The trapezius muscle group is actually three muscles: lower, middle and upper “traps.” It is the upper traps muscle that many muscle building enthusiasts struggle to build size in.
The upper trapezius muscle starts behind the skull and extends all the way down to the upper part of the lower back (lumbar region), where it is known as the lower trapezius.
The upper portion of this stubborn muscle extends out towards the shoulders, and when they are developed, they are striking and really add to the appearance of one’s physique.
There are two approaches to a great traps workout. Usually, trainees zero in on trapezius-targeting exercises, with the most obvious one being the shoulder shrug.
However, ask yourself this:
Have you ever seen anyone with humongous traps, but the rest of their physique didn’t match? A slender though buff build, but with these mammoth traps? You just don’t see this.
Another way to look at this is, have you ever seen a man with gigantic, bulging muscles—e.g., a frighteningly huge back, massive deltoids and biceps as big as cantaloupes—but flat traps? You won’t see this, either.
With that said, the first approach to getting bigger traps is to create a foundation of heavy compound lifting:
3) Bench Press
Guys who do these exercises with outrageous weight loads always have giant traps.
You guessed it: The big three lifts, when done heavy and consistently, help build traps—in ways you wouldn’t necessarily think of.
Imagine you have a 405 pound squat and a 405 pound deadlift (that’s four big plates on both sides of the Olympic bar). Just the loading and unloading of the bar alone will work the traps.
Though this isn’t significant trap fiber recruitment, it adds to the entire package, which also includes the strain on these muscles during the actual lifting. Heavy benching can’t be done without trap involvement.
In heavy squatting, the bar rests on these muscles, making them isometrically contract (contraction without lengthening or shortening of the muscle belly).
The traps get hit pretty hard during a set of heavy deadlifts (isometrically helping with supporting the barbell).
Get heavy with the squat, bench and deadlift to build your foundation for impressive traps. But it doesn’t end there; it only starts there.
Targeted Trap Exercises
There are actually quite a few variations of the No. 1 trap targeting exercise, which is the shoulder shrug. The shoulder shrug exercise can be done with a tracked barbell, dumbbells, plates or a shoulder shrug machine. Don’t break the following rules:
- Never bend your elbows. This is a muscle substitution pattern that subtracts work from the upper trapezius and redistributes it to the biceps and forearms. Keep arms straight to maximize isolation of the traps.
- Never go up on your toes. This, too, is a substitution pattern in which the legs absorb some of the resistance.
- Never jerk your body to do a repetition, as the jerking provides momentum that subtracts workload from the traps.
- Keep a slight bend in the knees for stability, feet about shoulder width apart.
- Never hold your breath; exhale on the shrug and inhale on the release.
- Try to lift shoulders as high as possible, keeping arms straight. Really get them high.
- Hold the up position (shoulders at highest point) for 1-2 seconds before releasing.
- The release may go only as far as the starting position, or, you may try to lower the upper traps below their natural point, to give them a stretch under tension. It’s easier to work through shrugs, however, by just releasing as far as these muscles naturally go.
What Is The Best Weight Implement?
A barbell, especially tracked, limits range of motion; you can only go up and down.
Dumbbells and plates allow hand rotation during the exercise, but some people find dumbbells cumbersome.
The flat nature of the plates makes them very agreeable to this exercise, as they lack the bulky heads of dumbbells that rub up on one’s legs. However, plates only go up to 45 pounds.
Dumbbells and plates allow for moving the traps in circles, forward and backward. A shrug machine provides stability and the option of a neutral (palms facing each other) grip.
A barbell allows the most weight to be lifted for free shrugs, due to the more stable nature of the fixed grip, as well as no interference from the barbell’s weighted ends on the trainee’s legs.
More weight can be piled on with shrugging equipment, and shrugging machines provide the option of being seated during the exercise.
Sets And Reps
Shrugs should be done after big compound movements, and one should employ an 8-12 rep max if they want to get as big as possible. If the weight is too heavy, one will not be able to complete full range of motion.
It’s important to get the shoulders as high as possible. Half shrugs are like half bench presses; you need full range of motion for best results.
Some trainees swear by finishing up with high reps and lower weight (around 20) to exhausting failure after the heavy weight sets.
As for sets, four or five good, heavy sets will spark growth. Four or five heavy, full range of motion sets without cheating are better than a ton of half-baked sets.
Additional Trap Exercises
- Upright rows.
Some people get decent results from these, but the problem is that this exercise does not allow for huge amounts of weight to be lifted.
Furthermore, those with even slight rotator cuff issues will find these painful, and they can further damage the rotator cuff (group of four muscles and tendons around the shoulder joint).
- Deadlift to upright row. The upright row is the weak link.
Though the traps get hit two different ways in one exercise, the effectiveness is limited because the upright row limits how much weight you deadlift. This is best done as a failure set after you complete your heavy deadlift routine.
In summary, if you want to build traps that are big, you must do the big compound lifts with heavy weights to build a foundation of thick muscle, and in addition, do upper trapezius-targeting exercises with heavy weights.
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