Traps may be the new abs to strength athletes — at least in the sense that they’re hard to obtain and signal to the world that you take your fitness seriously. Just like you can’t get abs without following a strict and calculated diet, big traps require years of heavy lifting, smart recovery, and targeted programming.
Exercise selection also plays an important role. There are more ways to build a set of steel traps than just barbell shrugs, and we’re going to show you how. On the list below, we outline five of the best trap exercises, along with a deep-dive into the benefits of trap training, and how your trap muscles function.
Best Trap Exercises
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Trap bar shrugs are a great way to overload the traps because you can use the most load safely. The trap bar has you assume a grip that helps minimize the stress on the anterior shoulder, elbows, and wrist. Plus, it’s a movement that can be performed for strength, hypertrophy, and power so that trap bar shrugs will cater to many goals.
Benefits of Trap Bar Shrug
- This variation allows you to use the most resistance safely.
- Less stress on your wrists, elbows, and anterior shoulders because of the neutral grip of the trap bar
- Strong upper traps help support the head and good posture.
How to Do the Trap Bar Shrug
Use proper hinge form to pick up the trap bar from the floor. Then stand tall and elevate the shoulders up and in towards the ears. Focus on elevating the traps without rounding your shoulders forward. Once at the top, lower the shoulders under control and feel the muscles lengthen in the eccentric phase.
Start by performing three to four sets of six to 12 repetitions with a moderate to heavy load after your main strength movements for the day.
The cable shrug is an excellent exercise to target the traps, plus the rear delts and upper back. The cable stack allows for lighter loading, which is beneficial for higher rep sets and methods such as drop sets, tempo, and pauses. Unlike the other exercises on this list, the cable maintains constant tension throughout the entire range of motion, meaning more hypertrophy potential.
Benefits of the Cable Shrug
- Works the traps and upper through a fuller range of motion.
- The cable machine allows for constant tension on working the muscles.
- Great for burnout sets to maximize hypertrophy
How to Do the Cable Shrug
Standing in front of a cable machine, grab the rope attachment with both hands with feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your shoulders down and chest up and hold with arms extended. Without using your arms, exhale and bring your shoulders towards your ears and then pull back slightly. Pause and slowly return to the starting position.
Due to the lighter resistance of the cable stack, perform higher reps in the 12-25 range for two to four sets.
The dumbbell shrug allows for unilateral trap training and helps to strengthen imbalances between sides if they exist. It’s more difficult to go heavy with this shrug variation (because dumbbells only go so high). Still, you can use methods to increase tension like increasing reps, performing drop sets, lifting with tempo, and adding pauses. Plus, unlike the trap bar or barbell, you can use multiple grips to work the traps and improve grip strength from different angles.
Benefits of Dumbbell Shrug
- The ability to train your traps unilaterally to help strengthen imbalances.
- The ability to train your traps and grip from a variety of angles.
- Generally, it’s the easiest and most accessible variation to perform.
How to Do the Dumbbell Shrug
Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand tall with your shoulder down and chest up. Raise your upper traps towards your ears as high as you can. Pause for a second and slowly lower your shoulders down to the hang position. Reset and repeat for reps.
Start by performing two to three sets of 15-20 repetitions with light to moderate loads, maximizing the full range of motion. Use lifting straps if your grip is a limiting factor
Kirk Karwoski started doing this shrug variation to increase grip strength for the deadlift. His coach, Marty Gallagher, thought this exercise would help him pull heavier — and Marty was right. Kirk pulled an 800-pound deadlift with the help of the Kirk Shrug. But they also discovered they built a bigger yoke too. By using a thumbless grip and a pause, this lift puts incredible tension on your upper traps.
Benefits of the Kirk Shrug
- Improves upper back and grip strength while building the upper traps.
- Kirk shrugs develop the upper back muscles, which are good for posture and help improve performance with your deadlifts and squats.
- They make for a great “finisher” and the end of an upper-body training session.
How to Do the Kirk Shrug
Load a barbell with about 25 percent of your usual barbell shrug weight. Grip the barbell using a thumb-less grip by hooking the barbell with your fingers. Shrug the barbell up by using your traps and lats. Pull the barbell as high as you can without using any other part of the body while keeping the shoulder blades back and down. Think of it as a partial upright row. Hold the barbell at navel level for one second. Slowly lower the weight to the starting position, resisting the pull of the weight on the way down.
