The sign of a well-developed physique is almost always determined by the size of their traps. A good set of traps is a sign of strength, power, and overall muscle development. Any serious trainer that can move weight (I’m talking the truly big guys in your gym) will undoubtedly have a noticeable set of traps.
You might also find that these certain individuals will rarely be seen doing barbell/dumbbell shrugging while aggressively rolling their shoulders and lifting more weight than their traps can handle.
The reason I say this is because poor exercise choice and execution are the two biggest factors as to why you’ve likely got a set of underdeveloped traps instead of a set that means you can’t button your shirt up!
Why do you have underdeveloped traps? Underdeveloped traps are usually caused by lifting too much weight, not taking the muscle through its full range of motion, and limited exercise selection. To grow your traps, you should use less weight, use a full range of motion and do more exercises targeting the traps (not just shrugs).
In this article, I’m going to cover why the traps are often a weak point in many people’s physique and how you can start to quickly (30-60 days) start to build up your underdeveloped traps into major, standout muscle groups.
The traps are a very responsive muscle group with a high proportion of androgen receptors. When people decide to take anabolic steroids, research shows that the traps see a higher response as a result of an increased number of androgen receptors and grow quickly.
You’ll also find that the traps tend to have a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers which works out to a ratio of roughly 55% slow-twitch to 45% fast-twitch. This means to grow this muscle group, you need to effectively make use of different weights and rep ranges.
The reason I’m making these two points above is that underdeveloped traps are rarely down to genetics or growth potential. The traps have tremendous growth potential and can be one of the standout muscle groups on your physique.
So much so, that I’ve recently covered what you should do when your traps are too big as well as how to reduce overactive traps during shoulder exercises. The truth is that the traps are a very responsive muscle group when you train them correctly.
Therefore, it’s likely you are missing a few key components that are holding you back from truly developing your traps, and spoiler alert, my guess is that your trap routine currently consists of 3 sets x 8 reps of “half-rep” barbell shrugs.
How to Grow Bigger Traps
Growing bigger traps involves using the same principles it takes to grow any muscle group. Stimulate the muscle through its full range of motion, fatigue the muscle fibers through continuous muscle tensions, and get stronger over time through progressive overload.
The traps are a muscle group that should be easier to grow but it’s actually one that people struggle with the most so below are some of the factors needed to get bigger traps.
What Weight is Used
This is the biggest issue and the most simple one to rectify. Shrugs (when training the traps) is one of the best exercises for ego lifting. You can load the bar up with plates, shrug it a few inches by bouncing the weight up and using leg drive, and genuinely look as though you’ve efficiently lifted a lot of weight.
I cover this in more detail in another article where I look at whether or not you should go heavy on shrugs.
Unfortunately, in this common scenario, the traps are receiving minimal stimulation despite the fact that you are “lifting” a tonne of weight. I’ll cover this in more detail later on but if you want to grow your traps, you should first start by lowering the weight to a point that your traps actually do the work.
Number of Reps
Next, you need to get your rep schemes in order. As mentioned earlier, the traps are more slow-twitch dominant which means you need to do more reps in order to fatigue the more stubborn slow-twitch muscle fibers.
The explosive shrugs you do for 6 – 8 reps will only hit a proportion of your traps muscle fibers. Therefore, you need to use a combination of heavier weight for fewer reps (6 – 12 reps) and use a more moderate weight for higher reps (12 – 25 reps).
The second rep range is rarely utilized and this is how you can start to instantly fatigue and stimulate your traps just by hitting all of the muscle fibers.
Now, you need to focus on the tempo and speed at which you lift. A snatch or clean and jerk are explosive movements that you may not know hit your traps significantly. The power is needed to bring a heavy weight from the floor or mid-thigh to a shoulder or above head height.
These are exercises where the weight needs to be powered up at speed and will really get the traps firing. The shrug, on the other hand, does not involve this level of work and explosively moving the weight a few inches will provide significantly less tension.
For certain exercises, you need to slow down the tempo which is directly in line with dropping the weight. Lift the weight explosively by all means but then hold the contraction at the top for 1 – 2 seconds and squeeze. Then lower the weight under 1 – 3 second to control the eccentric.
This is a basic principle when it comes to muscle growth but for some reason, it’s rarely utilized when trap training (again down to ego lifting). If the exercise needs the traps to be explosive, that will serve a purpose but otherwise, slow it down and make the muscle actually work.
