How to Build Cobra Traps 101: A 12 Week Program

Much more than the icing on the cake of an otherwise impressive look, impressive trapezius (aka ‘traps’) muscles are an essential prerequisite for any stage-ready, or beach worthy, physique.
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Traps 101

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As we prepare to hit the gym in 2014, focused as we so often are at this time of year to further build our physiques to perfection, spare a thought for the importance of complete muscular development – take an inventory of where you’re lacking and plan to bring these areas into alignment with the rest of your physique. One area that is often overlooked, and in many cases not specifically targeted with sufficient volume and weight, are the trapezius muscles.

Trapezius: a large diamond-shaped muscle which runs from the base of the skull to the mid-back region and is responsible primarily for moving and stabilizing the scapula.

When hitting poses – most muscular, back double biceps, side chest – to even standing relaxed, the traps are on full display. This manta-ray shaped muscle grouping can be seen from all angles, and lends depth and detail to the size and shape of our back. From the front, impressive traps convey upper body thickness, and because heavy iron and many basic lifts are required to fully develop them, they are a sure sign of a powerful physique.

Why Build Big Traps?

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Functionally speaking, big, strong traps enable us to push and pull heavy weights. Properly developed traps help to alternately stabilize and move the spine whenever we, for example, deadlift or squat. In essence, whenever the spinal column is required to both support heavy loads and move so as to allow flexibility through the trunk and core region, the traps, acting on the scapulae, are called on to provide support.

Without strong traps, you open yourself up to potential back injury, and at the very least, our strength on basic core movements is compromised.

Further, the superior trapezius (or descending, upper region), important as it is for supporting the weight of our arms, comes into play whenever we target our biceps and triceps: a weak trapezius may therefore limit the amount of weight lifted for each of these key muscle groups and, in turn, may also limit muscle growth in these areas.

Aesthetically speaking, well developed trapezius muscles, positioned atop our shoulders like two mini-mountains, promote mass appeal; no impressive bodybuilder, past or present, has sported anything less than bulging, titanic traps. Likewise, a thick, densely muscle back (including the coveted lat muscles) is not complete without a perfect centerpiece comprised of prominent top to bottom, side to side trapezius development.

A Word of Caution

While the purpose of this article is to provide ideas on how best to build the traps, and why they are essential for complete muscular development, we must never over develop them at the expense of other body parts, in particular the shoulders, which must also be built to full capacity if a proportionate, symmetrical physique is the aim.

Building Traps the Right Way

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Because our larger, stronger muscles predominantly are engaged whenever we work the back, the traps (which are part of the back complex), in particular the upper region, may not receive the specific stimulus needed to fully grow. Thus, they must be prioritized with movements best suited to their full recruitment.

Like other muscle groupings, the traps, as part of the back complex, do not work exclusively in isolation, nor can the separate trapezius areas be strictly isolated with specific movements; however, there are ways we can emphasize the recruitment of the upper, middle and lower traps to reveal as much detail as possible in each.

First up, keep drilling heavy, basic movements such as the bent over barbell row, deadlift and weighted chin-up: these incorporate the entire trapezius and are essential for complete traps development (as are similarly systemic exercises such as the squat and bench press, but to a lesser extent). However, though effective, a solid regime of mass building movements will flesh out the traps only so much.

Top 4 Trapezius Movements

Dumbbell Shrugs

Probably the best traps movement of all time, the dumbbell shrug, when properly performed, targets the entire traps, from the upper to lower regions. Be sure to keep the elbows behind the body, rather than to the front, to work all three sections of the trapezius. To perform, shrug dumbbells as high as possible as if to touch shoulders to earlobes, squeeze hard at the top, and slowly lower, feeling the negative all the way down.

Behind the Back Barbell Shrugs

An excellent all-round trap builder (and a favorite of eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney), this movement builds complete trapezius size and shape. To perform, grasp a barbell with an overhand grip from behind the back (rest bar on bench and bend at the knees until bar can be grabbed). Move bar further back a fraction to avoid contacting the backside and pull bar as high as possible without bending the arms. Squeeze at top and slowly lower to starting position.

Close Grip Barbell Upright Rows

Adopting a close grip and keeping upper arms parallel to the ground, pull bar to nose-level and forcefully contract the traps, before lowering bar to starting position. This movement hits the upper traps and the hard to reach frontal trap area above the clavicle region.

Wide Grip Dumbbell Upright Rows

Another upper trap builder, this movement allows for a greater range of motion on the upward phase. Not employed specifically to target the upper traps, as is the close grip barbell version, it nevertheless puts tremendous pressure on this area and the middle trapezius region. Begin with dumbbells at your sides with palms facing back, pull weights to just below the front deltoid region, and squeeze traps. Slowly lower to starting position.

Note: with all traps movements, maintain the momentum, in a controlled fashion, from the beginning of the set to the end. No swinging and no resting at the bottom of the movement (though a slight squeeze and pause is to be achieved at the top). If the weight you are using forces you to rest at the bottom, drop down to lighter dumbbells and continue the set until the prescribed rep range is achieved.

When to Train Traps

Trapezius training features in both shoulder and back training sessions. For my money, because the traps are part of the back, they should be trained with the back so as to avoid potentially overtraining this area (if we work traps with shoulders and train shoulders and back twice weekly, our traps are effectively hammered four times per week). Also, by training traps with back we may lift heavier on all traps movements, and avoid injury, because the spinal area will be better lubricated and adequately warmed from the preceding back work.

12 Week Trap Building Program

For the purposes of the specialized traps training program to follow, the traps will be worked once a week with back and additionally in their own separate workout.

s/w = super set with

Monday: Back & Traps

Schedule traps first in this workout and pick a back training regimen of your choosing (but, if possible, be sure to include deadlifts and chins ups, which work all major back muscles as well as significantly targeting the traps).

  • Dumbbell Shrugs  s/w Wide Grip Barbell Rows – 3 x 8-12
  • Behind the Back Barbell Shrugs – 3 x 8-12

Tuesday: Arms

  • Biceps/Triceps/Forearms – Exercises of choice

Wednesday: Chest & Shoulders

  • Exercises of choice

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Traps

  • Behind the Back Barbell Shrugs s/w Dumbbell Upright Rows – 4 x 8-12
  • Dumbbell Shrugs – 3 Drop Sets x 8-12 
  • Wide Grip Upright Rows – 3 x 8-12

Saturday: Legs

  • Exercises of choice

Sunday: Rest

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David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and Bodybuilding.com. With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: davidrobson19@hotmail.co.nz and at davidrobsonelite.com

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