How long does it take to get bigger traps? To build the foundation of a decent set of traps will require 6 – 12 months of dedicated work. If your traps are less engaged during compound movements then you will require specific training sessions prioritising the traps through isolation movements
The trapezius (traps) muscle is a muscle group up the upper back that is responsible for elevating, depressing, rotating and retracting the scapula (shoulder blades). The traps are a large muscle group with a great capacity for growth and I’m sure you know someone that comes to mind as having freakishly overdeveloped traps (think Goldberg from WWE).
Then there are others who struggle to activate their traps entirely, have minimal growth to show for the endless sets of shrugs and as a result need to use a foam pad when squatting to replace the natural padding that is a decent set of traps.
If you fall in the second category of person then this article is aimed at you. The traps are a fascinating muscle group, so much so that I’ve read a full book strictly focusing on training your traps, once you get past the basic shrugging exercise you’ll find there are many ways to target the traps and stimulate growth.
Increase the Range of Motion for Bigger Traps
Your starting point when trying to develop your traps should be to get your form in check. This is true of all exercises however for the traps in particular you need to be paying attention to the range of motion for the chosen exercise.
This is because the most common exercise for the traps is a shrug (barbell, dumbbell or other) and the main issue with the shrug is that there is a very small range of motion. As a general rule, the greater the range of motion for an exercise the more muscle fibres that are recruited as a result.
A shorter range of motion means that your muscles don’t need to work as hard, the exercise can feel easier and intensity of the set is ultimately reduced. Therefore to get the most out of your set on a basic level you need to ensure you are training with the maximum range of motion taking the traps from fully extended to fully contracted.
** a shorter range of motion is not to be confused with partial reps. A short range of motion exercise for example is a standing calf raise on a platform that allows full extension (heel dropping below the foot) and full contraction (tip toe position). A partial range of motion however would be a standing calf raise on flat ground therefore preventing full extension of the calf.
A full range of motion for the traps will be hands by your side and shoulders coming up as close to the ears as possible. A lot of people suggest bringing your shoulders back during a shrug to get a better contraction however the optimal range of motion is straight up and down.
A barbell can also be restrictive for your ROM so a dumbbell or landmine shrug will allow more fluidity of the movement and allow you to easily execute the up and down motion of the shrug.
Time Under Tension Is Crucial for Trap Development
The number one issue that people struggle with when trying to target the traps is loading a barbell with too much weight, this is then followed by blasting through reps whilst bouncing the weight up and down and using a decent amount of body momentum.
Whilst it’s true that the range of motion is quite short on a shrug and therefore it does allow for a heavier weight to be used than a number of other movements it’s not an excuse to blast out 8 reps in as many seconds and consider it an optimal set.
Due to the shortened range of motion you really need to focus on the time under tension aspect when training the traps, this can be done in two ways.
The first is to hold a peak contraction for 3 seconds, the reason you want to hold the peak contraction is because the stretched portion of a shrug has minimal tension (the weight is basically hanging) when in the bottom position. Therefore to maximally recruit the muscle fibres of the traps, a concentric hold is required to increase the time under tension.
The set length for maximal hypertrophy according to most industry experts is somewhere in the range of 45 – 60 seconds. Taking the example from earlier, a lot of people doing heavy shrugs will have sets lasting from 10 – 20 seconds which is roughly ⅓ of the time required to stimulate maximal hypertrophy.
The reason for this of course is the short range of motion for the shrug meaning that if you treat your execution similarly to that of a squat or deadlift then you will of course finish your sets much quicker as less grinding out of reps is required.
The 3 second peak hold is a good guide to use as you can still use moderate weight so your ego won’t take too much of a hit. The shrug is not an exercise where you want to be testing your 1 rep max, whilst it might be good to load the bar up with plates the visible results will come from getting your ego in check and executing strict form with a concentric hold.
The second way you can increase time under tension for the traps is to utilise loaded carries. A loaded carry (or farmers walk) should be a staple in everyone’s weightlifting program, It’s a full body movement that targets one of the key movement patterns (alongside upper body push, upper body pull, hip hinge, squat and lunge).
I mentioned earlier that the shrug doesn’t fully activate the traps when in the extended or bottom portion of the lift however they are fully active during a loaded carry as they are needed to stabilise the weight and keep it close to your torso.
The loaded carry or farmers walk acts as an isometric hold for the traps and therefore activates a different set of fibre types (primarily the type ii slow twitch muscle fibres needed for endurance).
Target Different Angles for the Traps
The trap muscle is composed of the upper trapezius, mid trapezius and lower trapezius and actually has two primary functions, to pull your shoulders up (shrug) and pull your scapula back during scapula retraction.
Therefore if you only include shrugs in your routine then you are only ever targeting one function (primarily upper traps) and are leaving plenty of muscle building potential on the table.
The following are primary movements that you should include in your routine to fully target and grow your traps.
Targeting Upper Traps
This is the go to move for the upper traps. It was covered earlier that the focus should be on a peak contraction holding each rep at the top position for roughly 3 seconds. What you also want to test with this is different rep ranges, alternate between high reps (15 – 25 reps) with a moderate weight one workout and moderate reps (8 – 12 reps) with a heavy weight the next.
Plate Front Raises
A plate front raise is usually used as an exercise to target the shoulders however with a small tweak to your form it’s a great way to also target the upper traps.
The modification needed is to bring the plate overhead instead of finishing the rep in front of your face like a standard front raise.
** Advanced tip – To make this exercise more challenging finish each rep with an overhead shrug
Targeting Mid Traps
Incline shrugs are best performed on a bench set at around a 30 – 45 degree angle. The focus for these is to not bring the shoulders up towards your head but instead the focus should be on scapula retraction.
This is a very short range movement and should be treated as though you are doing the first portion of a seated row. For scapula retraction you are basically bringing the shoulder blades back and squeezing them together as hard as possible.
Targeting Lower Traps
The lower traps are likely the least developed section of the trapezius muscle for most gym goers. People who perform Olympic style lifts and plenty of cleans/snatches will in contrast have well developed lower traps.
As the name suggests the reverse shrug is bringing the shoulders and shoulder blades downwards. To perform this exercise you will need access to a cable machine (this can be done using body weight and a pullup bar however this is much more technical and difficult to get a feel for).
A reverse shrug is essentially the starting movement for a lat pulldown, you are going to pull the scapula down and contract the lower traps however your arms will not move during the duration of the movement.
On a lat pulldown you initiate by pulling the scapula downwards, however you then continue by pulling the bar to your upper chest and pulling through the elbows. For a reverse shrug the arms are stationary, you pull down using your lats alone and squeeze the shoulder blades together at the bottom of the rep.
Example Workout for Bigger Traps
Paused rep barbell shrugs – 4 sets x 12 reps
Front plate raises – 3 sets x 20 reps
Reverse shrugs – 3 sets x 10 reps
Farmers walk – 3 sets x 20 metres
Trap bar paused shrugs – 3 sets x 8 reps
Incline shrugs – 3 sets x 12 reps
Farmers walk – 3 sets x 60 seconds for distance
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