If you’re unsatisfied with the size of your traps, give me just 3 minutes here and I’ll give you some advice that will have them GROWING again in no time!
If I had to name the one exercise that attracts the most negative feedback from trainees, it would be trap shrugs. People complain that they just can’t feel this movement.
This is understandable since the percentage of people in the gym that do this exercise correctly would be rather low.
Now this is a real pity since shrugs are the best traps exercise there is in my opinion. But they have to be done correctly!
So how are people getting this movement wrong?
My observations have lead me to conclude that the vast majority of people:
Involve the biceps far too much by NOT having their arms dead straight. This transfers much of the load away from the traps to the arms.
Use too much momentum/the cadence is too fast
Don’t use anywhere close to a full range of motion
Before I recommend how you should correct this and stimulate some growth, let me give you a quick warning…
Drop your ego a little and be prepared to lift a lighter load
Remember, you’re in this game to actually change your body. Not to boast about the loads you can lift. “Absolute” loads aren’t anywhere near as important as “relative” loads i.e. as long as your PERSONAL strength is increasing over time, that’s all that matters. Remember that small, incremental increases in load work best in the long term.
Here’s my recommendations. Take them and USE them ASAP!
If you do, the first thing you’ll notice is that you’ll experience soreness (DOMS) in your traps within 48 hrs. When was the last time your traps were sore? The second thing you’ll notice is that your traps will actually start to grow for a change! (I’m being facetious here 😉 )
THT should ALWAYS produce strength and growth. You can have 100% certainty about success on this program.
So here’s what you should do during your next traps workout…
(1) Try giving up the dumbbells and barbells and pick up a trap bar, use the smith machine, or even a low pulley. Trap shrugs are one of the exercises where taking stabilization OUT of the equation is a good thing.
The above methods will allow you to do this, enabling you to produce MORE force and concentrate SOLELY on the issue of producing maximal trap contractions.
(2) Reduce the cadence/go slower. You simply can’t do shrugs quickly; they won’t work to stimulate growth in the natural lifter if done rapidly. Try a 2-1-3 cadence. Lift for 2 seconds, hold at the Peak Contraction Point (PCP) for 1 second, and lower under full muscular control for 3 seconds.
(3) On the issue of the PCP, make sure you actually hit it! There’s a visualization exercise I give to people who are having trouble with this exercise. When performing the positive/lifting part of the rep, try to visualize attempting to make your shoulders touch your ears. It’s physically impossible to do so, but that’s not the point. It will FORCE you to fully contract your traps and get into that all important PCP for a maximal muscular contraction.
(4) Do the negative! You’ll often see this critical mistake being made in the gym. Guys just skip the negative and focus only on the positive. Lowering the weight under muscular control is as important as the lifting/positive part of the rep. You do NOT drop the weight. A rep is not just a lift. A rep is a lift AND a lowering. For this exercise allow the traps (and the traps only) to lower the weight back into the starting position.
(5) Let it hang! I just said to lower the load under control into the starting position. The starting position is ALL the way down. Basically, it’s the point where your shoulder blades can’t physically get any lower.
You’ll know you’re in it when there is no tension on your arms; they are straight and hanging like chains. The weight is simply hanging there and producing a real STRETCH across the traps; trust me, you’ll feel it. Mentally tell yourself to let the weight “hang” at the bottom of each rep.
(6) Straight arms. Like I mentioned above, your arms should not be assisting in the lift. In order to take them out of the equation, keep them straight (fully extended) throughout the lifting and lowering. This transfers 100% of the load to the traps themselves.
(7) Try higher reps. To begin getting this movement right, try using higher reps until you get the hang of it. Instead of aiming to reach failure on the tenth rep, try 12-15 reps for a week or 2 until you really master correct form. Then you can increase the load a little and reach failure in a lower rep range.
(8) Reduce the load. In order to accommodate all of the above recommendations, you’ll almost certainly have to reduce the load a little. This is not a big deal. If it’s bruising your ego, just get over it. The fact is that if you keep doing what you’re currently doing, you’ll produce the same result. If you’re not happy with your results, then you HAVE to change your method to produce a different outcome. Simple.
(9) On a related note, make sure you are doing deadlifts for full trap development. Heavy deadlifts are great for stimulating growth in the traps and will help you continually get stronger in your shrugs too. So don’t neglect to do this important compound movement on back day!
My personal favorite way to hit my traps is by shrugging with a low pulley. The movement is so smooth and I can really concentrate on fully contracting the intended muscle. The only issue here is if your gym has enough weight on the stack for you.
I’m sure many of you will require loads over 100kg and I know some gyms can’t accommodate this on their pulley stacks. If this is the case at your gym, use a trap bar and/or the smith machine.
Read over the above recommendations a few times and memorize them. Apply them in the gym and I can GUARANTEE that you’ll see positive changes in your traps over the next few weeks 😀 .
P.S. Here’s a short vid I shot over a year ago of me doing a low pulley cable shrug. While it isn’t a great vid, note the controlled cadence and the full range of motion.
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Low pulley shrugs are the best, but I can’t do them anymore. Like you said – not every gym has that kind of weight on a pulley.
Mark – i’m a great reader of your blog. However when you say slow the cadence – i don’t quite agree with this line of thinking for one reason.
Explosive lifting, ie the Olympic lifts and their variants add mass like no others to the traps. Think jump shrugs, high pulls, cleans, snatches. And they also add a different dimension to standard bodybuilding training.
