“In a confrontation on the street, big traps are much more intimidating than big biceps,” says Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, owner of JoshStrength.com and co-author of the e-book Metroflex Gym Powerbuilding Basics. But defending your date’s honor, while admirable, shouldn’t be your sole motivation for training traps. According to Bryant, effective training of these fan-shaped muscles on your upper back helps keep the shoulder girdle in alignment, provides postural strength on heavy squats and deadlifts, and offers a boost when benching massive weight. Shrugs are great, but they’re not the only way to build your traps. Bryant explains.
1. Shrug In Tens
Shrugs are still the most fundamental exercise you can do for traps, but Bryant likes to add spice to his workouts. With dumbbell shrugs, Bryant says he likes a 10-10-10 approach. “Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms at your sides,” he says. “Do 10 shrugs with the right side, then 10 with the left and finish with 10 bilateral shrugs. This greatly increases the time under tension.”
2. Shrug Like Atlas
One of the reasons people skip shrugs or relegate them to the end of their workout is because the movement seems too slight or subtle to matter. These people haven’t tried power shrugs. “Power shrugs use the same hip drive that you would do a clean with, but the weight is heavy, so you just violently shrug it up,” Bryant says. “You want to try to make your traps hit your ears. Bill Starr stated in The Strongest Shall Survive that if your traps aren’t sore after a day of power shrugging, you didn’t do it right. You should eventually try to use more than your deadlift max with this movement for multiple repetitions. This is a great trap builder.”
3. Change Planes
The standing shrug is great for building trapezius height, but to increase overall thickness, you need to add variety to your angle of pull with scapular retraction. “On a seated row, grasp a narrow-grip handle with your arms fully extended,” Bryant says. “Pull your shoulder blades together. This will build the middle traps and give a denser look. This is one of my favorite prehab movements for big benchers.”
4. Pull. Push.
The functional opposite of scapular retraction is scapular protraction. Bryant likes performing protraction to work the traps in a different way while building his strength chain on the bench. “Hand spacing should be the same as your regular bench-press grip,” he says. “Lower the bar with straight arms by dropping the shoulders down toward the bench and crunching the shoulder blades together. Then force the bar upward by spreading the shoulder blades out, as in a lat spread, while raising the shoulders off the bench. The bar will travel only three or four inches either way. This is a great way to add thickness to the midtraps and directly benefit your bench numbers.”
Shrugs for the traps are, by nature, isolation moves — movement is only occurring at the shoulder and without the benefit of other muscle groups. The upright row, however, is a multi-joint movement that provides “a high level of activation in the traps,” Bryant says. This move, which also uses your biceps, forearms, middle and rear delts, is a great move for building total upper-body mass.