Back workouts often primarily target the lats, which are large, fan-shaped muscles that essentially span the entire length of the back as a taper down to the lumbar spine.
It is equally important to strengthen the traps1 Park, S.-H., & Lee, M.-M. (2020). Effects of Lower Trapezius Strengthening Exercises on Pain, Dysfunction, Posture Alignment, Muscle Thickness and Contraction Rate in Patients with Neck Pain; Randomized Controlled Trial. Medical Science Monitor, 26. https://doi.org/10.12659/msm.920208, which are your trapezius muscles.
The traps are located in the upper back. Although inexperienced weightlifters often consider only barbell shrugs in their trap workouts, there are actually quite several effective traps exercises that you can include in your trap workouts.
But, what are the best trap exercises? Which exercises for traps should you include in traps workout for strength and bigger traps?
In this article, we will discuss how to structure trap workouts for mass and strength and provide you with step-by-step instructions for some of the best exercises out there for stronger traps:
Let’s dive in!
How to Structure Trap Workouts
Trap workouts are designed to target the trapezius, a large, bilateral, flat, triangular muscle that originates at the back of your skull and then fans downward through the neck to attach down the upper back in three different locations.
When you want to structure your traps workouts for strength gains, work up to performing 2-6 sets, 3-5 reps per set, and at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should aim for with your weights.
If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth/ bodybuilding), you should work up to performing three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.
As you regularly practice these exercises you’ll progressively be able to lift heavier weights, and build muscle.
Here are some of the best exercises for traps to add to your upper back workout routine:
Shrugs are one of the best exercises for your upper traps, and as the name suggests, the trap bar is an especially effective training tool for trap hypertrophy and strengthening2 Camargo, P. R., & Neumann, D. A. (2019). Kinesiologic considerations for targeting activation of scapulothoracic muscles – part 2: trapezius. Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, 23(6), 467–475. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bjpt.2019.01.011.
The geometry of the trap bar allows you to more comfortably load up heavy weights to maximize your strength and mass gains while minimizing joint stress on the shoulder joint (scapula), shoulder muscle group, elbows, and wrists. You could also utilize the same motion in a dumbbell shrug.
Here are the steps:
- Stand upright with your chest up, shoulders down, and chin tucked inside the hollow of a loaded trap bar.
- Grip the trap bar on either side.
- Squeeze your upper traps to lift your shoulders up towards your ears as high as possible.
- Hold the top position for 2-3 seconds, then slowly lower your shoulders back down.
#2: EZ-Bar Upright Rows
Aka barbell row, upright rows are an effective exercise to add to your workouts for traps & your upper body as a whole.
Unfortunately, using a standard barbell for an upright row can place excessive stress on your wrists and elbows because of the grip position.
This, in turn, is not only uncomfortable and has a decent risk of injury but often limits the amount of weight you can lift.
The EZ bar upright row allows you to have a more comfortable grip by selecting the angled or cambered grip handles on the bar.
This ergonomic position allows you to have more of a neutral grip, enabling you to lift more weight for a more effective traps hypertrophy exercise.
Proper form here means keeping the lower body still and keeping a neutral spine in the lower back.
Here are the steps for performing this exercise for traps muscle growth and strength:
- Stand upright with good posture, chest up, shoulders back and down, core tight, and glutes engaged, and feet shoulder width apart.
- Grip the EZ bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart using the angled grips so that your palms are in more of a neutral grip, angling in towards one another rather than straight behind your body.
- Extend your arm so that they are down with the barbell hanging in front of your body.
- Keeping your core tight, contract your traps and upper back muscles to pull the barbell up towards your shoulders, bending your elbows and allowing your shoulders to lift up.
- Lift the weight as high as you can up to your chin.
- Pause at the top position for 2 to 3 seconds.
- Slowly lower the bar back down until your elbows are fully extended before beginning the next rep.
#3: Kneeling Cable High Rows
One of the best cable machine traps exercises is the cable high row.
In this exercise, you position the cable from the highest setting and pull down towards your shoulders, which helps isolate the upper traps, middle traps, rhomboids, and rear delts (posterior deltoid), making this a highly effective upper back exercise and a can’t-miss exercise for your traps workouts.
Here are the steps:
- Clip the rope attachment onto the cable machine and set the pulley at one of the highest settings.
- Grab hold of the rope with an overhand grip, palm facing the floor.
