Your traps are muscles that add an instant air of dominance, power, and masculinity to your physique. And when it comes to building them, there are three key factors you need to implement.
“First, it’s important to target your trap muscles from a variety of movements that include loaded carries, shrugs, Olympic lifting variations, upper back exercises, and overhead movements,” says Joel Seedman, Ph.D., strength and performance specialist and owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Second, you need to incorporate proper posture, spinal alignment, and scapular positioning on all exercises to activate your targeted muscles efficiently,” he says. “And finally, it’s critical to include the key mechanisms for inducing maximal hypertrophy, such as overload and mechanical tension, constant/continuous tension, metabolic stress, and stretch-induced micro trauma.”
Don't worry. It sounds more traumatic than it really is.
The following exercises employ all of these components.
To maximize the growth of your upper back, you’ll want each of your trap workouts to include one Olympic lift variation, deadlift variation, shrug variation, overhead movement, row, pullup or pulldown, and loaded carry. For the best results this type of workout should be performed twice per week with at least 3 days of rest between workouts, incorporating different movements on each of the days, Seedman says. To avoid overtraining limit each workout to no more than 8 different exercises.
1. Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk
How to do it: Choose a total load that’s equivalent or greater than your body weight. Hold a dumbbell in either hand, and walk quickly yet smoothly with them for 50-100 yards.
Why they’re effective: “If you’ve ever watched the world’s strongest man events you’ve probably noticed that every competitor has enormous traps,” Seedman says. That’s because of the sheer number of farmer’s walks and loaded carries they perform. “Besides being a highly functional movement, the farmers walk is one of, if not, the single most potent mass builders for the traps, upper back, shoulders and neck. It’s actually an excellent exercise for strengthening the muscles along your spine, safeguarding against injury or strengthening your back after a pre-existing one.
Expert tip: “Keep a tall posture, avoiding any forward shoulder rounding, and maintain a tight, rigid core throughout,” Seedman says. “Besides sending your heart rate through the roof, don’t be surprised if you experience an incredible burn throughout your entire traps, shoulders, and upper back,” he adds. The move is simple (and safe!) but incredibly taxing. Luckily the tremendous growth is worth it.
Prescription: Complete 2-3 rounds of 50-100 yard walks, taking 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.
2. Heavy Barbell Shrug with Maximal Isometric Contraction
How to do it: Load up a barbell with the heaviest load you can handle. Focus on staying tall and maintaining an upright posture while you hold the barbell with an overhand grip and shrug your shoulders straight up and down, not forward or back. At the top of the shrug, when you’re in the contracted position, pause for several seconds. Don’t let your shoulders round over or your head protrude forward; your head should remain rigid throughout the entire exercise.
Why they’re effective: “Barbell shrugs are undoubtedly the single most common trap exercise you’ll see performed in the gym,” Seedman says. The problem is most guys have terrible form. Instead of stimulating growth in your traps, you’ll create postural deficiencies, meaning you can mess with your spinal alignment.
Expert tip: Technique and mechanics are crucial to creating the most tension and metabolic stress throughout your traps—both of which are needed to induce muscle hypertrophy/growth. Really focus on the pause at the top of the shrug. It will help stop any momentum from breaking your good posture.
Prescription: Aim for the heaviest load you can handle for 2-3 sets of 10-12 controlled reps, taking 1-2 minutes of rest between sets.
3. Barbell Farmer’s Walk
How to do it: Load up two barbells, equally, with a total load greater than your bodyweight. Grip your hands on the center of each barbell, brace your abs, and pick them up. Walk 30-60 yards slowly, making sure the weights don't dip in one direction.
Why it’s effective: "Most gyms don’t have dumbbells and kettlebells that go past 100lbs, making it difficult to progress the move as you get stronger," Seedman says. "With this in mind, if you’re looking to truly overload your traps with unlimited potential for ever-increasing loads, the barbell farmer's walk is fantastic exercise." You can load up a near-limitless amount of weight, and you're really challenging your core, upper back, traps, and shoulder stabilizers since the instability of the shifting weight forces you to balance and control the load.
Expert tip: Because of the instability, you’ll naturally be forced to walk in a slower, more controlled fashion anyway; but take your time.
Prescription: 2-3 sets with 2-4 minutes of rest between sets; any more will leave you utterly exhausted.
