Anyone serious about bodybuilding needs to know how to build trap muscles. Big, square shoulders make an aesthetic physique, but it’s the traps that give you that look of power. Besides, having a set of thick, strong trapezius muscles also keeps the neck durable and can prevent injury. If you’re serious about learning how to build trap muscles, the below five exercises all belong in your routine.
For anyone discussing how to build trap muscles, this is the obvious first choice of exercises. Stand straight with arms hanging down, either at your sides (if holding dumbbells) or just in front of you (if holding a barbell). Shrug you shoulders up as high as you can, holding for a count of 1-2 seconds. Lower the weight back into the starting position, letting it stretch your traps for another second or two. 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps works well.
One note of caution is to not roll the shoulders. You’ll sometimes see lifters shrug the weight up, then rotate their shoulders back in a circle. This can be very harmful to the rotator cuff and shoulder joint in general. You don’t necessarily have to shrug in an absolutely vertical plane (you can shrug up and back so as to squeeze the traps harder), but be sure that your shoulders do move in a straight line. There is no rotation allowed.
Upright rows are generally #2 after shrugs on any list of trapezius-building exercises. Stand tall holding a barbell in front of you. Pulling with the elbows, elevate the bar until it’s just below your chin. Keep your elbows higher than your wrists the entire time to ensure emphasis stays on the traps instead of being transferred to the biceps. 3-4 sets of 8-12 slow and controlled reps should do the trick.
While most lifters you see doing upright rows tend to use an EZ curl bar and a narrower grip, feel free to experiment. A shoulder-width grip on a straight bar also works well. Just keep the bar speed slow and try to squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
Olympic lifting isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about how to build trap muscles, but rare is the O-lifter who doesn’t have a thick set of trapezius. This is because most of what O-lifters do is rooted in big pulling movements, and the traps are one of the primary muscles used.
Many of the Olympic lifts are quite technique-intensive, and can cause injury if you don’t do them properly. However, the high pull is one of the easiest to learn and still gives you most of the same sort of training effect.
Stand tall holding a barbell at your waist with a shoulder-width grip. Dip slightly, bending at the knees and ankles, pooching your butt backward. Your head should be up and chest spread. Dig your heels into the floor and drive forward with the hips, extending them, the knees, and ankles all at the same time.
As the bar comes up, pull it as high as you can (similar to an upright row), keeping your elbows above your wrists, with a target of pulling to up around the nipples. On the descent, try to keep a fairly athletic stance and “catch” the bar with your hands. Reset yourself, then do your next rep, repeating until your set is finished. Lower reps are a better idea here to make sure form stays tight and explosiveness is maintained. Go for 4-7 sets of 3-6 reps.
One thing to watch out for is to make sure your first movement before you lift is to thrust the hips forward. Too many lifters unknowingly pull with their lower back instead, thinking that as long as their torso comes up straight, they’ll be okay. This is asking for injury.
Though you are driving hard with the hips, once the bar comes up above waist level, it’s the traps and upper back that then take over. While the nipples are about as high as you want to pull the bar, really concentrate on keeping those elbows up and pulling them back. This will maximize the contraction, hitting the traps harder.
Another reason Olympic lifters have such well-developed upper backs (and especially trapezius muscles) is because they do the snatch, as well as many variants, with such a wide grip. It might not seem like it, but the wider your grip is on any standing pulling movement, the more the traps are targeted. If you’re unsure about how true this is, try your next set of barbell shrugs using a snatch-grip width.
That said, doing snatch-grip deadlifts are a real trapezius burner. Deadlifts, especially when done “traditional” style, can already hit the traps hard. However, spreading that grip out as wide as you can only ratchets up how much the traps are emphasized. 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps works well. Just don’t be surprised if you have to reduce the weight quite a bit because of the new grip.
If you want to know how to build traps the old school, manual labor way, this is it. You can use a variety of implements, but the easiest in most gym settings is to just grab a heavy pair of dumbbells and go for a walk. How far you go at a clip and for how many repeats is up to you, as is whether or not you wear straps. Keeping on until you’ve gone roughly 150 total yards is enough.
Farmer’s walks are hard enough on the traps as they’re the ones being stretched as they hold the weight the entire time. However, emphasize the traps even more by concentrating on keeping your shoulders back. As you fatigue, your shoulders will want to round forward. Keep yourself standing as tall as you can with your shoulders retracted will only hit the lower traps more directly.
You don’t have to do all five of these trapezius movements in the same workout or even in the same overall program. However, if you keep 1-3 of them in constant rotation, your traps will have no choice but to get bigger and stronger.