The Trapezius (traps) originates form the higher cervical vertebrae to the lower thoracic vertebrae. It inserts onto the lateral third of the clavicle, the acromion and the scapula spine.
Given its many mechanical lines of pull the trapezius is involved in many exercises. Because of this most trap growth will be caused by exercises you are doing for other muscle groups (deadlifts, rows, upright rows etc.). The traps function as a shoulder elevator, scapular rotator (upward & downward), and retractor of the shoulder.
Traps are great! They give you that thick powerful, yoked look. The traps are comprised of three regions (upper, middle, & lower). So you see, it isn’t just the chunk of muscle that makes your head disappear into your shoulders!
The upper and mid traps tend to display greater muscle thickness compared to the lower fibres. There should be a balance of strength between the upper, middle and lower traps. This is rarely the case though. Most trainees only ever directly target the upper region by throwing in a few sets of shrugs.
On that basis your mid & lower traps may need direct work to balance trap development. The lower traps, especially, are often neglected and this is a BIG mistake. Not only because it limits the thickness of your upper back but, because they play a key role in the stability of the shoulder. Having underdeveloped lower traps means you cannot press and row as much weight so, you indirectly limit your progress in these lifts by ignoring the lower traps.
(Want to know how to effectively train the lower traps? I have a whole article (including a 15-week training plan) to target your lower trap here.)
Not got time to read the full lower trap article? Ok cool I understand you are busy. Quickly bookmark it and read it another time (you wouldn’t want to miss out, right?! ;)). Then read the cliff notes below:
- Lower traps help to retract and depress the scapulae (think shoulders in back pockets).
- Unfortunately, modern living (and stupid training programs) promote poor thoracic mobility and overactive upper traps.
- This tends to result in long weak lower traps. Well, here’s the thing, weak lower traps lead to unstable scapulae (shoulder blades).
- To train the lower traps movements where the arm is abducted or flexion exercises when the arm is at or above horizontal are ideal (e.g., prone trap raise).
- For the lower traps row variations (I particularly like chest support rows and high pulley face pulls) are a good choice for compound movements.
- As for direct lower trap work the prone trap raise are an excellent choice.
- DB Rows and Chest Supported Rows with good form elicit the highest EMG Peak and Mean activation in the lower traps.
To target the mid traps directly scapular retraction exercises are best. EMG studies show that DB Rows and Chest Supported Rows activate the mid-traps as much as isolation work, such as, prone Trap raises. Although prone trap raises have been shown to cause higher peak EMG readings. Practical Training Tip: if you or your clients struggle to retract the scapula then some isolation work can be very useful at re-learning the movement. My favourite technique for this is to do sets of 6 reps with a 6 second hold at peak contraction of High Cable, Single Arm, Kneeling Scap Retractions. Do three sets, twice a week for 3-4 weeks.
Upper traps are best stimulated using BB shrugs, cable lateral raises, behind neck presses and military presses according to EMG experiments. Practical training tip: Hold the peak contraction for a 2 count if training upper traps with shrugs
For most people the traps are a mixed fibre distribution. Because of this the maximal volume of direct trap work should be quite low. 10-12 sets per week should be plenty. Sets in the medium to high rep range work well. Anything from 6-20 will work but, I tend to focus on the traditional hypertrophy range of 8-12 with a smooth lifting tempo and a hold at peak contraction of 1-3 seconds.
To build these muscles prioritise the DB row and chest supported rows for maximum training economy and if additional direct mid &/or lower trap work is needed consider prone trap raise variations.