Pop quiz: Shoulder-girdle elevation while deactivating the movement at the shoulder joint is the only way to isolate this muscle group. Any idea which muscle we're talking about? If you don't, just shrug! That's right—we're talking about the upper traps.
Not much has been written about upper-trap training because, well, people assume all you do is elevate your shoulders. But, as is oftentimes the case, that which can go wrong will go wrong! I know firsthand. I herniated two discs in my neck when shrugging—a mistake that crippled my training for about two years. You could say I learned the hard way, since I now sport a titanium staple in my cervical spine.
So, forgive me if I underscore the importance of good form a few times when it comes to building monster traps, especially because shrugs are an easy exercise to blow. I'll show you how to get trap training right, discuss the best exercises for growth, which muscle group the upper traps are best trained with, and the one incredibly common mistake you never want to make when shrugging!
Set the Trap Appropriately
I won't venture into too much anatomy or kinesiology, but there are a few things you should know about the traps before hitting the iron:1
Know Your Traps
While this article focuses on lifting and rotating the shoulder blades upward to target the upper region of the trapezius, there are middle and lower sections of the traps, as well. The middle traps pull your shoulder blades together, while the primary function of the lower portion of the traps is to rotate the shoulder blades downward. Those two areas are targeted on back day when you do a lot of heavy rows and pull-up/pull-down movements.
Directly Target Your Upper Traps
You naturally elevate your shoulders during most delt exercises, including overhead presses, upright rows, front raises, and lateral raises.1 That's one reason why many bodybuilders train the upper traps with shoulders. However, those shoulder movements don't work the upper traps through their full range of motion, so dedicated upper-trap movements—especially shrugs—should be part of your routine.3
Time Your Trap Training
The upper region of the trapezius is a significantly smaller muscle than the deltoids, which is why most people train traps after delts. If your traps are a weakness or you want to bring them up, consider training them on a different day than shoulders so you can work them when you're fresh. That way, in conjunction with a few sets of upper-traps work on your shoulder day, they'll get hit twice over the course of your split.
Go Get 'Em, Shrugger!
Now that you know a bit about what your traps do, how to train them, and when to train them, let's talk about the most common exercise used in upper-trap training: the shrug. With a movement as simple as elevating your shoulders toward your ears, what could possibly go wrong? A lot, actually!
Here are the four things you need to keep in mind when shrugging:1
Keep Your Arms Straight
As you fatigue, you'll instinctively try to find ways to make the shrugging motion easier. That typically means getting a little help from the biceps, which you see happen when a lifter shrugs with bent arms. To isolate the upper traps, keep your arms as straight as possible throughout the set.
Behind-the-back barbell shrug
"Often, people start to bend their arms when they're beginning to fatigue or the weight is too heavy," says strength coach Vince Kreipke, MS, CSCS, who works with athletes while pursuing his PhD in exercise physiology from Florida State. "This fatigue is either happening in the grip or in the traps themselves—so they (unintentionally) activate their biceps to aid in the lift.
"The problem is twofold. One, tension on the target muscle is actually being reduced, no matter how much weight is on the bar. If you're taking tension off the muscle being trained, you're ultimately taking away from the stimulus. Second, this can lead to a biceps tear. While this is most often seen with heavy deadlifts, it can occur with heavy shrugs, too."2
Don't Roll Your Shoulders
When I say "elevate your shoulders," notice that I didn't say roll or rotate—but that's mistakenly what many bodybuilders do. The upper traps are best worked when you shrug in a straight up-and-down plane. Rolling the shoulders can involve other muscles, take the focus off your traps, and contribute to neck pain.
"Straight up and down is the right way to shrug," confirms Kreipke. "Remember, muscles can pull in only one direction. Rolling the shoulders is often done in hopes of working them from different angles or activating the middle traps, but gravity works in only one direction—down. So if the traps only pull up and gravity only pulls down, they're in perfect opposition to each other."
Rolling your shoulders disrupts that perfect opposition.
Keep Your Head Neutral
When shrugging, never jut out your head, which can disrupt spinal alignment and cause pain or even nerve damage. You always want to look straight back at yourself in the mirror. Resist the tendency to look up, down, or to the side.
3 Tips For Shruggers
- Get a deep stretch. Because the range of motion during shrugs is very short, accentuating the bottom can help ensure you engage all your muscle fibers. As the weight pulls downward on your shoulders, relax your shoulders to fully stretch the upper traps, but keep the weights under control.
