Trap-Crazy: Thib's Favorite Trap Builders
For as long as I can remember I’ve been mesmerized by traps. It is my “favorite muscle”. If Bret Contreras has a glutes fetish, I’ll gladly admit to having a traps fetish of my own. In fact, a friend of mine once asked me if I was a tits, ass or legs guy. To which I answered: “I’m a traps guy”! I even remember one evening when my wife and I were taking a hot tub, when she got out I caught a glimpse of her back and I said “Gen, you kinda look like a wrestler, it’s so hot!”.
Ok, I’m weird… sue me!
Seriously though, I have always valued big traps before they were made fashionable by Paul Carter’s comment “Traps are the new abs“. I remember being a 16-year-old kid doing set after set of shrugs on a universal weight machine at my high school gym. Or doing cheat shrugs with humongous weights when I was a 19-year-old football player. And being attracted to Olympic lifting mostly because of an article that Charles Poliquin wrote saying that the Olympic lifts were great to build the traps. And even today I’m looking for more and more ways to make my traps grow. In this article, I will share some of my favorite traps exercises and methods. I will tell you which are the best heavy traps movements and which one works best for higher reps/maximum pump. Then I’ll give you a few tips to make those traps thick and powerful. So, if you have a trap fetish like me, or you just want to look strong and powerful, read on!
So You Want Big Traps?
Sure, traps get worked when you do other exercises. Every time you pull horizontally you will hit your traps somewhat. So all the rows you do in your training will contribute to growing meaty traps. Lateral raises will also help a bit, but if lateral raises really hit your traps, you are doing them wrong. And of course, if you deadlift, these will also stimulate the traps.
For that reason, a lot of people do not train traps directly. If you have naturally dominant traps or if you don’t care about looking like Goldberg, then that’s fine. But if you really want to grow big traps, you will need to hit them hard directly.
After all, how many people avoid training biceps or triceps because they are bench pressing and pulling and these exercises also involve biceps and triceps? Sure, some performance-driven people don’t do curls and extensions. But everybody training to maximize growth will do direct biceps and triceps work despite the fact that they are trained indirectly already.
So right off the bat my first advice if you want big traps is “train them”! Simple enough, but most people put traps as an afterthought. When I want to grow them, I make them a priority and I train them just as hard as the main muscles in a program.
My second advice is that you should train traps via several types of stimulus because they have several of functions, both in the postural/tonic and active/phasic categories. When I train traps, I make sure to include some heavy work where the traps will act more in a tonic/postural function and some lighter, time under tension work during dynamic/phasic actions.
I used to train the phasic/dynamic functions of the traps (shrugs, for example) very heavy but I would always pull something and not get that much growth out of it. I now prefer to train the dynamic function with lighter weights, squeezing and extending the set, after all the range of motion is super short: if you want maximum growth you should be under tension for 40-60 seconds when training traps.
So I will use lifts like deadlift variations (my favorite being the upper back deadlift, Zercher squats or the Olympic lifts for the heavy stimulation, then use various isolated actions to hit the three parts of the traps from various angles.
- The heavy stuff
This first category of exercises focuses on moving heavyweights. I prefer to use exercises where the traps are used mostly in a tonic (isometric) function for this type of stimulus: any deadlift for example. I have a preference for the upper back deadlift and the Zercher squat. Of course, the Zercher squat is being done as a lower body exercise, but it has the benefit of hitting the traps hard on a different day. Since I believe that a muscle should be hit more frequently to grow optimally this is a big positive.
I do include power shrugs in that category; oddly enough, despite using more weight than on regular heavy shrugs, I find them less hazardous. My theory is that the momentum created reduces the involvement of the levator scapulae, which tends to easily get inflamed when doing heavy strict shrugs. I will say that power shrugs are not among my go-to traps exercises. I use them mostly with Olympic lifters and athletes. I prefer to do shrugs lighter for more time under tension.
