Tyrannosaurus-Traps: How to build head-turning trapezius

By: Maximilian Angle

A lot of guys and some gals want to build up their trapezius muscles to get that look of power rarely seen on today’s athletes, or even on most amateur bodybuilders.  On the other hand, if you’re more after the physique or “six pack nation” look, then you’re better off without big traps and should stop reading here.  I was blessed with decent traps but being a competitive bodybuilder I’m always looking for methods to improve upon each aspect of my physique. Lifting heavy weights and getting into Olympic style weightlifting/Strongman training can be a good method to build up these sought after muscles. Not coincidentally, traps are probably the only body part that’s more developed on those types of strength athletes than on bodybuilders. But I don’t look for good – I desire greatness.  If you have no interest in doing snatches or lifting atlas stones, don’t worry because I’m going to share a handful of simple exercises that will build your traps like nothing else!

My Top 5 Trap Exercises:

  1. Close Grip Upright Rows – in my opinion, this is the #1 trap builder and involves explosively pulling a barbell or cable attachment with a close grip up to the top of your chest, pausing for a second, and then slowly lowering for a count of 4-5 second. This should be repeated for 6-8 reps and 2-3 sets. I recommend doing them in a power rack with the pins set so the barbell starts slightly above your knees.  Keeping your back in a neutral position, grab the bar with knees slightly bent and arms straight. Pull upward using leg and hip power, begin to shrug with finish with some arm bend to lift the bar as high as you can.  Do them explosively and work up to as heavy weight as you can handle for 6-8 reps – always aiming to lift the bar at least as high as your chest.  Note that this is basically the same exercise as a power shrug except with a greater range of motion to work the traps more fully.  Use lifting straps so that you’re not limited by your grip.  These will make your traps very sore and ready to grow – believe me!
  2. Smith Shrugs – For maximum trap development, you also need to subject them to higher volume and controlled reps to get them pumped up with nutrient filled blood, which is best done with high rep smith shrugs.  Do 2-3 sets of 13-15 reps pulling the bar up for one second, contracting hard for one second, and then lowering for two to three seconds.  Even though the reps are high, you should still use as much weight as you can handle using straps, as you are working your traps here, and not you’re forearms.  I see a lot of people doing heavy shrugs with a pitiful range of motion and no pause at the top, but I do not feel that is an effective approach.  A good variation is to shrug with the weight held behind the back (a favorite of 8-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney).
  3. Deadlifts – if you’re doing Close Grip Upright Rows and Smith Shrugs, there’s really no need to Deadlift for the sole purpose of working your traps, but I listed them because they are, in my opinion, the third best trap builder. Many powerlifters have huge traps just from doing heavy deadlift. Look at Ronnie Coleman! He had huge, dense traps long before his bodybuilding career began. Perform Deadlifts either at the beginning or end of your workout for 2-4 sets of 4-6 reps lifting the bar up explosively, holding at the top for one second, and then lowering it for a count of two.
  4. DB Shrugs – These can be a good option during a “technique” week when you want to perform drop-sets, rest pause, or supersets. For the sake of time let me use the example of drop-sets: For 1-2 sets perform shrugs with a pair of heavy DBs for 10-12 reps. Pull the DBs up for one second, contract hard at the top for one to two seconds, and lower for a count of one. Then re-rack and grab a pair of DBs slightly lighter looking to perform another 4-6 reps in the same manner.
  5. Seated DB Shrugs – I feel these can be a make or break tool for bodybuilders! There are many variations to this exercise and they can really add that sought after “3-D” effect to the muscle. Additionally they take any momentum out of the movement, forcing the traps to do all the work. Grab a set of hefty dumbbells and sit on a flat bench if that is the variation you are going for. Perform 2-3 sets for 7-9 reps exploding up, contracting for 1-2 seconds and lowering for 4-5 seconds. This will really make those traps sore if done right.

By all means I don’t recommend doing all 5 exercises in one day.  Try them out to see which ones you prefer, and fit at least two of them into your weekly routine to get your traps growing.  Let me know if these help you break through your plateaus!

Contact Max Angle at Angletraining8@gmail.com for training and nutritional programs