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June 23, 2021 1 Comment
Here are three things you need to know about traps - they make a powerful statement, they ARE important for performance, and they can GROW if you know what you are doing. In this article, we will dive into the best exercises for the trapezius muscle, which includes specific exercises for the upper, middle, and lower traps, that way you can improve your upper body’s appearance, strength, and injury resilience.
The trapezius, often referred to as the traps, is a large paired trapezoidal-shaped superficial (surface) muscle of the back that extends from the bottom of your skull to the lower thoracic vertebrae of your spine and laterally to the spine of the scapula.
You have two symmetrical trapezius muscles, one on the left side and one on the right side, which meet at the vertebral column.
The trapezius muscle has three functional parts (or groups of fibers) which are referred to as the upper, middle and lower traps.
Together, they support the arms, stabilize and move the scapular (elevate, depress, rotate, and retract), and stabilize and move the spine/neck. In other words, the trapezius is a postural muscle and a movement muscle that helps you move your neck and head, shrug and steady your shoulders, and move and twist your arms.
Separately, each region of the traps plays it own role. Understanding this can help you target each region of your traps better...
In simple terms, the upper trap fibers originate at the top of the spine and back of the head and they proceed downward and laterally inserting into the posterior side of the collar bone near the shoulder joint.
The main functions of the upper trap are to elevate your scapular, which elevates and brings up your shoulder girdle, and to extend, tilt and rotate (and protect) your neck, which allows you to move your head.
Note: The upper trap can be seen from the front side of your body too, so if your upper traps are well built, you will have that huge traps look.
The middle trap fibers originate at the first, second, and third thoracic vertebrae just below the neck and they proceed laterally to the spine of the scapula near the shoulder joint.
The main function of the middle trap are to bring the shoulder blades toward the spine (scapula retraction) and stabilize the shoulder for certain arm movements. It’s role is very important for all-around posture and stability doing horizontal pushing and pulling movements.
The lower trap fibers originate at the remaining thoracic vertebrae (T4-T12) and proceed upward and laterally converging near the scapular
The main function of the lower trap is to move the shoulder blades downward (scapular depression), which is the opposite action of the upper trap.
The different regions of the traps also work together for certain movements. For example, the upper and lower traps work in tandem with the serrates anterior for upward rotation of the scapular and work in an opposing manner to the elevator scapulae and rhomboid muscles for downward rotation - i.e. when you lift your arm up to the side and bring it back down.
Some movements involve all three parts of the traps.
Moreover, the traps work in tandem with other muscles groups, such as the rhomboids and lats. This is particularly true for the middle and lower traps. This is because the rhomboids play a role in scapular retraction and the lats play a role in scapular depression.
Fun Fact: The trapezius is even an accessory breathing muscle as it helps open up a small amount of room for breathing in the upper chest area.
Besides enhancing your appearance and making you look like a beast, strong traps play a very important role for performance in the gym, sports, and all around daily life.
First of all, strong traps will make you much more injury resilient. Inside the gym, they will help keep your shoulders and scapular stable. When playing high impact sports, they absorb blows to keep the shoulder’s safe and they protect your neck and upper back during contact. There’s a reason why many of the best MMA athletes have towering traps. Plus, big traps are intimidating, they are a sign that some one is strong and durable.
Secondly, the traps are part of a chain of muscles that help transfer force. Any movement that involves lifting, reaching, and bending or passing, throwing, and shooting are supported by the traps too. Stronger Traps = Stronger Body.
So, while they are definitely a mirror muscle, they will make you a stronger, more explosive, more durable competitor. Moreover, they will help with the longevity of your spine from the mid back up and your shoulders via strong scapular stabilization, which as we all know, are two of the most important (and susceptible) areas of our bodies, especially as we get older.
Overall, yes! But, you shouldn’t spend excessive amounts of time focusing on just your traps. This is because your traps will be activated with many compound movements.
For example, deadlifts hit the traps, pull ups hit the traps, barbell rows hit the traps.
These exercise allow you to build up your traps along with other muscle groups in a more even manner. It’s all about balance.
Ergo, if you spend too much time focusing on just your traps, you may actually end up overdeveloping them.
Overactive traps will take over movements causing other muscle groups to be undeveloped. If your traps are too big compared to other muscle groups, it can lead to back pain, posture problems, and upper body mobility problems.