- Hold the peak contraction. Momentarily hold the top position for a count to boost the intensity of a set and make the traps work harder. As you fatigue, you can shorten the length of the peak contraction.
- Use lifting straps. Don't let your grip fail before you finish your set. Using straps will ensure your grip doesn't become your weakest link, because it most likely will fail before the upper traps. If you want to work your grip, train it on another day.
"The head should be facing straight ahead," says Cal State San Bernardino assistant professor of kinesiology Guillermo Escalante, DSc, ATC, CSCS, who also owns SportsPros Personal Training and Physical Therapy Center in Claremont, California.
"If you look downward, you're putting the cervical spine into flexion instead of maintaining a neutral neck position. When the cervical spine is in flexion and large loads are used—as is common when doing upper-trap work—extra torque is applied to the cervical spine discs, which could be a recipe for a disaster like herniation. This can lead to serious problems such as tingling down the hand, weakness, and atrophy of the affected extremity."
Having been warned, Kreipke says a slight tuck in the chin is acceptable, but you should still keep your eyes forward. "A slight tuck or tilt in the head will move the head enough for a further range of motion, allowing for a greater peak in the pull. Greater peak means more of the muscle worked, resulting in greater amount of hypertrophy through the entire muscle."
If you're determined to get the most from your shrugs, a slight chin tuck may give you a little more bang for your buck, but always keep safety in mind. If you've had an injury or feel any pain, keep your head in the neutral position.4
Don't Jerk the Weight
Given the heavy loads used and the proximity of the target muscles to the neck and cervical spine, Kreipke also has some advice on form: "When prescribing this movement to my athletes, I coach them on 'squeezing the muscle' and never jerking the weight. It's all too often that our egos overload our bodies and the bar.
Then, when the weight gets too heavy, people start to jerk it up, as is common with most cheat reps of any movement. This rapid amount of force puts undue stress on the neck, possibly causing more damage than good.
You should also be conscious of form when lowering the weight. "Often when shrugging, we simply release the tension in our traps and let the weight fall," says Kreipke. "Well, sooner or later, that weight is going to stop falling if we're going to do another rep. If we lose the tension in our traps to lower the bar, the acceleration of the bar back to the starting point is going to build up force, which in turn has to be stopped by our traps, again putting undue stress on our neck and spine. It's here where a bulge can occur."
Bottom line: Any movement that puts a lot of stress on musculature so close to your spinal column, especially when combined with heavy weights, should be done with even more attention to good form than you might otherwise use.
Build Your Routine
The natural place to do dedicated upper-trap work is after your shoulder routine, but there are other ways to work them. Here are some basic considerations for your workout.1
Start with Shrugs
Because the upper traps work in only one plane—straight up against gravity—there's not a lot of variety in terms of direct training. To target just the traps, it's all about the shrug. However, there are a number of different ways they can be done, some of which are based on simple preference. Some of the more common include:
- Barbell shrug
- Barbell shrug behind the back
- Calf-machine shoulder shrug
- Clean shrug
- Dumbbell shrug
- Smith-machine shrug
With dumbbells, you can hold the weights with a neutral hand position, which may be more comfortable than using an overhand grip on a bar. And with the calf machine, there's nothing to hold on to, since the weight is loaded on your shoulders.
Smith machine shrug
If you're focusing on bringing up your traps, consider two movement schemes: one in which you do 3-4 sets of 8-10 (to failure), and another in which you do another 3-4 sets of 12-15. The different relative intensities can help work the musculature in slightly different ways.2
Go Beyond Shrugs
In addition to targeting the upper traps directly with controlled shrugs, you can include other movements in your weekly routine that involve the traps:
"There are multiple ways to attack the [upper] traps that most people don't think about outside of standard barbell and dumbbell shrugs," offers Kreipke. "The farmer's walk blows up the traps; so does another full-body exercise, the deadlift. Both require a monstrous isometric contraction that will pay huge dividends when looking for trap growth. Olympic movements like snatches and cleans also require a lot of trap activation."
Ultimately, including these other kinds of movements throughout your workout split will further develop your upper traps.
- Wuebben, J., & Stoppani, J. (2009). Stronger Arms & Upper Body. Human Kinetics.