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best trap exercises

HOW TO TRAIN THE TRAPS

There’s a lot more to your traps than what meets the ears.

Literally. The traps we most often think about are what you see alongside your neck, leading from your shoulders up toward your ears. These are the upper traps, which are only part of the larger trapezius muscle.

The trapezius is a kite shaped three-part muscle. It’s one of the largest in your back, spanning from the thoracic spine all the way up to the back of your head.

The lower and middle traps are responsible for shoulder blade retraction, pulling the blades toward the spine and each other. They play an important function in shoulder balance and correct posture, and contribute to overall back aesthetics, and back and shoulder strength.

The traps we most often think about are what you see alongside your neck, leading from your shoulders up toward your ears. These are the upper traps, which are only part of the larger trapezius muscle.

When you understand the anatomy of the traps and you’ll be better able to train them for hypertrophy.

The six exercises that follow hit the entire traps muscle group: the upper, middle, and lower trapezius muscles.

trap muscle regions

6 BEST TRAP EXERCISES

The six exercises that follow hit the entire traps muscle group: the upper, middle, and lower trapezius muscles.

I’ll show you how to perform each one with proper form, and pay attention to to weight used.  Some of these exercises require very little weight to be effective.

KNEELING DUMBBELL SHRUG

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The 6 Best Trap Exercises

First up is the kneeling dumbbell shrug, a version of this popular exercise that takes the lower-body muscles out of the equation, concentrating instead on the upper traps.

The key to the effectiveness of this move is the kneeling position which prevents any contribution of the lower body to this exercise.

Often, when people do shrugs with dumbbells or barbells from a standing position, they do not use proper form and generate way too much momentum from the lower body, almost like they’re about to do a dumbbell snatch. They basically heave upward and catch the weights at the top. Some completely abandon proper form and use their entire body.

To do this exercise right, pull the weights upward with a strong but controlled squeeze of your upper traps. Keep a mostly upright posture; don’t lean too far forward.

Without your lower body available to do the work, you have to use your traps to move the dumbbells. Use a neutral grip and just let the dumbbells hang at your sides to follow a natural up and down path.

Bring your shoulders up and toward your ears on every single rep. You can use heavy dumbbells for this shrug variation as long as you continue to observe proper form. This is not an explosive exercise but is one where you can use heavier loads.

Switch out your standing shrug version for this shrug variation and I promise you’ll see more trap development!

Use straps or hooks if you don’t have the grip strength to hold heavier weights. Remember these are trap exercises, not grip strengtheners per se.

The shrug is the king of trap exercises. Do it from the kneeling position and really hammer those upper traps.

CABLE OVERHEAD TRAP RAISES

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The 6 Best Trap Exercises

Our second exercise will also be done from the kneeling position.

As mentioned at the introduction, the lower traps are incredibly important if you want true shoulder balance and long-term shoulder joint health.

Use two cables set down low with an overhand grip. Cross your arms. Grab the right cable with the left hand, and the left cable with the right hand.

Do the ‘trap raise’ by raising your straight arms back and over your head, finishing with arms pointing to 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock. Your lower traps have to fire to keep your shoulder blades in contact with your rib cage during the movement, but you’ll feel these in your upper traps as well once your arms travel overhead.

In one respect, these resemble cable machine lateral raises. The direction of pull and starting position differ and arms finish above head height.

You can do the same movement by standing with a plate, but that risks using the legs. Kneeling removes lower body momentum and forces your upper body to do all the work.

Heavy weight isn’t required for this excellent exercise that works the entire trapezius muscle.

TWISTING TRAP SHRUG

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The 6 Best Trap Exercises

This next exercise is our Twisting Trap Shrug.

It’s a common trap exercise–the cable shrug–with a twist. The key here is the perpendicular tall standing position in relation to a cable machine.

From a standing position, align the upper trap muscle fibers for maximum stretch. The twist at the top finishes the movement.

The trap fibers come down and out, away from the back of the head toward the outside of the shoulders. Twisting helps because the traps also retract the shoulder blades.

It’s important to remember that the trap muscles *do not* contribute to twisting the torso. The muscles of the core do that. The trap muscles act on the shoulder. Twisting acts as a cue for you to continue squeezing the shrug at the top position.

The Twisting Trap Shrug requires some existing core strength to perform correctly.

 
 

DUMBBELL SHRUG ROW

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The 6 Best Trap Exercises

The Dumbbell Shrug Row is one of my all-time favorite trap exercises. In fact, it’s a variation of one of my favorite back exercises, only with a tweak that makes it ideal for your trap workouts.

A one-armed row can hit different areas of your back depending upon where your elbow is in relation to your body, or the direction it travels.

You can keep it nice and tight with the upper arm tracking inward toward the rib cage to hit the lats.

Or you can let the elbow track straight backward to hit the rear delt by initiating the row with the shoulder rotator muscles, which is exactly what we’re doing here.

Every single one of these rows is initiated by the traps and not the arms.

