The Best Trap Exercises You've Never Tried

The Best Trap Exercise You've Never Tried
Tap into your trap muscle's growth potential by learning about the different fibers the muscle is composed of and the best exercise to hit those fibers.

Everyone knows how to train their traps. All you have to do is shrugs right?

But, if just doing standard shrugs worked, then why do so few people have mountains sitting on top of their shoulders?

The traps are a symbol of dominance. They scream power and physical assertiveness like no other body part. Why? Well, I’m not sure, but I have a theory.

It’s been reported that steroids affect the shoulder girdle muscles more so than other muscles. More specifically, the traps have been demonstrated as responding better than the quadriceps to steroids.

So, my theory is, the reptilian part of the human brain recognizes the larger than normal traps as evidence of elevated testosterone levels.

Do you want to command attention? Then train those traps!

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The Ultimate Trap Training Guide

There are three steps to picking the best exercises:

  1. Line of resistance of the exercise
  2. Function of the muscle
  3. Direction the muscle fibers travel

Related: Traps are the New Abs - Here's How to Build Them

Let’s go step-by-step and pick out the perfect exercises for the trapezius.

Line of Resistance

Line of resistance is a phrase that refers to the direction a resistance is coming from.

If you’re doing a free weight exercise, then the line of resistance goes through the free weight straight down to the floor (because of gravity). If you are doing a cable exercise, the line of resistance is the cable itself. If you are using a machine, the line of resistance varies throughout the exercise.

Upright Row With Cable Machine

You should ALWAYS make sure the line of resistance matches the direction of the muscle fibers you’re trying to train. You won’t always succeed in matching the resistance to the muscle fibers, but it’s possible for the trapezius.

There are three portions to the trapezius muscle. All three portions have fibers that travel in a slightly different direction.

That means that you will need to make sure the resistance is coming from different directions to optimally train all three portions of your traps.

Functions of The Trapezius

As was said, you probably see people doing standard shrugs all the time, but you have probably never seen someone with the type of traps in magazines.

Why is that?

Related: Boyce's Choices - Top 3 Exercises for Trap Muscle Development

Well, unbeknownst to most folks, the traps are more than just the muscle sitting on top of your shoulders. The trapezius has three sections, superior, medial, and inferior. Those fibers travel a large part of your spine; going from your neck to about half way down your back.

Superior Fibers

The uppermost fibers of the traps are the ones that get the most attention. The standard go-to trap exercise is a standing shrug, which is the movement that will train the top of the trapezius

  • Scapular Adduction (drawing your shoulder blades backward)
  • Scapular Elevation (shrugging movement)
  • Scapular Upward Rotation (this is what occurs at the scapula when you do a lateral raise)
  • Neck Extension (look upwards)

The superior fibers travel at a 45-degree angle. To train the upper portion of the traps, the line of resistance will have to match that 45-degree angle while you elevate the scapula.

Considering all of those factors the 45-Degree Cable Shrug gets the job done.

Medial Fibers

The middle part of the trapezius. Developing the middle of the traps is important if you want to achieve that sought after cobra look. The mid-traps only has one function.

  • Scapular Adduction (drawing your shoulder blades backward)

The middle fibers run in a straight line from your spine toward your shoulder joint. Therefore, you’ll need to pull your scapula straight back. When training the middle traps, the line of resistance should make a 90 to 60-degree angle with your torso.

I give you, The Silverback Shrug.

Laying Silverback Shrug
Standing Silverback Shrug

Which variation should you do? That depends on two factors.

  1. Your lower back strength. If you can’t maintain the strict leaned forward position you see in the standing variation, then go with the laying version.
  2. If the incline benches you use at your gym have a lot of bars that get in the way while performing the laying version use the standing variation.

Some people have trouble retracting their scapula (as a result of never having to consciously engage the muscles involved with movement of the shoulder blade).

If you try the Silverback Shrug and feel that you have trouble performing it, try imagining that there’s a tennis ball in between your shoulder blades. Think to yourself, “squeeze the tennis ball.”

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Better yet, if you have a friend to train with, have them place their hand between your shoulder blades and squeeze their hand with your scapula at the top of each repetition.

Inferior Fibers

The lowest fibers of the traps. It is this part of the trapezius that receives the least attention from the average gym goer.

  • Scapular Depression (pushing your scapula down toward the floor)
  • Scapular Adduction (drawing your shoulder blades backward)
  • Assists in Scapular Upward Rotation (the movement that occurs at the scapula when performing a lateral raise)

The inferior fibers also travel at about a 45-degree angle, but in the opposite direction of the superior part of the trapezius. You’ll need to match that angle, but the difference is, the line of resistance will have to come from upward instead of downward.

Related: Shrugs Are Overrated - Build a Massive Yoke Without Shrugs

Basically, you need to push your shoulder blades down toward the floor while the resistance is coming from above you. Here are two exercises to accomplish that.

Scapular Depression (Pull-Up Variation)
Scapular Depression (Cable Variation)

If you can hold onto the bar for a long period of time, use the pullup variation. If your grip starts to give out, or your traps aren’t strong enough to pull up your bodyweight, use the cable variation.

How to Program Your Trap Training

As you can see, all three portions of the traps have one function in common, scapula adduction. So for efficiency purposes, the majority of trap work needs to involve pulling back your shoulder blades (the Silverback Shrug).

Based on the fiber type composition of the trapezius muscle, which is predominately slow twitch, you should probably do a LOT of reps (15+).

As far as sets, there is no hard rule. I do suggest that you train your traps multiple times per week (2+). Because the traps are slow twitch dominant, they need more stress applied to them in order to make them grow.

references
  1. Johnson, G., Bogduk, N., Nowitzke, A., & House, D. (1994). Anatomy and actions of the trapezius muscle. Clinical biomechanics, 9(1), 44-50.
  2. Kadi, F., Bonnerud, P., Eriksson, A., & Thornell, L. E. (2000). The expression of androgen receptors in human neck and limb muscles: effects of training and self-administration of androgenic-anabolic steroids. Histochemistry and cell biology, 113(1), 25-29.
  3. Kadi, F., Eriksson, A., Holmner, S., Butler-Browne, G. S., & Thornell, L. E. (1999). Cellular adaptation of the trapezius muscle in strength-trained athletes. Histochemistry and cell biology, 111(3), 189-195.
  4. Kadi, F., Hägg, G., Håkansson, R., Holmner, S., Butler-Browne, G. S., & Thornell, L. E. (1998). Structural changes in male trapezius muscle with work-related myalgia. Acta neuropathologica, 95(4), 352-360.
  5. McGinnis, Peter Merton. Biomechanics of Sport and Exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2013. Print.