Best Exercises to Build Your Traps
TOP 5 EXERCISES TO BUILD YOUR TRAPS
Here’s our top 5 choices for what we think are the best trap exercises to add to your workout routine.
- Farmer’s walk
- Barbell/dumbbell shrugs
- I-Y-T Raise
- Cable Facepull
The Farmer’s walk is, without a doubt, an underrated exercise. But there are many benefits to be had. Picking up heavy weight and walking with it is an effective way to develop functional strength, coordination, balance, grip strength, and total-body muscle mass.
In addition, it’s a great way to learn how to maintain proper lifting posture regardless of the load.
The shrug is a classic that isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon. It’s one of the best exercises for building mountainous traps. Although we could definitely maximize its effectiveness by utilizing a different technique than what is typically used during this exercise.
A lot of people will simply shrug their shoulders and pretend to touch their ears. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and you’ll still activate your traps, it may not be the most effective way to do so.
Well, what is? That’d be a simple modification to the shrug that involves upward rotation in addition to elevation combined with 30 degrees of arm abduction (movement away from the midline of the body).
This simply means that instead of just shrugging your shoulders straight up, you’ll abduct your arms out slightly away from your torso to facilitate upward rotation of the scapula while you elevate the scapula. To maximize the contraction, you should also lean slightly forward and shrug up and back rather than just up.
Never heard of the I-Y-T raise? You’re not alone. As the name suggests, it’s an exercise that involves lifting weights by forming the letters “I,” “Y,” and “T”. And we can prove how effective it is for working the traps.
One ACE (American Council on Exercise) sponsored study compared several common exercises to see which one activated specific back muscles the best using EMG (electromyography) testing.
The following exercises were used in the study:
- I-Y-T raises
- Lat pull-down
- Seated row
- Bent-over row
- Inverted row
- TRX row
The I-Y-T raise blew the other exercises out of the park for lower trap activation and also outperformed for middle trap activation. In addition, it was better for working the infraspinatus, a rotator cuff muscle that externally rotates the humerus (upper arm bone), and stabilizes the shoulder joint.
The I-Y-T raise is an underrated exercise which really shouldn’t be the case.
CABLE FACE PULL
Why is the face pull as popular as it is? Well, to explain as almost anyone else would, the muscles of the upper posterior chain are often undertrained and underdeveloped.
This is because we tend to do lots of pressing exercises, have bad posture for a large portion of the day, and neglect upper back/rear shoulder-specific training.
So the takeaway here is that the face pull is a very beneficial exercise that should be performed often.
The barbell deadlift is the undisputed king of total-body compound exercises. No other exercise allows you to lift as much as does the barbell deadlift and it builds everything from the calves and core muscles, to the entire back, plus the forearms, biceps, and grip strength.
However, you must do this exercise safely and properly due to the nature of the movement. But we’ll explain how to do that shortly.
ANATOMY OF THE TRAPEZIUS MUSCLES
The trapezius muscles, traps for short, is a thin, superficial, trapezoid-shaped muscle that spans the length of the upper back. It runs from the back of the head (starts from protrusion of occipital bone on your skull) and neck all the way down to your shoulders (lower thoracic vertebrae and laterally to the spine of the scapula).
The traps also consist of three different sections of muscle fibers that include the upper, middle, and lower fibers which all contribute to a different function.
The upper fibers elevate your shoulder girdle and with the lower fibers, rotate it upward. These fibers also play a role in extension, rotation, and tilting of the neck.
The middle fibers function to retract the shoulder blades against the vertebral column which is important for good posture and proper movement of the shoulder girdle. In order to upwardly rotate the scapula (another word for shoulder girdle), and maximize the function of the shoulders as a ball and socket joint, you need optimal retraction.
To put it simply, these fibers stabilize the shoulders during certain movements.
The lower fibers depress or bring the shoulder girdle down which is the exact opposite action of what the upper fibers do.
WHY TRAIN YOUR TRAPEZIUS MUSCLES
The traps should be trained like any muscle group to ensure you’re not only aesthetically balanced but to also maximize their function. As explained in the anatomy of the traps, this three-sectional muscle is important for optimal shoulder girdle function, posture, and injury prevention.
