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Back in the day, I thought shrugs were the only way to build my traps. This led me to give up on isolated trap training since I could never feel them working. They slowly became underdeveloped and my shoulders started to stiffen.
Skipping trap training is not okay as weaknesses in these muscles will cause muscular imbalances and injury. This is because surrounding muscles will have to overcompensate during shoulder movements and exercises that would otherwise rely on the traps.
Growing the traps can be hard, but crucial for building a well-balanced physique and for the upper body’s health. Read on for the nitty-gritty of why they shouldn’t be neglected along with a few effective exercises.
Table of Contents
Why Traps Are an Important Muscle To Train
Traps are a pair of diamond-shaped back muscles with three sections: the upper, middle, and lower. People often train their upper traps heavily and neglect the lower portions. Mainly because they don’t even realize that the middle and lower sections exist.
These two portions are located in the middle back so they tend to go unnoticed. They are typically easier to activate than the uppers, but muscle soreness in these areas is often confused with the lats or rhomboids.
Consequently, trainees just give up on isolated trap training in their routine since they have trouble working the uppers.
Neglecting to strengthen the traps can prohibit your ability to perform many activities. For instance, when the traps are weak you won’t be able to lift heavy objects or build other muscles as efficiently.
The traps are important muscles for scapular control and neck stability. They enable movement of the shoulder blades during exercises like rows and protect against harsh impacts. These muscles also isometrically hold the collarbones in place.
They inadvertently enhance your ability to grow the legs and lats. For example, properly performed barbell squats and lat pulldowns recruit the lower traps to protect the lower spine. This allows you to work your legs and lats closer to failure without being prohibited by back pain.
Here’s a table showing functions that are controlled and stabilized by the traps:
|Lower Traps||Middle Traps||Upper Traps|
|Scapular Depression||Scapular Retraction||Scapular Elevation|
|Scapular Upward Rotation||Shoulder Extension||Scapular Upward Rotation|
|Posterior Scapular Tilt||Neck Extension|
As you can see, the traps retract the scapula. This is referred to as squeezing the shoulder blades together, a detrimental component of performing bent-over rows.
Here are some benefits of having strong traps:
- The traps isometrically contract while sitting, standing, and lifting heavy weights to hold the neck and clavicles in place.
- They improve performance with complex exercises like squats and deadlifts.
- They reduce shoulder stiffness and prevent clicking when rolling your shoulders or performing shrugs and lateral raises.
- Your neck will appear thicker and receive greater control and stability.
- Improves the thickness of your back in bodybuilding poses.
From a physique standpoint, top bodybuilders like Dorian Yates and Jay Cutler had something in common. Their traps were massive.
The traps are important in bodybuilding as they make the inner and upper parts of your back appear thicker. This is especially critical for dominating back shots and the Most Muscular pose since they can be seen popping out over the shoulders.
If you care about having a proportional physique you should be training every part of your traps. Even if you don’t have the desire to compete, they’ll make you look like a superhero with your shirt on or off.
This is especially important for us natural lifters. Because if we have small traps we’ll look like we don’t lift while wearing a t-shirt. Luckily, just having okay-size traps will make them pop out of the rear and top of your shirt. That way people know you’re a gym rat.
Furthermore, training your traps directly with an exercise like the shrug usually isn’t necessary. This is because deadlifts, rows, lateral raises, and overhead presses stimulate them enough to grow and maintain.
You’re technically not skipping trap training if these exercises are a staple in your routine. However, you may need to take a more direct approach if you’re not doing a few of them each week.
Build Your Upper Traps With Rack Pulls
Everyone seems to prioritize shrugs for their upper traps. It’s a misused exercise since you can’t go super heavy without sacrificing range of motion and form. Although they are useful when executed properly, this usually isn’t the case.
Moreover, the traps activate more with heavier weights. This makes rack pulls a suitable alternative since you can lift heavier without comprising form. Based on EMG testing, setting the barbell to knee height is optimal for the upper traps compared to pulling off the floor.
As a general rule, the upper traps are harder to build than the lower and middle portions. This is because they often need heavier training with shrugs, farmer’s carry, high rows, or rack pulls. While the other two portions receive a fair amount of simulation with most traditional back exercises.
Of course, this isn’t the golden rule as some people have absurdly large upper traps due to their genetics or training style. However, I mainly see lifters with thick and wide middle backs that look like they have giraffe necks since their upper traps don’t pop (myself included).
To perform rack pulls:
- Set a barbell at knee height in a squat rack.
- Stand with the barbell aligned over midfoot with your feet spread at hip-width apart.
- Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Breathe in, squeeze your elbows against your waist, and slightly retract your shoulder blades.
- With your arms straight and relaxed, pull the bar up against your thighs until you’re standing upright.
- Hinge through your hips and push your butt back to lower the weight under control.
- Repeat for 3-5 sets of 4-10 reps using heavy weights.
Train Your Lower and Middle Traps With Face Pulls
Unlike the upper traps, the middle and lower sections are typically easier to isolate with less rigor. That’s where the face pull/press comes in handy. By following Athlean X’s advice you can stimulate both of the inferior portions with this exercise alone.
To perform the face pull/press:
- Position a cable pulley to forehead height.
- Clip on a rope attachment and hold it with your palms facing each other.
- Step back a few feet to ensure there’s constant tension on the cable.
- Pull the rope toward your forehead, leading the movement with your hands.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together while pulling.
- While holding this position, extend your arms overhead.
- Once your elbows are fully extended, lower until the rope is in front of your forehead again.
- Slowly release the rope forward before repeating the entire sequence.
- Perform 3 sets of 12-15 reps using light weights.
This workout utilizes two compound exercises for the entire back with the first one accentuating the middle traps and the second for the uppers. As a whole, the third and fourth exercises are meant to isolate all three parts.
- Bent-over barbell rows: 4 sets x 12 reps
- Rack pulls: 3 x 6
- Face pull/press: 3 x 15
- Barbell Shrugs: 3 x 15
Has this inspired you to get serious about your trap training? If so, you should check out my detailed article on great trap exercises using weights.