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July 12, 2021 10 min read

If you’ve ever been worried about how weak your back looks compared to your chest, then you’re probably neglecting your back.

Keeping your body balanced is one of the keys to making sure your gains aren’t ruining your joints or crushing your posture.

Your body needs balance, and  your back needs to look strong  if you’re not trying to look like your chest collapsed under the weight of your own pecs.

Trapezius muscle labeled medical anatomy chart

Trapezius Tour

Before you spend any of your time learning about any trap exercises, you need to understand what your traps are, where you can find them, and how they work in your body. Otherwise, you’re going to be spending a lot of your time in the gym missing out on gains.

Your trapezius muscles are an easy set of muscles to mis-identify if you’re not familiar with your anatomy. They’re located along your back, and they stretch farther than you might think if you’re not taking a look at a diagram. They’re also shaped a little odd given the movements they control if you’ve only isolated them with certain exercises.

Trapezius Muscles

Your traps are probably the closest structure along your back to wings. They extend from the back of your head, out towards your sides, and almost all the way down to the bottom of your back.

In technical terms, they extend vertically from the occipital bone (the lower part of your skull) to the lower thoracic vertebrae (the part of your spine that makes up the second section of your back). They also attach to the sides of your spine and out towards your scapula.

This makes their iconic trapezoidal shape, and it makes them indispensable to the structure of your back. You use your traps mostly for moving and flexing your scapula and they act as a general secondary support structure for your arms. Your traps, while they seem like a pair of single muscles, are split up into three major segments.

The Upper Segment

The upper segment of your traps is the arm support. Your traps serve to resist weight being pulled away from your body. Whenever you’re holding something heavy and you engage your back to stay upright and lend some support to your biceps, that’s your upper traps kicking in.

They’re responsible for assisting lateral movement, and once you realize that you’ll see that you engage your back much more often than you think.

The Transverse Segment

This middle section of your traps is all about keeping things attached. The middle section of your traps acts a lot like a winch strap. This part of your traps adds a lot of tension to your middle back and they work in tandem with the origin of your biceps to keep your scapula attached to your body.

If you look at a diagram of your body, you can see the connection points of your transverse traps and your biceps locking your scapula into place. The transverse segment of your traps also pulls on your scapula when you’re bringing weights towards your body. You can feel this in action when your shoulder blades pushing outwards when you’re rowing. 

The Lower Region

This region of your traps is all about medial rotation and keeping your scapula depressed. Your scapula is under tension from a lot of different sources, and frankly, it wants out. If your lower traps gave up, your scapula would pop away from your back like a soda can tab.

The lower region of your traps keeps your scapula in line and allows you to rotate it in towards yourself so your shoulders gain a larger range of motion. If you’ve ever strained to reach behind yourself, that your lower traps at work. All of this together makes your traps an incredibly important part of your body. They keep your back tethered together.

Your traps connect your spine and all of these different structures long your back working in concert. They create a complex system of tension so your body can operate. The front half of our bodies is what we tend to think about the most when it comes to movement and weight lifting, but our backs provide so much indispensable support that we really can’t do without it. 

All of this importance has created a group of muscles along our backs that serve a purpose beyond their physical function. Your traps are also beautiful to behold. Strong traps have a breathtaking effect when they’ve been properly chiseled out. One of the keys to looking great in a strong man competition is ensuring your back looks like a rippling torrent of muscles.

True Trapezius Training

We mentioned earlier that you need a variety of exercises to isolate your traps effectively. Your traps are quite broad and they control a relatively broad range of motion. If you want to really work your traps thoroughly, then you should find a few of these exercises and work all of them into your routine.

1. Weighted Shrugs

Weighted shrugs are some of the most straightforward exercises for isolating your traps. If you have a pair of dumbbells lying around and a few minutes to bang out a couple reps, you’re going to be able to tone up your traps without having to expend too much brain power or setup.

