A set of developed traps are one of the most coveted accomplishments in the world of intelligent weight training.
It’s much more a badge of honor and indicator of a lifter who’s able bodied, strong, and seasoned with true development that lasts.
Unfortunately, despite the ongoing craze for building them that exists within the male weight training community, few people actually have a better answer than generic dumbbell or barbell shrugs, often with a load that’s far beyond their actual capability for such a small movement.
It helps to learn the ins and outs of trap training before devising an action plan to make them big and strong.
I can help with that.
First: An Anatomy Lesson
When most people think of traps, they think of the area between their delts and their neck. Sure, from a cosmetic perspective, this may be the area that requires plenty of focus to look strong and yoked, but as far as performance goes, they’re actually lower on the list of important things to tackle.
In truth, the traps travel down, past the mid back, in addition to being up high on the shoulder region. What’s most important for our wellbeing is actually the function of the mid and lower traps, which contract opposite the “shrug” pattern that the upper traps are responsible for.
Having good proficiency of shoulder depression and retraction can make other back exercises much more effective and targeted. Who wouldn’t want that?
Tip #1: Get Explosive
Mind numbing sets of shrugs are good for trap development, but only to an extent. We have to remember that throughout our body is an integration of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers.
Chances are, through movements like shrugs, we’re only tapping into one fiber type (the slow twitch), and are forfeiting the chance to tap into the fast twitch fibers that can tremendously aid growth and strength. The best way to get started is by way of Olympic lifting.
If you take a look at the physiques of Olympic lifters who compete, you’ll notice that the consistent characteristic their bodies present is that of developed traps. That’s because cleans, snatches, jerks and high pulls all require a tremendously explosive shrug as their derivative, most usually done with heavier weight than the 90 pound dumbbells you’ll find on your rack.
The catch is this: These lifts are quite technical. With that said, start simple, and work your way into more progression.
This is a suitable first step to allow the traps to help in projecting weight upward at a higher velocity than what’s required for a typical shrug. Granted, the entire body gets to help out, but the trap muscles are instrumental in making the lift a successful one. Not to mention what they have to endure on the eccentric portion of the rep.
Focusing on sets of 4-6 reps per arm is a good place to start, remembering to pretend someone’s standing right in front of you and you don’t want to hit them. This attention will allow the weight to travel straight up and not in an arcing pattern. Once you’ve mastered this, you’re ready for the next progression.
Barbell High Pulls
If you have shoulder mobility issues or aren’t too flexible, then high pulls may be the golden ticket to receiving most of the benefits from barbell Olympic lifting without risking your shoulder or wrist health.
I like performing them from a dead stop to cut off the stretch reflex and kill any transfer of forces or momentum. Because of the fact that you don’t have to achieve a catch position, there’s a lot this movement has to offer for the greatest population of people. You should be doing them if you want to hit your traps hard.
Upper Body Cleans
If you think your shoulders and wrists have what it takes to do Olympic lifts (try taking one hand, raising your elbow straight up in front of you, and touching the same shoulder with that hand. If that’s a piece of cake, you’re in a good place), then start by grooving the timing and patterning of your catch with an empty barbell.
Focus on doing a slowed-down version of a high pull, freezing at the top of that pull, and then “punching” your elbows through with loose hands for your catch position. The “dive” under the bar you’ll have to make will feel more natural the more you do it.
Make it your goal for your body to move around the bar, to keep the bar travelling in a straight line. Avoid having the bar land on you; rather, scoop yourself under it.
Hang Power Clean
Passed the last level? Then it’s time for the big boss. The hang clean has been bastardized due to CrossFit and other training methods that enjoy going too heavy, for far too many reps than a technical exercise warrants.
This has scared many lifters in the opposite camps to shy away from doing any low-rep sets of cleans if they’re not competitive Olympic lifters. I’m here to say that if you’ve got a handle on sound technique, there’s no harm in cracking out sets of 3-5 reps on a hang power clean.
To be clear, “hang” means the weight starts off of the floor, just above knee level. A “power” clean refers to the position the body is in when the bar is caught in the rack position. Rather than catching the weight in a full front squat position the way you see it on TV, catching in a power stance refers to a position closer to standing; clearly above parallel at the thigh. This can be a lower back saver on both ends of the lift.
Tip #2: Don’t Forget about the Lower Traps
As mentioned earlier, the lower traps complete the entire trapezius muscle group, and their development can add health to the shoulder capsule and thickness to the mid back.
My favorite way to hit them is through trap 3 raises. Using light weight and a support for your free arm, head and torso is a smart directive; it doesn’t take much to feel this when done correctly.
Focus on sets of 10-12 reps per arm, with the intent of a slow eccentric phase.
Tip #3: Walk with Heavy Stuff!
On a similar note, you’ll train the entire unit by doing heavy loaded carries and paying attention to good posture and form.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to loaded carries, but traditional farmers walks, performed with an evenly heavy load held like suitcases on each side of the body (kettlebells, dumbbells or even a trap bar all work fine) is the most traditional and standard way to get the benefits from these lifts.
If however, you’re feeling a bit more draconian, then choose one of the following variations:
- Contralateral famer’s walk: One hand overhead with a light KB or DB, other hand down, with a heavy one.
- Overhead farmer’s walk: Both arms fully extended overhead with heavy KB’s/DB’s.
- Atlas carry: “Bear hugging” plates, a heavy KB, or an atlas stone.
- Double rack carry: Holding 2 KB’s in a full rack position at shoulder level.
Get ready for some awesome bonuses to using loaded carries too, in the form of forearm strength, cardio improvement and fat loss. Who wouldn’t want that?
1250 words later and not a single dumbbell shrug to be seen. It takes a more rounded approach to really develop traps that are awesome looking, strong, and functional at the same time.
Break out of the one-dimensional method of training dumbbell and barbell shrugs, and treat the traps the way you’d treat any other muscle group – by attacking it through different angles, different moves, and different rep speeds and ranges.
Then you’ll see the results you’ve been seeking.