Upper back deadlift: This is one of my favorite overall exercises. I find it unparalleled to build back thickness. It is similar to a Romanian deadlift (for it’s top down approach) and to a Dimel deadlift (for its shorter range of motion), with the difference being the upper back action. You let the scapula open up when you go down and you initiate the pull by retracting them. You also don’t fully extend the torso while squeezing the scaps together, this will keep tension on the upper back muscle.
Note: I find that you get an even better upper back tension when using the upper back deadlift with bands.
Zercher squat: One strategy I use when I want to develop a specific body part is to try to slant the overall training program towards that muscle. This means that even when training other muscle groups, I try to select exercises that will involve my “focus” muscle. When I want to focus on traps, I select the Zercher squat as my main lower body exercise because it puts them under intense, constant tension. A great stimulus for growth.
Power shrugs: I like both high pulls and power shrugs (low pulls) for trap development. The main problem with the high pull is that even though it is a technically simpler Olympic lifting movement, most people with no Olympic lifting experience do it wrong. In fact, those who are not naturally good at explosive movement will always tend to rely on their arms too much when doing high pulls. Which is both ineffective and dangerous (biceps tears). The biggest mistake people make when doing high pull is that they start pulling with their arms instead of creating acceleration with the lower body and traps. The power shrug is a good exercise to learn to initiate the pull with the hips and traps to create momentum.
- Isolation exercises
Doing strict (or semi strict) shrugs with monster weight is tempting: the leverage is good and the range of motion short, so you can pretty easily move a lot of weight from point A to point B, making it a great ego lift. This is especially true the way I see most heavy shrugs being done: the range of motion (which is already short) is cut short and the individual tucks their chin or lowers their head to make it look like a full range movement.
But I stopped doing heavy strict shrugs a long time ago because it is not really that effective at building muscle. I was reminded of this recently, at one of the bro gyms I train at, when I saw a guy doing barbell shrugs with 5 plates per side… and not have any trap development.
From experience, traps respond better to lighter weight, slower speed movements with more time under tension per set. For three main reasons:
- The range of motion is really short. This means that the muscles are not under tension for a long time on each repetition. One of the main ways to trigger growth is to stimulate the release of local growth factor which is accomplished either by accumulating lactic acid or depriving the muscles of oxygen while doing work (or both). These cannot be accomplished with sets that are too short. Because of the shorter range of motion, you need to both increase the number of reps per set and slow down the reps. This will keep the muscle under tension for longer. This also requires using moderate weights.
- The traps tend to be more slow twitch dominant. Of course, muscle fiber ratio varies from one individual to the next. But the traps tend to be more tonic muscles (postural) and have about 10% more slow-twitch fibers than fast and intermediate fibers. While I’m not one to design programs solely based on muscle fiber dominance, it does mean that the traps are well suited for slightly longer time under tension and will respond better to higher reps. Again, this requires the use of moderate rather than heavy loads.
- The levator scapulae is fragile. When trying to do very heavy strict shrugging actions you are putting a lot of tension on the levator scapulae. Since it is not as strong and resilient as the upper trap, it can easily become inflamed or even strained, leading to neck pain. With slower shrugs with moderate weight and higher reps this is a lot less likely to happen.
Some of you will be quick to point out that I recommend power shrugs earlier. Which are essentially heavy shrugs with the use of momentum. Wouldn’t that go against what I just said?
Yes and no.
To me power shrugs are not a great traps builder. But they are a good potentiation/activation tool. By using them prior to more isolated traps work you will make the later more effective both by turning on the CNS and by sensitizing the traps to being activated (sensitizing the neuromuscular junctions).
And oddly enough, even if you are using more weight than on heavy strict shrugs, it is less stressful on the levator scapulae because the momentum created by the lower body greatly bypasses the levator scapulae.
NOTE: That having been said remember that I said earlier in the article that even though I present the power shrug, it is rarely my go-to heavy movement.
For these reasons, I prefer to do most of my direct traps work with lighter weights using a slower speed, both to avoid using momentum (which would shorten the effective range of motion even more) and to increase time under load.