- Take a giant step back from the cable machine, and then kneel down while facing the machine. You can place one leg out in front of you, knee bent, foot flat on the floor (half-kneeling position) if you need extra stability.
- Bracing your core, squeezing your glutes, keeping your chest up and your shoulders down, begin with your arms fully extended up and out front of your body so that your biceps are near your ears.
- Then, squeeze your traps and upper back muscles to pull your elbows back and down until your hands are just in front of your shoulders. Make sure that you are not leaning your body back to assist in pulling the weight towards your body.
- Pause and hold the squeeze in your upper back muscles before slowly extending your elbows and shoulders back to the starting position.
#4: Cable Shrugs
The cable shrug is one of the best trap exercises because the path of motion of the cable closely aligns with the muscle fiber alignment in the traps.
This maximizes the workload on the traps and also reduces stress on the shoulders3 Signorile, J. F., Rendos, N. K., Heredia Vargas, H. H., Alipio, T. C., Regis, R. C., Eltoukhy, M. M., Nargund, R. S., & Romero, M. A. (2017). Differences in Muscle Activation and Kinematics Between Cable-Based and Selectorized Weight Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(2), 313–322. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001493.
Here are the steps:
- Stand in the middle of the cable machine with both pulleys on each side set at the lowest setting. Use the handle attachments.
- Keep your core tight and drive your shoulders up and inward towards your ears and a bit towards the back.
- Hold for 3-5 seconds, squeezing your traps.
- Slowly lower your shoulders back down.
#5: Rope Face Pulls
The face pull exercise is often done with a resistance band, but using the rope attachment on the cable machine requires you to work each arm individually, controlling the path of movement in a more unilateral sense.
Here are the steps for performing this exercise for traps muscle hypertrophy and strength:
- Attach the rope attachment to the cable and move the pulley to the level of your forehead.
- Grip each end of the rope with an overhand grip.
- Lift your arms up and flare your elbows out to the sides in the starting position.
- Then, squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull the rope in towards your face, splitting each side of the rope to either side of your face around your ears. Keep your elbows back and high.
- Hold the end position for 2-3 seconds.
- Slowly return to the starting position.
#6: Incline I’s, Y’s, and T’s
Another great shoulder workout, this is a great exercise for your upper traps, middle traps, and posterior deltoids.
Here are the steps:
- Lie face down on an incline bench set to a 45° angle. You should be straddling the seat with your torso and chest (and potentially head) pressing into the backrest of the inclined bench.
- Hold a relatively light dumbbell in each hand with an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body).
- To form the letter I, extend both arms upward overhead and then think about contracting your shoulders and upper back to extend the dumbbells up and back behind you while still keeping your arms straight.
- At the end range of motion, bring the dumbbells forward so that your body is still forming the letter I, but your shoulders are no longer extended behind you.
- Complete all of your desired reps and then move on to the letter Y.
- For the letter Y, bring your arms out to a 45° angle from vertical so that you are forming a giant letter Y.
- Repeat the same motion and scapular retraction and squeeze that you did with the letter I.
- After you have completed all of your reps, bring your arms down so that they are perpendicular to your body for the letter T.
- Repeat the same exercise, thinking about retracting your shoulder blades as much as possible and remembering to keep your elbows completely straight.
Other Honorable Mentions:
- Farmer’s Carry
- Overhead Press
- Rack Pulls
- Dumbbell Rows
If you are looking for tips on building mass, check out our muscle-building guide here.
- 1Park, S.-H., & Lee, M.-M. (2020). Effects of Lower Trapezius Strengthening Exercises on Pain, Dysfunction, Posture Alignment, Muscle Thickness and Contraction Rate in Patients with Neck Pain; Randomized Controlled Trial. Medical Science Monitor, 26. https://doi.org/10.12659/msm.920208
- 2Camargo, P. R., & Neumann, D. A. (2019). Kinesiologic considerations for targeting activation of scapulothoracic muscles – part 2: trapezius. Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, 23(6), 467–475. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bjpt.2019.01.011
- 3Signorile, J. F., Rendos, N. K., Heredia Vargas, H. H., Alipio, T. C., Regis, R. C., Eltoukhy, M. M., Nargund, R. S., & Romero, M. A. (2017). Differences in Muscle Activation and Kinematics Between Cable-Based and Selectorized Weight Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(2), 313–322. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001493