Want to look badass? You need traps. Don’t know the right traps workouts & exercises to build those neck mountains? Keep Trekking.
When it’s well developed, the trapezius forms the unmistakable, offensive-lineman lumps of sinew running from the sides of your neck to the tops of your shoulders. From the back, it’s the kite-shaped sheet of muscle extending from the back of your neck to the bottom of the rib cage, with the outermost points of the kite flaring out to your shoulder blades.
As muscles go, it’s an impressive one. Think Tom Hardy from Warrior or as Bane. Do you want Monster Death Traps? OF COURSE!
But, the trapezius does more than add bulk to your upper body. It’s also essential in deadlifting, Olympic lifting, overhead pressing, and host of other gym moves. In sports, it helps you throw a punch and swing a racquet. Develop it right, it keeps your shoulders and back pain-free and your posture un-schlumpy.
Not bad for a single, lesser-known muscle group with a limited range of motion. Want to build a set that won’t quit? Read on.
What Are the Trapezius Muscles (Traps)?
Among the classic upper-body muscles—pecs, delts, and lats—the traps play a distinctly supporting role, controlling movement in the scapulae (shoulder blades).
Physiologists break the muscle into three parts: the upper, middle, and lower traps, all of which serve slightly different functions:
• The upper trapezius originates just below the back of your head and attaches to the upper edge of your shoulder blades and the outermost point on top of your shoulder (acromion). It elevates the scapulae, shrugging the shoulders upwards, and aids in turning your head.
• The middle trapezius originates in your mid-spine and extend outwards to attach to acromion and the upper edge of your scapulae. It pulls your shoulder blades together. When you puff your chest out, it’s the mid-traps that do most of the work.
• The lower trapezius originates in the spine near the bottom of your rib cage and attaches to the upper edge of the scapulae. It depresses, or lowers, the scapulae, pressing the shoulders downwards (think: the opposite of a shrug).
Most gym-goers focus solely on the upper traps—probably because they’re the ones you can see from the front. That’s a mistake, says physical therapist Dr. Chad Waterbury. “Neglecting the middle and lower traps can lead to shoulder problems and poor scapular movement,” he says.
Chronic slouchers often experience scapular winging—excessive outward movement of the shoulder blades—which can lead to poor shoulder mechanics in pressing and reaching overhead. Strengthening the lower and middle trap helps offset that, explains Waterbury, “You’ll open space in the shoulder joint and avoid pain and impingement when you reach overhead.”
So go ahead and build yourself an impressive neck-shoulder yoke with by emphasizing the upper traps—but don’t neglect the middle and lower traps in the process.
Five Effective Exercises for Working Out Your Traps
1. Upper Traps: Shrug with a Forward Lean.
• Stand holding a pair of dumbbells by your sides.
• Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, hinge forward about 20 degrees at your hip joints, and maintain this position throughout the exercise.
• Tuck your chin (as if making a double chin) and keep it there throughout the move.
• Without thrusting your head or hips forward, shrug your shoulders towards the back of your neck (not towards your ears), and squeeze the shoulder blades together for a one-count.
• Maintaining the same hip and head position, slowly reverse the move, allowing the weights to stretch your upper traps at the bottom of the move.
• Repeat for reps.
2. Middle Traps: One-Arm Dumbbell Row
• Stand to the left of an exercise bench holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in your left hand.
• Place your right knee and right hand on the bench so that your back is parallel with the floor, allowing the dumbbell in your left hand to hang directly below your left shoulder.
• Tuck your chin—as if making a double chin—and keep it there throughout the move.
• Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, press your shoulder blades down your back (think: put your shoulder blades in your back pockets) and keep them there throughout the move.
• With the rest of your body still, pull your left elbow towards the ceiling, lifting the weight as high as possible, keeping your elbow close to your torso.
• Reverse the move, returning to the starting position, and repeat for reps.