  • Start in a comfortable standing position
  • Grab a dumbbell in each hand and hold them with a firm grip in a neutral grip
  • Set your core and make sure your back is straight
  • Use your back to contract your shoulders upwards 
  • Squeeze your traps for a moment when you’ve reached the height of your in Start in a standing position with a dumbbell in either hand.
  • Slowly return your shoulders to your starting position, keeping tension on your traps
  • Repeat 8-10 times per set

2. Shoulder Squeeze

We love shoulder squeezes. They’re an incredibly simple exercise that you can do even if you’re not out at the gym, and they’re an excellent reminder of exactly what your traps do within your body. Shoulder squeezes are an exercise you can do with or without equipment and you don’t necessarily need a lot of room to swing your body around.

If you want to keep your traps in tip-top shape, but you don’t have the time or the equipment to commit to a more full workout, shoulder squeezes are one of the best ways to make sure your back muscles are getting some love.

  • Start in a neutral standing position with straight poster and relaxed muscles
  • Use your traps to pull your shoulder blades towards each other
  • Squeeze for a second or two once you’ve brought them as close as you comfortably can
  • Slowly return them to your starting position
  • Repeat 10-15 times per set

3. Face Pull

Face pulls sound dangerous and painful if you’ve never heard of them before, but that couldn’t be further from the truth of the matter. Face pulls are just a reference to the height of the exercise and the motion you’re making with your shoulders.

You’re going to need a cable machine or a resistance band and a pole. Make sure you’re not eating your gains by slouching, leaning forward, or pulling your bands at an angle, and you’ll be fine.

  • Set the band or cable machine roughly in line with your eye level
  • Grab each end of your cable or band with an underhand grip
  • Set your core and sit (or stand) up straight with good posture
  • Use your traps to squeeze your shoulder blades together, keeping your elbows high and pulling perpendicular to the ground
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together for a moment
  • Slowly return to your starting position
  • Repeat 8-10 times per set

4. Military Press

Military presses are a good way to work on the stabilizing functionality of your traps. They have the added benefit of working on your shoulders and upper arms. This is a good compound exercise that will give your traps a thorough workout and burn a lot of energy during your workout.

Make sure you’re protecting your rotator cuff when you start military pressing. Your natural inclination might be to put the weights directly above your shoulders, but that’s going to create all sorts of trouble for your joints in the long run.

  • Start with a pair of dumbbells, and grab them with a neutral grip
  • Brace your glutes and your core, keep your upper back from rounding out, because this will kill any of the work your traps will want to do naturally
  • Bend your elbows about 90-degrees and line up your weights slightly in front of your shoulders
  • Use your upper arms and your traps to press the weights straight up without flaring your elbows (but not exactly in line with your delts)
  • Lower the weights slowly back to your starting position and repeat 8-10 reps per set

5. Y-Raises

This exercise gives your lower traps the chance to shine. This is another exercise you should pay a lot of attention to so you’re not overburdening your shoulder joints. We recommend starting with a lighter weight than you think you’ll need and slowly working your way up to ensure proper technique and safety.

  • Stand in a neutral position with your feet about shoulder-width apart
  • Grab a dumbbell in each hand with your thumbs facing upwards
  • Hold your arms straight out in front of your body angling each of them out from your core in a V shape
  • Lean forward slightly without letting your arms drop or allowing your back to slouch 
  • Maintaining that position, raise your arms straight up above your head in a Y shape
  • Hold the weights up there for a moment before slowly returning to the starting position
  • Repeat 10-15 times per set
Athlete muscular fitness male model pulling up on horizontal bar in a gym

6. Pull-ups

You’re probably well familiar with pull-ups. They’re a tough exercise to master because you’re using a relatively small group of muscles to handle the entire weight of your body. There are a tremendous amount of ways to train yourself to start working on pull-ups if you’re hitting a stumbling block, but for now, let’s just focus on the exercise itself.

