Build bigger, stronger traps by understanding the anatomy of your upper back.
By Nick Tumminello, CPT
Having a big set of traps on your shoulders is impressive to look at and can really bring out and complete the look of a muscular upper body. But a big set of traps isn’t easy to come by unless you’re a genetic freak. If that’s you, congrats. Give your mom and dad a big hug and thank them for handing you a winning genetic lottery ticket. For the rest of us normal humans, however, building bigger, stronger traps for a more impressive “yoke” requires hard work and intelligent training.
To that end, this article will focus on the latest biomechanics research about how the traps function so you can torch your upper back in the smartest way possible. I’ll also share what I feel are the best trap-building exercises to practically apply this new knowledge.
Your Traps Don’t Do What You Think
If you don’t know how a muscle works, you won’t know how to effectively work that muscle. And if you’re thinking, “I already know what the upper traps do — they elevate the shoulders,” then pump your brakes, speed racer, because you’re about to get schooled. According to physical therapist and functional anatomy expert Mark Comerford, the trapezius muscle group has three functionally distinct divisions:
- The upper (clavicular) fibers
- The middle fibres
- The lower fibres
Comerford goes on to claim that “the functions attributed to these divisions of the trapezius in most of the current anatomy text books are at least 25 years out of date.” His research shows that, in fact, the primarily horizontal alignment of the upper-trapezius fibers makes them biomechanically unable to elevate the scapula above neutral (your normal shoulder level).
Another famous anatomist, Nikolai Bogduk, shared the same findings about the movement of the upper traps. According to both Bogduk and Comerford, most EMG studies reveal that it’s the levator scapulae muscle — not the upper trapezius, that elevates the scapula (shoulders). In other words, all of those upright shrugging motions aren’t working your traps to the degree you think they are.
Why Strengthen Your Traps?
Now that you know what the traps actually do, you should have a new appreciation for why it’s important to strengthen them beyond simply training them for an impressive-looking physique. As the above evidence shows, strong traps can help you avoid neck pain by creating increased neck stability, and they’ll help you support big loads that pull your shoulders downward during lifting.
How to Strengthen Your Traps
Now it’s time to transfer all this new science into practical application. I have some new trap-building movements to show off, but first let’s cover some old-school trap builders that should remain staples in your training. I’m not going to spend too much time describing these movements — most of them will be familiar. Instead, I’ll describe their role in strengthening and building your traps.
This exercises is simple, but it’s anything but easy. Just pick up a heavy-ass pair of dumbbells (or carry implements, if you have them) and carry them until your grip gives out.
The farmer’s walk (or farmer’s carry) is a great trap builder because the weight is pulling your shoulders downward for a prolonged duration during an unstable motion (walking). And as you learned above, your upper traps work overtime in order to keep your shoulders from dropping below neutral during the carry.
Notice I said “heavy” deadlifts. Any time you hold a bar that’s pulling your shoulders forward and downward, you’re going to be hitting your upper traps hard. That’s why most powerlifters have huge upper traps.
Trap Bar Deadlifts
Just so we’re clear, the trap bar, which lets you deadlift with a neutral grip without maneuvering your body around the bar as it rises, is named for its shape, not for it’s ability to multi-task as a great trapezius builder. The “trap” in its name is just a happy coincidence for anyone who’s looking to build bigger, stronger traps.
The trap bar deadlift is an extremely effective trap builder for the same reason the standard deadlift is, but the trap bar’s unique arm position hits your traps from a slightly different angle. That’s why I recommend mixing up a few weeks of barbell deadlifts with a few weeks of trap bar deadlifts.
The two primary O-lifts, the clean and jerk and the snatch, are both long-proven trap builders, mostly because O-lifters use heavy loads, or lighter loads moved explosively, which are both proven ways of building muscle.
Also, lifting the weight during both the clean and snatch movements forces the scapula to not only pull back up to neutral but also to upwardly rotate as the bar is elevated, making O-lifts an great overall trap builder.
But if you’re not technically proficient in the Olympic lifts, or you don’t have the time or desire to learn the proper technique, stick with the less-technical but equally effective options described in this article.
