The traps just don’t get enough respect. They’re the single most “underrated” muscle group for those trying to build a bigger, more muscular looking body.
Most beginners are so pre-occupied with adding size to their chest and arms that they totally overlook the huge contribution that a well-developed set of traps will make to their overall physique.
If you really want to achieve that strong and “powerful” look, packing size and thickness onto your traps is something that should be treated as a priority rather than an after-thought.
There are many different exercises you can use to stimulate the traps for increased size and strength, but when it all comes down to it, a properly executed shrug is still the “go to” movement that will give you the most bang for your buck.
However, the key phrase here is properly executed.
Although shrugs might seem like one of the most basic exercises there is, almost everyone in the gym performs them incorrectly.
Mistake #1: Loading up way too much weight and using an inferior, partial range of motion.
We’ve all seen this one, and if we’re being honest – we’re probably all guilty of it.
While it might look cool (we’re not sure to who exactly, but… ), loading up a metric ton of 45-pound plates, and then performing tiny “half reps” isn’t going to get the job done.
Your muscles have no idea how much weight you’ve loaded on to the bar. You’ll never impress them into growing. The only thing muscles experience and respond to is the amount of mechanical tension they’re placed under.
Bouncing the weight up and down while using a ton of body momentum and other surrounding muscles for assistance increases your chance for injury while reducing mechanical tension on the traps.
“Ego lifting” for traps is a lose-lose play.
Moral of the story: Don’t fall for the idea that “big weights equals big traps”, as it’s not necessarily the case.
A much better approach to building traps is to focus on using lighter (not light) weights with a full range of motion and performing your shrugs using a controlled, deliberate speed. You want to really feel the traps working on each rep, both on the way up and down.
Rather than simply trying to move the weight from “point A to point B”, focus instead on finding a level of resistance that allows you to achieve the deepest stretch, followed by the strongest contraction, in your traps.
Mistake #2: Shrugging the weight in a straight up and down motion.
This one won’t sound like a mistake to most people, since nearly everyone performs their shrugs this way. Remember though, nearly everyone has mediocre trap development.
So keep an open mind.
The problem with shrugging the shoulders in a straight up and down line is that it actually puts the primary focus on the “levator scapulae” rather than the trapezius itself.
Just as its name suggests, the primary function of the levator scapulae is to elevate the scapula (the shoulder blade). This is exactly what you’re doing when performing a standard straight-up-and-down shrug.
Sure, the traps will work a bit when shrugging vertically, but not in a way that activates them to the fullest degree.
Compare the size and growth potential of the tiny, frail levator scapulae (above) with the downright meaty trapezius, depicted below.
Which would you rather target for maximum growth?
To get the traps fully engaged, the weight has to be shrugged in both the vertical and horizontal planes, rather than solely up/down. The key is to use a shrug where your shoulders are being shrugged up and backward at the same time.
If you look closely at the trap diagram above, you can actually trace the directionality of the muscle fibers in the upper traps and see how they run -- diagonally upward and toward the spine (horizontally).
You can test this out for yourself right now as you read this…
Try shrugging the standard way, moving your shoulders straight up and down as if you wanted your shoulders to touch your ears. Traps kinda felt it.
Now try shrugging by moving your shoulders diagonally -- up and backward at the same time, not rolling them. This time, imagine that you have a baseball cap on backward. Trying to touch your shoulders to the bill of the cap behind your head/neck. Now we're talking.
If you did it correctly, you should feel a much more pronounced contraction in your entire traps using the modified form. Remember, we don’t want you “rolling” your shoulders – another shrug variation done wrong. It's one, smooth, diagonal motion.
*If you're confused, hang in there. There's a video demonstration below.
Once we take it into the gym and add weight, we need to tweak one last part.
To shrug diagonally, both up and backward at the same time, without having to roll the shoulders, you’ll simply lean forward as you shrug the weight.
It’s no coincidence that outstanding deadlifters usually have outstanding traps. The deadlift employs a hip-hinge/forward lean to pull massive amounts of weight.
In fact, the forward-leaning shrug method has a lot in common with the final 2 stages of a deadlift (depicted above).
If only there was a video demonstrating exactly how to do a perfect, forward-leaning shrug…
Let's break it down:
1) Grab a pair of dumbbells. Hold the dumbbells an inch or two outside of shoulder width. *While a barbell can be used, we find that dumbbells stress the traps best.
2) Rather than standing completely upright, bend forward at the waist so that your body is angled slightly forward.
The video above shows two angles to try. We use an incline bench to demonstrate the angle of pull and to keep it consistent (though you can do them standing and simply leaning forward at the waist -- the use of an incline bench is optional).
3) From this forward-tilted position, shrug the weight both up and back as far as you can until you feel a strong contraction in your traps. Pause briefly at the top and squeeze your traps hard, and then slowly lower the weight back down.
4) Once you get to the bottom position, allow your arms to “hang” downward toward the floor until you feel a good stretch in your traps. Hold again in this bottom stretched position for a brief second, and then repeat for a total of 8-10 reps per set.
Again, the key here is control. This is not an “explosive” movement, and you really want to focus on contracting your traps at the top of each rep as hard as possible, and then allowing for a good deep stretch at the bottom.
Keep in mind that this modified version of the shrug might feel a bit unnatural at first, and it does require a bit of practice to really nail it.
Just keep the weights very light in the beginning. Focus on technique first and foremost, then gradually scale up to heavier dumbbells.
Give this modified shrug variation a try and see what you think. When done properly, it’s the single best trap lift to add size and thickness to your upper back area.
1. Don’t ego lift. Use weight you can control during the entire rep, and squeeze at the top.
2. Traditional, straight-up-and-down shrugs primarily train the levator scapulae -- a tiny neck/shoulder muscle that's easily injured. Lean forward to shift the focus onto the traps.