Trap Exercises: Sweet pills for a cranky shoulder

Every lifter has that one time or another when he had to deal with a cranky shoulder. That’s right! And fret not for its normal, almost like a rite of passage. You spend your foundational years churning your chest and shoulders to superhero proportions and then spend the rest of your life training around the injuries for being ecstatic and not to mention an overzealous muttonhead. Exercises such as Rows and Face-Pulls are excellent choices, for sure but a sweet pill called the Trap exercises is a great choice too.

But did you know that for every set of Shoulder Press and Bench Press variations that you do, you also need to do something for the backside of your body to balance things out, or problems in long run are bound to knock on your door? Training your pushing muscles isn’t bad but to function properly, the body requires structural balance and you bet, it’s not available in the market.

In fact, according to a study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, Trap Raises are among the best scapula strengthening exercises, which means that they are a boon for your cranky shoulders. Below is a detailed instruction on Lower, Upper and middle trap exercises that you can always try either for cranky or for better shoulders blades.

Upper Trap Exercises:

Many coaches, trainers and medical professionals say that the primary function of the upper traps exercises are to elevate your shoulders. However, according to the University of Newcastle professors, Dr Garth Johnson and Dr Nikolai Bogduk thoughts might differ from them. Why? Well, according to them, the primarily horizontal alignment of upper trapezius fibers makes them biomechanically unable to elevate the shoulder blades above normal shoulder level. Therefore, shrugging your shoulders does not necessarily optimize the upper-trap recruitment, instead, your upper traps act as stabilizers, thereby helping your shoulders maintain their normal position. Surprised? Well, that might be the case after all your Trap exercise fairy tale story just got its reality jerk. 

Below are some great options for Upper Trap exercises that you can always try:

Farmer’s Walks

The Farmer’s Walk is one of the great upper-trap exercises, to begin with. Well, that’s because the weight in your hands gravitates your shoulders down when you try to walk, which is an unstable motion. And your upper traps have to work overtime just to keep your shoulders from dropping during the walk with weights. Sound easy, right?

Heavy Deadlifts

If you happen to mistake Heavy Deadlift with just any regular deadlift, then you sure are making a mistake! Why? Well, it’s just not any deadlift but a ‘real’ heavy one, instead. How? Well, that’s because during the Heavy Deadlift the weights pull your shoulders forward and down, thereby engaging your upper traps and making it unbearably ‘Heavy’ due to friction and gravitation of weights towards the ground. This is also the reason as to why most powerlifters have huge upper traps.

Trap-Bar Deadlifts

Now comes the Trap-Bar Deadlift, which by the way is an extremely effective trap builder for the same reason as the standard Deadlift. But just so you know that Trap Bar Deadlift offers more than just a standard deadlift. How? Well, its unique arm position hits your traps at a slightly different angle, making it more effective than your regular deadlifts. However, do note that the trap bar Deadlift is named for its shape and not for its ability to multi-task as a great upper-trap builder.

Olympic Lifts

The two primary Olympic lifts, the Clean and Jerk, and the Snatch are also effective trap exercises. Not because you use heavy loads and move explosively but due to the fact that your traps also work to keep your shoulders in a proper position during the entire movement, thereby stimulating strength and size gains. However, do note that Olympic lifts are very difficult and if you don’t have the perfect technique then do yourself a favour and stick with the simpler trap exercises mentioned above. Period.

The Gittleson Shrug

The Gittleson Shoulder Shrug, named after the legendary coach Mike Gittelson is sure a favourite shoulder-shrug variation of many. Reason? Well, it recruits more muscle Fibers than any exercises mentioned above and therefore the traps are also forced to move through a larger range of motion than a traditional Shrug, which in turn stimulates greater muscle growth. And greater muscle growth means great shoulder blades.

Lower Trap Exercises

Your lower trapezius muscles have a really important job. What? That’s to bring your shoulder blades down together and then holding them there against the pull of other muscles.

In other words, it means that your lower trap muscles are responsible for rotating, adducting and depressing your shoulder blades. Not only this, but they also counteract the upward pull of your upper trap muscles Fibers. See, told’ ya important! 