While this is not the case for most people, it can happen if you were to spend way too much time developing your traps or your traps are naturally overactive (they are easy to activate and they “take over” a lot of exercises).
Like with anything, there’s a happy medium.
Now, if your traps are really lagging behind, ok, then you can place more emphasis on the traps than we’d recommend for the average person. But for most people, performing 2-4 trap specific exercises each week is enough, as again, the traps will be activated with many compound exercises. So, as long as you are using heavy weights and training hard with your big compound lifts, they will grow regardless.
We will get more into programming trap exercises in a moment, but for now, we just want to make it clear that big traps are good for the most part, but there are situations where it becomes an overkill and even disadvantageous for people with muscle imbalances (traps are way to big compared to other muscle groups).
For some people, yes. For others, no. Some people naturally have active traps, meaning it is easy for them to activate the traps when exercising. Conversely, some people have trouble activating their traps.
This is true for a lot of muscles.
For example, you will find that some people have very well-developed triceps from benching but their chest is small. This is because they have overactive triceps. Moreover, they haven’t learned how to really hone in on the chest. The can be true for the traps.
If you are someone who can easily target the traps, you will have no trouble building your traps as long as you use an appropriate weight load, intensity, volume and you do the right exercises.
If you are someone who has trouble hitting traps properly, you just have to work on building a mind-muscle connection with your traps and you may need to do more trap specific exercises to give them a little special attention.
Eventually, anyone can learn to activate their traps properly during workouts, so it’s just a matter of persistence on building a good mind-muscle connection and performing the right exercises with the right range of motion.
We are going to teach you exactly how to get bigger traps.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the trapezius muscle is a slow twitch dominant muscle. This means it contains more slow twitch muscle fibers than fast twitch muscle fibers...
Slow twitch muscle fibers support endurance more, whereas fast twitch muscle fibers support quick powerful movements.
Be that as it may, it’s not like your traps are significantly slow twitch. It’s about 55% slow twitch, 45% fast twitch.
For reference, your chest is 60% fast twitch and your triceps are 67% fast twitch. So, this does make quite a difference in how you’d train the different muscle groups.
Because the traps are slow-twitch dominant, yet they still have 45% fast twitch muscle fibers, you will need to be versatile with your rep scheme and load scheme for the best possible development.
In other words, you need to do both heavy weight with low reps and lighter weight with high reps.
Rep Ranges & Weight Load:
For the best results, train half the time with a 6-12 rep range at 60-80% your 1RM and the other half around 12-30 reps at 50-60% your 1RM. In both cases, to near failure with around 30-60 seconds time under tension.
This means you need to get acquainted with the right weight loads for the exercises you choose to add into your workout program.
Besides the point of weight load vs reps, you also need the right amount of volume and of course the right exercises.
Weekly Volume - Maintenance vs Growth:
To maintain or even get some good minimal growth to the current size of your traps, you really don’t need to do any trap specific (isolated) exercises as your traps will be activated with rows, deadlifts, shoulder presses, and so on.
But, if you want to maximize the growth of your traps, you will need to do some isolation work at a MAV (Maximum Adaptive Volume). For this, aim to do around 12-26 sets of trap focused exercises each week. And, remember, to do a good mix of both heavy with low reps and light with higher reps.
As for the best trap exercises, we are almost there...
Here’s the interesting thing about the traps, they recover quickly! You could split those 12-26 sets into 3-4 workouts each week because of this (note: some people may even be able to train them more frequently, where others would need to do this less frequently, so listen to the muscle).
This high frequency would allow you to maximize protein synthesis (process for building muscle). So, essentially, every time protein synthesis levels off, you are hitting your traps again.
With that, you could see your traps grow faster than a lot of other muscles.
How fast really depends on the person, but you can expect to see some serious results in a single training cycle (8-12 weeks) as long as you are training with the above plan, employing progressive overload, and eating and sleeping right.
By now, it should be clear that a lot of compound exercises, many of which you are probably already doing, hit the traps effectively. So, let’s run through a list of exercises that work the traps (with the regions of the traps each exercise emphasizes).
When training specifically for the traps, most should people focus on exercises that target their upper and lower traps, as these are the more neglected areas. The middle traps should be worked sufficiently for growth with many of the big compound back exercises. In fact, the middle traps are a primary mover for most of the best back exercises, like rows, so there really is no need to spend too much additional time trying to just hone in on the middle traps.