Strong traps can also benefit scapular stability and mobility.
For example, when deadlifting you need to be able to keep your shoulders retracted and depressed for safe and effective pulling. But even pressing movements require proper shoulder positioning. Take the bench press for example, your scapula should be retracted and depressed to maintain stability and prevent overpressing and the rounding of your shoulders that will cause you to lose effective positioning.
If you want to improve performance in all of your lifts and maintain good structural health, then building strong traps should be one of your goals. Plus, big traps look awesome and if you’re going for the bulkier look, then training them to put on mass is non-negotiable.
If you want a new trap workout to try or maybe you haven’t trained your traps directly in a while, then we put together a routine using the exercises above, that’ll cover all aspects of developing your traps.
We recommend doing it once per week to really focus on building the traps. Note: If you’re doing this workout after a back session, then there’s no need to do the deadlifts. Although, deadlifts are a great exercise to add to your main back training routine.
8 - 10
10 - 12
10 - 12
15 - 20
Stand under the barbell so that it's directly over the middle of your feet. Take a hip-width stance or whatever is most comfortable for you with feet pointed either straight forward or slightly outward.
Hinge forward at the hips and bend your knees just until your upper thighs are slightly above parallel to the floor.
Grip the bar so that your hands are about shoulder-width and just outside of your feet.
Keep your back flat, core tight, and drive through your heels keeping the bar close to your body.
Clear the way for the bar by moving your knees slightly back and then as it passes, move your knees slightly forward again.
When the bar reaches mid-thigh, push your hips forward and lockout but don’t hyperextend your lower back.
2 sets x 8-10 reps (rest 2 minutes between sets)
Start with the bar in a rack above the knees which reduces fatigue on the lower back or use dumbbells.
Grip the bar just outside of your hips or a little wider if needed, unrack the weight and either take a few steps back or remain in the same spot. If using dumbbells, start with them by your sides using a neutral grip.
With your back straight and shoulders neutral (not retracted), slightly bend your knees and hinge forward about 10 degrees at your hips.
Simultaneously shrug up and back while raising your arms out at about 30 degrees. Pretend you’re trying to touch your shoulders to your ears.
Lower the weight back down and repeat. Make sure to keep your back straight and core tight even during the negatives.
3 set x 10-12 reps (rest 1 minute between sets)
For this exercise, lay face down on an inclined bench so that your feet are on the floor and you’ll let your arms hang down by your sides. Otherwise, you can do it seated or standing.
In your chosen position and with your arms hanging down by your sides, raise both arms up directly in front of you as high as you can, squeezing your traps. Your arms should make a straight line with your body to form an “I”.
Lower your arms back down and then raise them up but this time form a “Y”.
Lower your arms and then this time, raise them up out to the sides to form a “T”.
This is one rep. Repeat for the provided number of reps.
3 sets x 10-12 reps (rest 45 seconds between sets)
Grab two relatively dumbbells that aren’t so heavy to where you can’t walk with them.
Use two relatively heavy dumbbells. Keep your posture strong, shoulders back and core tight. Walk until your grip gives.
2 rounds for distance (rest 1 minute between sets)
CABLE FACE PULLS
Attach a double rope handle to the highest notch on a cable system.
Stand facing the rope and grip the two handles so that your thumbs are pointing at you with your elbows pointed toward the ground.
Take a split or hip-width stance and walk back until you create tension that will remain even when your arms are fully extended toward the cable system.
Pull the rope handles as far back as you can right past your ears and squeeze your back and shoulder muscles for one second.
2 sets x 15-20 reps (rest 45 seconds between sets)
SETS AND REPS
Just like any muscle group, you should utilize different rep ranges. However, you do want to ensure that you’re progressing. And we do this by regularly increasing the weight or the reps which is referred to as progressive overload.
If you’re not creating a stress beyond what a muscle has already adapted to, then there’s no reason for it to adapt by getting bigger and stronger. We recommended increasing the weight in small increments every week (5-10lbs). Although, sometimes it’s good to just shoot for more reps than you did the last time. You want to use a good combination of both methods.
