A not so uncommon issue that many will face when looking to build a physique and pack on some muscle mass is that with poor bio-mechanics some muscles will overdevelop whilst some will end up underdeveloped.
Just to demonstrate this, if you take too narrow a grip when bench pressing then it’s possible for you to activate your triceps and front deltoid more than your chest (the target muscle), If you persevere with this technique then your triceps and front delt will get stronger and grow whilst the chest gets under stimulated.
If this continues for a number of years then it will be hard to untrain these learned mechanics, the most common example of this is actually in overdeveloped and overactive traps, particularly the upper traps.
How to work shoulders without traps? The main issue people have when trying to work the shoulders without the traps is that they don’t keep the scapula down and retracted and instead use a slight shrug. This engages the upper traps and takes away the isolation aspect that’s needed to target the shoulders.
Overactive traps are not an issue when looked at in isolation and more often than not a large set of traps will work wonders to improve your physique and are often a sign of strength and power. The issue is that with overactive traps you’ll find it more difficult to work your shoulders.
Using your traps to assist with heavy pressing like an overhead press is a great tactic to utilize if you are training for raw strength, if however you want to build up your shoulders from a muscle building standpoint the overactive traps can be a progress killer.
Do Shoulder Exercises Work Traps
Shoulder exercises when looked at in isolation do not directly work the traps, especially if the focus is purely on shoulder development. When looking at an exercise movement however then the traps definitely can be active as a secondary muscle during shoulder exercises.
A pull up for example is designed to target the back muscles however the biceps work as a secondary muscle. If you perform an underhand grip (chin up) and bring your hands in closer than shoulder width apart then you will be placing much more emphasis on the biceps at the expense of the back muscles.
This is a similar concept when it comes to shoulder training, depending on the exercises used then you can of course bring the traps into involvement even if this is not your intention.
Anatomy of the Traps
The trapezius muscle is comprised of the upper, middle and lower trap and has two primary functions that are important to note when it comes to exercise selection for the shoulders. The first functions is actually to pull your shoulders upwards.
This can be best demonstrated by a shrug, whenever your shoulders travel upwards towards the ears then the traps will be primarily responsible for this. This also includes pressing over which is important to note for later on when we discuss exercise for.
This shrugging function is mostly done through the upper traps and these are what are targeted most by the well known trap exercise which is the shrug (all variants).
The second function of the traps is to pull your scapula back during scapula retraction. This is something that is a lot harder to target with direct training as this is usually a cue for good technique on most back movements.
A lat pulldown for example should be initiated by pulling the scapula (shoulder blades) down and locking them into position before initiating any pulling motion with the lats and arms.
If you want to look into the traps in more detail and see how you could actually grow them as a primary muscle group then you can check out my trap article here:
Fixing Upper Trap Dominance
When looking at the anatomy of the traps it’s easier to pinpoint that when working the shoulders a common problem comes from unnecessary shrugging during a set, this can be the case for a number of shoulder exercises.
It’s therefore not the case that you are necessarily trap dominant but rather your form and exercise selection is contributing to this which will in turn lead to overactive traps.
To fix upper trap dominance we need to look at the root cause and this will then better inform you of how to work shoulders without traps.
The first step you need to take is analyze your current exercise selection for shoulders and also how much direct trap work you are dedicating to your routine. If you perform a lot of upright rows for example (especially heavy sets) then this is bringing the traps into play and it’s likely these are becoming the prime mover.
To fix upper trap dominance you need to remove the activation and engagement as much as possible from your training routine, at least for the short term. Removing direct and indirect trap work will allow you to build a better mind muscle activation with your shoulders and also improve the neurological movement patterns.
A lot of exercises involve neuro-muscular pathways and rely on the nervous system to help recruit the necessary muscle fibres for the movement. In my bench press example from earlier, if your nervous system sees it as more efficient to recruit more muscle fibres in the triceps to do the movement then this is what will happen, it’s an evolutionary and survival mechanism.
Therefore improving your neurological signaling to your target muscles will help improve activation in the long run and will go a long way toward removing upper trap dominance from your shoulder workouts.
How to Work Shoulders Without Traps
The key to working your shoulders effectively without trap involvement is to only target exercises that keep that scapula down and retracted and also to keep your shoulders from lifting.
During a heavy press overhead you might hit a sticking point and immediately bring the traps into play in order to press the weight to lockout. This is something you might not even realize you are doing and in your eyes you ground out the rep and it was all on the shoulders.
It’s small details like this that you need to be aware of when working the shoulders and trying not to engage the traps. Therefore to start with I’m going to list the exercises you should not be doing when looking to build your shoulders with minimal to no trap engagement.
- Upright rows
- Lateral raises above shoulder height
- Front raises above shoulder height
- Handstand or pike pushups (very difficult to keep the scapula retracted with these)
Some of these are admittedly obvious but just to have it clearly laid out by doing any of these exercises you will engage the traps whether you want to or not so just remove them from your routine immediately.
Next you need to look at movement cues to help you with correct form and the ultimate cue is to keep your shoulder blades pulled down and in the retracted position. They will need to stay in that pulled back position for the duration of the exercise as well.
The key point to note is that you will likely need to drop your ego to perform shoulder exercises in this way as eliminating the traps from the exercise will mean the shoulder muscles have to do more work.
The main exercises this will apply to are overhead presses and side lateral raises. It’s very easy when you hit a sticking point to bring the traps into involvement however with shoulder blades tucked all the tension will be on the delts.
This is great for muscle activation and hypertrophy however not so great for the poundages that you were recently using. It’s a humbling task however it will be worth it in the long run if you want to build up your shoulders fully.
Shoulder Exercises That Don’t Work Traps
We finally come on to the best shoulder exercises that won’t work the traps. If you are following the advice from above then pressing overhead and side laterals are not considered the best when it comes to not working the traps as well but with correct form they can still make up the staple of your routine.
The best exercises for shoulders that don’t work the traps are the following:
Lying or Leaning Side Lateral Raises
A lying or leaning side lateral raise is a great way to take the traps out of the movement by ensuring that the peak contraction (highest point of the concentric contraction) still occurs with the dumbbell finishing at shoulder height.
When standing upright the only way to get the side delt into a fully contracted position is to bring the arms up past shoulder height to fully shorten the muscle group. By changing the angle and position of your body however you can get this desired effect with any need to bring the traps into play.
Cable Straight Bar Front Raises
As with the side lateral to fully work the anterior (front) head of the delt you need to go above shoulder height to fully shorten and contract the muscle.
With a cable attachment however you can keep constant tension on the muscle throughout the range of motion without bringing your arms above shoulder height. It won’t have the same effect of fully shortening the muscle however keeping active tension through the movement will have your delts on fire.
A straight bar and wider than shoulder width grip is also a great way to minimize trap activation even further. A good guideline is that the wider the grip the less trap activation though just make sure you don’t take it to the extreme!
Cable Face Pulls (With Pins Set Above Head Height)
The only exception you will see to the typical recommendation of keeping your movements below shoulder height is with face pulls to target the rear delts.
The reason for this is because when the attachment starts overhead the load is minimal at the start of the movement. As you progress through the rep the load gets heavier as you pull down towards your face however in the process you go through scapula retraction.
This will bring the lower traps into play however unlike with the overdeveloped upper traps, your rear delts will still be the primary mover as long as you are pulling through the elbows and contracting them hard and minimizing upper back involvement.
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