Nothing catches attention like a big yoke.
Sure, big arms are great, but you’re going to get more attention from a set of muscles popping out of the side of your neck than arms that are more than likely covered up by a shirt.
Traps are impossible to hide.
They take more work than other muscles, but with the proper exercises, you can increase the size of your traps in just a few weeks.
Traps is short for trapezius muscle. And, it’s actually a huge muscle. It’s named like so because it looks kind of like a trapezoid. It extends from the back of your neck, out to your shoulder blades (scapula), through your upper back, and attaches down to your 12th thoracic vertebrae (your mid-back). All to say: The trap muscles are huge and are an integral upper body muscle. They’re a back muscle, and a shoulder muscle, and their own muscle group at the same time.
For example, when you do a standard dumbbell row or bent-over row, you may, in addition to using big muscles like the lats and rhomboids, will use the middle traps, and ideally, the lower traps. These parts of the traps are crucial for keeping your shoulder blades pulled back and maintaining good posture. They’ll also help extend your thoracic spine, which is often rounded, which can help protect your lower back.
Because the upper traps are the most noticeable portion, the peaks that develop on either side of your neck, making it look like you have another layer. And because the mid-traps and lower traps will get adequate work as long as you’re properly training the back. But the upper traps, on the other hand, are neglected in typical back exercises like pull-ups and horizontal rows.
Got that? Good. Let’s quit wasting time and start growing these beyond normal proportions.
People tend to target their traps when they train their back or shoulders, but you can train them whenever you want as long as you:
There isn’t a big secret, people tend to say, “Fuck it” to the fundamentals of training and wonder why their body never changes. Don’t be one of those people.
This is one of the most powerful exercises for not only your traps, but your deltoids as well.
A recent study1 that measured for the max effectiveness of different grips on the upright row showed that the wide grip surpassed the close grip in both eccentric and concentric contractions.
Funny how that works, huh?
And remember, pulling light weight all day isn’t going to cut it if you want your traps to grow. You must pull moderate to heavy loads if you want to develop more than just muscular endurance.
Think of a moderate load as something that you can perform 8-10 repetitions of, while struggling to finish the last one or two reps. Heavy loads are 1-5 reps that you should be struggling to complete most of the way.
Low Cable Face Pulls aren’t a commonly performed exercise, yet they get the job done when it comes to placing a burn on those traps of yours.
These are performed on a pulley machine with the rope attachment. Set the cable to where it’s just below chest level to get the most out of this exercise.
Grasp the rope with an overhand grip (or pronated grip for all you savvy fitness enthusiasts). You then pull the rope towards your face and basically end with your hands at the side of your head much like an upright row.
Don’t pause rep this exercise like a lot of the other cable-based movements.
Simply pull, release, and pull again. Keep the movement continuous to where you are regretting even performing the exercise. Use a moderate weight and quit whining.
High Pulls devastate your entire body since they’re a compound lift, but your traps and delts receive a lot of the attention. Start off in a squatted position, holding the bar like you would in a deadlift, your arms shoulder-width apart, but instead, pull the bar past your knees and then use your upper torso to basically pull the weight like an upright row.
Let gravity lower the bar back down and your legs to prevent the weight from smashing into the floor. Try this exercise out with heavy weight as a 5×5 workout.
The obvious and true trapezius muscle recruiter is, of course, the Dumbbell Shoulder Shrug. I chose the standing variation of this exercise for a very specific reason that will benefit you in the long run.
The seated version of the dumbbell shrug takes away the possibility of your legs helping with the movement, and without the support of your legs, too much weight can take a painful toll on your shoulder joints.
Barbell shrugs both front and back can also put you in the bad habit of leaning to help pull heavier loads while performing the exercise. And they’re a bit less shoulder-friendly.
Standing with dumbbells allows you to vertically pull the weight with your traps without giving you a reason to cheat.
Just like with your other body part-specific training, you can focus on your traps for a full training day if you want to see quicker gains.
I’d recommend doing it after a leg or back training day, with preference going to doing it after a legs day. Following a chest or shoulder day is a no-go because your shoulder joints and their surrounding muscles need time to recover.
You can specifically target any muscle region that you want to grow at a heightened rate, but it’s most beneficial to do so once you’ve hit a plateau in your current full-body program.
The following workout will make you hate life once muscle soreness kicks in, but your work is going to pay off with undeniable results.
1. Barbell High Pull – 5×5
2. Standing Dumbbell Shrugs – 5×8
3. Wide Grip Barbell Upright Rows – 5×8
4. Low Cable Face Pulls – Descending Load Burnout*
Note: Pay attention to the rep amounts to know if the exercise calls for moderate or heavy loads.
Rest: Take 3-5 minutes of rest after each set. Yeah, I said the right numbers. This has always worked great for me and other powerlifters/bodybuilders. New science2 even seems to be on the same thought process for rest and muscle growth.
*Now, let’s talk about this descending load burnout briefly. A burnout is when you keep performing the same exercise until your muscles literally give up from fatigue.
With descending load you are making your muscles work to their max potential by simply decreasing the load you started with and doing more reps.
You then repeat this process until you are only pulling the block without a pin on the pulley machine. People in the gym are going to give stupid looks while you struggle pulling 10lbs. of weight on the cable machine, but who really cares.
Start big, end small, and watch as your traps burst out from underneath the seams of your shirt. You can thank me in the comments section below.
This is a great trap workout to get you started, however, they’re not the only options for training your traps. From Olympic lifts, to loaded carries, a well-rounded training program will include ample exercises that work your traps. It’s often why I think athletes have more well-developed traps than bodybuilders, because Olympic lifts and loaded carries are a foundational part of most athlete training programs.
With Olympic lifts like power cleans and rack pulls, you’re effectively doing an upright row motion but in an explosive manner. So, it’s no surprise clean & jerk Olympic weightlifters tend to have huge traps.
However, I wouldn’t recommend it as a training modality if the goal is to get bigger traps. For hypertrophy, you need time under tension. I power clean is the opposite of that: it’s a quick, explosive movement.
And because cleans are so explosive, and often with a heavy weight, they should only be for low reps. If you’re doing more than five reps of cleans per set, and you’re not just practicing the movement, you’re doing cleans wrong. Doing cleans for conditioning is really stupid.
However, if you’re training cleans for full-body power and explosiveness, bigger traps will likely be a byproduct.
On the other hand, if you want big traps, I’m a huge fan of loaded carries as a trap exercise. They’re basically an isometric shrug where your upper traps are in a lengthened position. So you don’t get the full range of motion as a shrug, but it’s going to hit the traps in a similar way. Among loaded carries, there are several options. The two most common are farmer carries and suitcase carries. Farmer carries are when you grab a heavy dumbbell (or kettlebell, or barbell or whatever), in each hand, lock out your triceps, and walk in a straight line. A suitcase carry is when you do the same but one side at a time.
Farmer carries are not only one of the best trap exercises, they’re also the most fun. You get to take some heavy-ass dumbbells off the rack. They’re a fun finisher for any workout.
Suitcase carries I program as a core exercise, like a side plank but with load because you have to use your abs to resist tilting yourself to one side. So, if you want to train your traps like an athlete and get some good core activation, replace your boring core exercises with suitcase carries.
For more about loaded carries, we actually have an entire article about them.
If your dumbbells aren’t heavy enough for shrugs or loaded carries, you use a trap bar. Loaded it up on both sides and go. For suitcase carries, you can also use the trap bar flipped to the side. So your grip will be on what’s normally the front (or back) of the bar.