Lean on an incline bench, an adjustable bench, power rack, or anything that allows that one-arm row starting position, using a neutral grip to hold your weights.

Shrug your shoulder blade inward toward your spine before you begin the rowing motion, maintaining the shrug throughout the row on every rep. You want the shoulder blade to pull up and in toward the spine to achieve scapular retraction.

For the eccentric lowering phase, let the shoulder blade “sag” and your arm stretch down toward the floor to provide full range of motion. Keep continuous tension on your mid-back by not relaxing your back at the bottom of each rep.

The traps’ range of motion is actually pretty small, because the distance between the medial (middle) border of the scapulae (shoulder blades) and spine is only a couple of inches.

Another important thing to remember is that the traps do not connect to your elbow. You could do this exercise with a completely straight arm. What you’re doing here is a shrug variation that’s sometimes called a Backward Shrug or Mid-Back Shrug.

The intense contraction that you’re going to feel in the traps is probably unlike anything you’ve ever felt before.

Start including this fantastic exercise when you’re doing all your other rows to hit those bigger muscles of your back, namely the lower and middle traps.

Now we head into the lighter but harder trap exercises. Caution: “light” doesn’t mean easy.

DUMBBELL PRONE PRESS

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dumbbell prone press

Some consider this exclusively a shoulder exercise, but the Dumbbell Prone Press (aka Dumbbell Prone Y-Raise) is an excellent exercise for lower and middle traps. This exercise is really difficult, especially if you’ve been ignoring these critical middle and lower trap muscles.

Use a light pair of dumbbells. I used 5 lb. dumbbells in this demonstration, and they feel heavy.

Lie prone on your belly and press the dumbbells straight up overhead (or in this orientation, forward) as far as you can. This demands that the lower and middle traps stabilize the shoulders through the entire exercise.

Keep the dumbbells off the floor and don’t allow them to touch the ground. You’ll basically do a shoulder press from your stomach. This exercise requires isometric tension from the entire upper portion of your back.

Even the rhomboids have to work cooperatively with the lower traps to keep these dumbbells off the floor. You’ll need to keep your core tight for this movement.

You’ll see that you don’t always need heavy loads to build big strong traps. This is one of the most demanding exercises you can do for trapezius muscle growth.

REVERSE TRAP FLY

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The 6 Best Trap Exercises

Our sixth trap exercise is a reverse trap fly. A lighter load is all that’s required, but once again, light doesn’t mean ‘easy’. The heaviest weight you’ll need is some tubing and you’ll find it to be incredibly challenging.

The key here is concentrating on making the mid and upper back muscles work cooperatively with the traps.

Pull the bands back almost like a cable face pull, pulling with the mid back instead of the rear delts to optimize trap activation.

The main initiative here is to shrug your shoulders backwards instead of upwards. Imagine pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades. You’ll feel an intense contraction here if you’re doing it right.

Control the eccentric phase to maximize time under tension, and maintain that constant tension on the tubing, even when arms are fully extended.

You may not be able to do a lot of reps here, but quality is more important than quantity for this exercise.

So, there you have it! Six trap moves you’ve likely never done before, two of which require only light weights.

Count on taking 1 to 2 minutes of rest between sets for each of these trap exercises.

Incorporate these into your back day or include them with your other shoulder movements. You could also combine them into a single traps workout, to build a thick, muscular upper back and improve your overall shoulder health and posture.

If you want to train like an athlete you’re going to want to put science back in every workout you do.  You can do that with the ATHLEAN-X programs and get started right away on building a ripped, muscular, athletic body.

 
 
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THE HIGHLIGHT REEL:
THE 6 BEST TRAP EXERCISES

  1. The trap muscles are much more than what you see between your shoulders and ears.
  2. The middle and lower traps compose the bulk of the overall trapezius muscle. They add thickness to the upper back, and support shoulder joint function and postural control.
  3. The 6 trap exercises we describe here require a pair of dumbbells, a cable machine, and tubing. They work the upper, middle, and lower portions of the trap muscle.
  4. You don’t need heavy loads to work your traps. A lighter load is all that’s needed for two of these moves.
  5. Use dumbbells for the Kneeling Dumbbell Shrug, Dumbbell Shrug Row, and Dumbbell Prone Press. The Dumbbell Prone Press requires only a very light dumbbell.
  6. Use a cable machine for the Cable Overhead Trap Raise and the Twisting Shrug.
  7. Tubing is all you’ll need for the Reverse Trap Fly. Light weights are all you’ll need for this exercise and the Dumbbell Prone Press.
  8. Incorporate these moves into your back or shoulder workout. You don’t necessarily need to lift heavy loads such as barbell deadlifts, hex bar deadlifts, or rack pulls to build thick trapezius muscles.
  9. Always observe proper form and maximize time under tension, using controlled rhythmic repetitions.

Watch the YouTube version of this article
Jeff Cavaliere Headshot

Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS

Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.

Read more about Jeff Cavaliere by clicking here

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