3. Middle Traps: Standing One-Arm Cable Row
• Adjust the pulley on a cable column to waist height and attach a D-handle to the cable.
• Take hold of the handle in your left hand and step several feet back from the machine to create some tension on the cable.
• Stand upright with your feet parallel and shoulder width, chin tucked, knees unlocked, and allow the cable to fully extend your left arm forward.
• Step your right foot forward about 12 inches and turn the palm of your left hand downwards. This is your starting position.
• Keeping both shoulder blades down, slowly pull your left elbow back, rotating the thumb side of your left hand upwards, and contracting your left lat and mid-trap hard at the top of the movement.
• Squeeze the muscles for a one-count, then slowly return to the starting position.
• Repeat for reps.
4. Lower Traps: Prone One-Arm Trap Raise
• Lie facedown on an incline bench with your chin braced against the bench and your right arm hanging directly downwards towards the floor.
• Initiate the movement by drawing your right scapula down and across your upper back, in the direction of your left back pocket, simultaneously lifting your right shoulder an inch or two off the bench.
• Keeping your right arm straight and your thumb pointing upwards, slowly lift your right arm towards the ceiling, at 45 degree angle from the overhead position (as if making half of a “Y” with your right arm).
• Focusing on the shoulder blade (not the arm), hold the top position for a one-count, and slowly return to the starting position.
• Mastered the move? Repeat, holding a light weight in your hand, thumb pointing towards the ceiling.
5. Lower Traps: Incline Low Trap Raise
• Holding a small weight in each hand, lie facedown on an incline bench with your chin braced against the bench and your arms hanging directly downwards towards the floor.
• Rotate your hands so that your pinkies are slightly closer than your thumbs (imagine holding the bottom of a steering wheel in your two hands). This is your starting position.
• Perform the four-count move as follows:
- Draw your shoulder blades back and up towards the ceiling in a modified shrug.
- With your arms straight, raise both arms into the “Y” position as far as possible overhead.
- Slowly lower your arms.
- Slowly lower your shoulder blades back to the starting position.
• Repeat for reps, performing each part of the move separately and distinctly.
The Best Trap Workouts for Getting Huge
“The traps work in concert with other muscles–such as the rhomboids and serratus anterior–to perform a myriad of scapular movements,” says Waterbury. Any time you perform rows, chins, pull-downs, overhead presses, or deadlifts, then, you’re also hitting your traps—especially the upper traps–and they may well grow as a result.
In standard strength training programs, however, the middle and lower traps get little attention. So Waterbury suggests emphasizing moves like rows and trap raises, which you can perform either as part of a daily maintenance routine or as part of a longer trap workout program.
Shrugs, while a great move for creating the “yoked” look, are less important for function and health: work them in 1-2 times a week to help round out your upper body development.
Intermediate Trap-Building Routine
Prone One-Arm Trap Raise: 2-3 sets x 12-20/arm
Standing one-arm cable row: 2-3 sets x 10-12/arm
Shrug with a Forward Lean: 3-5 sets x 5-6 reps
Advanced Trap-Building Routine
Perform 3 days/week as a warm-up or part of a shoulder or back workout:
Incline Low Trap Raise 1-2 sets x 12-20 reps
Perform 1-2x/week on the same day you work your back:
Prone One-Arm Trap Raise: 2 sets x 12-20/arm
One-Arm Dumbbell Row 4 x 5-6
Shrug with a Forward Lean: 3-5 sets x 8-10 reps
How to Stretch Your Traps
• Stand upright and place your right arm behind your back, elbow against your right side and the back of your right hand against the back of your left hip.
• Maintaining upright posture, bend your head downward so your nose gets as close as possible to your left armpit.
• Hold the stretched position for 30-60 seconds, focusing on releasing tension in your the right side of your upper trapezius.
• Slowly release the stretch and repeat on the other side.
• Perform daily as part of a joint-health maintenance program—or any time you feel tension in your neck and upper shoulders.