Nevertheless, the best exercises below include options for all three areas of the trapezius muscle because a lot of people have trouble effectively activating their traps during compound back exercises. They may feel their biceps and even their lats, but little in the way of traps. So, the exercises below will help address this somewhat common issue.
Here are the absolute 3 best exercises for the upper traps...
Everyone knows shrugs. It is the most discussed trap exercise of them of all, and for good reason. Shrugs are very effective for building the upper traps. Not only will they help you develop that towering trap look from both the front and back view, but they will help you with big compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses too.
Although barbell shrugs are great and highly recommended, there are many variations of shrugs to employ into your training.
There even more variations of shrugs than what's above, many of which can be done to target the middle and lower traps, but the above are the best for the upper traps.
Pro Tip: Squeeze and hold at the top of your shrugs. Each rep you can hold for 2-3 seconds at the top of the shrug!
When to do shrugs?
Shrugs are best done on shoulder day because they will be warmed up with shoulder movements. This is not true for your middle and lower traps, as they would be warmed up from back exercises. So, we recommend doing upper trap exercises on shoulder days towards the end of a session, as that is when the muscle will be warm yet still not exhausted from the shoulder exercises done beforehand.
It is best do do shrugs in a variety of rep ranges. Heavy shrugs for 4-8 reps. Medium weight shrugs for 10-20 reps. And you may even find light weight shrugs for 20+ reps effective. Again, the traps have 55% slow twitch muscle fibers, so they will respond well to muscular endurance ranges.
Rack pulls are a phenomenal exercise for the traps. This is because they force your traps to handle very heavy loads. Compared to shrugs, you should be using a considerably heavier load for rack pulls. This is what makes rack pulls special for building the traps.
Shrugs maximize contraction and stretching tension. Rack Pulls maximize load and they also promote heavy stretching tension.
Note: You will likely need wrist straps to get the best results from rack pulls because your back can handle pulling a lot heavier weight than your grip will allow for, especially with the overhand grip used for rack pulls.
One of the greatest things about rack pulls, besides building beefy looking traps, is that they will directly translate to gains in your deadlift. This is not just a trap exercise, it is the ultimate assistance back lift for deadlifts.
When to do Rack Pulls?
While rack pulls are great for the upper trap, they work so many muscles in your entire back, including your middle traps. So, they are best done on back days. This will allow you to focus on shrugs on shoulder days and rack pulls on back days. Remember, your traps recover quickly (as long as you are eating and sleeping well), so you can target them more than you would other big muscle groups.
The best rep range for rack pulls is 3-10 reps with a heavy weight load. We are talking a weight load that brings you to failure or near failure in this range.
Note: Both strength and muscle hypertrophy gains will occur in the 3-10 rep range, but 3-6 reps is more strength focused where 6-10 reps is more hypertrophy focused.
Unlike rack pulls, upright rows are a relatively lightweight exercise for your upper traps, but it’s a great one nonetheless.
Some important things to note, as upright rows often get a bad rap, is to use a wide grip, with your hands just outside of shoulder width. Using a close grip is what causes issues on the shoulder joint (impingement). So, a long as you use a wide grip, you will be fine and this is how it should be done!
Besides using a wide grip, just make sure you pull the barbell up high, just below your neck, and bring your elbows up and back. As you lower the weight back down, be slow and controlled.
When to do upright rows?
Upright rows also work your shoulders so they are best done on shoulder day. They can be part of your main workout, done anytime after your bigger pressing movements.
The best rep range for upright rows is 8-15 reps with moderately heavy weights (relative to this exercise). Just use a weight load that is challenging in this rep range and allows you to use proper form. To maximize results, keep the rest time low with this one. 30-60 seconds between sets is all that’s needed.
The farmer’s walk is a fantastically functional full body exercise that emphasize trap development. Add shrugs while you walk to take your trap activation up a few notches.
We love the fact that the exercise is so simple and safe too. This allows you to experiment with heavy weights. You can use dumbbells or a trap bar or farmer’s walk bars which are specially made for the job.
Aim to do 15-60 meters each set. Shorter distances with heavier loads and longer distance with lighter loads.
Here are the top 2 exercises for the middle traps...
