Traps, like shoulders, are instantly noticeable when developed properly.
Even in a t-shirt, nicely built traps have the tendency to pop out and make your neck look strong and sturdy. A small glimpse of trap muscles suggests that you're hiding impressive muscle under your shirt.
What's The Big Deal About Traps?
But traps aren’t all for show. They help the body function well too. Aiding not only in raising the shoulder girdle and strengthening your yoke, they also aid in most pulls and help balance loads. They help increase stability which, in turn, will help with the surrounding areas.
Since shoulder stability is something we all could use a little more of (think of a better bench press and shoulder press), maybe it's time to pay more attention to trap development.
Related: 6 Crucial Exercises for Shoulder Stability
The Best Trap Exercises
Now that we have the “why” out of the way, it’s time to look at some of the best trap exercises. These will give you all the benefits along with a powerful looking shoulder to complement your deltoids.
It’s time to get powerful, wide, and strong.
1. Barbell Shrug
The barbell shrug is arguably the granddaddy of trap builders. With the ability to load the bar with a ton of weight many gym-goers perform this exercise quite wrong, frankly. “Bouncing” and heaving the weight up using leg and biceps power does little to stimulate trap growth of strength. As some “body English” is sometimes advantageous it shouldn’t be normal practice.
To get the most out of this exercise stand with your feet about shoulder width apart with your knees lightly bent but stable creating a solid base of support. Grasp the moderately loaded barbell with a double overhand grip with your arms aimed straight down. Any wider or narrower will cause stress to your shoulder joints.
Looking straight ahead (not with your head down) shrug the weight straight up toward your ears. Do not rotate, circle or row your shoulders in any way. Squeeze hard at the top for a count and then return under control for a stretch without just letting the weight drop your shoulders.
2. Dumbbell Shrug
Dumbbells provide the unique advantage of enabling you to not only independently control the weight but also manipulate different planes of motion. For dumbbell shrugs this can be used to help stimulate the traps in a slightly different way. Additionally, this may be of some relief allowing you to move the shoulder girdle in a more natural way versus being in a somewhat fixed position with a barbell.
Although many perform dumbbell shrugs with the weight by their sides while shrugging straight up their sides, the dumbbell version allows you alter the movement to develop more areas of the traps. For example, start with the dumbbells slightly in front of your thighs. While you lift the weight up rotate the dumbbells slightly to your sides as you raise the weight.
Ultimately you will be squeezing the weight up and back simultaneously. Return the weight the same way in the opposite direction while avoiding just letting the weight “go.” Keep complete control of the movement.
Although Olympic-style lifts and training principles may be considered non-direct trap builders, I see them as important as shrugs for those wishing to seriously jack-up their trap strength and size. Power cleans and hang cleans fit the goal quite nicely. By adding in a power factor, you will uncover a whole new training stimulus and tap into increasing your overall upper body strength as well.
While the details and nuances of performing a proper clean are too lengthy to discuss here, seek a professional strength coach to teach you the correct mechanics of this highly effective exercise. By pulling a loaded barbell with speed and accuracy, you will wake up otherwise dormant fast-twitch muscle fibers and create new neural pathways to aid on other lifts as well all the while building some pretty gnarly traps.
4. Barbell Upright Row
The upright row is often seen as the multi-joint shoulder builder of choice. While it stimulates all three deltoids heads to an extent, it is an impressive trap builder as well. Depending on hand placement and angle of pull, the upright row should be a part of everyone’s exercise arsenal.
As most individuals will grasp the bar with a narrow grip, this allows more stress to be placed on the traps. However, there are two issues some may encounter with this grip.
One, it could possibly place a great deal of stress on the wrists since it places your hands at an awkward angle. Two, it may pinch your shoulder blades together creating stress in this area, especially while lifting a heavy load.
The best bet is to take a grip shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width to avoid any injury. Pull straight up with your elbows high and don’t lift too much weight which will deteriorate your form.
5. Dumbbell Upright Row
For those who have wrist problems and/or need a bit more freedom in their shoulder joints to avoid the “pinching” feeling, dumbbells provide an excellent alternative. Start with the dumbbells in front of your thighs and raise them straight up with your elbows high and your hands following just in front of your body. Squeeze your deltoids and traps at the top before returning to the bottom position under complete control.
6. Face Pull
Another great deltoid builder (specifically the rear deltoids), the face pull is also used to build powerful traps. Since most are used to training traps in a more vertical pull motion, the face pull has you pulling with the traps in a more horizontal motion.
Grasp a rope attached to a cable pulley apparatus (bands will also do well). Pull the rope from a high pulley maintaining eye level throughout the exercise. As you pull closer to your face, split the rope handles and squeeze your deltoids and traps for a count.
This isn’t an exercise where you load the weight stack with a heavy load. Instead use a light to moderate weight to start and perfect the mechanics before adding any additional weight.
7. Kettlebell Front Swing
I see the front kettlebell swing as the distant cousin of the barbell clean. Although they are performed quite differently, they complement each other as power, strength, and stability developers.
With a traditional kettlebell swing, be sure to drive the weight up with your hips and focus on stabilizing the weight with your shoulder area. Your traps, deltoids, and upper back will all be nicely stimulated. Also, once you’ve mastered the swing, don’t be afraid to choose heavier kettlebells to challenge your strength.
Related: New to Kettlebells? Try Our 4 Week Beginner KB Workout
Secondary Trap Work
The above group of exercises all stimulate trap growth and strength development by training that area more or less in a direct way. There are other exercises that stimulate trap growth indirectly but have a huge impact on progress. These can include:
These movements stimulate development by requiring stability, strength, and providing a solid foundation, so be sure to include at least a few in your program.
Train Your Traps
Now that you have the tools to build big, strong traps, it’s time to figure out where to place your trap training. The traps mainly pull but are also closely integrated with shoulder functions. Depending on your training split, trap training can fit nicely into either your back (pulling) training day or integrated with shoulder training.
Beginner Trap Program
|Exercise||Sets x Reps||Rest (seconds)|
|Barbell or Dumbbell Shrug||4x8-12||45-60|
|Face Pull||3-4 x 10-15||30-60|
Intermediate Trap Program
|Exercise||Sets x Reps||Rest (seconds)|
|Dumbbell Upright Row||3x8-12||45|
|Kettlebell Front Swing||3x15||30-45|
Total Trap Punisher
Perform the following as a circuit with a 60 second rest after each circuit. Shoot for 3 to 5 circuits.
|Exercise||Sets x Reps|
|Kettlebell Front Swing||3x10-15|
Who out there has some unique trap training advice?
Careful with those upright rows. Some people can't do them, simply due to their anatomy. (Others, of course, will never have an issue with them.) Upright rows unfailingly give me impingement syndrome in my left shoulder, regardless of how I do them. Landed me in physical therapy for three months a few years ago and almost again a year later - except by then I knew what was going on, ditched them, and never since had an issue with that shoulder again.
That is definitely true. A type II or III acromion can cause impingement issues with the shoulder. However, no exercise is inherently bad by nature, it all depends on the context of the situation. Any recommendations within articles should be catered to the individual's needs or asymmetries.