The lower traps are easily one of the most important muscle groups of the entire upper body. They play a critical role in stabilizing the scapulae and allowing you to build upper body muscle mass and strength.
If you want to maximize your long-term progress then you must start using the most effective lower trap exercises!
- Exercise #1: Straight-Arm Pull Ups
- Exercise #2: Low Pulley Trap 3 Raise
- Exercise #3: Prone Trap 3 raise
- Exercise #4: Supported Trap 3 Raise
- Exercise #5: Overhead Presses
- Exercise #6: Chin Ups And Pull Ups
- Exercise #7: Cable Face Pulls
- Exercise #8: Snatch Grip Deadlifts
- Exercise #9: Safety Squat Bar Good Mornings
- Exercise #10: Farmer’s Walk
- Exercise #11: The Olympic Lifts
In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you everything you need to know about how to select and perform the best exercises for training the lower traps.
The lower traps are one of the most under trained muscle groups. Most trainees are far more concerned with training their chest or biceps than they are the lower traps. This is a shame as the lower traps play an absolutely critical role in helping you to build a bigger, stronger upper body.
The lower traps have 4 major functions:
- Retracting the scapula
- Depressing the scapula
- Posteriorly tilting the scapula
- Upwardly rotating the scapula
As you can see the lower traps play a critical role in stabilizing and controlling the scapula. They are heavily recruited as stabilizing muscles during almost all compound upper body exercises such as bench presses and chin ups.
In recent years many bodybuilding and powerlifting coaches have started to understand and teach the extreme importance of training the muscles that control and stabilize the scapula bones.
IFBB professional bodybuilder Ben Pakulski has gone on record saying that nothing will help you add muscle mass to your upper body as much as strengthening the muscles that stabilize and control the scapula.
Check it out:
Charles Poliquin is another strength coach who believes in the extreme importance of training the lower traps.
Charles firmly believes that the #1 limiting factor in the ability for most people to build a bigger, stronger upper body is an extreme weakness in either the lower traps or the rotator cuff (another shoulder stabilizing muscle).
There are many different exercises that you could use to target the lower traps. In this guide I am going to teach you 11 of the most effective lower trap exercises of all time.
I have personally used MANY of these exercises as a licensed physical therapist to dramatically improve the shoulder health of countless patients. I have also used these exercises to help many of my online coaching clients build muscle mass and strength unbelievably quickly.
How The Lower Trap Exercises Are Organized
The first half of this article is dedicated to the best lower trap isolation exercises. If you have a severe weakness in your lower traps then I highly recommend you start with these exercises.
It is critical that you first learn how to properly recruit the lower traps through isolation exercises. These lower trap isolation exercises could easily be performed at the end of your regular upper body routines.
The second half of this article is dedicated to the most effective compound exercises for targeting the lower traps. Exercises such as the overhead press, pull ups, and the Olympic lifts such as power cleans and power snatches will be covered in great detail.
Now let’s get down to business…
Exercise #1: Straight-Arm Pull Ups
The idea behind a straight-arm pull up is simple: you are going to try to bring your chest up to the bar without bending your elbows. In order to do this you are going to activate your lower traps by pulling your shoulder blades down and in.
I recommend you use a wide overhand grip while performing this exercise to maximize the recruitment of your lower traps.
Here is a video demonstration of this exercise:
The first part of the video demonstrates the straight-arm pullup. The athlete performs three reps in a row with a 6-second isometric pause in the shortened position.
The straight-arm pull up is one of the very first exercises that I give to my bodybuilding and powerlifting clients to strengthen their lower traps.
The exercise does a fantastic job of emphasizing two of the main functions of the lower traps:
- Scapular retraction
- Scapular depression
This essentially means that the lower traps help to pull your shoulder blades down and in. And this is exactly what you are doing in this exercise!
