If you had asked about traps training earlier in my bodybuilding career, I probably would have suggested either barbell or machine rows and called it a day. However, in 1995, I suffered a relatively minor forearm injury that limited the amount of weight I could lift with my hands in a prone position. Mind you, I was performing my shrugs with up to 650 pounds at the time, so I had to find a way to work around my injury to continue my traps training.
Before the injury, I had never considered doing dumbbell shrugs to work my traps. The equivalent of 650 pounds in dumbbells would be two 325-pounders, and dumbbells that heavy simply don’t exist. I had no other option except to use dumbbells totaling a much lighter weight. At first, I thought I’d lose size in my traps as a result of the lighter weight, but the opposite wound up being the case. The dumbbells allowed a range of motion I couldn’t experience with a barbell. The result was growth and unprecedented traps stimulation from bottom to top. As with all of the other exercises in my routine, there is a specific form that must be adhered to for the dumbbell shrug to be maximally effective.
For this routine, start with a relatively lightweight warm-up set of 12 repetitions. Begin by standing upright with the dumbbells hanging at your sides and your shoulders straight — not hunched forward or pulled back. Pull your shoulders up as high as possible, as if you were trying to pin them against your ears. Rotate your shoulders back, squeezing the traps in the process, and then lower the shoulders back to the starting position. I find that keeping my chin tucked into my chest helps to achieve maximum contraction of the trapezius muscles. After the warm-up set, I usually launch into a single working set of 10-12 reps with a heavier weight. Then, when I don’t have the strength to perform another full rep, I start knocking out half — and even quarter — reps, until I can’t possibly move the weight another inch.
A note of caution: do not attempt to keep your arms perfectly straight. Locking your elbows can put severe stress on your joints and lead to injury. If your elbows bend a little as you raise the dumbbells, so be it. If you can bend them enough to turn the movement into a dumbbell raise, it’s an indication that you need heavier weights.
I recommend training traps twice per week, say Monday and Thursday. If you are training your full body — which I hope you are — consider limiting the traps workout to once a week, paired with a shoulder routine. Shoulder training invariably works the traps, especially with exercises like front lateral raises. I’m including a sample shoulder/traps routine to show you how to structure a workout to include both bodyparts.