If you want to look like a superhero when your arms are covered, you need to work your trapezius, or traps for short. Big traps also give you a very convenient shelf on which you can rest the bar when doing squats; you won’t need one of those novice bar pads if you build bigger traps.
Your traps make up a large part of your upper back and consist three areas which, while they work together, also have distinct functions all of their own.
The Upper Traps, often called the yoke, rises up from your shoulders to the base of your skull. Its main job is elevation of the shoulder girdle which means shrugging your shoulders upward in a movement called elevation. Because of this, the most common way to pump up the upper traps is with barbell or dumbbell shrugs but, as you’ll see later, there are other exercises that you can do that will get the job done.
The Middle Traps work with your rhomboids and is located on and between your shoulder blades. The middle traps are responsible for drawing your shoulders back and together – a movement called retraction. This is an important movement for thickening your upper back and maintaining good posture.
The Lower Traps are located on and below your shoulder blades and are responsible for shrugging your shoulders downward in a movement called depression. Keeping your shoulders down means you will have greater shoulder stability, which will carry over to having better shoulder health and performance.
So, now you know a little more about the anatomy and function of your traps, it’s time to add some meat to this all important muscle group!
When to work your traps?
There are two main schools of thought when it comes to trap workouts – do them as part of your shoulder workout or do them when you train your lats. Both options can work well, so really it’s just a matter of trying both and seeing which works for you. Of course, if you are serious about bulking up your yoke, you could train them on a separate day so you can prioritize them.
Sets and Reps
While six to twelve is the most commonly prescribed rep range for muscle building, lower and higher reps can work too. To avoid a muscle-building plateau, try using a variety of rep ranges in your training e.g. do low reps/heavy weights for four weeks, moderate reps/weights for four weeks and then high reps/low weight for four weeks.
Before you get into your workout proper, make sure your muscles and joints are properly prepared by doing some light cardio, joint mobility and dynamic flexibility exercises. Round off your warm up with one or two light sets of the exercises you are about to do.
The Trap-Building Workout
Barbell Cuban Press to Overhead Shrug
Method: Hold a barbell with an overhand, slightly wider-than shoulder-width grip. Bend your arms and pull the bar up the front of your body to your sternum. Keep your elbows high. Rotate your arms and bring the bar to your forehead. Press the bar up and overhead to full arm extension. Then, keeping your arms straight, shrug your shoulders up as high as you can. Reverse the movement to lower the bar and repeat.
Variations: This exercise can also be performed using dumbbells or even a low cable.
Method: Sit on the edge of a bench with your hands either side of your hips, fingers pointing forward. Extend your legs in front of you. Swing your hips forward so your butt is clear of the bench. Keeping your arms straight, shrug your shoulders and let your body sink down. Push yourself back up again. This is essentially a reverse shrug.
Variations: Bend your legs to make this exercise easier or, for a more demanding workout, do the exercise using parallel bars instead of a bench so you have to lift your entire bodyweight.
Band Pull Apart
Method: Hold and raise a resistance band at shoulder-height with your arms extended out in front of you. Shrug your shoulders back, open your arms and stretch the band out across your chest. Return to the starting position and repeat. This is an excellent postural exercise which is especially good for us desk warriors!
Variations: This exercise can also be performed leaning forward – like a bent over row.
Barbell High Pulls
Method: Think of this exercise as a power version of the upright row. Hold a barbell with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Bend your knees slightly, hinge forward from the hips and lower the bar to knee-height. Do not round your lower back. Drive your hips forward, extend your legs and use this momentum to help you pull the bar up the front of your body to around chest-height. Make sure your elbows are higher than your hands and shrug your shoulders upward at the top of the movement. Lower the bar and repeat.
Variations: This exercise can also be performed using dumbbells or kettlebells which will allow you to work one arm at a time. Single arm high pulls are often called “lawnmowers” because you’ll look like you are trying to pull-start one.
Method: Lie facedown on a bench with a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. Row the weights up and into your armpits and hold them there for as long as you can. Keep your elbows tucked in, your wrists straight and your shoulder blades squeezed back and together for the duration of your set but do not hold your breath.
Variations: This exercise can also be performed using a barbell.
The trapezius might not be as glamourous of a muscle as the pecs or biceps but you can always spot a serious strength trainer by the size and thickness of his traps. Prioritize trap training for a few months and you too will develop that look of power and strength.