I strongly recommend you experiment with longer isometric pauses in the top or shortened position of this exercise. These isometric pauses are great for stimulating rapid strength gains in the lower traps and dramatically increasing your ability to recruit this muscle group.
Do not be surprised if you can handle more than just your own bodyweight while performing this exercise.
Most trainees will be able to add extra weight to a dipping belt or hold a dumbbell between their legs while performing this exercise. This is of course in stark contrast to the other major lower trap isolation exercises which tend to be extremely mechanically challenging.
Exercise #2: Low Pulley Trap 3 Raise
The low pulley trap 3 raise is definitely one of the best isolation exercises that you can perform to strengthen your lower traps. The exercise is quite difficult to explain so let’s go ahead and take a look at some videos.
Here is the exercise performed with the pulley set near the ground:
And here is the exercise performed with the pulley set around shoulder height:
This exercise emphasizes all 4 major functions of the lower traps: retracting, depressing, posteriorly tilting, and upwardly rotating the scapula.
The first step to performing this exercise is to pull your working shoulder blade back. You should feel like you are trying to pinch your shoulder blades together. This first step is extremely important for activating the lower traps and is clearly demonstrated in both of the above videos.
Once your shoulder blade is pulled back and down you raise your working arm up in a diagonal pattern. Your arm should move diagonally up and out in a “Y” pattern. Moving your arm in this direction maximizes the recruitment of the lower traps as this matches the directional orientation of the muscle fibers of the lower traps.
The most important thing with this exercise (and all other lower trap exercises) is that you are able to feel your lower traps working. If you cannot feel it in the right places then this exercise is practically useless!
As you can see in the above videos you can vary the exercise by placing the pulley lower towards the ground or at chest height.
When the pulley is closer to the ground the exercise is somewhat easier as you are overloading more of the stretched position of the exercise.
On the other hand the exercise is much more mechanically challenging when the pulley is set at shoulder height because you are then overloading the shortened position of the strength curve.
If you have weak lower trap muscles then I highly recommend you begin experimenting with this exercise towards the end of your upper body workouts for relatively higher rep ranges.
Exercise #3: Prone Trap 3 Raise
The prone trap 3 raise is BY FAR one of the most important exercises that you can do to develop the lower traps. This exercise is somewhat similar to the low pulley trap 3 raise.
The major difference is that instead of using a cable pulley you are going to lie face-down on an adjustable incline bench and raise a pair of dumbbells.
Here is Nick Mitchell (one of the world’s leading body transformation experts) giving an excellent overview of the prone trap 3 raise. I highly recommend you watch it start to finish with the volume turned up:
As Nick Mitchell correctly points out it is absolutely critical that you feel this exercise in your mid-lower back as you are performing it. Most people will have to use extremely light weights the first time they try this exercise.
I often have first-time online coaching clients who have to resort to using the pink dumbbells on this exercise!
I also appreciate that Nick Mitchell emphasizes the need to pause in the top position of this exercise. Pausing in the shortened position makes the lower traps work MUCH harder and ensures that you are using your muscles rather than momentum to move the weight.
Many strength coaches such as Charles Poliquin have advocated for isometric holds as long as 6 seconds in the shortened position but isometric pauses as brief as 1-3 seconds are also extremely effective.
One of the great things about this exercise is that it is extremely versatile: it can be performed on a 45 degree, 30 degree, or 15 degree incline bench. You can click on the following links to see for yourself:
- Click here for a video of the 45 degree trap 3 raise
- Click here for a video of the 30 degree trap 3 raise
- Click here for a video of the 15 degree trap 3 raise
The 45 degree incline bench places you in a relatively stronger mechanical position so you should be somewhat stronger on this variation.
The large incline also makes it somewhat easier to recruit the lower traps relative to the other supporting muscles of the upper body. For these reasons I recommend you start with the 45 degree prone trap 3 raise before progressing to the 30 and 15 degree variations.
The 15 degree trap 3 raise is far the most difficult variation of this exercise. The 15 degree incline bench makes it particularly difficult to fully contract or shorten your lower traps at the top position of this exercise.
