When To Train Your Traps

One of the biggest bodybuilding conundrums has always been whether to train traps with back or shoulders. Here are the pros and cons of both!

October 22, 2013

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS

Chances are your weekly split is pretty much set. You may prefer training your biceps with your triceps and, for many bodybuilders, hitting legs alone works out best because they’re such a large muscle group. But if there’s one bodypart that seems to be missing a home, it’s your traps. Sometimes you tag them onto the tail end of your back workout and other times you include them with your delt session. But what is the best place for traps?

Before proceeding, let’s not ignore the importance of some basic anatomy and physiology. In the case of traps training, knowledge is power. First, the upper traps — which make up the most mass of the overall diamond-shaped muscle — primarily lift and rotate your shoulder blades upward, as when shrugging your shoulders. The middle traps pull the shoulder blades together as is the case during wide-grip seated rows. And finally, the lower traps rotate the shoulder blades downward like during Y-raises or front raises where you take the weights overhead. Perhaps because you see the traps mainly from the front, you may have mistakenly thought the traps merely sat atop the shoulders and weren’t aware that they actually travel down the back. But that’s why there’s a reasonable and somewhat justifiable debate on the subject of whether traps should be trained with back or shoulders.

The Upper Room

When it comes to your upper traps, the most visible portion, we recommend training them with shoulders because this area is already involved in most shoulder exercises, including overhead presses and lateral raises. After a grueling delt routine, your upper traps are warmed up and full of water, nutrients and blood, making them fertile ground for growth. Therefore, hitting upper traps with heavy shrugs on shoulder day is arguably your wisest choice.

Many bodybuilders simply think that since you have pulling straps on, you might as well do your shrugs at the end of a big back workout, but the truth is that back workouts don’t sufficiently hit those upper traps fibers. On the contrary, bent-over rows, high rows, and T-bar rows all favor the middle traps and do little to warm up the upper portion.

Finding Middle Ground

Since only the middle traps are involved in back exercises, they should be trained in the same session along with the lats and rhomboids. Bodybuilders for the most part fail to realize just how much of an impact the middle traps musculature can make to the overall look of the back, and we’re not just talking from behind! In fact, the middle traps play a key role in how thick you appear from the side. So, along with standard back moves, there are some exercises you may not be doing that’ll isolate and innervate those middle traps fibers to an even greater degree. For the short list, see “Best Moves for Traps from Top to Bottom.”

How Low Do You Go?

Probably the most neglected and forgotten portion of the large trapezius muscle is the lower trap area. This section is best targeted only by some of the most rare exercises, such as the Y-raise where you lay facedown on an incline bench and raise the dumbbells up in front of you as high as possible. The lower traps are also targeted very well by front raises in which you take the dumbbell or barbell all the way up overhead. Did you ever seen Arnold perform dumbbell front raises? Remember how high he’d take them? Well, many bodybuilders mistakenly fail to take front raises above parallel, which shortchanges lower traps development. By taking your front raises overhead, you’re not only fully engaging the front delts, but that last 90 degrees of the arc also requires serious activation of the lower traps.

In summary, to say it’s best to isolate your traps with either back or shoulders is probably a mistake. Instead, we suggest you do both. Do shrugs for the upper traps region on shoulder day, and then on back day hit your middle and lower traps together since they’ll be ready and warm from the back routine they accompany.

Best Moves For Traps From Top To Bottom

1) Upper: Best done on shoulder day

>> Shrug (barbell, dumbbell)

For this trap move, lie faceup on an incline bench with your chest supported. Your head and neck are just above the bench and your eyes are fixed on the floor behind the bench. Avoid the tendency to crane your neck in an effort to look upward. With a dumbbell in each hand and hanging directly below you, simply shrug your shoulders upward, pinching your shoulder blades together at the top and repeat.

2) Middle: Best done on back day

>> Wide-grip seated rows, bent-over rows, prone incline dumbbell shrug1 and straight-arm seated row

The straight-arm seated row is done just like a seated cable row except that you don’t bend your elbows. Keep your arms as straight as possible, remembering that the range of motion is very small, only a few inches like other shrug moves. Pull your shoulders back and pinch the middle of your back on each rep.

3) Lower: Best done on back day

>> Front-overhead dumbbell raise, prone dumbbell (or barbell) Y-raise

Using the same stance you use during the prone incline dumbbell shrug, raise the dumbbells up and out as high as possible. Try to get your arms to at least parallel to the floor on each rep. It doesn’t take a lot of weight to stimulate those lower traps and because the front delts are also highly at work, a light-moderate weight will suffice, especially if you try and hold the peak contraction for a count or two.