Your shoulders just plain and simply won’t look as impressive without a pair of yoked, muscular traps that hold some mass.
It’s safe for you to guess that the traditional “stand in front of the dumbbell rack while doing 200lb dumbbell shrugs” isn’t the golden ticket to traps.
The reality is, it makes the most sense to tap into both the fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers that the upper traps contain.
When it comes to traditional shrugs, the range of motion is generally significantly lowered as reps get heavier, and rep speed is also compromised.
Get the best of both worlds by prioritizing these moves.
Exercise 1: Hang Cleans
Few people think about cleans and Olympic lifts in general as prime trap developers. Although trap development is not the area of immediate focus for weightlifting competitors, we as strength and size trainees can do well to take a page out of their book by adding such explosive movements into our own routine (given we have what it takes to perform them safely).
The hang clean involves a powerful shrug with weight that can often exceed what one would normally use during a set of shrugs.
Because of the misuse of Olympic lifts in current exercise trends, many lifters have decided to shy away from the lifts entirely, even stating that they should be reserved for competitors. In truth, there’s absolutely no harm in the olympic lifts when properly executed and performed in sets of 3 to 6 reps.
As mentioned above, hang cleans are a complex movement, and it’s understood that everyone won’t be in the position of optimal mobility and absence of injury to do these.
As a smart alternative, it would be worthwhile to switch to high pulls. This completely eliminates the “catch” phase, and salvages the elbow and wrist joints for that reason. At the same time, the body and traps can still go through their full extension and aggressive shrug in the pull phase.
Exercise 2: Dumbbell Snatch
Rather than create plenty of risk to everyone’s health in recommending and coaching a full barbell snatch (complete with a full overhead squat), it’s good to remind ourselves of the goal: Trap development. Since it’s only one small piece to a big Olympic lifting puzzle, our crowd can get away with a few reps of dumbbell snatches and stay safe while doing them.
To perform these correctly, proper care must be taken to ensure the weight travels in a straight line, and the body conforms to this path in the best physical way possible.
Follow these steps for the execution:
- Stat with the weight at shin level; hold in a hang position with a long arm.
- Extend the entire body first – your arm should be last to move.
- At the top of your extension, time the aggressive shoulder shrug to help project the weight upwards.
- As the weight nears the top, stomp the feet and time the “catch” overhead.
- Through the entire movement, pretend someone is standing right in front of you, and avoid hitting them with the dumbbell.
- Lower the weight to the shoulder first, and then bring it down.
For the visual learners, here’s a video to demonstrate:
Exercise 3: Farmer’s Walk
People look at farmers walks and other loaded carries as ways to improve grip strength, burn calories, and drop body fat. In truth, we all forget that the hands and arms are anchored at the shoulder joint, and the traps and arm musculature play a gigantic role as stabilizing structures that are involved in any heavy carry.
The simple instruction of the farmer’s walk is to hold onto 2 heavy objects with long arms, and walk as far as possible until you can no longer carry it.
To take things to another level, take advantage of different variations of farmer’s walks:
- Trap Bar Farmer’s Walks – the wide neutral grip will hit the traps from a slightly different angle and add plenty of lat involvement to boot.
- Suitcase Farmer’s Walks – If your gym is lucky enough to have suitcase bars, it’s a real game changer due to the wide weight distribution of the bells.
- Overhead Loaded Carry – The traps and entire shoulder complex has to work overtime to pull these off. These can also teach good posture and core function.
One More Thing: Don’t Forget the Lower Traps
It’s one thing to constantly jack up the traps through the lifts above, but it doesn’t hide the truth that most of us have a significant imbalance from upper to lower trap. It’s important to keep activating the mid and lower traps through proper scapular depression exercises.
Pull ups and pulldowns are good to hit these muscles when done correctly, but many lifters miss this form cue. Instead of going through the whole movement, it’s better to zero in on that segment of the lift by doing scap pull ups. See the video for a how-to.
And if you didn’t know what to do with the 10 or 15lb kettlebells that come in your set, I’ve found another use for them other than door stops and paperweights.
The kettlebell angled press can create a gradual lever arm that blasts the lower traps when the arms approach full extension. Maintaining a rigid trunk and holding at the end of each rep for a full second count allows the traps to work without the deltoids interfering from the beginning of the rep (the way they can in other lower trap exercises like trap raises).
You can do shrugs to oblivion – and they may even work for you just fine. But a time will come where your body completely adapts to that movement, and more weight won’t be the answer.
Stepping outside the box to look at muscles involved in your workouts can be the saving grace to your gains, and even your ego.