Full disclosure is necessary before I get started here: I don't have impressive Trapezuis muscles that grow out of my upper back and tickle my ear lobes. If you're looking to improve your traps, then chances are, you're just like me in a genetically-screwed, long-neck, slight-shoulders sort of way. I will, however, claim that I'm making some progress on turning my traps into a strong resemblance to a king cobra's hood. So, since I'm not there yet, you may not want to read a word that I say.
In fact, you might want to seek out the advice of someone like Lou Ferigno, Dwayne Johnson, or one of my favorite bloggers, Jamie Lewis. All of those guys have traps that look like they could get hit square in the face with a meteorite and their head wouldn't move because of their trap development is so phenomenal. Maybe those are they guys to study.
Although I detest bringing up genetics, it does need to be mentioned in this instance. Some people are blessed with ridiculously long muscles bellies and short tendons on their upper trapezuis region. So, when their traps get worked, it shows up fast. In other words, Lou Ferigno could probably cock his head backwards with a bit of excessive force to sneeze and add some extra height to his traps. The rest of us aren't so lucky. So, we might have to look farther than celebrity wrestlers and body builders(and asshole bloggers) and their shrug routines to get to some semblance of trapezius development.
There are two groups of people we rarely see with a chronic lack of a yolk: Olympic Weight lifters and the strongmen of 90-plus years ago. These two types of weight trainers have something in common. Regardless of how they lifted, they lifted stuff off the ground and they put the weights overhead. This combination is a potent trap-builder because it forces the muscle to work... a lot!
When weight starts off the ground, moves upwards on its journey overhead, the trapezius is getting a lot of work. The weight is basically resistance against the shoulder blades the whole time and that means the trap is constantly fired up to both keep things moving and hold things in place.
So, movements that require you to get it off the ground, close to your body, and/or overhead should be in your routine if you want some some added size to your yoke. Snatches, cleans, presses, clean & presses, and deadlifts may not be renowned for their ability to isolate the trapezius muscle, but they will give it a lot of work.
175 lbs clean curl/reverse press combo
There's another less obvious and almost as effective way to beef up your traps that gets about as much attention as the Lions get Superbowl trophies: neck training. Most of those old timers we discussed a minute ago considered neck training to be a necessity. Over the decades, neck lifting has descended largely past cult status lifting into near strength training insanity. If you want to get some weird looks when you work out, strap one measly 45 lbs plate to a neck harness and watch how people look at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears.
The reason why this works your traps is pretty simple if you take a closer look at the picture above. The Traps attach at the base of your skull. While we think of this chunk of meat real estate as an upper back muscle it's in reality also a neck muscle too. So, you can't work your neck without seeing some results in the form of bigger traps.
Since this movement is also very short, high reps and high volume are the order of the day. Don't bother doing anything less than 15 reps with a neck harness. There is one caveat: Notice I didn't say high speed! Don't ever do neck work in a hurry, unless you enjoy kinks in your neck. Take things slow and deliberately. You warmed up too, right? This doesn't have to be a drawn out affair. Just remember to rotate your head, slowly, a few times, touch your chin to each shoulder, and nod up and down. Slowly, and under control.
What About Shrugs?
Shrugs work. That I can't deny. I do them, just not as often as most do. If shrugs aren't working for you, then here are a few likely causes:
- You're not using enough weight. No, really, you're probably not. This needs to be a very heavy amount of weight and you shouldn't be able to do them for more than 15 reps. By the end of the 15 reps, your traps should be toast.
- Shrugs should be done as violently as possible while still maintaining control of the movement. If they're not a frightful sight to watch, you're just not putting enough effort into them. So, fast or don't bother.
- Since it also needs to be done with a lot of weight with a lot of speed, you need to be strapped into whatever it is you're shrugging. Subsequently, if you're not shrugging with a barbell or a trap bar, you're wrong. It's unlikely that dumbbells will be heavy enough to give your traps enough stimulation.
485 lbs shrugs on the trap bar
Weighted Carry Work
One thing that everyone seems to agree on for trap development is weighted carry work. Farmer's walks are very well known and respected for trap work and you'll never find even a half-ass strongman without an enviable set of them. These don't have to be done exclusively with handles. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, barbells, or odd objects. Play around with different methods of carry as well. It all works really well for complete trapezius development.
235 lbs per hand for 100'
Plugging This Knowledge Into Your Training
While I've given you some ideas about how to train to hit your trapezius, you've obviously noted that, except for the shrugs, none of these are directly targeting the traps. There's a lesson to be learned there: Some of the best yoke training occurs when you're not really looking to train that blessed back muscle pictured above. So, don't be in a hurry try to isolate it. Instead, look to some of the more basic, even older, lifts that require you to move stuff off the ground, up to the chest, and over your head. This is a crazy amount of trap work, just sitting on the ground, waiting to happen.
If you want to do shrugs, then take them seriously. They need to be heavy, done with authority, and likely using straps to hold onto the weight. I've heard it said before that if you can shrug the weight without straps, it's too light.
The neck training is pretty simple to slide into a program. Since it's all high rep work doesn't really work any other movement or muscle, you can slip this in at the end of nearly any workout. A couple of times per week will suffice.
Farmer's walks, or any other sort of weighted carry, is also a great finishing movement. I routinely complete an upper-body-oriented workout with some walking-with-weights. I like to frequently change between 100' with heavier weights or lighter weights for longer distances. Try them both. Frequently. Weighted carry work covers so much good ground in strength and conditioning, including some very complete Trap work.
Keep in mind that the Traps, like the other upper back muscles, can take a lot of pounding. Its unlikely that you can over-train them in one session unless you're particularly audacious with your volume. So, feel at ease to hit them hard regularly.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
John from Roseville, MN on November 14, 2016:
well! Thanks for very helpful guide...
lyall davenport on September 06, 2016:
The guy doing the deadlifts is very cute xx