@arjun..I tried the explosive lifts with shrugs, infact in the beginning thats the only cadence i did with shrugs. My traps never grew and then I started doing them slower as it’s a short movement, you need to contract the traps at the top and get a full stretch at the bottom, the same I’m now doing with calf raises and it’s working great for me. If you are building by doing the explosive movements then carry on doing it, if your’e stuck then read this article again and do your shrugs slower.
@Wouter. Yeah I can only do them on my home equipment where I can add as much weight as I like 🙂
@Arjun. No I disagree with that. The more explosive the lift the lower the resistance because of the added momentum, it’s just physics. When you see large olympic lifters, it’s a good example of “accelerated natural selection”. It’s the same as swimmer’s physiques. People make the erroneous assumption that in order to get that type of body, they should just train the same way. Not realizing that natural selection over the years has eliminated those without the necessary genetics, meaning those who reach the top level in the sport are only those who were dealt the correct genetic cards at birth. It would require more explanation and I might write an article about it. Regardless, max growth stimulation in any exercise requires max muscle fiber recruitment; the technique described in my article will take care of this. Jump shrugs and the like won’t.
@Jason. Great point. Calf training is another example of where this technique works best.
I have had your site on my favorites since you did the podcast on living la vida lo-carb. Twice i lost my computer and your ebook with it.
This may be somewhat off topic, but I have wanted to ask this for a long time.
why do you go to failure?
From the research i have read, it seems that the main stimulus for muscle growth is progressive overload. Secondly the more volume you can do, the better. A third factor, but of much less importance, is hypoxia, which is where i expect failure comes in.
However, it seems to me that going to failure would stress the cns such that it would reduce the volume that can be done in a workout and the frequency of workouts. Since the rate of protein synthesis in muscle returns to normal in as little as 36hrs it seems to me that if you stay away from failure you can increase the volume and frequency, which would be better for growth.
However, you are well experienced in the field and that is why i ask the question.
Thanks for a great blog
hey mark, great info for us to work the traps.
Wish I had read this before the gym this morning.
I have lowered the weight, I am trying to hit my ears with my shoulder, I need to review arms straight, but I think I have it, my cadence could be slightly improved.
I’m thinking I could lower the weight even more even though I am hitting 8-9 reps for the last 40 weeks. . . . . .
That trap bar you show. Doesn’t that put your arms too far out in front of you. I have been dragging the Smith bar up my front basically as close as possible.
great article i always tell whoever im training with the same things. they usualy lifting far to heavey a weight and their range of motion is about 2 inches. I always lift with a weight i can do full rom with. when i push my shoulders down as far as they can go then pull them up as far as i can my rom is about 6 inches and i get a far beter feeling in my traps
@John. You’ll get it next time. Regarding the trap bar, no. You get inside it, your arms are out to the side, really good for good form!
@Martin. Thanks. That would require a few thousand words to answer in full. However, I have covered the issue in other articles and probably most thoroughly in the THT4 book. You should read all the sections in there regarding intensity, volume, and frequency. I cover this idea that “total volume” is more important than intensity, which it isn’t. I also cover the “CNS-frying” nonsense too. There is also info on the limit of volume that should be used per body-part per workout. Optimal rest between sets is also very important when training with 100% intensity of effort. All principles of THT must be understand as a whole because these bodybuilding principles are interdependent.
I want to get bigger, so I guest will help me a lot, thanks.
Agree with all of your points except:
“…those who reach the top level in the sport are only those who were dealt the correct genetic cards at birth.”
Genetics play a role (nature), but that’s only one part of peak performance in sport. Success for the athlete also relies on the training and environment of the individual (nurture), which can even supersede their genetic predictors of potential.
They are the best, low pulley shrugs. I just have to be stricter with cadence, especially at PCP. Slowing down and staying w/cadence works. It did wonders with my bench press last summer. I just get in that hurry up mode in life and sometimes it gets into my workouts. A good article and Thank You Mark!!
@Ethan. Yes, consistent effort is most definitely required. However, those who reach the very top rung are those who have put in the effort and have the necessary genetics. For example, if you could actually see the genetics of IFBB pro bodybuilders, you would see that they have all the genetics advantages that the sport requires. Add in years of effort & drugs and you get an overly massive pro bodybuilder. Does this mean that a guy without these genetics can put in years of effort and take drugs to reach the top? No. He or she just doesn’t have the muscle fiber density, muscle length, the myostatin-deficiency advantage, and so on. See this article I wrote on 6 genetic factors that have a massive impact on bodybuilding success. https://musclehack.com/can-we-all-be-as-big-as-arnold-bodybuilding-genetics-explained/
@Mike Huber. Thanks, bud!
I have been looking round plenty of websites, and the good ones always say don’t snatch but go slow. Today I went extra slow in the gym. A big muscled guy there lifted a 30kg dumbbell swung it about using momentum, shrugged with 30kg in each hand, bent his elbows and each rep lasted about 1-2 seconds. He has a massive muscular build. I can’t help but think it wasn’t obtained the ‘natural’ way. Mark’s methods make sense, but sadly I am unable to follow his regimen to the letter. Nonetheless, the underlying principles are working for me, slowly, but working. Today I feel more pumped and energised than ever, but I still have a long way to go. And I haven’t had a cigarette in 4 weeks now. Missing ’em like hell (that’s what 43 years of smoking does for you) and I my work outs are already improving. If anybody else out there is still puffing on the weed, give it up guys, it’s for your own benefit.