by Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS T-Nation
Few things espouse masculinity more than a set of mountainous, ear-concealing traps.
Sadly, most lifters’ trap training consists of a few slapdash sets of barbell or dumbbell shrugs thrown in at the tail end of a back or shoulder workout. This is woefully insufficient from both an aesthetic and functional standpoint, as the trapezius plays critical roles in preventing shoulder and neck injuries as well as in pressing performance.
Rather than bore the T NATION faithful with copied and pasted print from a college-level anatomy book, let’s focus on trapezius movement with a sprinkling of basic anatomy.
Think the traps are just for shrugging?
The trapezius, which originates from the external occipital protuberance and attaches to the ligamentum nuchae, has connections between the spinous processes of C7 to T12 and it retracts and depresses the scapulae.
The middle trapezius, that with the rhomboids and lower trapezius, inserts into the spine of the scapula, serves to retract the scapulae, pulling them back during movements such as rowing and climbing, and will enable a lifter to keep a stable upper back during horizontal and overhead pressing exercises.
The lower trapezius, which inserts into the root of the spine of the scapula, depresses the scapulae and assists with its upward rotation along with aiding the middle trapezius in retraction.
The upper trapezius, which many novice lifters wrongly assume is the entire muscle, inserts into the lateral third of the clavicle and into the acromion. It elevates the scapula and influences its upward rotation.
Trap Training Benefits
For hypertrophy junkies, larger traps provide an illusionary effect. Check out the physiques on lightweight boxers, wrestlers, and mixed martial artists and you’ll see astounding upper trap development in spite of their low body weight.
Many lifters, especially the novices, skimp on training traps, citing they’re getting enough work through deadlifts, rows, and squats, but in my observations of training clients with hypertrophic goals in mind, the traps have immense growth potential. So why not train them directly?
For trainees with injury prevention in mind, such as athletes who engage in contact sports, trap training has numerous benefits. Unresolved whiplash symptoms and chronic neck pain have been linked to trapezius weakness. Weaker trapezius muscles, specifically the middle and lower trapezius, can beget shoulder impingement syndrome, scapular winging, and scapular dyskinesis.
Relevant to powerliftting or those desiring a bigger bench, shoulder impingement and dyskinesis will alter normal functioning of the glenohumeral joint, thus throwing a wrench in one’s bench-pressing progress.
Also, remember that stronger traps translate to bigger pulls. A lifter with strong lower traps will be able to pull the scapulae back and down during a deadlift or row, thus keeping the bar from traveling too far from the body. Strong upper traps will help lifters with their deadlift lockout, again keeping the bar closer to the body.
For the paper pushers and “;keyboard strength coaches” who supplement their “;booming” personal training businesses with hours spent trolling the game’s top dogs with baseless criticism and sophomoric insults, trap training will serve them well.
Along with muscling up their traps, which will make their necks less resemble a flesh colored pencil, trap training will help maintain better posture, help address scapular instability, and ward off the common upper back and neck pain that’s often associated with being anchored to a faux cherry wood desk for the bulk of the work day.
Trap Training Considerations
My rule of thumb is that athletes should prioritize trap and neck training at the beginning of their workout. Since these groups are never worked with high volume or to failure in strength and conditioning programs, you won’t have to worry about their training affecting performance on subsequent lifts like the Olympic lifts or squats, presses, and rows.
The fact is, I’ve noticed when clients train these groups through stretching and performing isometric holds, it’s easier to get them into a neutral neck position during lifts occurring later in the workout. Also, shrugging heavier loads in lower volumes will prime the CNS for the work that’s yet to come.
Nothing is more yawn-worthy than seeing “;Barbell Shrugs 3 x 10” in a workout program. If you have the flexibility in your program, or equipment, try these nifty variations that hit the upper traps instead.
Dumbbell jump shrugs
Barbell shrug walk
Dumbbell shrug walk
Dumbbell saw shrugs
Plate saw shrugs
Seated one-arm dumbbell shrugs
One-armed Smith machine shrugs
Unilateral low pulley shoulder extension shrug
(Incidentally, unilateral shrugging exercises were found to produce the greatest EMG activity in the upper trapezius.)
Banded lateral raise to shrug
For the oft-neglected middle and lower aspects of the trapezius, throw these movements in along with upper trap work:
Mini range lat pulldown to isometric hold
Or try the half T-raise:
I got the following from Jim “Smitty” Smith awhile back and they’ve worked wonders in recruiting the middle and lower traps. Also, EMG activity in the middle and lower trapezius was found to be greatest during shoulder external rotation and flexion in the prone position.
Alternating forearm wall slide
Prone tennis ball tension I, Y, T raises
And here’s an old standby:
Standing calf raise shrug
Be sure to finish off your trap work with a nice stretch. The exercise demonstrated in the video below, courtesy of fellow T NATION contributor Todd Bumgardner, provides the trapezius with an intensely deep stretch.
Exercise Sets Reps
A 4-Way Neck Machine 2* 10
B Dumbbell Jump Shrugs 2 5
C Heavy Barbell Shrugs / Rack Pulls 3 3
* each direction
Exercise Sets Reps
A Prone Tennis Ball Tension Y, T, I Raises 2 5*
B Wall Slide To Iso Hold 2 10
C Trap Stretch 2** 10 – 20 sec.
* each letter
** each side
Trapezius Hypertrophy Workout:
Add this mini-session to your workouts twice weekly, performing them as a continuous rotation. End with a two to three minute rest period before repeating the sequence again. You’ll be happy with the results.
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Dumbbell or Hex Bar Jump Shrugs 3-5 3
A2 One Armed Seated Dumbbell Shrugs 3-5 10*
A3 Prone Tennis Ball Tension Y, T, I Raises 3-5 5**
A4 Standing Calf Raise Shrug 3-5 15
* each side
** each letter
While the collection of exercises and workouts above wasn’t an exhaustive list, they’ll undoubtedly add more trap training options to your toolbox, helping you make trap training more fun while preventing injury and augmenting your pressing and pulling performances.
If there are any exercises you’d like to add, or you have any questions or suggestions, post it on the LiveSPILL.