Are Traps Best Trained With Back Or Shoulders? BOTH!

October 14, 2016 David McAuliff

When it comes to training muscle groups of your body, everything usually has a place.  Most lifters like to start their training week by hitting their pectorals.  Chest day always seems like the best way to start a training week.  After that, it’s on to back day for most people. Shoulder day follows, with leg day wrapping up the week.  Arm day usually sits on its own day before legs, or it is split up, with triceps being trained with chest, and biceps being trained on back day. 

Those aren’t the only muscle groups.  Abs are usually hit a few times a week at the tail and of workouts.  After all, we don’t want our midsections growing too thick.  Forearms are usually targeted on biceps day or with back training.  Calves are often hit on leg day, and/or added to a different day of the week, allowing them to be targeted twice.  Then, there are the traps.  Oh yes, lonely traps! 

The traps are worked on both shoulder AND back training day, making them a bit of a mystery for young lifters.  You can try combining all 3 groups into a single “back & shoulder & traps day”, but then you’re looking at 25 to 30 very heavy and painful sets, resulting in a situation where at least one of these groups isn’t going to receive proper attention, and thus one of these muscle groups will always be underachieving.  Your goal is to devote early workout time to the major muscle groups, so that they can grow to their potential.  Since back and shoulders are BOTH considered to be major muscle groups, it is best to separate them into different training days.  Before we plan the trap training, let’s take a closer look at the trapezius muscle itself.

The trapezius is a diamond-shaped muscle group of decent size which connects your shoulders to the neck and pectorals, forming a triangular web on each side of the neck.  Many lifters don’t think about them early on in their lifting experience. They’re not really talked about in training magazines. Often, it isn’t until a lifter enters his first bodybuilding show, or disrobes for an honest full physique evaluation, that the term ‘pencil neck’ is uttered, and for very good reason. Under-trained trap muscles make the otherwise thick athlete appear narrow and weak. A terrific physique can be ruined by a lack of muscle up top to bring it all together!

Training the traps is never fun. Most lifters will agree it is both boring and painful to hit the traps. Nobody wakes up in the morning excited because “Wow, trap day is finally here!” Shrugging is the exercise most used to target the traps. It’s an uncomfortable lift, painful with an unpleasant neck burn. Reps are heavy and there aren’t too many ways to shrug a heavy weight. Once you find a slot in your training protocol to target the traps, you’ll have to get creative with how you hit them – and we can do that!

Let’s take a quick look at each section of your trapezius muscle, and see how each part of the muscle group is brought into play.

Upper traps

Whenever you look at a picture of a top bodybuilder and see “big traps”, your eyes are likely being drawn to the upper traps. They are stimulated each time your raise your shoulder blades, or scapula. You can target the upper traps by using shrugs primarily, but they are also trained by exercises including upright rows and lateral raises. These shoulder exercises overlap, which makes sense to target the shrugs on shoulder day for optimal muscle group stimulation. They’re already being hit when you train shoulders, so training them the day prior with back doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Middle Traps

Retraction is the name of the game when it comes to the middle traps. If you’re doing cable rows or other rowing motion exercises, then you are hitting the middle traps.If you are looking to isolate the middle traps, you can do so using straight-armed cable rows.The range of motion will be small, but the results will be obvious. You’re already hitting middle traps during your back training session.

Lower Traps

Whenever you rotate the shoulder blades in a downward direction, you are stimulating the lower traps. When you first start the pulldown motion, you are hitting the lower traps.  Many lifters actually use a “top quarter” of the lat pulldown machine to hit their lower trapezius muscle. If you want a killer back which outclasses the competition in the rear back biceps pose, then you will want to make sure you are including this movement in your back day training. 

So, to answer our earlier question regarding the best time to hit the traps. You’re ALREADY hitting them on BOTH shoulder and back day. This may come to a surprise to many lifters, but should explain why your traps are often a tad tired on shoulder day when you haven’t shrugged in a week. They were already putting in work the day before, when you were using cable rows!

In the end, you will want to train traps most likely on shoulder day, using shrugs.  However, you should always keep an open mind to targeting at least the mid to lower traps on back day, since they’re receiving stimulation during that training session already.  Straight-arm cable rows and top-quarter lat pulldowns are exercises which should be alternated in order to ensure you are effectively training all sections of your traps, for ultimate physique development. Good luck!



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