They say "standing on the shoulders of giants” is a commonly travelled road to success. But we both know that's not true. I’m of course assuming “success” is defined by your physique. As soon as a man enters the room you rank how intimidating and powerful his physique looks by the size of his traps. It's instinctive and automatic. So if you want to be a giant yourself, don’t stand on someone else's shoulders. Build gigantic traps instead.
Traps are the undisputed king of making a physique look intimidating and powerful. Nothing answers "do you even lift?" with more authority and sheer brutal honesty as enormous upper traps do. Traps are the trademark of a gym veteran. They have "blue-collar" and "hard work" written all over them. They are the king of the jungle, even if the jungle is your dentist's waiting room.
With upper traps the shrug is the number one exercise choice for most gym-goers. Like I often say you should always ask "why?". This is no different. Why do you do shrugs? Your basic barbell or dumbbell shrug has serious limitations.
"But they are working!" - to some extent.
Probably your traps are growing despite you're doing shrugs, not because of them. Maybe you have great genetics and squatting with a barbell on your traps is enough to make them grow. If you have smaller upper traps than the Chihuahua sitting on that hot chick's lap you always see in the dentist's waiting room, then this article is for you. If your traps grow from anything, skip this one. Or continue reading and get them huge.
The upper traps originate at the occipital bone and along the ligamentum nuchae. You don't have to be a surgeon to realize that the fibers in the upper half of the upper traps don't seem to pack much growth potential. You can clearly see this when you take a look at professional bodybuilders. The traps don't hypertrophy much at their point of origin at the occipital bone, but the further down you go and the more transverse the fibers are angled, the more meaty the muscle gets. The muscle attaches at the lateral third of the clavicle. This means the upper trap loads the sternoclavicular joint as it shortens, distributing load to the sternum.
This should already make you skeptical of individuals touting regular shrugs as the be-all and end-all for upper trap development. The lower upper trap fibers (the ones that have the most growth potential) can't generate much force during basic shrugs. This is in fact very obvious when you look at the fiber angle of the upper traps.
The following quote from an article by Warren Hammer states that the upper traps do not act as a scapula elevator:
"The trapezius resists lateral, instead of downward load, which is why the trapezius (C2-C6) only has to be anchored to the ligamentum nuchae, instead of the cervical spine. Since the strongest fascicles of the UT arise from C6 and C7, and the direction is almost totally transverse, the UT does not create compressive force on the cervical spine. The weight of the upper limb and the loads it carries is transferred to the sternoclavicular joint by the upper trapezius. The upper trapezius, therefore, is not an elevator of the scapula, but uses the sternoclavicular joint to sustain downward loads applied to the upper limb."
So, yes, your upper traps get some stimulus from performing regular shrugs, but you're not optimally applying force to the target muscle. We need to expand the toolbox. Our exercise selection has to be based on anatomical facts. I’ll once more quote Warren Hammer:
"Because the C7 and T1 fibers are close to the axis of rotation of the scapula (root of the spine of the scapula) at the beginning of shoulder abduction, their short moment arm does not participate much in early upward scapular rotation, but as the upward rotation of the scapula increases, due to the serratus anterior, the UT is able to contribute more to the force couple for upward rotation or helping in resisting downward rotation.”
So getting the arm into shoulder abduction (raising the arm to the side) is a good idea when performing shrugs to ensure the upper traps are actually able to assist in scapula elevation. The same holds true for an elevated shoulder. Another way of more efficiently training the upper traps is changing the torso angle based on the fiber angles of the muscle. This can be done by laying on an 45° incline bench (chest to pad) and shrug from there as the load is now in line with the more transverse fibers of the upper traps.
Here are some examples of exercises that put you into perfect position to target the upper traps as discussed above.
Originally used by Mike Gittleson to prevent concussion injuries in football players. This exercise produces a huge stretch in your traps, but also gives you a stinging contraction. Leaning to one side places the arm in slight shoulder abduction. As you lean, ensure the shoulder on the side you’re working is lower than the other shoulder. Make sure you grab the bench behind your hips to prevent the chest from collapsing.
If you have access to a Trap Bar then please do these. You should immediately notice a distinct difference to regular shrugs. The degree of shoulder abduction depends on your arm length, so take that into consideration.
This variation uses dumbbells instead of a barbell as the additional freedom feels much more comfortable for most. You can flex the arm a bit more if your shoulder mobility doesn’t allow for completely straight arms.
I mentioned earlier how we can target the upper traps better by changing our angle of attack. A 45° bench gives us a perfect line of pull to hit the “meaty” lower parts of the upper traps. Focus on not just shrugging up but also in a slight angle back. Otherwise it’ll turn into a regular shrug on an incline bench. So don’t shrug towards your ears but towards the ceiling.
A variation of the Incline Dumbbell Shrugs using additional isometric resistance in the form of a rack.
Just to round out the exercise pool, I’ll throw in the good ol’ Face Pull. Depending on your execution it’s a great exercise for your rear delts or upper/mid traps. For upper trap targeting you really want to pull the rope high (eye level).
Loading up the bar to do shrugs with more weight than you can deadlift is fun.
Actually growing some upper traps is more fun.
This requires us to think about what the upper traps actually do and how we can put them into the best position to train them properly. Use any of the variations in this article to have your eyes about upper trap training opened. There’s always more to it than “just train hard”. Optimally manipulating “the good ol’ basics” is often a shorter road to success than adhering to dogmatic thinking. And let’s be honest: deep down you know those twitchy shrug things you do in the gym are no good. So put execution and anatomy first and watch how your ears will be pillowed by your upper traps in the near future. The hot chick at the dentist office will notice too - I promise.