3 Exercises to Build Up Your Traps

Arnold Schwarzenegger's trap-building strategy.

QUESTION 

I’m not making much progress with my traps. What’s your advice? 

ANSWER 

When you last worked your traps, was it part of a solid well-thought-out strategy, with the same attention you would give to your arms, chest, legs or lats? Or did you nonchalantly toss some dumbbell or barbell shrugs into the mix at the end of a workout, just to make sure all your bases were covered? 

If the latter is the case, don’t get down on yourself. When most bodybuilders hear the word “trap,” they think only of the two triangular slabs of muscle that run from each shoulder up to the rear of the neck. 

These extensions are only the tip of the iceberg. The trapezius actually comprises three sections — upper, middle and lower — with the lower portion extending all the way down to the middle of the back and attaching to the spine. All told, the trapezius covers nearly half of the back. 

Think about the great bodybuilders throughout history, such as Reg Park, Bill Pearl, Harold Poole, Sergio Oliva, Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman, who have shown exemplary trap development. Think about what each of these men look like, either standing relaxed or hitting a pose. 

Now, imagine how they’d look without a powerful set of traps capping off their torsos. Minus a pair of thick sloping traps, none of their physiques would have left the kind of impact that qualifies them as all-time great bodybuilders. 

Traps also hold the distinction of being one of the few muscle groups that can be seen when you’re fully clothed. A powerful-looking sloping neckline is a strong indication of a well-built physique. If that’s the image you want to convey, then it’s time to stop relegating the trapezius to second-rate status. 

The traps come into play during a number of different upper-body exercises, but only a couple hit them directly. The first and best-known trap builder is the shrug. Shrugs can be performed with a barbell, dumbbells or a machine, be it a Smith machine or one of the newer ones designed specifically for shrugging. With each piece of equipment, you are provided a variation in lifting technique. 

For example, with dumbbells, you position the resistance at your sides, which gives a slightly different feel than a barbell. Of course, barbell shrugs have their own advantages, such as giving you the ability to perform shrugs behind the back, a variation that champions such as Lee Haney and Jay Cutler swear by. Smith machine shrugs allow a straight up-and-down motion, taking balance out of the equation and letting you pump out methodical reps like a piston. 

The other exercise that most effectively hits the traps is the upright row. Some people consider this exercise to be primarily a delt developer, but the truth is that it stresses the traps at least as well as it does the delts. 

As with shrugs, there are a variety of ways upright rows can be executed. Barbell upright rows are my favorite, but you must be careful not to take too narrow a grip or you could put unnecessary stress on your shoulder and wrist joints (a cambered bar can help by putting less stress on your wrists in the top position). A shoulder-width grip is ideal for this exercise. 

You can also use dumbbells, which are preferable for those with a limited range of movement in a shoulder complex or with a pre-existing injury in the area. Finally, rowing while using a Smith machine has rewards, too, because it keeps the bar just off your torso and allows for free unobstructed repetitions. 

Whether it’s via shrugs or upright rows, with a barbell, dumbbells or a machine, make trap training, which is best done on delts day, a priority in your bodybuilding regimen. Use the accompanying routine — putting it first up in your workout instead of adding it on at the last minute — and watch your physique take on a new and much more impressive look. - FLEX

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER’S TRAP SPECIALIZATION ROUTINE

EXERCISE: Barbell Upright Rows, SETS: 5, REPS: 8-12

EXERCISE: Dumbell Shrugs, SETS: 5, REPS: 10-15

EXERCISE: Behind-the-Back Smith Machine Shrugs, SETS: 4, REPS: 8-12

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