Your trapezius muscle, or “traps” for short, are more than those two bumps to the left and right of your neck. You can’t see most of the muscle in the mirror at all. There is therefore more to a complete traps training than just shrugs. In this article we discuss exercises that specifically target your mid and/or lower traps.
THE TRAPS: STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION
After your latissimus dorsi (‘lats’) muscle, your traps are your largest back muscle, surface area at least, starting at the base of your skull/neck and ending in the middle of your back. This muscle is shaped like a trapezoid, or trapezoid, hence the name.
Although one muscle, your traps consist of three characteristic areas: your upper, middle and lower traps. The muscle fibers of each area are oriented in a specific direction and thus responsible for a particular movement.
A well-developed trapezius provides what many bodybuilders sometimes lack: a thick upper back. Where the lats provide a wide upper back.
The trapezius therefore consists of three parts, each with its own structure and function(s):
- Your upper traps are responsible for shrugging your shoulders. The muscle fibers run obliquely outwards.
- Your middle traps are primarily responsible for squeezing your shoulder blades together, though they get help from the upper and lower traps. The muscle fibers run more or less horizontally.
- Finally, your lower traps are responsible for pulling the shoulder blade down. The muscle fibers run obliquely inwards.
When someone says to train their traps, they usually mean the upper traps. You train them specifically with the (barbell) shrug. Your middle and bottom traps are virtually untouched with the conventional shrug, but they should already do enough work during your regular back workout — provided you squeeze your shoulder blades together at the end of the moves.
WHEN DO YOU NEED EXTRA MID AND LOWER TRAP TRAINING?
Could your upper back use a little more thickness, or depth? Lack of muscularity in the area between the shoulder blades may be due to incomplete ROM and poor shoulder blade retraction in back exercises. And perhaps also from a poor mind-muscle connection with the mid and lower traps, which you can remedy by ‘activating’ these muscles first.
But it is also possible that your back training is focused too much on the width, or on the lats. Perhaps because you have that coveted V-shape in mind. As far as we’re concerned, an alien back — a thick back full of muscle bulges — is even more impressive.
But your lack of such a thick back, despite a lot of back training, could also be a purely genetic issue. Your traps simply need extra stimuli to develop properly.
Finally, you may not have properly programmed your training. For example, you do too much volume (per week and/or per training) or too little, you train too much until muscle failure or you stay too far away from it and so on. In that case, you must first put together a thorough training program before you start doing extra trap exercises.
REGULAR BACK TRAINING
Your mid and lower traps are already stimulated with regular back exercises, especially horizontal and vertical pulls. You can, however, increase that stimulus here and there by making small adjustments to the exercise.
You can make barbell rows even more traps-oriented by using a medium-wide, overhand grip, i.e. with your elbows at about a 45-degree angle. That wider grip does come at the expense of training your lats, which actually benefit from a narrower grip (whether or not underhand).
If you prefer to do T-bar rows, you can accentuate your traps by doing the exercise a little more upright. The regular, (almost) parallel execution is more focused on the lats. However, keep performing the exercise sufficiently obliquely (so not quasi-upright), because otherwise you limit the range of motion (ROM) too much.
By the way, with these modifications you not only bring more traps into the exercise, but also the other muscles in your upper back, such as the rhomboids, teres major and back shoulders. In short, the muscle groups that mainly determine the thickness of your back.
Also with the deadlift, your mid and lower traps come into action, namely to keep your shoulders in the correct position. Same for derivative exercises like (snatch-grip) rack pulls .
FACE PULLS, REVERSE FLYES AND REAR DELT ROWS
You may also do some smaller compound exercises with a focus on the back of your shoulders (rear delts). Think of rear delt rows, reverse flyes and face pulls. These exercises are also quite effective for training the traps and the underlying muscles. Face pulls actually train your entire trapezius.
TARGETED TRAP TRAINING
Some people naturally lack thickness in their upper back, which optically translates into protruding shoulder blades. In that case, it can be helpful to do some extra targeted exercises for the muscles in the middle of your upper back, especially the middle and lower traps, in addition to your regular back exercises. Just like you can train your lats in isolation with, for example, the straight-arm pulldown.
Here are some of the best (isolation) exercises for the middle and/or bottom stages. Do these after the ‘big’ back exercises. Feel free to try out the necessary ones and determine your choice mainly based on the mind-muscle connection.
INCLINE PRONE DUMBBELL SHRUGS (MID/LOWER TRAPS)
Shrugs are the standard upper trap exercise. But you can also address the other parts of your traps with shrugs. One of the ways to do that is to tilt your torso forward. The more you lean forward when shrugging, the lower you engage your trapezius.
The easiest way is to use dumbbells in combination with a weight bench with an adjustable backrest: incline prone dumbbell shrug. Think of an angle of inclination of 30 to 45 degrees. At 30 degrees you ‘take’ more of the mid traps, at 45 degrees more the lower traps.
With your chest against the backrest and your arms perpendicular to the floor, now squeeze your shoulder blades together.
SEATED DUMBBELL HIGH PULL (MID/LOWER TRAPS)
Sit at the end of a bench and have two dumbbells ready. Tilt your back slightly forward, at about a 45-degree angle. Keep your back straight. Now grab the dumbbells and pull them back as hard as you can, squeezing your shoulder blades upwards. Unlike with a shrug, your elbows move back a bit.
In this way you train both your mid and lower traps.