I strongly recommend you master the 45 and 30 degree variations of this exercise before progressing to the 15 degree variation.
Exercise #4: Supported Trap 3 Raise
This is by far the most challenging of the lower trap isolation exercises. Instead of lying face-down on an incline bench you are going to perform this exercise bent-over in a standing position with your forehead resting on an incline bench.
Unlike the prone trap 3 raise this exercise is almost always performed unilaterally, or with only one arm working at a time. This exercise is quite mechanically demanding and should be progressed to after mastering the other easier lower trap exercises.
The world’s greatest strength coach Charles Poliquin was a big proponent of this exercise. In fact this is the exercise that Charles used to determine the relative strength of his athletes’ lower traps.
During his career he developed a formula that told him how strong an athletes’ lower traps should be relative to their other muscle groups.
The weight that you can use on a supported trap 3 raise for 8 reps should be 10.2% of your 1-rep max on the shoulder-width bench press. In other words if someone can bench press 300 pounds with a shoulder-width grip for 1 rep then they should be able to perform the supported trap 3 raise with a 30.6 pound dumbbell for 8 repetitions.
Charles found that when his athletes achieved this strength ratio their progress in the gym went through the roof and their risk of injury dramatically decreased. If you are reading this article then you are probably nowhere near achieving this strength ratio!
Don’t worry, we all have to start somewhere. If you work hard at the various lower trap isolation exercises for 2-4 months then you will be MUCH closer to reaching this strength ratio and the strength and size of your upper body will significantly improve.
Exercise #5: Overhead Presses
Now that we’ve covered the best lower trap isolation exercises let’s continue our discussion with the best lower trap compound exercises.
As you probably already know a compound exercise is one that involves two or more joints working at the same time. Squats, deadlifts, bench presses and chin ups are all classic examples of compound exercises.
Most people do not know this but the overhead press is actually one of the very best exercises that you can perform for strengthening the lower traps!
As I mentioned in the introduction to this article one of the major functions of the lower traps is upwardly rotating the scapula during overhead movements. This means that the lower traps actually help to rotate the scapula laterally and upwards during all kinds of overhead presses.
If your lower traps are too weak then your overhead pressing strength will be very limited. On the other hand training the overhead press can be a great way to strengthen your lower traps!
There are of course many different versions of the overhead press. In this article I would like to highlight some of the most effective variations for strengthening the lower traps.
As a very general rule of thumb all overhead pressing movements can be grouped into two categories:
- Shoulder flexion exercises
- Shoulder abduction exercises
Shoulder flexion exercises include all variations of the military press and strict barbell overhead press. In these exercises you have to flex your shoulders to initiate the movement. In other words your elbows move forwards in front of your body before arching back over your head.
This is in contrast to the shoulder abduction exercises such as the dumbbell overhead press and the behind the neck press. With these exercise variations your elbows move laterally away from your body before arching back over your head.
As a general rule of thumb overhead pressing exercises that emphasize shoulder abduction are superior choices for strengthening the lower traps but all of these exercises have merit.
Here is the barbell military press:
This is a fantastic exercise for strengthening the traps but perhaps slightly less effective than the other overhead pressing variations.
Here is an example of the seated DB overhead press:
This exercise has the benefit of forcing your trapezius muscles to work independently from each other to stabilize the load and upwardly rotate your scapula.
Here is a video of the behind the neck press:
The behind the neck press is easily one of the most underutilized exercises in any commercial gym. Some people believe that the behind the neck press is a “shoulder wrecker” and should be avoided at all costs. In reality nothing could be further from the truth!
If you have a normal or healthy amount of range of motion in your shoulders then the behind the neck press is an excellent exercise for strengthening not only your lower traps but the rest of your upper back, your shoulders and your triceps.