Any exercise that involves squeezing your shoulder blades together will directly work your middle traps, and that’s exactly what rows do.
Overall, rows are the best exercise you can do for the middle traps as they allow for maximum range of motion and relatively heavy loads.
Now, you’ll notice how we just said “rows”. This is because there are many variations of rows. Out of all the types of rows you can do, these are the best for your middle traps:
To ensure your middle traps are getting activated adequately, make sure you are using a full range of motion by fully protracting and retracting your shoulder blades. Use your middle traps to pull the weight back, not just your biceps. The movement should first occur at the shoulder blades, not the arms.
When to do rows?
Obviously rows will be done on back or pull days. The great thing about rows are, you will be hitting other muscle groups too.
You should work through a wide range of reps with rows. Anywhere from 5-20 reps will be good. Work on strength, hypertrophy and endurance sets using an appropriate weight load for each.
For hypertrophy, you want to have time under tension at about 45-60 seconds per set.
Incline shrugs involve leaning the front of your body on an incline bench (body positioned opposite of an incline bench press). From that position, you shrug the dumbbells up. While this works your upper traps, the emphasis is on the middle traps due to your body positioning.
Incline shrugs are not the only type of shrug that is good for your middle traps. There are other variations you can play with too, such as:
When do to incline shrugs?
Do incline shrugs on back days.
You won’t be going as heavy with these variations of shrugs but you can still go relatively heavy. Aim to work in a rep range of 8-20 reps with an appropriate load. Focus on slow negatives and try to hold the top of the shrug for a couple seconds each rep to maximize contraction tension and build some isometric strength.
Here are the 3 best lower trap focused exercises...
Face pulls are not a lower trap isolation exercise, but it definitely does a great job of honing in on the lower traps due to the position of the arms creating scapular depression.
Note: Face pulls also work your middle traps, as well as your delts and teres major.
When to do face pulls:
Although this could be considered a shoulder exercise, it is best done on back day since it is rear delt and trap focused. After all, it’s a pulling exercise.
Face pulls work best in the 12-20+ rep range. Both the rear delts and the lower traps do well with high reps. Plus, you won’t be pulling very heavy loads. This is a light weight exercise that requires good form, full range of motion, and a good mind-muscle connection.
Related: Best Face Pull Alternatives
This may not seem like a tough and effective exercise for the lower traps, but it is. This is as isolated as it gets for the lower traps as your arms in a Y-position straight out overhead causes scapular depression. So you will be contracting through scapular depression for the duration of the exercise.
To do this, you get into a prone position (face down lying on the ground) and hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms extended straight in a Y-position. From here, you raise your arms up as high as you can. Slowly lower them back down and repeat. For best results, hold the top of the raise for a couple seconds each rep.
When to do prone y-raises?
This is a back or pull day exercise.
You won’t be able to go heavy with this exercise. It is a light weight trap exercise. In fact, a lot of people will do best starting without dumbbells, simply raising their arms up and holding the position for a few seconds each rep. It is a lot more challenging than it looks.
Aim for sets of 10-15 reps. This is a slow and controlled exercise, so sets should last around 30-45 seconds.
Note: While this is technically a scapular stability exercise meant to improve shoulder mobility and stability, you will get some great hypertrophy benefits like isolation exercises are meant to do. Just focus on really good contraction of your lower traps.
It’s probable that you’ve never heard of this exercise so you have no clue what it looks like.
Essentially, it’s the opposite of a shrug, and as you should know by now, the lower lats action is directly opposite to the upper traps.
You will use a cable pulley for this. Use a handle attachment. Grab the handle with the cable pulley set to the highest position so the cable pulley is pointing directly down. Stand so it’s to your side body with your arm straight down, just like your arm would be with a shrug. The resistance will be coming from above you (which is opposite to a shrug). This is the starting position. Elevate your should, like you would a shrug (there will be no resistance since you are moving towards where the cable pulley is positioned), get a good stretch in the lower trap, then pushdown while really contracting your lower traps. Push all the way down, hold the position, then let your shoulder raise back up like a shrug, then repeat.
For this to be effective, you really need to put your focus on the lower traps. Get that mind-muscle connection going.
When to do one arm straight arm cable pushdowns?
Do this exercise on back day.
Do this exercise with reps from 12-20. This is a slow and controlled movement, so this should have you at 45-60 seconds time under tension.
