I went through a phase during my senior year of college and during my graduate studies where I really wanted big trapezius muscles. I can’t explain why except for that I thought they often stand out on lifters. A nice set of traps usually gives lifters a much bigger look. I explored how to grow and concentrate on practically every other muscle group, so I thought why not give my upper back a chance. I never focused on my traps/upper back much, so this was a good opportunity to find out how to grow these difficult muscles.
If you’re looking to grow these muscles, the first thing you should know is that these muscles are difficult to build. It takes a lot of patience before you see results. Unlike biceps (which are very simple to build), traps require a different type of lifting. I don’t mean just different exercises, but also different in the sense of how you do the exercises that I’ll list out. Through trial and error, I found a great balanced set of workouts that will give you the large traps look that you’re looking for. Around the time I was getting into focusing on my upper back in the gym, I also started to experiment more with compound movements. Coincidentally, I found compound movements to work best when it comes to building your traps. I’m assuming by now that you’ve tried shrugs or are at least familiar with shrugs. Either dumbbell shrugs or barbell shrugs, I’ve tried both and unfortunately the results from shrugs are very underwhelming. Traps are long muscles and shrugs only workout a very small percentage of them. The trapezius muscles start at the back of the neck, then across the upper part of the shoulders, down to the middle of the back. Utilizing as much of the muscles as you can will boost your results.
One thing I should add is the reason traps are difficult to grow is because the upper part of the traps that are most often noticed are naturally small muscles. With this being said, it is likely that you may get soreness in your neck, shoulders, and/or back from trying to build up your traps. The best way to avoid this soreness is to do the exercises properly and under control. Also more importantly, you should massage your traps after a workout or whenever they feel sore. Another thing that has helped me get rid of soreness is to stretch my neck from side to side. It helps to sit on one hand, then with the opposite hand, very lightly pull your head to that hand’s shoulder. Do this for each side. As for the massages, this next thing will be huge for freeing up your back, neck, and shoulder pain. Take a lacrosse ball, (I found a lacrosse ball works best because it’s firm and a good size, but if you have something similar in size and hardness then go ahead and use that. Sometimes if I’m at the gym and I don’t have a lacrosse ball with me I will use the end of a smith machine barbell. The smith machine barbell ends are often times round like a ball instead of normal barbells which are most often flat.) and place it against a smooth wall. Now place your back against the ball that is against the wall. And work your traps by moving around up and down, side to side. Put as much pressure as you like on your ball, but don’t put too much pressure where the pain is unbearable. Work your traps, back, and shoulders using this method of rolling the ball around sore areas. This will make your entire back and shoulders feel very loose and free afterwards. Although it can hurt like hell while you’re working out the knots and tension, the feeling afterwards is definitely worth it. It will actually help grow your traps and back since the muscles will be more fluid and without the knots and tension after you worked them away with the massages.
Here is the set of workouts that I’ve seen to improve the size and strength of this muscle group:
- DEADLIFT – This exercise is the best thing you can do for your entire back as well as your traps. If you aren’t deadlifting, then you most likely won’t see the progress you’re looking for. Do heavy sets of about 5-8 reps. It’s important to understand deadlifts can be very risky if you don’t know proper form. I’ve written about proper deadlift form in another blog. If you don’t feel like reading that then find a coach or someone knowledgeable at the gym that can show you proper form. YouTube is also helpful for learning proper technique.
- HANG CLEANS – This is the exercise that I feel doesn’t get enough credit when it comes to building up the upper back as well as the traps. I love what hang cleans have done for my traps. Just like deadlifts, it’s important to know proper form. For this exercise, do 5-8 reps of medium to heavy weight for 3 sets. During a rep, I found it helpful to really focus on firing the traps first, then incorporate the rest of your back. You should use little of your arms for this. Use your back in an explosive way to pull the bar up, and then get under it. If you are confused about what I mean, look up on YouTube ‘how to hang clean’ and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
- DUMBELL SHOULDER RAISES – This is a great compound exercise. For this, with arms extended while standing, do 8 reps of front raises, immediately followed by 8 reps of side raises, immediately followed by 8 reps of leaning over with your back straight with your arms slightly bent, raising the weight up at the sides. This considered one set. Do 3 sets of this. The name of the game for this exercise is control so start off with light dumbbells. I suggest 10lb or 15lb.
- BARBELL SHOULDER PRESS – I do this standing shoulder press with an added movement. At the top of each rep, push the barbell as high as your body can make it go. This means flexing your traps to push it even further than you think is capable. Hold it like that for a second or two after each rep. By doing this, your shoulders and traps will get tired very quickly which is what we want. Do medium weight at 8 reps for 3 sets.
- INVERTED BARBELL ROW – For this exercise, use a barbell while standing up, bend your knees slightly and keep your back straight as your slant your back so it’s almost parallel to the ground. Hold the barbell with your palms facing away from you and your grip shoulder-width apart. Pull the barbell to the bottom of your chest while flexing your traps at the top of each set. Do medium weight at 8 reps for 3 sets.
There. Five great compound movement exercises that will definitely build up your traps. Notice how I didn’t list shrugs, which in my opinion are useless. If you want to spice things up (which I highly recommend) try doing super sets of different combinations of these exercises. For example, doing the shoulder press immediately followed by the deadlifts, or the row immediately followed by the hang cleans. You get the idea. This will not only speed up your workout, it will also boost your progress and results, making you much more efficient with your time in the gym. Remember to massage those traps to get rid of any trigger points and tension. This will help with any uncomfort you feel from building up this muscle group and actually help grow the muscles faster since there will be less tension and knots in them. If you have any other suggestions, tips, or exercises, please drop them below. Hope this helps.