Excessively training a certain body part without fully understanding the way it is designed to function seems to be one of the most popular guilty pleasures among modern bodybuilders. And this is perhaps nowhere as evident as it is in the case of trap training.
Effective trap training, as you can imagine, is based on acknowledging the way this muscle was built to work and training it accordingly. However, most guys out there focus on largely futile exercises such as shrugs in the hope of developing “boulders on the shoulders“.
Why do we say this? Because according to the basics of the biomechanics of human movement, shrugs miss the mark terribly when it comes to engaging the traps in a productive way. Moreover, if you’re performing the bulk of compound barbell lifts, your traps are bound to get plenty of stimulation and won’t be in need of much direct work.
So let’s take a look at how the traps are meant to function and what’s the best way to achieve well-balanced trap growth.
The Case Against Shrugs
Like we mentioned above, doing plenty of deadlift variations, rows, pull-downs and overhead presses will give your traps just the right amount of work needed to stimulate growth and even the majority of dumbbell exercises for the shoulders or back will activate the traps to a certain degree.
Therefore, spending time and energy on isolation work for the traps is kind of pointless for most gym goers, mostly because that amount of time and energy can be better spent on multi-joint functional movements that ensure increased anabolism and better overall growth. Of course, once you have built the muscle mass you’ve set out to build, you could target the traps with direct work in order to improve definition, but in most cases, there’s simply no need for that.
Yet a lot of bodybuilders who are focused on upper body mass tend to overstimulate their traps with high-volume, high-frequency shrug sessions which eventually prove to be inefficient. But even when it’s effective, too much direct trap training has its flaws. Namely, overdeveloped traps can easily steal the show from the shoulders, de-emphasizing their width and giving you that sloped-shoulder look when viewed from the back.
Having huge traps may sound like a great thing, but over-active traps also tend to fire whenever you’re working the back and shoulders, thereby interfering with their optimal growth. Even further, over-active traps can contribute to one of the four components of the “upper cross syndrome” which causes back pain, posture problems and upper body mobility issues.
So although big traps are cool, they alone don’t make for an aesthetically appealing build and could potentially harm your performance – if you’re looking to build a well-balanced and proportional physique, you’d want to limit trap development instead of accentuating it even further.
Truth be told, those monsters with enormous traps you see at your gym have probably built them with the help of the exercises you’re not doing while preoccupied with endless series of shrugs.
Function of the trap muscles
Besides looking weird on an averagely developed build, humongous traps won’t do much for your athletic performance. This doesn’t mean that they don’t serve a purpose though. Here’s a quick lesson in anatomy to help you understand trap function better.
According to most definitions, the trapezius muscles are large, diamond-shaped surface muscles that extend longitudinally from the occipital bone to the lower thoracic vertebrae and laterally to the spine of the scapula. Because you see the traps mainly from the front, you probably think they merely sit atop the shoulders while in reality the traps travel down the back, which is how they get their diamond shape.
The traps are postural and active-movement muscles with a solid list of functions in the body. In short, they are responsible for moving the scapulae (shoulder blades) and supporting the arm. In greater detail, they are used to elevate, depress, rotate and retract the scapula, tilt and turn the neck, stabilize the shoulders, twist and support the arms and even assist in breathing. Having strong traps is very important for shoulder mobility and injury-free back training.
In general, the trapezius muscle is described as divided into three regions:
- the superior or upper region, consisting of the upper fibers
- the intermediate or middle region, consisting of the middle fibers
- the inferior or lower region, consisting of the lower fibers
The upper traps make up the biggest part of the muscles’ mass, are primarily responsible for lifting and rotating your shoulder blades upward, as when shrugging your shoulders. The middle traps have the job of pulling the shoulder blades together (think wide-grip seated rows), while the lower traps are here to rotate the shoulder blades downward, for example during the overhead portion of front raises.
However, these definitions are way too simplistic and merely serve a descriptive purpose, because in reality no muscle works in isolation – each muscle or group of muscle fibers works in synergy with others, functioning as one big unit at all times, even though some parts may be working harder than others during different movements.