Try for three sets of eight to 12 reps and the end of a session, or choose a weight around 40-50 percent of your one-rep-max deadlift and go to failure.
There are many variations of the overhead carry, but the barbell variation allows you to use the heaviest load. And using the most load overhead for time, distance, or both puts incredible time under tension on your upper traps, shoulders, core, and triceps, which are all targeted with this exercise. Plus, it’s a great accessory move to improve your overhead strength for presses and Olympic lifts.
Benefits of the Overhead Carry
- Improved overhead stability for lifts such as overhead presses and the Olympic lifts.
- Provides better time under tension for the upper traps and back.
- Helps improve your mental toughness, conditioning, and posture.
How to Do the Barbell Overhead Carry
Set a bar at chest height in a power rack and set it up facing away from the rack. Then unrack the bar and press the barbell overhead into the lockout position. Take small steps while keeping your head and chest up for the designated distance or amount of time and place the barbell back in the squat rack.
This is best performed at the start of your training due to the high intensity of this exercise. Perform two to three sets of 40 yards with 50 percent on your overhead press one-rep max.
All About the Trapezius
The trapezius is responsible for many of the movements of the scapula, which in turn plays a huge role in the mobility and stability of the shoulder girdle. Movements including scapular retraction, scapular protraction, scapular upward rotation, scapular downward rotation, and scapular elevation.
If your traps are either weak or stretched (rounded shoulders) or tight and inhibited (military posture), your ability to lift your arms overhead will be affected. As a result, other muscles will be forced to compensate for your poor overhead mobility. This may lead to pain and injury further down the road.
Keeping the upper back strong and mobile plays a vital role in the performance of your squats, deadlifts, and bench press, helping your shoulders stay pain-free.
Anatomy of the Trapezius
Your trapezius is a large muscle, with most of it not visible to the naked eye. Understanding what it is and how it works is important in obtaining a stronger and bigger yoke.
The trapezius is a large flat triangular superficial muscle that sits on both sides of the upper back. It originates from the cervical spine and all 12 of the thoracic vertebrae. Although it is one muscle, it’s usually referred to in three parts — the upper, middle, and lower traps.
The traps main functions include:
- Scapula adduction
- Scapula elevation and depression
- Scapula outward rotation.
Trap muscles play a huge role in shoulder function and health in and out of the gym because if they’re tight or overstretched, this will affect the movements of the shoulder girdle.
The Benefits of Training Your Traps
Although the traps are not directly trained with the squats and deadlifts, they play an indirect role in setting the table for these lifts. With the squat and the deadlift, contraction of the trap muscles plays a role in keeping a neutral spine.
Strong traps help you keep the bar close to you when you pull the bar during the deadlift, which is essential for lower back health as it helps prevent rounding caused by a poor bar path.
During the squat, the upper traps provide a place for the barbell to sit. Plus, engaging the middle/lower trap and lats prevents you from leaning too far forward in the squat and turns the squat into a good morning.
In today’s technology-driven world where sitting and looking down at screens makes up most of our time, stronger traps can help prevent forward head/rounded shoulder look. What’s more, research suggests having a strong and muscular neck can help reduce the chance of getting and the severity of a concussion. If you’re an athlete in a high-impact sport, such as football or mixed martial arts, then it helps to have a strong upper back area for protection (1).
Improved Pulling Strength
The traps are a key muscle group of the upper body, and they assist in pulling strength and shoulder stability for exercises like heavy carries, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts.
How to Warm-up Your Traps Before Training
Before training your traps, it’s important to get blood flow there and then mobilize them with a few low-intensity exercises to get your traps ready for action. You’ll want to first foam roll your upper back to get blood flow to the area and ensure it’s warmed up.
Then, you should perform a few low-intensity upper back exercises like the TRX IYT, face pulls, and wall slides for eight to 15 reps will have your traps and upper back ready for action.
More Training Content
Now that you know the best trap exercises, work towards building a complete physique by checking out more training content from BarBend.
- Everything You Need to Know to Build Your First Workout Program
- How to Burn Fat for Weight Loss and More Definition
- Best At-Home Bodyweight Workouts
- The effects of vision training, neck musculature strength, and reaction time on concussions in an athletic population. Justin Honda,1 Seung Ho Chang,1 and Kijeong Kim2
Featured image: Jeff Nippard on YouTube