4. Hex Bar Deadlift
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your hips back to lower your hands and grip the bar's handles in the middle. Your lower back should be flat. Inhale and engage your abs. Stick your chest out and look in front of you, not at the ground. Drive your heels into the floor as you begin lifting the bar. Stand up, squeezing your glutes as you lock out your hips.
Why it’s effective: "If you’re looking for an all-in-one move that crushes your entire body while inducing hypertrophy in your traps and upper back, the hex bar deadlift is it," Seedman says. It's also safer than a typical deadlift. Rather than having the barbell loaded in front of your body, which puts you at a greater risk of hurting your lower back and spine, the hex bar fits around your body, placing the load to the sides of your torso. Better yet, this lets you lift heavier loads, complete broader rep ranges, and create high levels of tension and stretch throughout your upper back and traps.
Expert tip: When you lock your hips, be careful not to lean backward and hyperextend your lower back. Also make sure your back is flat as you bend your hips back and lower the bar, dropping it if necessary.
Prescription: Work up to heavy loads incorporating 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps before finishing with 1-2 sets of 8-12 reps, taking longer rest periods of 3-5 minutes to maximize the overload effect. “Using this variety of rep ranges help elicit even greater hypertrophy gains as all available fibers, including the fast twitch and slow twitch muscles, will be thoroughly taxed.
5. Hang Clean and Hang Snatch
How to do it: Starting from a tall standing position with the bar in your hands, hinge over at the hips until the barbell is just above your knees. Make sure to keep your hips set back and your back slightly arched. Next, extend your hips forward and shrug your shoulders forcefully, allowing the weight to ride up along your body. From here, catch the barbell on your shoulders for the clean or above your head for the snatch.
Why it’s effective: “Olympic lifters are notorious not only for their ability to produce an extremely high power output but also for having incredibly developed upper back and trapezius muscles, Seedman says. “Majority of this can be attributed to the actual Olympic lifts they perform because they elicit growth and strength gains.” The hang clean and hang snatch variations are slightly more user-friendly variations of Olympic lifts since they’re performed from a partial deadlift position—just above your knees—rather than from the floor.
Expert tip: “Although both the clean and snatch are great trap builders, the hang snatch places even greater strain on your traps since the load is caught in the overhead position,” Seedman says.
Prescription: Repeat for 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps. Be sure to use longer rest periods of 2-3 minutes since these moves require high power output and fast-twitch muscle fiber activation.
6. Power Shrug
How to do it: Begin with the same partial hinge position described for the hang cleans and hang snatches above: Assume a tall standing position with the bar in your hands, hinged at the hips so the barbell is just above your knees. From here, extend your hips forward, and flex your feet as if you were going to jump; then shrug your shoulders forcefully by really engaging your trap muscles.
Why it’s effective: "The power shrug is an explosive exercise that involves powerful hip drive followed immediately by an aggressive shrug at the top of the movement," Seedman says. "This move is exceptional for targeting the fast-twitch fibers of your upper back and traps since the high power output forces you to activate so many of them."
Expert tip: The main difference between the hang versions of Olympic lifts and the power shrug is the bar stays below you waist and your arms never bend, Seedman explains.
Prescription: 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps with 2-3 minutes rest between sets.
7. Overhead Squat
How to do it: Using a very wide grip, hold the bar overhead and slightly behind your head, then squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. As you squat, simultaneously focus on pressing against the barbell to push you into the position and pushing the bar slightly back. This will help you maintain balance, Seedman says.
Why it’s effective: You probably think of squats as a leg-dominant exercise, but the overhead squat is an exception. The amount of tension this variation places on your whole upper back, traps, and shoulders makes it extremely upper body-intensive. "Besides requiring greater motor control and muscle activation, this technique will accrue greater total time under tension for your upper back and shoulders, which can be highly effective for increasing size and strength gains in your traps," Seedman says.
Expert tip: If you have a hard time reaching the desired position, you need to address mobility and stability issues throughout your body. "And if you are capable of successfully performing these, don’t be surprised if your traps are screaming after just a few repetitions," Seedman says. Once you progress and you're looking to ramp up the intensity, try performing these in an eccentric isometric fashion by squatting down slowly then pausing for several seconds in the bottom position, he adds.
Prescription: 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps with 2-3 minutes rest in between sets.