That being said, the role of any given muscle in terms of movement depends not only on its insertion and origins, but also its orientation and the angle of its muscle fibers. Now, according to research, because of the angle and orientation of the upper fibers of the trapezius muscle, it is almost impossible for this muscle to produce any significant elevation of the shoulder blades when the arm is in a neutral position.
In fact, the upper fibers need the coordinated assistance of the middle and lower fibers in order to elevate the scapula, but even then, they can’t do the job without coordinating their work with the work of the serratus anterior muscle which covers the side of your rib cage. So again, just like any other muscle, your traps can’t work in isolation. If this is so, how can you expect to effectively build your traps by merely doing direct isolation movements that fail to optimally engage these strong muscles?
When you’re stuck on only using shrugs, which incorporate only elevation/upward rotation of the scapulae, you’re leaving a ton of potential resources untapped and opting for incomplete muscle development. So if you’ve already decided to build huge traps, you should at least learn how to do it the right way instead of slaving at the gym for hours with nothing to show for it.
Instead of doing this, you can use different movements that utilize each major function of the traps and therefore completely attack the muscle by training it with respect to its anatomy.
How Real Trap Training Looks Like
It’s a fact that traps respond great to super-heavy, short ROM work, mainly because they rarely get placed under direct heavy load in daily life. In other words, how often do you find yourself having to stimulate a weighted shrug in normal everyday situations?
That’s right – never, as opposed to movements such as deadlifts which are commonly used around the home, during outdoor activities, and especially if you have a physically demanding job. This makes heavy work in short ranges of motion a kind of unique stimulus for your traps that can trigger significant muscle growth in a short period of time. Here are a few highly effective exercises for complete trap development that you can easily incorporate into your current back and shoulder routine.
To ensure optimal health of your scapula-thoracic joint, which is an important requirement for size training, you should also focus on exercises which improve the ability of the middle and lower trap fibers to stabilize the scapulae. For this goal, train your lower traps with face pulls, making sure to use paused reps and longer contractions.
To get best results, hold the peak contraction for 3-5 seconds. Also, make sure to set the cable at eye-lever or slightly higher as this will minimize upper trap involvement. During the next three to four weeks, start each back and shoulder workout with 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps of face pulls and you should see big improvements in static strength, endurance and stability.
#2. Power Clean From Hang
By working from the hang, the upper body gets more engagement and the traps work overtime to explode the weight up and also to complete the catch.
Start with the bar literally touching your knee-caps and your hips positioned high enough so that your knee angle is very shallow. Your weight should be on your heels. Remember, this position isn’t supposed to feel comfortable, so if it seems too easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. Also, make sure to squeeze your lats as tight as you possibly can.
Finally, you want to get your shoulders backwards and behind the bar before you jump it above your head – if you don’t the bar will end up having a more horizontal trajectory rather than the desired vertical one.
#3. Snatch-Grip High Pull
This powerful Olympic lift variation is literally a movement you can’t afford not to do because it effectively hits the mid-back, rhombs, rear delts, traps and builds the entire posterior chain as well. You can think of it as an upright row that’s been upgraded in every possible way.
Use a wide snatch grip to yank the bar and keep it close to your body, making sure that your elbows are higher than the bar and angled at 45 degrees. Remember, the movement should be directly vertical with a focus on extending the body upward, although it should also be leaned back slightly in order to maintain balance.
Keep the bar in immediate proximity to the body and focus on lifting the elbows rather than the bar. And perform the movement as explosively as you possibly can!
#4. Kroc Rows
Kroc rows are basically ridiculously heavy, high-rep dumbbell rows that will murder your entire back and shoulder area, as well as completely exhaust your forearms. When done correctly, this underutilized exercise can help you build strength that transfers very well to your deadlift lockout and also increase your upper back size like nothing else.
To reap these gains, focus on working up to a volume and weight that can challenge you to push beyond your limits. On each rep, allow your lats to stretch out completely at the bottom part of the movement and while at the top, force your shoulder blades together and aim to achieve a good quality contraction.
Never forget that knowledge is power. And in the world of bodybuilding, the guys who understand the anatomy and biomechanics of the human body and adjust their training accordingly are the same ones who ultimately manage to achieve true greatness.