Of course there are ways to manipulate the behind the neck press to make your lower traps work even harder. One such way is to hold the barbell with a snatch grip while you are pressing.
The Russian weightlifting superstar Dmitry Klokov has done so much to popularize the snatch grip behind the neck press that many people call this exercise a “Klokov press.”
The bodybuilding / powerlifting coach Paul Carter is also a big proponent of this exercise.
Your lower traps have to work INCREDIBLY hard in the very bottom position of this exercise to get the weight moving. Trust me, your lower traps and the rest of your upper back will feel absolutely destroyed after just a few hard sets of this exercise!
Exercise #6: Chin Ups And Pull Ups
Chin ups and pull ups are easily some of the best exercises that you can use to recruit the lower traps. The lower traps play a critical role in retracting and depressing your scapula throughout the entire movement of these exercises.
Most trainees are familiar with at least 3 types of pull ups:
- Neutral grip pull ups
- Underhand grip chin ups
- Overhand grip pull ups
Here is an example of neutral grip pull ups:
Here is an example of supinated grip chin ups:
And here is an example of pronated grip pull ups:
The most important thing when performing any of these exercises (at least in terms of recruiting the lower traps!) is to make sure that your upper chest touches the bar on every rep. Yes, you read that right: your upper chest should touch the bar on every rep!
I tell all of my online coaching clients that if your upper chest does not touch the bar then it does NOT count as a complete rep!
In order to do this you have to arch your upper back while forcefully retracting and depressing your scapula. If you have been paying attention then you know that this is key for recruiting the lower traps!
If you are new to pull ups then I recommend you start with the neutral grip before progressing to the supinated and pronated grips. You are in a much stronger mechanical position with the neutral grip which should make the exercise that much easier.
Once you have mastered the neutral grip you can progress to the more challenging supinated and pronated grips. Of course the wide pronated grip is the most challenging of all and should only be performed once you are proficient in the other variations.
There are of course many advanced variations of pull ups and chin ups that stress the lower traps even harder. In my experience your best options are the following two exercises:
- Sternum pull ups
- Lean-away pull ups on rings
Sternum pull ups were a favourite of the legendary bodybuilding guru Vince Gironda. The basic idea is to lean back throughout the entire movement such that your lower sternum touches the bar in the top position!
Here is a sample video of the sternum pull up:
As you can see the trainees lower sternum makes contact with the bar in the top position. The beginning of the movement is more like a traditional pull up. However, the middle of the movement is more like a pullover and the end is more like a row.
This exercise overloads the entire upper back but is particularly demanding on the lower traps and the other scapular retractors.
This exercise is far too challenging for the average trainee to pull off. That being said if you are strong enough to perform this exercise then I highly recommend you make it a staple of your long-term upper back exercise selection.
The lean away pull up on rings is of course another fantastic advanced pull up variation for overloading the lower traps.
The concentric (lifting) portion of the exercise is performed as usual. Once you reach the top of the movement you are going to push your upper body away from the rings while lowering yourself down.
Here is a great video example by Marcus Filly:
When you push yourself away from the rings with a neutral grip your lower traps (and the rest of your scapular retractors) have to work overtime to stabilize your upper body.
If you perform this exercise correctly you will actually find that the lowering portion of the movement is more demanding than the lifting portion. For this reason the lean away pull up on rings can actually be considered a form of accentuated eccentric training!
If you have access to chin up rings then I highly recommend you begin using this exercise to strengthen your lower traps.
Exercise #7: Cable Face Pulls
Almost all rowing exercises will work the lower traps to some degree. After all the lower traps are recruited as scapular retractors during most rowing exercises. However, in my experience one of the very best forms of rows that you can perform for the lower traps is the seated cable face pull with a rope attachment.
This exercise is particularly effective because the elbows are fully abducted (pointed out to your sides) throughout the entire movement. This recruits the scapular retractor muscles to a greater degree than exercises such as barbell rows where your elbows are tucked in towards your sides.