The lower trap muscles also assist with the thoracic extension which is an important part of your ability to maintain appropriate posture and mobility in the shoulder joint. And if by any chance, you’re too tight in your upper trap Fibers and too weak in your lower trap fibers, than these exercises might prove to be useful to restore the ‘structural balance’, remember? However, it can be quite tricky to diagnose and treat the postural and movement problems on your own and so it’s always a good idea to recruit a fitness or medical professional for some hands-on help.

Below are some trap exercises for your lower trap and are roughly arranged from easy starter options to a bit more challenging workouts that you can always try.

Prone Flexion

This trap exercise was one of the best performers in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy study.

  1. First, lie with your face-down on a flat weight bench and extend your left arm straight down to the floor with your palm facing in.
  2. Now bring that arm straight overhead in line with your body with the thumb pointing up. The trick is to try to form the letter “I.” Then, focus on a smooth, controlled motion trying to draw your shoulder blade down and in toward your spine.
  3. Then, lower your arm back to the floor in its original position. Practice this motion using one arm at a time and then repeat the same on the other side.

I-Y-T Exercise

This trap exercise builds on the prone flexion exercise and was by far the best in the ACE study.

  1. First, lie with your face-down on a flat weight bench and extend your left arm straight down to the floor with your palm facing in.
  2. Then extend both the arms straight overhead, in line with your body, trying to form the letter “I.” Once done, lower your arms back to the original position.
  3. Again, extend both the arms at a 45-degree angle overhead, while trying to form the letter “Y.” Once done, lower them back to the original position.
  4. Yet again, extend both arms out to the side with your palms facing down. Try to form the letter “T” and then lower them back to the original position to complete the repetition.

High Scapular Retraction

Yet another excellent option listed by the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, to get a feel for this trap exercise put your nose to a wall and extend both the arms straight up the wall, and walk your fingers as high as they can go, comfortably. Now pinch your shoulder blades back and down while drawing your hands back down the wall in one movement.

Once familiar with the procedure, try to add some resistance by holding the ends of a resistance band draped across a pull-up bar, or maybe anchor the middle of the band in the top of a door. 

This is a classic example of, “Hey lower traps — you have one job. Now do it.” However, let me warn you, it’s much harder than it might seem.

Bent-Over Row

Bent-over row yet another best performer in the category in the ACE study and a trap exercise that you can work into your everyday gym routine as well.

  1. Stand with feet hip with shoulder-width apart and one dumbbell in each hand. Relax your knees and try to hinge forward from the hips, while getting as close as possible to the horizontal as you can while still keeping your back flat.
  2. Try to keep your elbows close by your sides as you lift the weights up. And don’t even try to put your elbows through the ceiling instead keep the motion smooth, controlled, and stop within a comfortable range of motion. 
  3. And while doing so, keep your shoulder blades drawn back and down, your chest up and out, as you lower the weights back to the original position.

 Lat Pull-Down

The Lat pull-down placed very well for lower trapezius activity in the ACE study and a staple of gym back workouts.

  1. First, adjust the Lat pull-down machine’s weight stack or weight plates according to your desired amount of resistance.
  2. Now take the handles in an overhand grip position and then pull them down with you to the machine’s seat.
  3. Then tuck your knees under the knee pads and sit up straight with your shoulders back and down and chest up and out. Mark this as your starting position.
  4. Now that you have assumed your starting position, try to maintain this posture as you pull the machine handles down toward the top of your chest. There’s isn’t need to actually touch your chest because you might only be able to bring it down to about chin level.
  5. Stay seated with your knees tucked under the pads, as you extend your arms back upward to complete the repetition.


Remember that in case if you’re doing the trap exercises for therapeutic reasons then your physical therapist will tell you how many sets and repetitions to do and will usually range from a high repetition at low resistance with several sets spread out through the day.

But if you’re in more of a gym mind-set of a person then for trap exercises like the Bent-over row and the lat pull-down, then one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions each is the standard starting point. You can always add more reps to the routine, as long as you avoid overtraining and remember that every muscle group even your lower traps needs at least one rest day between the workouts.

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