The traps are a large, powerful muscle group used to lift heavy loads, and big traps are often a sign of a strong individual and athlete.
The traps are best targeted with shrugging movements with dumbbells, barbells, and machines. In addition to those movements, you can also build bigger traps by adding in other pulling exercises like rows, face pulls, and rack pulls. Training the traps in both low and higher rep ranges is ideal for maximal muscle growth.
Below are 8 of the best trap exercises you can do with barbells, dumbbells, machines, and cables:
- Barbell Shrug
- Dumbbell Shrug
- Smith Machine Behind-the-Back Shrug
- Barbell Bent-Over Row (to Upper Chest)
- Upright Row (Narrow Grip)
- Cable Face Pull
- Rack Pull
- Lat Shrug Downs
In this article, I will break down the muscles that make up the traps and the best ways to train them and show you how to perform the exercises listed above. I will then share with you 4 workouts you can do depending on your level and equipment access to build bigger, stronger traps.
With the Fitbod app, you can create trap and upper back workouts using the exercises and workouts found throughout this article. The Fitbod app will be able to progress your workouts from week to week to keep your progress going and challenge you every workout.
On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Get 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
What Are the Traps?
The trapezius (traps) is a large muscle group that spans across the upper back, rear shoulders, and back of the neck. The traps are responsible for posture, helping to raise the arms, and protecting the spine and neck.
The trapezius muscle is comprised of 3 groups:
The upper traps are what are most commonly viewed as the traps, as they rest at the top of the shoulders and are responsible for raising the shoulders upwards, like in a shrugging motion.
These are targeted with shrugging movements.
The middle traps are slightly lower than the upper traps and work to bring the shoulder blades together.
These are often trained when standing upright with a tall posture and not letting the shoulder blades round forwards. They can also be trained when doing pulling movements like rows or face pulls.
The lower traps are found deeper and lower on the upper back and are responsible for stabilizing the middle and upper traps. To do this, they work to lower the shoulder blades (they do the opposite of the upper traps).
To target these, you can focus on pulling your arms and shoulder blades down as you have them overhead. For example, when doing lat pulldowns, you can just pull the shoulder blades down the back.
You can also work these by using proper posture on most lifts and not allowing the shoulders to round forward or elevate.
Related Article: Boulder Shoulder Workout Program
8 Best Trap Exercises
1. Barbell Shrug
The barbell shrug allows you to train the traps with heavier weights compared to dumbbell shrugs or other isolation movements for the traps.
You can do these standing either upright or with a slight lean forward, whichever you find more comfortable or that allows you to feel the traps working more.
The key with these is to not let your shoulders round forward as you raise the traps.
- Grab a barbell with a double overhand grip. You can vary your grip based on preference, with wider and narrower grips working well.
- With the bar on your thighs, elevate the top of the shoulders by shrugging them upwards, making sure they do not round forward.
- Pause at the top, and then slowly lower the shoulders, feeling the stretch on the traps. Then, repeat for reps.
- The barbell shrug can be done with a variety of grip widths to better fit your needs. A wider grip may feel more comfortable on your shoulders or wrists than a narrower one or allow you to target more of the rear delts than a narrower one. You may also feel the traps activate more in a different grip position.
- It’s a prerequisite movement for more advanced exercises, like the Olympic lifts (snatches and cleans).
- Many lifters slouch and allow the shoulders to round forward, causing pressure on the neck.
- It can be done with heavy weights, which often increases the risk of injury when lifters fail to use the proper form or control the movement.
Use your traps to lift the weight, not your arms, legs, or total body.
A lot of times, lifters use too much weight and end up using the entire body to lift the load rather than standing upright and being strict with their form.
You should avoid slouching forward or bending and straightening your legs when performing this exercise.
2. Dumbbell Shrug
The dumbbells allow you to use a more neutral grip (palms facing you), which can decrease stress on the shoulder compared to the overhand barbell grip.
These are also great for training each side of the body individually, which can be done to address a muscle imbalance.
You can also do these with a palms-forward grip, which will take less stress off the shoulders by not allowing you to use the biceps and shoulders as much to lift the weight.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and let the arms hang down at your sides.
- With the dumbbells resting on the sides of your thighs, lift the shoulders upwards and slightly back to elevate the weights a few inches. Your arms should not bend.
- Pause at the top, and then slowly lower the weights back down and repeat.
- This exercise allows you to train the traps while not placing the shoulders into internal rotation (shoulders rounding forward), which is a potential issue with people who have shoulder pain.
- You may be restricted with how much weight you can lift compared to other heavier shrug variations due to your grip being challenged more challenging or because you don’t have access to heavier dumbbells.
