The 5 Best Exercises to Build Trap Muscles

Feb 15, 2019

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Trap Muscle Exercises for a Greater Body

One of the most obvious signs that you put hours of hard work in the gym is sporting a set of thick trapezius muscles. Hulking traps create a powerful looking physique apparent even when fully clothed. Balanced, large trap muscles also help create that aesthetic broad-shouldered look.

Keyword here is “balanced”. Large traps can also be associated with poor posture and ugly aesthetics when the muscle group is imbalanced. Additionally, scapula function is often impaired, and shoulder mechanics suffer when the subsections of the trapezius muscles are not evenly developed.

A Closer Look

Trap Muscle Exercises for a Greater Body: TrapeziusAlthough the trapezius is technically one muscle, the muscle fibers are arranged into subgroups with different fiber sections resulting in distinct functions for each subgroup.

The upper fibers are what we usually picture when we think of traps. These fibers elevate the scapula (shrug up the shoulders), extend the cervical spine, flex the neck laterally and rotate the head.

The middle fibers also elevate the scapula in addition to adducting the shoulder blades (bringing them together) and upwardly rotating the scapula.

The lower fibers often get overlooked, possibly because they aren’t as noticeably visible as the other subsections. Their main functions are to adduct, upwardly rotate, and depress the scapula.

Upper Cross Syndrome

Tight upper traps are very prevalent in our sedentary society. Many people are hunched at their desk for hours a day with their shoulders high and rolled forward. This lengthens (weakens) the middle and low traps tighten the upper traps making them short and overactive. This is typically accompanied by tight pectoral muscles and weak cervical flexors to form the muscle imbalance pattern known as upper cross syndrome. Many people spend most of the day with their shoulders up by their ears as a result of neurotic holding patterns often related to stress. This can cause tension headaches, restricted movement of the head, and dysfunctional scapula mechanics leading to shoulder injuries.

Trap Muscle Exercises for a Greater Body: Upper Cross SyndromeAnother possible cause of this imbalance is overusing the upper traps through improper form on a number of upper body exercises. For example, many people shrug their shoulders up and forward during triceps extensions. This helps move more weight but takes tension off the triceps and places it on the traps. Resulting in large upper traps due to overuse, and also shoulder dysfunction from excessive internal rotation.

If you do have tight upper traps, it’s important to loosen them up through stretching and rolling while primarily focusing on trap exercises that target the mid and lower traps.

Downward Depression Syndrome

Although much less common than tight upper traps, some athletes or bodybuilders have tight mid or lower traps and experience an impairment syndrome known as downward depression. The rhomboids and lats are also very shortened. The shoulder blades are excessively adducted close to spine and excessively downwardly rotated.

This causes a number of shoulder issues due to tightness in the glenohumeral joint. Basically, the head of the humerus bone will not line up correctly with glenohumeral joint when upward rotation is limited. This leads to restricted range of motion during overhead movements and all kinds of potential shoulder injuries While it’s very rare for the general population to experience this problem, athletes spending a significant amount of time training with there scapulae in a retracted and depressed position may be vulnerable.

As a bodybuilder, think about all the times you are actively depressing and adducting the shoulder blades. Every time you do a row, deadlift, pull up, stabilizing during chest presses, and even just holding a pair of dumbbells by your side. If you have this movement impairment syndrome, it’s essential you target your upper traps in a way that promotes upward scapular rotation.

The Exercises

These five exercises help you evenly develop your traps giving you superior shoulder and scapular function to go along with those meaty cobra traps. If you have symptoms of either of the impairment syndromes mentioned, make sure to incorporate trap movements tailored for your weak points.

Cable Shrug

Cable shrug gets the nod over barbells or dumbbells because of the versatility offered. You can do a traditional vertical shrug, but you can also tailor this exercise to your weak points. If you have rolled forward shoulders and tight upper traps, lean back at an angle that allows you to retract and adduct the shoulder blades during your shrug. Alternatively, if your upper traps are weak and stretched out due to downward depression, you can lean forward a little bit and shrug with some upward rotation. Cables also make it easier to incorporate static holds to squeeze even more from the traps.


Trap Muscle Exercises for a Greater Body: TRX Y’sThe TRX suspension trainer is widely available in many commercial gyms, and it can be used to perform one of the most effective exercises for overall trap development. Y flyes use your bodyweight as resistance and produces nice continuous tension throughout the movement. Grab the handles and lean back with your arms straight. Lift your arms up into a Y motion and pull your body forward. The upper traps initiate the movement while the lower traps finish it off. Make sure your arms are not too narrow because that takes the emphasis off your traps and more on the delts.

Trap Raise

This exercise is great for those suffering from symptoms of upper cross syndrome because it emphasizes the lower traps and promotes downward depression of the scapula. To perform this movement set up on high flat bench or a normal bench with a slight incline. Weight should be very light on this if it’s used at all. With your thumbs facing up, lifts your arms vertically (keeping them slightly bent) at “10 and 2”. Focus on pushing your shoulder blades down into your back at the top of the range of motion. Make sure your shoulders don’t shrug up and recruit your upper traps.

Trap Muscle Exercises for a Greater Body: Face PullFace Pull

Trap Muscle Exercises for a Greater Body: Underhand GripFace pulls have helped many powerlifters live to press another day in the gym. This exercise has long been a staple in powerlifting routines to balance the body from excessive pressing and prevent muscular imbalances that ultimately lead to injuries. To perform this movement set up on a cable with a rope. With an overhand grip pull towards your face squeezing the shoulder blades together and externally rotating at the shoulder.

You can also use an underhand grip placing more emphasis on posterior delts. Make sure to go light and controlled on this one!

Overhead Shrugs

Trap Muscle Exercises for a Greater Body: Overhead ShrugsThis is the perfect exercise for someone who has downward depression syndrome. Someone with severe upper cross symptoms should probably avoid this one. It focuses on upward rotation of the scapula and keeps them from returning to a completely depressed position. All other shrugs finish with the shoulder blades depressed against the back.

To perform this exercise grab a barbell and hold it in the overhead position. From here, press up towards the ceiling shrugging your shoulders up to your ears. In addition to strengthening your traps, you will also improve the function of your thoracic spine.

In Conclusion

To properly fuel your workouts make sure to take a supplement with the most proven product on the market, Creatine. So many people get caught up with all the fancy new products, but this is the one thing proven to help you improve your explosive output and increase your work capacity. Exercising the traps can be very taxing because of the amount of stabilizing and accessory muscles involved, so you need all the help you can get.

Train your traps with a muscle group they are already heavily involved with as an accessory muscle. Combine them with shoulders and back days to allow for adequate recovery and maximum gains. Also, make sure to identify your weak points and posture type so you can select exercises benefiting your specific issues. This will improve your physique as well as shoulder mobility allowing you more time spent in the gym building muscle and less time on the couch nursing injuries.


Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.

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