New-School Trap-Building Exercises
With new knowledge of the body comes new exercise applications. Check out these trap-building techniques and tweaks, some of which may be new to you.
Okay, I’m aware that dumbbell shrugs are old news. But I’m suggesting you perform them in a new way in order to better align the motion with the muscle fibres in your upper traps.
Instead of simply shrugging your shoulders up toward your ears when performing the dumbbell shrug, upwardly rotate your scapula so that the dumbbells travel out and away from your hips as you shrug.
It’s important to understand that although your intention is to upwardly rotate your scapula during this shrug, some scapular elevation is still occurring. That’s not a bad thing, it just means you’re building the strength and size of your levator scapulae muscles as well.
Wide-Grip Barbell Shrug
Again, this one’s not a new concept, but it’s a new tweak on an old one.
If you want to maximally recruit your traps during barbell shrugs, the same rules apply: you need to upwardly rotate your scapula throughout the range of motion. And because the standard narrow grip (hands just outside of hip width) allows only shoulder elevation without proper upward rotation of the scapula, I recommend a much wider grip (hands well outside of shoulder width) as opposed to a narrow one. The only time you’d benefit from a close grip is when you’re doing heavy isometric holds or farmer’s walks.
By taking a wider grip on the bar, you can create a more rounded action at your shoulders, which encourages upward rotation of your shoulders, instead of pure elevation. Plus, the wider grip pulls your shoulders slightly more forward and downward, which forces your traps to work harder.
Angled Cable Shrugs
This is one of my favorite unconventional methods for training the upper traps because the diagonal vector of the cable forces you to upwardly rotate your shoulders, which means you’re hitting the upper-trapezius fibers in the same direction as they’re aligned (horizontally, not vertically).
The way you perform the Angled Cable Shrug is consistent with how you perform the other shrug variations described above. Instead of pulling straight up with the pulley directly beneath you, take a large sideways step away from the pulley before starting the movement. Then, for each rep, pull the cable toward you as you shrug. The only difference is the force vector you’re working against isn’t gravity loaded — it’s more diagonal.
As you perform the angled cable shrug, use your obliques to maintain an upright spine — you don’t want your torso to flex laterally toward the stack. During the eccentric (lowering) part of each rep, be sure to let the cable pull your shoulder downward, slightly below its normal height to eccentrically load your traps. Then, during the concentric portion, emphasize drive your shoulder toward the midline of your body to encourage scapular upward rotation.
The Gittleson Shrug
This is my new favorite shoulder shrug variation, which I’ve named the “Gittleson shoulder shrug” after legendary strength coach Mike Gittelson, who showed it to me. Coach Gittelson is one of the world’s leading experts on the hot-button issue of concussion prevention and neck strength in sports.
To perform the Gitlleson shrug, straddle a flat bench holding a heavy dumbbell in one hand. With your other hand, take a firm grip on the bench just behind you to stabilize yourself. Shrug the dumbbell with your working side, and bring your ear towards your shoulder at the top of the motion. Allow a slight stretch at the bottom of each rep.
What I really like about this exercise is that you can emphasize dropping your working-side shoulder below neutral to fully hammer your traps. And just like with the angled cable shrug, you’ll be hitting your obliques isometrically as you offset the unbalanced load.
Tack any one of the following trap workouts onto the end of your lower-body or back training day to increase the size and strength of your traps and build a better yoke. I recommend doing one of these workouts twice per week. After you’ve stuck with one of them for three weeks (six workouts total), switch to the next sequence to keep your traps growing.
- Barbell Clean: 5 x 5
- Trap Bar Deadlift: 4 x 6-8
- Gittleson Shrug: 3 x 10-12 per side
- Barbell Deadlift: 6×4
- Farmer’s Walk: 4x 25-40 yards
- Wide-Grip Barbell Shrug: 3x 10-12 per side
- Trap Bar Deadlift 4 x 6-8
- Angled Cable Shrug 3 x 10-12 per side
- Farmer’s Walk 4 x 25-40yds
Nick Tumminello is the owner of Performance U: Speed, Strength & Conditioning in Baltimore, MD, where he works with bodybuilders and athletes from the NFL, NBA and UFC. Visit his website at nicktumminello.com.