The traps, also known by its formal name of Trapezius, is one of the two large muscles that extend from the occipital bone down to the lower thoracic vertebrae and continues laterally down your spine and scapula or shoulder blade.
Although many people believe the trap muscles simply start at the neck and end at the shoulders, they are much larger than we tend to think.
When it comes to building your traps with weight, we need to first recognize that the traps are comprised of 3 main muscle segments: the upper, middle and lower trap. Although this may seem too easy in regards to understanding the groups, training them is much different.
For training the upper traps, you can actually grow and strengthen this part of the muscle group by performing any exercise that involves any elevation of the shoulders or raising of the shoulders. An example would be a hang clean.
For the middle traps, you will develop this section by performing exercises in which you are pulling the shoulder blades together or creating adduction. This could be anything from a shrug with either dumbbell or barbell to basic rows.
Lastly, for the lower traps, you can help target this section by performing exercises in which you are able to pull your shoulder blades downwards. An example for this would be bent over rows while pulling towards the stomach and not too high around the neck and chest area.
Some other great exercises you can perform to help grow your traps in overall size and thickness would be the standard shrug. Performed with either barbell or dumbbell, begin in a standing position with the weight lowered fully by your front, back or sides, holding the bar or dumbbells firmly, raise your shoulders straight up as if you are trying to make your shoulders touch your ears.
Once the top position, squeeze and hold in order to fully engage the trapezius muscles. Slowly lower the weight back down fully to where your arms are just holding the weight by your side before performing the next repetition.
Another exercise would be the upright row. This can be performed with a barbell, cable pulley machine, or a single arm dumbbell fashion. Starting in a standing position, grab the weight, in this case the barbell, with both hands.
Raise the barbell upwards towards your head until the weight is at height with your head/chin, arms are bent with elbows pointed outwards and hands are at the same symmetrical height with your shoulders. Squeeze before slowly lowering the weight back down to the starting position and perform another rep in the same fashion.
Gain Help From Machines
Cable machines can also be incorporated into trap training with exercises such as shrugs, upright rows, seated rows, and even face pulls.
For help with targeting the upper trap, face pulls will be a more beneficial exercise. Performed either standing or seated, the preference is yours, attach the rope to the machine and use a light enough weight you can control. With arms extended outwards fully, bend at the elbows to contract and pull with your hands until the weight or your hands pull back far enough in which your hands are at head height and about 1-2 inches away from your face, hence the name face pulls.
If you perform this standing, stand about 2 feet or so away from the machine in order to help get the proper range of motion to engage the muscles fully.
Take Home Message
The biggest trick when it comes to training your traps is to ensure you have a constant tension applied for as long as possible. The trapezius is a large muscle group and can sustain a great deal of damage from weight training.
Perform 4-5 exercises that target the upper, middle and lower traps in any fashion you prefer and aim for around 20 sets or so total. Rep ranges can vary depending on your ability but I recommend aiming for around 30-50 reps per set and even finishing with some exercises going until failure if you wish. Go as heavy with the weight as you can handle in which you can still perform all of the desired reps you set out for, but at the end, you are barely able to continue another rep or two and you are dying to drop the weight.
The traps need to be trained heavy and frequently so you can aim to train them 2x a week or even 3x depending on your performance condition.