Back Exercises

Should You Train Traps With Back or Shoulders?

Your traps are actually made up of three muscles. Here's the best way to train them.

by
Behind the Back Shrug
Michael Neveux

Ask 100 lifters which muscle group they train their traps with, and we bet half will say back while the other half say shoulders. That pretty much sums up the typical disagreement on the issue, but it would be a mistake to conclude that it doesn’t really matter. The truth is, it does.

The traps, though typically thought of as one muscle, actually function as three different muscles that facilitate three individual movements.

“The upper traps, which make up the most mass of the overall muscle, primarily lift and rotate the shoulder blades upward, as when shrugging the shoulders,” says Jim Stoppani, Ph.D, author of Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength (Human Kinetics, 2006). “The middle traps primarily pull the shoulder blades together, and the lower traps rotate the shoulder blades downward.”

Although trapezius training can be paired with either your shoulder or back workouts, Stoppani points out that most bodybuilders train their traps after shoulders because their primary interest is in developing the upper portion of the traps, and this area is already involved in most shoulder exercises. Following that logic, it makes sense to train them after shoulders, since they’re warmed up and ready to go. Conversely, only the middle traps are involved in back exercises. For that reason, doing shrugs (upper traps) on back day might not be the wisest choice since they won’t be warmed up.

If you want to take the simpler route, train traps with shoulders, Stoppani advises. But if you want to take a slightly more complex route, divide your trap training between the two. Do shrugging moves with your shoulder routine, and hit your middle traps on back day (or in a separate stand-alone workout) with rows or incline dumbbell shrugs. For lower traps, do lying dumbbell Y-raises or overhead barbell raises to the front (which is like a front raise for delts, except you raise the bar completely overhead). We don’t need a poll to know that’s a great solution.

Target: Traps

Regardless of when you train traps, here are some moves to help target the large diamond-shaped slab of beef on your upper back.

Upper:

-Shrug (barbell, dumbbell, Smith machine, trap machine)

Middle:

- Row with any grip or handle (barbell, machine, dumbbell), especially those using a wide grip and brought to the chest
- Incline dumbbell shrug
- Seated row shrug*

Lower:

- Pull-down/Pull-up
- Front overhead raise (barbell, dumbbell)
- Dumbbell Y-raise **
- Snatch

*On a seated row machine, keep your arms straight while squeezing your shoulder blades together.
**Lie facedown on a bench and lift dumbbells up and out in a Y formation.

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