape. Lower your arms back to the starting position.
  3. Next, lift your arms forward and out to form a Y shape. Your arms should be at 45 degrees to your body. Lower your arms back to the starting position.
  4. Finally, lift your arms straight forward so your biceps are close to your ears. Lower your arms to the starting position. That’s one rep – keep going!

Benefits:

  • No special equipment required
  • Get a good workout with very light weights, or even just the weight of your arms
  • An excellent exercise for both posture and shoulder health

9- Shrug dips (lower traps)

Very few people train their lower traps. That’s a shame because this muscle plays an important role in keeping your shoulders healthy. If your shoulders rise up during pull-ups, pulldowns, or even bench presses, you increase the stress on what is already a very injury prone joint. Strong lower traps keep your shoulders down and in their proper place, taking stress off the shoulder joint. This is a very simple lower trap exercise.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fG-osEQT7w

How to do it:

  1. Sit on the edge of an exercise bench with your legs extended in front of you. Place your hands on the bench with your fingers pointing forward and roughly hip-width apart. Straighten your arms and lift your butt forward and clear of the bench.
  2. Without bending your arms, shrug your shoulders and lower your butt a few inches down toward the floor.
  3. Depress your shoulders to lift your body back up.
  4. Move your feet closer to the bench to make this exercise easier or raise your feet on another bench to make it harder.

Benefits:

  • Easy to learn
  • No special equipment required
  • Minimal elbow or shoulder stress

10- Shrug downs (lower traps)

Your lower traps are already involved when you do lat pulldowns. They are the muscle that keeps your shoulders down. However, you can also use the lat pulldown machine to specifically target your lower traps.

How to do it:

  1. Grab your chosen pulldown bar and sit down on the lat pulldown machine. Extend your arms overhead and keep them straight throughout.
  2. Shrug your shoulders down. Imagine you are trying to put your shoulder blades in your back pockets.
  3. Let your shoulders rise up to your ears and repeat.
  4. Experiment with a wide grip, narrow grip, and parallel grip to see which one suits you best.

Benefits:

  • A good decompression exercise for your spine
  • Boosts lat pulldown performance
  • Easy on your elbows and shoulders

Trap Training Tips

Get the most from your trap-building workouts with these useful hacks and tips.

1- Make sure you include exercises for all three trap sections in your workouts.

A lot of people only train their upper traps. While the upper traps are easily the most visible of the three, the mid and lower traps are important too. Training just your upper traps is like training nothing but your front deltoids; you are neglecting two equally crucial muscle groups. By all means, emphasize your upper traps, but also include exercises for the mid and lower traps too. This will keep these essential muscle groups balanced.

2- Adjust your reps and weight to match your training goals

Get the most from your trap-building workouts by following these weight and rep guidelines.

  • For strength: 1-5 reps with 85-100% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM)
  • For muscle hypertrophy: 6-12 reps with 67-85% of your 1RM
  • For muscular endurance: 13-20+ reps with 50-67% of your 1RM

However, note that training outside your normal rep range can also be beneficial as it may help shock your muscles into new growth. That said, most of your workouts should revolve around the rep range that most closely matches your training goal.

Arnold Doing Shurgs

3- Explore the angles

Most people work their traps in a very regimented way. Shrugs are done standing very upright, while face pulls are done horizontally. There is nothing especially wrong with this approach, but you may feel some exercises more if you change your angles. For example, try doing face pulls with a lower pulley or doing shrugs with a slight forward lean. With some self-experimentation, you may find a new angle that unlocks even greater benefits. Here’s an interesting study that illustrates the benefits of working your traps from a less usual angle and holding your arms out form the side of your body to increase upper trap activation (3). 

4- Sometimes it’s okay to cheat

In most cases, cheating the weight up is not recommended. But, for shrugs at least, it can be beneficial. Thrusting with your legs will allow you to lift more weight, putting more stress through your traps. If strict, moderate weight shrugs aren’t setting your traps on fire, try adding some weight and doing a few cheat reps. Bodybuilders even have a name for this manoeuvre – power shrugs. It could be just what you need to turn your traps from hills into mountains!

5- It’s okay to wear lifting straps

Because the upper traps are very strong, you may find that your hands give out before the muscle you are training. This is especially true for exercises like barbell and dumbbell shrugs, and farmer’s walks. Avoid this problem by wearing lifting straps for your heaviest sets. Don’t use straps for all your sets – your grip may weaken as a result. Instead, save your straps for when you really need them.

Trap Exercises FAQs

Do you have any questions? We’ve got the answers! If you can’t find the answer you want below, drop us a line in the comments section, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

The Wrap Up

Big traps add a lot to your physique. They make you look powerful. Think of a boxer or wrestler with mountainous traps – they look very intimidating. Well-developed traps are not just aesthetically pleasing, they also have a function. For starters, big upper traps give you somewhere to rest the bar during back squats!

In addition, strong mid and lower traps can have a big impact on your performance in almost every upper body exercise. They help stabilize your shoulder girdle, giving you a better platform for pushing and pulling exercises.

In short, traps are just as important as every other major muscle group, so don’t neglect them. Use these best trap exercises to sculpt the biggest, strongest traps possible.

References:

1- PubMed: Ourieff, Jared; Agarwal, Amit (2020), “Anatomy, Back, Trapezius”, StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, PMID 30085536. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

2- PubMed: Baz-Valle, Eneko; Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Torres-Unda, Jon; Santos-Concejero, Jordan; Balsalobre-Fernández, Carlos (2019). “The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men”. PloS One. 14 (12): e0226989. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0226989. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 6934277. PMID 31881066. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

3- PubMed: Modifying a shrug exercise can facilitate the upward rotator muscles of the scapula https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov 

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