8. Push Press
How to do it: To perform this movement effectively you’ll either start by cleaning the weight to your upper chest and shoulders, or you can unrack the barbell from a power rack, Seedman says. From there, move into a partial squat by slightly dipping at the knees, then forcefully driving the weight overhead in one swift motion. Once you lock the weight out overhead, pause in the top position for several seconds to gain complete control of the weight.
Why it’s effective: "The barbell push press is one of the single most effective strength and mass builders for the entire upper body," Seedman says. "It also does wonders for crushing your traps—particularly at the top of the movement as you drive the weight overhead."
Expert tip: Emphasize the pause at the top of the motion. This will create the most tension throughout your traps and upper back since you'll have to fight to stabilize the heavy load overhead.
Prescription: Because there's a lot of skill and coordination involved, higher total number of sets (4-7 sets) with less reps per set (1-5) is ideal for maximizing your power output. And since this is one of the more physically demanding exercises you’ll do, be sure to take 2-5 minutes of rest between sets.
9. Heavy Barbell Squats
How to do it: Load the bar with as much weight as you're comfortable with, and assume a stance that matches your frame. Wide guys should assume a wide stance, and those with smaller frames should assume a narrower stance. (Though both should keep feet pointed out to prevent knees from buckling under the weight.) As you drive your hips back during the descent, focus on squeezing and pulling the bar into your body rather than simply having the bar rest on your back, Seedman says.
Why it’s effective: Besides maximizing recruitment of your upper back and traps, this squeeze and pull technique helps to create more tension and spinal rigidity, which lets you lift heavier loads in a safer fashion, Seedman explains. "Although barbell squats are an obvious lower-body dominant movement, most trainees are unaware heavy barbell squats are a highly effective trap builder," Seedman adds. Your traps and upper back are forced to hold a very intense isometric contraction to keep the bar racked on your upper back and shoulders instead of resting on your spine.
Expert tip: Rather than tilting your head up, which can cause hyperextension and neck impingements, keep your head neutral and your shoulder blades pulled down, he adds.
Prescription: A combination of heavy weight and higher volume using 4-5 sets of 3-8 reps and finishing with a high rep set of 10-15 reps will do wonders not only for your legs but for the musculature of your neck, traps, upper back, and shoulders. Take 3-5 minutes rest for the heavier sets and 1-2 minutes rest for the higher rep sets.
10. Rack Pulls
How to do it: Set the barbell in a power rack at a height that's just above your knees. While keeping your hips set back and your spine neutrally arched, grip the barbell tightly, and initiate the movement. Drive your hips forward and stand with the barbell. Hold this position for several seconds.
Why it’s effective: Although the movement is produced through your hips, your upper back has to stay tense to support the heavy load. This combination of tension and stretch makes the rack pull a great exercise to stimulate muscle growth in your traps.
Expert tip: "You want to actually feel the load pulling and creating micro trauma throughout the entire musculature of your upper back and traps," Seedman says.
Prescription: Perform several sets (3-4) of lower reps (2-6) with a heavier load, then finish with a higher rep set of 10-12 reps with a substantially lighter load. Take 3-5 minutes rest for heavier sets and 2 minutes rest for lighter sets.
11. Snatch-Grip Deadlifts
How to do it: Bend over at the hips and knees, and grip the barbell with your hands at least twice as wide as shoulder-width apart. Set your back and spine in a neutral arched position, then initiate the movement by driving through your legs and hips.
Why it’s effective: "This wider hand placement not only creates more tension on the upper back and traps but it also creates a larger range of motion as you're forced to achieve a deeper starting position in order to lift the load," Seedman says. You'll stimulate strength and size throughout your entire body, and muscularity and hypertrophy in the trapezius muscles that few exercises can match, he adds.
Expert tip: As with all deadlifts, you want to avoid rounding your back and flexing your spine.
Prescription: 3-5 sets of 3-8 reps with 2-4 minutes rest between sets.
12. Eccentric Isometric Deficit Deadlifts
How to do it: Elevate yourself on a 2-3 inch platform, set your spine into a moderately arched position with your chest tall and hips back, then drive the weight up by activating your legs and hips. Pause at the top, then slowly lower the load. Pause again for several seconds at the bottom just before the weight touches the floor, then forcefully drive the weight back to the top.
