Ask The Trainer #129 – Grow Powerful Traps


Greetings. I was wondering what I can do to get my traps to grow? I always incorporate very heavy barbell shrugs into my routine, sometimes going as heavy as 405 lbs. for reps, but my traps still remain the same size. For how much weight I do shrugs with, I feel like my traps should be a lot bigger than they are. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks in advance.



Hi Jason. I’m not exactly sure how this happened, but for some reason in the lifting world, heavy shrugs became the gold standard solution to building big traps. Once you’ve become a more astute bodybuilder, you consider muscular anatomy and origin as they relate to particular exercises and how those exercises are executed.

In other words, you become more attuned to specific muscles as you are training them. In the case of building the trapezius muscles, when most people think traps, they focus strictly on upper traps. Those meaty triangles of muscle you see in the mirror that sit on both sides of your neck, filling in the space between the base of the neck and tops of the shoulders.

Heavy Shrugs

Performing heavy barbell and dumbbell shrugs will hit the very top part of the trapezius muscles, but geographically speaking, that’s a relatively small segment of these muscles. The trapezius muscles actually originate at the base of the skull, travel down into the upper back, and run horizontally across both scapulas. That being said, by performing heavy shrugs, you’re neglecting a vast portion of those muscles.

Remember, impressive traps that really pop are the ones where there is complete development among the upper, middle, and lower taps. Many trainees are unknowingly getting significant trapezius stimulation by doing different variations of deadlifts, rows, lat pull-downs, and even shoulder presses. Even more isolated dumbbell exercises for the back and shoulders will engage the traps a fair amount.

Most of the time when you see guys with thick, meaty traps, they built those impressive looking wedges of muscle by doing exercises other than heavy barbell or dumbbell shrugs. Performing shrugs to build all of your traps is like only performing just inclined dumbbell flys to build your entire chest. Get the picture?

I admit there was a time in the early part of my career when I wasn’t privy to this information. My traps appeared virtually nonexistent, and I desperately wanted larger traps. I’d go to the gym for a shoulder workout and load 500-600 lbs. onto a barbell. Then, I’d do 4 sloppy sets of shrugs along with my other shoulder exercises. Yet, month after month I saw absolutely zero visible changes among my traps.

The work/reward ratio was discouraging, to say the least, so I just quit doing those crazy heavy shrugs altogether. In fact, I didn’t even specifically target my traps at all. Later on, for unrelated reasons, I began incorporating deadlifts into my training routine. I really liked doing heavy deadlifts, so I decided to start competing in a few powerlifting events. This new endeavor compelled me to focus on what I could do to increase the amount of weight I could pull.

Other Than Deadlifts

Besides doing heavy conventional deadlifts, I also began focusing more on supporting exercises like various forms of barbell rows, rack pulls, and even cable pull-downs. After several months of incorporating these movements, I woke up one day, looked in the mirror, and realized… I had traps!

Some of these compound exercises have a much more profound impact on the trapezius muscles than one might think. Take the conventional deadlift for example. You begin the exercise the weight in front of your body. As you pull the bar up, your scapulae travel back and compress together as you draw your shoulders back and set the barbell into the lockout position.

As I mentioned previously, the trapezius muscle run across the scapulae. This means there will be a significant amount of lower and mid trap stimulation as they contract together during the lockout. The beginning of the movement utilizes a lot of upper trapezius muscle as the bar is being pulled upward, making the deadlift a very effective, overall trap builder.

Aside from the compound exercises I mentioned, there are a couple of exercises I’d add to the arsenal to ensure you’re targeting all of your trapezius muscles. The first exercise I suggest including is called a Cable Face Pull. This is a great exercise to target the mid and lower traps, as well as the rear deltoids and rhomboids.

How to perform a Cable Face Pull:

Step 1.

Attach a rope to a cable pulley that’s set at about chest height.

Step 2.

Grab the rope, 1 side in each hand using an overhand grip.

Step 3.

Holding the rope, step back so you’re supporting the weight with your arms completely outstretched and position. Bend your knees slightly to help keep your body stable.

Step 4.

Pull the center of the rope towards your face, focusing on using the muscles of your traps, rear delts, and rhomboids to pull. As the rope gets closer to your face, externally rotate your knuckles so they’re facing the ceiling.

Step 5.

Once the rope is about 1 inch away from the part of your face right between your eyes, pause for a second and then slowly return to the beginning position. Repeat the movement for 8-12 reps.

Another great exercise for complete trapezius stimulation is Barbell High Pulls. Not only does this exercise help build gargantuan traps, but it also improves your ability to bring a loaded barbell from just above your knees, into the lockout position of a deadlift. This is where a lot of people fail attempting to complete their heaviest deadlift during powerlifting events.

Most routine weightlifters are familiar with the upright row. This exercise has been touted as a classic, overall shoulder builder since the golden age of bodybuilding began. Unfortunately, upright rows can be an instigator of injury because of how this exercise places the shoulders in compromising position as they are under tension. This is where the Barbell High Pull makes a safer, more beneficial alternative to an upright row. The wider grip used during a high pull will help transfer tension away from the biceps and place more emphasis on the lateral section of the deltoids and traps.

How to perform a Barbell High Pulls:

Step 1.

To perform a high pull with a snatch grip, begin by finding a barbell using a weight that you can complete 8-12 repetitions with. Grab hold of the barbell using a wider than shoulder width grip with your palms facing in a downward position. You will be standing upright will your arms extended. The barbell will be stable at about the middle of your thighs.

Step 2.

Using the muscles of your shoulders, trapezius and upper back, lift the barbell upward as you would with an upright row, but DO NOT compromise your shoulder joints by raising the bar as high as you would in an upright row. Instead of pulling the bar all the way up to your chin, bring the bar to a halt at about the level of your upper chest, right below your collarbones. As the bar is traveling it should remain as close to your body as possible without actually rubbing against it.

Step 3.

Return to the beginning position and repeat this movement for 8-12 reps.

For both the cable face pulls and barbell high pulls, I suggest performing no more than 3 sets to failure and no more than once per week. Eventually, as you’re able to handle more weight, you will need to reduce the total number of sets you perform to prevent overtraining. I like to incorporate these particular exercises in my shoulder workouts. For me, I train heavy and intensely, so I only do 1 set to failure on each of these exercises. I think that if you shrug off the shrugs, and instead, incorporate these 2 exercises along with various types of compound back exercises, like deadlifts, rows, and pulldowns, you’ll begin to enjoy some noticeable improvements with those traps!

I wish you all the best of success in achieving your health and fitness goals!

Prove ‘Em Wrong,
Chad Shaw

Have A Question For Chad?

Just click the button below.