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Growing up in a basement gym, every day was arm day. This made my traps and shoulders look underdeveloped compared to my biceps. Nowadays I’ve started doing heavy rack pulls, rows, and deadlifts and this has made a big difference.
Barbell rack pulls train the entire trap muscle through a mostly isometric contraction. The traps are involved in stabilizing the scapula as it retracts and depresses, and also supports the neck as it extends while lifting the weight.
However, if you’re looking to directly accentuate the upper, middle, or lower traps in training, there are other great options.
Table of Contents
1. Perform Barbell Rack Pulls at Knee Height
Rack pulls are a great exercise because you can overload the bar with weight and still perform high rep sets to smoke the entire back.
This indirectly targets the trap’s fast twitch fibers, since you’re technically resting between each rep when the bar stops on the rack pins.
Alternatively, you can remove the pins and perform partial deadlifts to maintain constant tension or do speed reps on the pins, indirectly hitting more of the slow twitch fibers.
I’d suggest focusing on heavier weights for lower reps ranging from 4-10.
To perform barbell rack pulls:
- Adjust the safety pins in a squat rack to knee height.
- Set the barbell on the pins and load your desired weight, making sure there’s an equal amount on both ends.
- Stand in front of the barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and lift the bar while keeping your lower back straight.
- Stop once the bar is touching your upper thighs.
- Hinge through your hips to lower the bar back onto the pins.
Although these are great for trap engagement, they won’t be achieving much, if any dynamic range of motion. Luckily, these next exercises work the traps eccentrically and concentrically for maximum growth.
2. Do Dumbbell Shrugs for the Upper Traps
Dumbbell shrugs directly work the upper traps through two motions: scapular elevation (lifting the shoulder blades) and upward rotation (moving the shoulder blades up and in).
This form of shrugging is unilateral, meaning each trap lifts the weight individually from the other, preventing imbalances and allowing for deeper contractions.
Research suggests that abducting the shoulders by 30 degrees from the lateral waist provides better upper trap engagement. This just means that you’ll be holding the dumbbells away from your torso.
With this in mind, use lighter dumbbells and shoot for higher reps of 10+ so you can hold this position more easily.
To do them:
- Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other.
- Hold your arms away from your body so the dumbbells are slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Lean your upper body forward by about 10 degrees.
- Lift your shoulder blades straight up and in towards your ears.
- Release your shoulder blades toward the ground under control before repeating.
3. Perform the High Elbow Row for Your Middle Traps
The high elbow row hits the middle traps directly through horizontal abduction, an anatomical motion of the shoulder that moves the upper arm out and back.
This motion has been shown to recruit the middle fibers much more than shrugs. It’s also unilateral, so again you can prevent or fix imbalances in the upper back.
This exercise is frequently performed with heavy weights for reps of 8-20.
Perform it by:
- Grabbing a dumbbell in one hand with your elbow flared out so your thumb is pointing inward.
- Angle your upper body at 70 degrees to the floor.
- Place your nonworking hand and knee on a bench.
- Lift the dumbbell toward the side of your chest and squeeze your shoulder blade at the top.
- Lower and repeat.
4. Try Y Raises To Hit More Lower Traps
The same research I mentioned above also showed significantly more lower trap activity in overhead movements while lying face down. So in conjunction with that knowledge, this next exercise is going to do just that.
It’s best to stay light with this one and focus on high reps. You may even want to start with your body weight before progressing to holding light dumbbells in your hands.
Try the Y Raise by:
- Laying flat on your stomach on a narrow elevated surface.
- Hang your arms over the edges while holding dumbbells or weight plates with your palms facing each other.
- Raise both arms forward and upward simultaneously until your arms are at ear level. Your body and arms should form a Y shape.
- Be sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Lower under control and repeat.
If you think these exercises aren’t worth doing, pause. You need to read my article on why it is not okay to skip trap training.
What Weights Build Traps?
It’s taken my traps a long time to develop because at first I would do insanely heavy sets with bad form or go too light and do 25+ reps which didn’t challenge them enough. However, there is a happy medium to maximize growth.
Use light and heavy weights for building the traps because they are slow and fast twitch muscles. Meaning they respond to short and long-duration sets. Doing a mix of heavy 1-6 rep rack pulls and lighter 10-15 rep shrugs with proper form is a good combination.
For example, you may train traps two to three days per week with direct (shrugs) and indirect (rack pulls) exercises.
Here’s how the layout of the workout schedule could look (exercises that work the traps are labeled in bold):
- Day 1: Back day with indirect heavyweight trap exercises
- Rack Pulls: 3 sets x 6 reps (indirect heavyweight)
- Dumbbell Rows: 3 x 8 (direct – moderate weight)
- Underhand grip lat pulldowns: 2 x 12 (indirect – lightweight)
- Day 2: Chest day
- Day 3: Arm day
- Day 4: Shoulder day with direct lightweight trap exercises
- Dumbbell Arnold Press: 3 sets x 10 reps (indirect – moderate weight)
- Dumbbell Lateral Raises: 3 x 15
- Dumbbell Shrugs: 4 sets x 15 reps (direct – lightweight)
- Day 5: Leg day
- Day 6/7: Rest
Remember to take a few days of rest in between trap workouts so they have time to recover and grow. In the meantime do exercises for the legs, chest, and arms to create a balanced physique.
Should Trap Training Be Rep or Weight Focused?
There will be differences in rep range and intensity when doing indirect multi-joint exercises compared to single-joint exercises directly for the traps.
Direct trap training should be focused on higher rep sets with lighter weights. They can be hard muscles to actively engage, so getting a full range of motion is important, which is difficult to do with heavier weight sets under 8 reps on an exercise like the shrug.
On the other hand, when training traps with rows or deadlifts, your focus shouldn’t be on “feeling” the traps. Instead, worry about lifting the weight with correct form and if you’re able to do that then odds are your traps are doing their job.