Why it’s effective: "Combining deficit deadlifts with eccentric isometrics (slow negatives with a pause in the stretched position) is a unique but highly effective technique for producing muscles mass throughout the entire body, but especially the traps and upper back," Seedman says. "Because the weight is held continuously in your hands and never on the floor, the constant tension and loaded stretching make this eccentric variation a must for upper back and trap growth."
Expert tip: You want to produce constant and continuous levels of high-intensity tension as you reach the various positions, Seedman explains. The angle of your torso will gradually change from the bottom to the top phases, which will create three-dimentional trap muscles. "The bottom position will engage your lower and middle traps more forcefully while the top position will crush you upper traps," Seedman explains. To make these more user-friendly on your lower back and spine, assume a squat stance and use a deadlift technique.
Prescription: Complete 3 sets of 4-6 repetitions with 2-3 minutes rest between sets.
13. Rows, Pullups, Chinups, and Pulldowns
How to incorporate: Include both a row and a pullup/pulldown movement in all of your trap workouts to target the various upper back muscles from different angles and positions. For all of these moves, pause in both the stretched and contracted positions. These pauses and isometric contractions allow you to squeeze and engage all the muscles of your upper back, lats, and targeted trap regions, Seedman explains.
Why they’re effective: "Rows, pullups, and pulldowns are typically considered variations of lat-dominant movements, which isn't wrong; but the lower and middle traps also play a pivotal role in any upper body pulling movement. Because many lifters are upper-trap dominant—as a result of performing an excessive amount of upper-trap movements or from faulty form—horizontal and vertical pulling motions are essential for addressing this imbalance," Seedman says. These moves will efficiently target your lower and upper trap muscles.
Expert tip: For all of these, incorporate a pause in both the stretched and contracted positions. You want to squeeze and engage all the muscles of your upper back, lats, and traps, as well as maintain proper form. Make sure you always have retracted and depressed shoulder blades lower spinal extension in the contracted positions of all upper body pulling motions. Without these mechanics, you'll fail to target the often-neglected lower and middle trap muscles and strain your anterior shoulders and upper traps.
Prescription: A large variety of sets and rep ranges can tax your fast- intermediate- and slow-twitch fibers, Seedman says. A good starting point is 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps with 2-3 minutes rest between sets.
14. Suspension Trainer Y-Raise
How to do it: Start by setting a suspension system such as Olympic rings or TRX straps to their longest lengths. At the beginning of the movement, your feet should be in front of the handles and the straps should be have no slack in them. Lean your body away from the anchor point as you hold the handles in front of your chest. Complete overhead front raises with your arms angled somewhat diagonally in a "Y"-shaped position.
Why it’s effective: "Due to the nature of the muscles, most trap exercises involve some form of heavy barbell or dumbbell loading," Seedman says. "But this effective variation targets the lower, middle, and upper traps as well as the shoulders without any external loading (other than your bodyweight)." You'll challenge your muscles through a large range of motion while engaging stability, balance, and motor control from head to toe.
Expert tip: Keep your elbows straight and move only at the shoulder joint. Your core and spine should remain rigid as you feel your traps, shoulders, and upper back continuously engage throughout the movement.
Prescription: Perform 2-3 sets of 10-12 with 45-60 seconds rest between sets.
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15. Giant Strip Set Barbell Shrug
How to do it: Like a regular shrug, load up a barbell with the heaviest load you can handle. Focus on staying tall and maintaining an upright posture while you hold the barbell with an overhand grip and shrug your shoulders straight up and down.
Why it’s effective: Ending your workout with a giant strip set of strict barbell shrugs will really amp up the hypertrophy stimulus of your trap workout," Seedman says. "The burn will be almost unbearable, but if you’re able to handle it, the growth in your traps will far outweigh any level of discomfort."
Expert tip: Pay special attention to your form; don't move your shoulders forward or back as you shrug.
Prescription: Start with the heaviest weight you can shrug for 6-8 perfect reps—for example, 405lbs. Once you’ve completed your target reps, strip a plate off each side and crank out as many reps as possible with 315lbs. Perform the same protocol with 2 plates on each side for 225lbs. Keep this going until you’ve stripped all but one plate off the bar, blasting out as many reps as you can with 135lb. Because of the devastatingly high intensity, one set of this will more than suffice, Seedman says. Don't take any rest between each strip phase.