Finally, we have exercise selection. If you only do shrugs and do some of the things I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s likely not surprising your traps are underdeveloped. I’ve read a book entirely dedicated to trap training and for all the ways you can hit your traps, you’ll only ever see people barbell shrugging.
Therefore, selecting exercises that hit all areas of the traps (upper, mid, and lower) should be a new priority rather than just wondering how you can get another two 25lb plates onto the barbell!
Best Trap Exercises
Below are some of the best trap exercises you can do for bringing up your underdeveloped traps. When using the correct form and weight, you should notice your traps start to blow up.
It may seem like I’m against shrugging because I’ve mentioned that the people that shrug usually have poor trap development but this is more because of the form and weight used rather than the exercise itself. Due to the actual effectiveness of the shrug when done properly, it should definitely be included in your routine.
The main problem for most people that shrug is actually similar to those that struggle with calf development and it’s usually because you are using too much weight and not taking the muscle group through a full range of motion.
If you’ve seen (or are guilty yourself) a bar loaded up with a significant amount of weight, lifted from the rack and then shrugged with roughly 1 inch for the range of motion, significant leg drive, and then bouncing the weight back up for a “solid” set of 8 reps, then this is likely the issue.
You also get the advice that rolling your shoulders will better target the traps and again, this is an issue.
To get the most out of a shrug, first, you need to ditch the barbell for dumbbells. Your hands need to be by your sides in order to get a full range of motion. The full range of motions is actually straight up and straight down.
When you shrug, the aim should be to get your shoulders to touch your ears. You can even try this now with no weight, just shrug your shoulders and when you are at the top, go a little higher. To really contract and shorten the muscle you need your shoulders to be going as high as possible.
Rolling the shoulders or using a weight that is too heavy essentially means you are not even getting close to fully contracting the traps so a 400lb barbell shrug using this type of form will be significantly less effective than picking up the 75lbs and really making the muscle work.
Farmers walks are one of the more functional and beneficial moves you can do. They work the forearms, shoulder stabilizers, core (obliques and abs), upper back, and your traps. The reason why farmer’s walks are such a good move for the traps is because of the isometric hold with a heavy weight.
The video above shows movement which requires the traps to be constantly engaged as you look to keep the weight moving. When mentioning earlier that the traps respond well to a variety of rep ranges, an isometric done for a period of 45 – 60 seconds will have a similar impact.
The traps will be placed under tension for a long period of time which will enable you to fatigue the slow-twitch muscle fibers. The other benefit of this exercise is that you can use the maximum weight that you can handle.
It’s impossible to cheat a movement that involves walking with weight as your muscle groups need to be engaged. You can use straps to reduce the forearm fatigue and put more stress on the traps and upper back but once you can’t walk anymore, the set is done.
Progression is also straightforward with this exercise as you’ll only be able to lift more weight when you can physically handle it. There is no way to use half-reps or emphasize other muscle groups as it’s a full body movement. Therefore, any progression is actually earned and will result in muscle growth.
Cable Face Pull
The traps are not just a muscle group that works when the shoulders are shrugged. It’s a stabilizing muscle for the entire shoulder girdle. Therefore, shrugs are just one piece of the puzzle and you need to “shrug” with different ranges to hit the mid and lower traps.
Cable face pulls are one of the best ways to do this though as a disclaimer if you are rowing and doing a pull-up/lat pulldown, you’ll also be engaging these muscles.
For the cable face pull, vary the height of the cable between pulling from high up and pulling from the cable set at the upper chest to head height. This variation will ensure you are hitting different portions of the traps.
Another side note is to retract your scapula at the start of the movement. To do this, make no movement with the arms but move the weight initially by pulling your shoulder blades together and squeezing. This will ensure the traps (and rhomboids) will be engaged.
Muscles that initiate an exercise will usually be the muscle groups that receive the most stimulation.
Underdeveloped traps are both a rare and common occurrence. By this, I mean that those who use poor form and repeat the same shrugging exercise will usually see slow to no growth whereas those that are performing heavy deadlifts, rows, cleans, carries, and upper back work will have a hard time slowing down trap growth.
If however, you focus on really working the trap muscle and ignore your ego, the growth will come quickly and exponentially. Slow down your reps, bring your shoulders as high up as possible, reduce the weight, and increase the length of the sets and you’ll start to see growth in no time.
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