  • Find a sturdy bar that’s above your head
  • Hop up onto the bar with your palms facing out, arms fully extended and a little wider than shoulder-width apart
  • Use your back and biceps to pull your body up towards the bar until your chin crosses it
  • Slowly return your body back to your starting position and repeat as many times as possible

7. Pull-up Shrugs

Pull-up shrugs are a happy medium between the low-impact of shoulder shrugs, and the frustrating difficulty of a proper pull-up. These shrugs are a great way to build your way up to higher pull-up reps as well as an effective exercise on their own.

  • Hang from a pull-up bar with your palms facing out, preferably one that’s sturdy and located above your head
  • Engage your shoulders, your arms shouldn’t be hanging out of your sockets for this
  • Set your core so you don’t wave around in the air and use your traps to lift your shoulders slightly
  • Squeeze your traps for a few seconds before lowering yourself back into your starting position
  • Repeat this motion for 5-8 reps per set

8. Plyometric Dumbbell Shrugs

Admittedly, these are a little weird. If you’re self-conscious about getting looks in the gym, you might want to find a private space to try them out. If you can’t take it, we understand, but you’re going to be missing out on good gains if you can’t get over looking a little goofy in the gym.

These take dumbbell shrugs and add a plyometric aspect to them. The hop is going to give you a nice little cardio boost, and following through with your whole body is going to keep your shoulders from resenting you for this exercise.

  • Grasp a dumbbell firmly in each hand with a neutral grip
  • Bend slightly at your hips and knees, just enough to allow your body to shoot upwards 
  • Allow your dumbbells to hand just below your knees (if your arms are long enough)
  • Thrust your hips forward while extending your legs fully and shrugging your shoulders up, explosively. Don’t lose control of the weights, make sure you keep a firm grip
  • Land softly on the ground, allowing your knees hips, and ankles to give a little bit
  • Reset in your starting position and repeat 5-8 times per set

9. Farmer’s Carry

Farmer’s carries are basically laps taken to the extreme. In a practical sense, they’re great for training up your ability to carry in your groceries in a single trip. The key to a farmer’s carry is engaging your upper body and building the endurance over time to just power through it. They’re a great full-body exercise, with a focus on your upper back.

  • Start with a weight in each hand, we like to default to kettlebells for this, get a firm and neutral grip on them
  • Keep your back upright and engage your core and shoulders
  • Take even steps and walk in a controlled manner around the gym
  • Walk around for about a minute at a time taking short breaks 

10. Dumbbell Rows

Dumbbell rows are great for building up your trap strength. As long as you’re careful to watch your form, you’re not going to be running the risk of injury or anything like that. Try to avoid doing totally upright rows because they’re hard on your shoulder joints. If you’d rather do your rows with a barbell than a set of dumbbells, we’d suggest an EZ bar so your arms can rest against the weights in a more natural position.

  • Start by standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart 
  • Grab a pair of dumbbells with a natural grip
  • Lean forward at around a 45-degree angle, set your core, and keep your back flat
  • Pull the weights towards your chest 
  • Pause when they’re up near your torso 
  • Slowly lower the weights back to your starting position
  • Repeat this for 8-10 reps per set

These ten exercises are sure to get your traps looking tremendous. The only thing they can’t do on their own is build muscle. Building muscle is a natural process that comes after these workouts. You need to pair them all with rest, protein, and lots of stretching.

Rest days come after a couple of hard days in the gym, they’re an indispensable part of a well-rounded workout routine. Your body needs time to repair the muscles you’ve worn down during your workouts.

Protein in your diet, during those rest days, is given the opportunity to become fresh muscle fibers, giving you more muscle mass. You need to incorporate a healthy balance of work and recovery if you want to see some real results.

Trapezius Triumph

If you want to look ripped all over, then you absolutely have to beef up your traps. They make a strong, well-defined shape along your back when you’ve taken the time and care to sculpt them.

It’s a simple and effective way to look powerful, and now that you’re equipped with this knowledge, you have all of the tools to create the perfect trapezius muscles, let’s get them shredded.