PRONE REVERSE FLIES (MID TRAPS)
Prone reverse flyes with external rotation (i.e. your thumbs pointing upwards) not only strengthen and enlarge your mid traps, they also contribute to a better posture and the prevention of (shoulder) injuries.
You do the exercise on a flat or slightly inclined bench. Keep your shoulders down as much as possible (so don’t shrug) to avoid any interference from your upper traps.
Start without weight in order to achieve the correct mind-muscle connection first. Later, you can add some weight by gripping weight discs, keeping your thumbs pointing up.
HORIZONTAL ROW SHRUGS (MID TRAPS)
Horizontal, or seated row shrugs, is like cable rowing in a seated position, but with straight arms. The starting position is the same as the starting position for seated cable rows. The range of motion (ROM) will therefore only be about twenty centimeters. Not anymore.
In addition to the retraction (contraction) of the shoulder blades, focus on protraction (moving away from each other).
CABLE MIDDLE/LOWER TRAP RETRACTION (MID/LOWER TRAPS)
Perform this exercise on a bench centered in front of a cable station, with the back upright, facing your face. You have positioned the cables at shoulder height. Pull them toward you by squeezing your shoulder blades together. This way you train your middle traps.
The advantage over the horizontal row shrugs is that you can contract more inwards, following the direction of the muscle fibers.
By positioning the pulleys higher, you train your lower traps in the same way. But don’t make it a glorified lat pulldown — see video tutorial by Mark Coles.
DUMBBELL SHRUG ROWS (MID/LOWER TRAPS)
With dumbbell rows, you can adjust the position and movement of the elbow so that you shift the emphasis to the lats, rear delts, or to the middle and lower traps. For the latter you first have to shrug, with your upper traps, then row.
You hold the shrug for the entire repetition, so that you mainly activate the middle of your upper back.
PRONE YS (LOWER TRAPS)
In order to feel your lower traps, you will have to make movements that follow the line of the muscle fibers, in this case obliquely towards the middle of your back. Hence the prone Y (or variants such as the Y press), where you hold your arms at an angle upwards, so that you form the letter Y, as it were. An exercise that also contributes to your posture and the prevention of (shoulder) injuries.
Start without weight, add weight discs later and choose the variant with cable machine later on.
LOW TRAP RAISES (LOWER TRAPS)
The lower stages are underdeveloped for many, partly because it is difficult to make a good mind-muscle connection. To activate and specifically train this part of the trapezius, do raises instead of shrugs, which are exercises where you lift the weight next to or above your head. The aim is to squeeze the shoulder blades together downwards, after all, the function of the lower traps.
You can easily do lower trap raises with dumbbells, lying on an incline bench. Just like incline shrugs, although you will be able to use significantly less weight for incline raises. Practice without weight first.
Rotate your arms so that your thumbs are pointing up; if they’re turned in too much, your upper traps will take over a lot of the work. Raise your arms until they are slightly higher than parallel to the floor, just before your shoulders want to roll forward. Hold that position for a moment and then lower your arms back down.
You can also perform overhead trap raises with cables crossed, as Jeff Cavaliere demonstrates here. Doing the exercise while kneeling prevents momentum from the lower body.
DUMBBELL PRONE PRESS (LOWER TRAPS)
You will probably rarely or never use the baby dumbbells in your gym, pink or otherwise. But they really come in handy with the dumbbell prone press. Despite the light weights, it is a very heavy exercise for your lower traps in particular, especially if you do it at the end of your back/trap training. Basically, you’re doing an overhead press, but lying on your stomach.
Press the dumbbells straight up as far as you can. The dumbbells should not touch the floor.
REVERSE SHRUGS (LOWER TRAPS)
Reverse shrugs, or reverse shrugs — also called vertical shrugs — are in fact the vertical variant of the exercise above. You start the exercise the same as you would a pulldown, but now only pull your shoulder blade together and down. That’s it. As with horizontal row shrugs, the ROM is very limited.
Resist the temptation to start using your arms as well.
MINI RANGE LAT PULL-DOWN TO ISOMETRIC HOLD (MID/LOWER TRAPS)
A lat pulldown where you limit the ROM to the part where your middle and bottom traps are activated the most. This means letting your upper arms come up to a little above parallel, rather than fully extending your arms in the top position. When the bar is at the top of your chest, hold the bottom position for one second for optimal activation of your traps.
SINGLE-ARM TRAP-3 RAISE (MID/LOWER TRAPS)
The single-arm trap-3 raise is a complex, one-armed exercise. Your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. In one hand you hold a dumbbell. With your other arm you can support yourself on your knee or on a weight bench. Shrug the dumbbell first. Then you do a front raise, as it were, until your arm is parallel to your upper body.
SUSPENSION TRAINING (MID/LOWER TRAPS)
You can also train the middle of your upper back using just your body weight and gravity. You need a suspension trainer for that and the following exercises: Y pulls, elbow rows and underhand grip rows.
With this mini-workout, called The Triple Threat Mid-Back Blast, you target the middle and bottom of your trapezius, the underlying rhomboid and the back of your shoulders (rear delts).
A special ‘trap day’ may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it can’t hurt to add an extra exercise for your middle and lower traps to your back training. Especially if your muscularity leaves something to be desired in this area.
The (targeted) training of your traps does not only have an aesthetic function: a well-developed trapezius is also important for good posture and healthy shoulders. Strengthening the muscle in all three regions helps prevent injuries, especially shoulder impingement.