- It can be difficult to coordinate both shrugs at once and control the weights.
Don’t let your head move too far forward as you shrug, as this can cause neck pain or injuries due to your head being out of proper alignment with the rest of your body.
3. Smith Machine Behind-the-Back Shrug
This behind-the-back version of the shrug allows you to train the traps in a fuller range of motion, which research has shown is better for hypertrophy than training through a shorter range of motion.
The palms-forward grip will also decrease the stress placed on the front of the shoulders.
- Stand in front of a Smith machine with the bar behind your lower back.
- Unrack the weights with a palms-forward grip. Make sure you set up the safety pins in case you need to fail a rep.
- You may need to stagger your stance to keep your hips out of the way of the bar path.
- Perform a shrugging movement, and then slowly lower the bar under control.
- In addition to not putting a lot of pressure on the shoulders, this movement allows you to train the traps without too much stress on the neck.
- It can be tricky to find the right stance to keep the bar from hitting your hips.
- If not done with control and proper form, it can be stressful on the lower back.
You shouldn’t rush through this exercise, as you are placing yourself in a position where it may be easy to over-extend your lower back.
Try to focus on slow and controlled shrugging movements, pausing at the top, and not letting your lower body and lower back get involved.
Related Article: Do Machines Build Muscle? What The Science Says
4. Barbell Bent-Over Row (to Upper Chest)
The bent-over row is a back exercise, but when the bar is rowed to a higher position on your body, you also target the upper back and traps.
This is done by taking a slightly wider grip and pulling the barbell to the neck or clavicle rather than the chest or stomach.
- Bend over and grab a barbell with a wider-than-normal grip, about 2-3 inches outside the shoulders.
- With your body bent over parallel to the floor, pull the barbell to the neck or clavicle, making sure your elbows are flared out.
- Pause at the top of the movement, and repeat.
- With this exercise, you can train the upper back and traps at the same time, helping you keep your workouts time-efficient and develop the entire back of the body.
- Bent-over rows can be tricky for some lifters to do properly because they struggle to keep their back flat.
- This exercise isn’t 100% trap focused, which may be an issue for some lifters who already trained their back muscles earlier in their workout and want to isolate the traps only.
Keep the elbows spread out during this row. This will help you target more of the upper back and traps. Keeping the elbows in will hit more of the middle and lower lats.
5. Upright Row (Narrow Grip)
The upright row is an upper back, trap, and rear shoulder exercise. You can use either a narrow or wide grip. However, a narrower grip will allow more elevation of the shoulders and, ultimately, more trap involvement.
You can do these with dumbbells, a barbell, or cables.
- Grab whatever weight you are using and stand upright with the weights in front of you. Your grip should be shoulder-width apart or a few inches inside the shoulders. You do not need to have your hands closer than that, or you may place too much stress and strain on your front shoulder muscles.
- With the elbows flared out, lift the upper arms and elbows as high as you can, making sure the wrists and weights are lower than the elbows at all times.
- Pause at the top of the movement, and then slowly lower the weights, making sure to keep the elbows out and up.
- This exercise also works the posterior shoulder muscles, which allows you to develop the traps and rear delts in one time-efficient movement.
- You do not need heavy weights for this exercise to be effective, which is great for lifters who do not have access to heavy loads or cannot lift heavy weights due to injury.
- Most lifters cannot do these properly, as they fail to keep their elbows above the wrist and elbows at all times. When you do not keep your elbows above the wrist, you use more of your arms and forearm muscles to lift the weight, not the back and traps.
You can slightly lean forward if needed to allow the weights to not rub against your body as you lift them.
6. Cable Face Pull
The cable face pull is a rear delt and trap exercise, and since both of these muscles work to develop the entire upper back, this is a common movement to build bigger traps.
You can do these with free weights, but cables are the best approach as they allow you to train the traps at the best angles for hypertrophy.
- Attach either a rope or bar attachment to a cable machine.
- Stand in front of the machine with the pulley set so that it is slightly above shoulder height.
- Reach your hands out and grab the attachment, and pull the elbows backward on a slight downward angle while making sure they’re still at shoulder level or higher.
- Like the upright row, you do not need heavy weights for this exercise to be effective. This makes it a great movement for lifters of any experience level.
- It can be difficult to perform with control, and many lifters find themselves leaning backward or arching their backs as they lift the weight.
Make sure you don’t let the elbows drop down too far as you pull back. When this happens, you use more of your forearms to lift the weight and decrease loading from the upper back, traps, and rear delts.