Here are some of my favorite isolation exercises to work the traps:
Standing cable traps row: This is quickly becoming one of my favorite exercises. The key elements are 1) to step away from the machine slightly so that you can have both a vertical and horizontal component to the pull and 2) try to open up the handles as you are pulling. It doesn’t matter if your handles don’t have the nylon ropes like mine; even if they can’t actually be spread apart, the attempt to spread them is enough to do its magic. By pulling up and slightly back you are involving the upper and mid traps as well as the rhomboids. By attempting to spread the handle apart you are increasing the activation of the rear delts and rhomboids.
Two positions dual pulley shrugs: I like the Voyer (named after Guy Voyer) shrugs for overall traps development (all portions of the traps) as well as to strengthen the external rotators. You do a dual cable shrug with the neutral grip. Once at the top you stay shrugged up and you do an external shoulder rotation (imagine trying to show your biceps to someone in front of you…. but it must come from the shoulder not the elbow). I like to conclude the set by adding some leaning shrugs (dual cable shrug while leaning forward) to get a better traps stretch while increasing time under load.
Zercher shrugs: I really like these as a general upper back strengthener. When used with slower reps, focusing on the squeeze at the top it’s an awesome upper traps builder. And the Zercher position itself stimulates the rhomboids and mid traps while also involving the biceps (bonus) to some degree. Plus, it makes you look badass.
High rear delts raise
I really like the rear delts machine. Depending on what you want to hit (rear delts, traps, rhomboids) you can focus on it by making slight technical modifications.
NOTE: The exercise recommendation for traps would have the hands holding the posts at above eye or forehead level and using a neutral (thumbs up) grip
a) If you want to hit the traps more: Grab the handles at about eyes or forehead level using a neutral (thumbs up) grip. Tuck your chin slightly.
b) If you wish to hit the rear delts more: grab the handles at shoulder height (or slightly below, if you are traps-dominant, grad the handles lower than the shoulder joint) using a pronated (palms down) grip. And here are the key things: 1) try NOT to bring the scapulas/shoulder blades together (try to keep them immobile). This is made easier if you focus on pushing the handles away, not back and 2) do NOT use a full range of motion, stop at the position in the picture to keep tension on the rear delts. This is the variation illustrated in the picture above.
c) If the goal is to hit the rhomboids: use a neutral grip. The position of your hands will depend on your dominance. If you are pretty balanced you will hold the handles at shoulder height. If you are traps dominant hold them below the shoulder joint. To emphasize the rhomboids more, I recommend bending the elbows slightly (keeping the same angle throughout the set) and focusing on squeezing those shoulders blades together at the end of the range of motion.
Leaning away DB shrugs: In this exercise, you will do a single arm dumbbell shrug. And to make it more effective you will have your body lean away to the side of the dumbbell (your body being at around a 45 degrees angle to the floor). To do so you hold on to a post or a bar. From that position, shrug straight up. The angle will increase the range of motion slightly but more importantly it puts the pulling angle more in line with the orientation of the muscle fibers of the traps.
General traps tips
Here are a few recommendations to get the most out of your traps training.
- For the shrug exercises shoot for a time under load of at least 30 seconds per set, and up to 60 seconds. You can do so by doing higher reps, doing rest/pause sets, going slower on your reps, holding the peak contraction 2-3 seconds per rep or using a mechanical drop set approach. It really doesn’t matter as long as you are extending the time under load.
- Do zero momentum reps. The initial portion of each rep should be done slower than the rest of the range of motion. The reason is that you want to avoid creating momentum or using the stretch reflex at the beginning of the repetition. You can use the same recommendation as I make for training calves: hold a 1-2 second stretch at the bottom of each rep and initiate the movement slowly. In both cases the range of motion is so short that initial momentum can make the rep a lot less effective.
- Initiate with the traps. The muscle that fires hard first will be the muscle receiving the most stimulation in the exercise. A lot of people initiate shrugs with their biceps (slightly bending the elbows). While it will not make the exercise useless it can decrease traps activation. Make sure that the traps are firing first on every rep.
GO GET JACKED!