Training too heavy too often can be bad on the spine and lower back. Yet doing too many reps won’t build as much strength and there’s a point at which you’re not challenging your muscles anymore.
A few effective rep ranges include 5-7 reps for more strength benefits that will also build muscle. 6-15 reps is great for building muscle mass and decent strength gains, and 20-25 reps is also effective for building muscle when reps are taken to failure. But it’s not the best for building strength.
Use a challenging weight each time you train your traps but ensure you can handle the weight and it doesn’t cause you to excessively strain during a set.
IMPORTANT TRAP TRAINING TIPS AND COMMON MISTAKES
To get the most out of your trap training efforts, there are a few things that you should remember.
AVOID GOING TOO HEAVY
More often than not, ego lifting or forcing yourself to lift beyond your capabilities does not benefit the exerciser. For one, training too heavy can be dangerous on your spine, lower back, and body in general.
Another reason to not lift too heavy is because you probably won’t even feel the muscles working since your other muscles are doing a large portion of the work. Not to mention, it throws off ideal body positioning that’s necessary to optimally benefit from the exercise and your range of motion will likely be limited.
USE A FULL RANGE OF MOTION
A full range of motion not only allows you to maximize the function and contraction of a muscle under load, but it’s also important to get a good stretch during the eccentric (negative portion of a rep).
Research shows that negatives may be just as, and possibly even more important than the concentric (positive) for hypertrophy. We’re usually stronger in this position under load. Many people will shortchange this component of training but you’d be limiting your potential.
But, of course, we can’t forget the importance of the concentric portion of a rep which allows us to maximize the contraction or squeeze. Because we’re typically weaker during the positives, we want to maximize this portion the best we can.
So, for example, with the shrug we want to elevate the shoulders as high as we can to maximize each rep.
DO WHAT FEELS GOOD FOR YOU
Certain exercises can be hit and miss as far as feeling the muscle working during a specific movement. This could also be due to the amount of weight used or technique and this is oftentimes the case. However, if you just can’t seem to get optimal activation of a muscle, then it’s time to do something else.
This is common with shrugs, in particular, which is also why we chose to modify how it’s usually done in hopes that you’ll have better results.
But that’s why some people prefer certain tools over others. Some people may have a better experience with dumbbells as opposed to using a barbell. Cables and the trap bar are also great options as well that many people prefer.
COMMON QUESTIONS + ANSWERS
Q: HOW TO INCORPORATE TRAP EXERCISES INTO MY ROUTINE
A: For most people, the best way to incorporate trap exercises into your routine is to add them to your back days. Training traps is a perfect way to those days off strong.
However, if you find that your traps are lagging behind, or if you want to really focus on improving their development, do them first in your workout. We’d recommend training them no more than twice per week including the days you train back.
The traps do need a decent amount of volume due to the three sections of fibers that they’re composed of. So, train them with a few exercises but don’t overdo it because they do get a lot of stimulation from other back and even shoulders exercises.
The provided workout is a perfect routine for developing the traps.
Q: WHAT SHOULD YOU PAIR TRAP EXERCISES WITH?
A: Since traps are technically a back muscle, it’s never a bad idea to pair trap exercises with movements that focus on the back muscles.
Although, there’s no rule set in stone for how and when to train your traps. You can also pair them with your shoulder exercises or you can train them on arm day. But, again, don't overdo it.
Train them with a few exercises on back day and then add a little work on shoulder day or do them on a separate day when you have a full tank.
Q: WHAT ARE THE BEST TRAP EXERCISES?
A: Here’s our list of best trap exercises that you can’t go wrong with…
- Farmer’s walk
- Barbell/dumbbell shrugs
- I-Y-T Raise
- Cable Facepull
Of course, there are also many variations of these exercises too that you can incorporate such as cable variations, Smith machine and other machines, trap bar shrugs, etc.
We hope you found this information helpful and we’re confident that you now have sufficient knowledge to maximize your traps development. Building strong, muscular traps isn’t rocket science though. Be consistent, push yourself a little more each time, and train safely.
You will make progress as long as you gradually implement progressive overload.