7. Rack Pull
The rack pull is a great trap builder, as it allows you to train with very heavy loads and in a range of motion where the upper back and traps are highly active.
This is essentially a partial range of motion deadlift where you perform the pull from knee level to the hips.
- Set up the barbell in a power rack or on blocks so that it is at knee level to start.
- With a double overhand grip, brace your core, push your hips forward, and pull the shoulders straight up until your torso is upright and the bar is at your hips. Make sure to keep the back flat and chest up as you stand up.
- At the top of the movement, stand tall and pause, as this allows you to really contract the upper back and traps. Slowly lower, then repeat.
- Because you can use heavy weights with this exercise, it’s good for increasing upper back strength, which is great for lifters who may not be able to perform a full deadlift or do not want to add extra stress to the lower back and hamstrings.
- This exercise can be very stressful to the whole body due to the high amount of weight you can lift.
- It also targets the lower back and glutes, which may not be ideal if you are trying to isolate the traps as much as possible.
As you pause at the top of the lift, pull your shoulder blades up and back to get a full muscle contraction.
8. Lat Shrug Downs
This exercise works the lower traps and can be done with a cable lat pulldown, lat pulldown weight stack machine, resistance bands, or even hanging from a pull-up bar.
- With the hands above you and the load lifted (or hanging from a bar), perform a downward shrug against resistance.
- Think about pulling your shoulder blades to your hips, doing the opposite of an upwards shrugging motion.
- This exercise helps increase shoulder stability as the low trap is responsible for making sure the shoulder blades do not move upward during exercises like pull-ups and presses. By keeping them stable, you are able to decrease stress on the shoulder joint.
- This exercise can be difficult to perform if you don’t have access to resistance bands, cable machines, or a pull-up bar.
Keep your arms straight and try to create space between the ears and shoulders as you pull the shoulder blades down.
Related Article: Build a Bigger V-Taper and Back With These Exercises
Sample Trap Workout Routines
Below are four sample trap workout programs you can use to increase the size of your traps. Most of the exercises below can be found in the Fitbod app.
At-Home Trap Workout
The traps are a strong muscle group, and it is very difficult to target them without heavier loads or with body weight only. That said, below is an at-home workout you can do, assuming you have some resistance bands and light dumbbells.
Rep ranges were kept in the moderate range because this allows you to train enough reps to get enough work in yet still use loads you should have access to. If you have access to heavier loads where sets of 8-10 are challenging, you could swap in that rep range for the first two exercises.
Note that the first exercise is similar to the barbell bent-over row. If you do not have a barbell at home, use dumbbells, but if you do, use the barbell.
- Dumbbell/Barbell Bent-Over Row (to upper chest): 5 sets of 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell Shrug: 5 sets of 12-15 reps
- Resistance Band Face Pull: 3-4 sets of 20-30 reps
- Resistance Band (or Hanging) Lat Shrug Down: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
Beginner-Friendly Gym Trap Workout
This workout requires a barbell, dumbbells, machines, and cables. Beginners will find this workout ideal as it removes a lot of the need to coordinate the movement of free weights, which often limits the overall intensity with which one can train while using proper form.
Because how hard you train a muscle is a key factor in muscle growth, machines and simple movements are often the best for beginners looking to gain muscle.
- Smith Machine Behind the Back Shrug: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
- Cable Lat Shrug Down: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell Shrug: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
- Barbell Upright Row: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
Free-Weight Workout for Bigger, Stronger Traps
This workout requires a power rack (for the rack pull), dumbbells, and cables. The first exercise is done with a heavier weight and lower reps to help develop strength, and the rest of the exercises are done with lighter weights and more reps to help build muscle.
- Rack Pull: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
- Dumbbell Shrug: 4 sets of 15-20 reps
- Cable Lat Shrug Down: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
- Cable Face Pull: 4 sets of 15-20 reps
Dumbbell Only Trap Workout
This workout requires dumbbells only. It’s best if you have access to a wide selection of weights, as you may be able to do some exercises with heavier weights than others.
- Dumbbell Face Pull: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell Shrug: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
- Palms Forward Dumbbell Shrug: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Workout Makes Traps Bigger?
The traps respond well to both heavier and lighter load training. Ideally, you would train them with heavier weights using exercises like rack pulls and rows and then do higher rep training to failure with more isolated exercises like shrugs and face pulls.
What Shrugs Are Best for Traps?
Shrugs are great for trap growth. However, you will want to train shrugs in various ways to optimize your muscle development. The best shrugs are done with dumbbells and barbells, but you can also do behind-the-back Smith machine shrugs to build the traps.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.