Note: One Arm Lat Pull Downs are also great and probably easier to focus on the lower traps for beginner.
Like the farmer’s walk is great for the upper traps, the overhead farmer’s walk is great for the lower trap. This because it puts your arms in the direct opposite position (i.e. scapular depression).
Pull ups are great for the lower traps too. However, to get good activation of your lower traps, you will need to do full reps, meaning going all the way down so your arms are fully extended. This will allow you to perform scapular depressions each rep, which occurs at the start of the movement. If you're struggling to achieve this full range of motion, start with a dead hang and progress from there. We promise the traps will get the attention they deserve in the active dead hang.
Related: Pull Up vs Chin Up
Pull Up Shrugs: Pull up shrugs are a great way to train just your lower lats. To do this, you just hang on the bar all the way dow with your arms fully extended, your shoulder blades will be elevated. From there, you perform scapular depression, really squeezing your lower lats, then you release back to scapular elevation. There will be no movement at the elbow, this movement occurs purely at the scapula.
Finally, the best all around exercise for the traps is the...DEADLIFT. When it comes to building big, well-rounded traps and a thick back, the deadlift is king. Just look at anyone who deadlifts heavy, they will have big traps.
All in all, if you want big traps, you need to deadlift. In fact, if all you were to do for your back was deadlifts, it would enough. Which is why powerlifters only do deadlifts, squats, bench press and overhead press. That said, we absolutely recommend adding pull ups into that big 4 of powerlifting. And if hypertrophy and aesthetics are important to you, the other trap exercises above will surely be helpful. Plus, they will help to improve your injury resilience and strength for big lifts like deadlifts and sports.
We’ve already discussed the essentials of programming trap exercises into your workouts in the ‘How Do I Get Bigger Traps’ section further above, which includes rep ranges, total volume per week, and training frequency. So if you didn’t read that, scroll back up and read. It's important.
Assuming you've read that, let’s just discuss which days you should do trap exercises.
The answer to this is simple. Because traps recover quickly, generally speaking that is, you can hit your traps 3-4 times a week. That said, many of these “trap exercises” will be compound movements that target other muscles as well - i.e. deadlifts, rows, rack pulls, pull ups, etc. So, for trap specific exercises like shrugs, prone Y-raises and farmer’s walks, we recommend doing just one or two of these exercises on shoulder/push days and one or two on back/pull days.
Do upper traps on shoulder days and lower and middle traps on back days. It’s that simple.
If you are doing a bro-style split that trains each muscle group once a week, then you’d be doing one or two trapezius-focused exercise on shoulder day and back day. Therefore, you'd be specifically training your traps twice a week.
If you do a PPL style split, then you could do trap focused exercises as many as 4 times a week.
If you do an upper/lower split, you'd be doing trap exercises on every upper day and even lower day’s that involve deadlifts.
In any case, that should allow you to hit the 12-26 sets per week of trap focused exercises. Plenty for max development.
There’s really no need to do a trap workout. You should just hit traps on shoulder days or push days (upper traps) and back days or pull days (middle and lower traps).
But let’s just say that you want to do workouts that focuses a little more on your traps, then here’s how it should look...
This will allow you to hit multiple muscle groups while emphasizing your traps.
The above is obviously a back workout, but it does the perfect job of emphasizing the development of your upper, middle, and lower traps. With this kind of workout, your traps will have no choice to grow.
But, that’s not all...
Your shoulder day will look like this...
This is a shoulder workout, but it does a great job of getting working your upper traps, and even your middle traps thanks to the rear delt flys and prone y raises, which work perfectly for shoulder days yet allow for extra trap work.
Want to build your traps without weights? Here are the best bodyweight trap exercises.
Bodyweight Upper Trap Exercises:
Note: You can shrug anything! You don’t need a barbell to do shrugs. You can use any make shift weight, such as duffle bags full of books, 5 gallon buckets of water, etc.
Bodyweight Middle Trap Exercises:
Bodyweight Lower Trap Exercises:
With all that trap work, you will need to do stretches for your traps. This will ensure they don’t get tight and it will help you maintain good mobility.
Do these stretches every few days.
Let us know your favorite trap exercise in the comments below!
If you have questions about trapezius exercises or stretches, please feel free to contact us.
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