This exercise has the added benefit of recruiting the external rotators of the rotator cuff very strongly. Of course you could also perform any other rowing exercise where your elbows are pointed out towards your sides such as the chest supported row.
However, in my experience no other rowing exercise works the lower traps quite as hard as the seated cable face pull with a rope attachment.
I strongly recommend you experiment with 1-3 second pauses in the shortened position of this exercise to overload your lower traps even harder.
Exercise #8: Snatch Grip Deadlifts
The snatch grip deadlift is probably one of the most underrated exercises that you can perform. I have trained in various commercial gyms and hardcore bodybuilding or powerlifting gyms all over the United States and I have never seen someone else perform a snatch grip deadlift in person!
The snatch grip deadlift is performed just like a regular conventional deadlift. The major difference is that you will be holding the barbell with a very wide grip that resembles the starting position of a snatch.
This exercise works your lower traps as well as the rest of the backside of your body MUCH harder than traditional conventional deadlifts.
Here is a sample training video for this exercise:
As you can see the snatch grip forces you to squat down several more inches when compared to a regular conventional deadlift. The range of motion for this exercise is somewhat similar to a conventional deadlift performed from a 4 inch deficit.
The combination of the wide grip on the barbell and the increased range of motion of the exercise forces your lower traps and all of the other deadlifting muscles to work MUCH harder.
EMG studies have demonstrated quite convincingly that this exercise works your traps, rhomboids, lats, spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, and quads harder than other forms of deadlifts.
So why the heck aren’t more people using this exercise? If I had to guess I would say that most trainees are simply unaware of this exercise.
Outside of some of the best strength and physique coaches in the world such as Charles Poliquin, Christian Thibadeau and Nick Mitchell you just don’t see a lot of people promoting this exercise. This is quite a shame as few exercises work your lower traps (or the rest of your body) quite like snatch grip deadlifts.
There are at least 2 major variations of this exercise that you can perform for added variety:
- Snatch grip rack pulls
- Deficit snatch grip deadlifts
Here is a video of the snatch grip rack pull:
This variation has the added benefit of allowing you to use significantly more weight.
Here is a video of the deficit snatch grip deadlift:
By performing this exercise from a deficit you dramatically increase the range of motion. The starting position of this exercise is almost like the bottom position of an Olympic back squat!
Of course the added range of motion will allow you to recruit additional motor units in the lower traps.
In conclusion if you are looking for a deadlifting variation to strengthen your lower traps then look no further than the snatch grip deadlift.
Exercise #9: Safety Squat Bar Exercises
The safety squat bar is probably the single most effective “specialty barbell” that you can use. The safety squat bar is designed with a built-in camber so that the center of gravity of the implement is actually further forward than you would experience with a regular barbell.
This basically means that the bar is trying to tilt your body forwards so that your face smacks right into the ground below you!
In order to combat this you need to fire your lower traps and the rest of your upper back to maintain an upright posture.
The scientific literature has demonstrated quite convincingly that the squats performed with a safety squat bar recruits the lower traps to a much greater degree than squats performed with a regular barbell.
There are at least two major exercises that you can perform with a safety squat bar:
- Safety squat bar squats
- Safety squat bar good mornings
Both of these exercises have merit in terms of overloading the lower traps.
Here is a video example of the safety squat bar squat:
It is hard to tell but throughout the entire set the safety squat bar is trying to bend Hafthor forwards so that he face plants on the ground. His lower traps are forced to work overtime to pull his shoulder blades down and back so that he does not tip over.
Here is a video demonstration of the safety squat bar good morning:
This exercise is actually MUCH harder on the lower traps than the squats as performed above. Normally a good morning exercise performed with a straight barbell will overload your lower back much harder than your upper back.
Good mornings performed with a safety squat bar are a completely different animal because your lower traps and the rest of your backside have to work INCREDIBLY hard to prevent you from face planting on the ground!
Trust me, the first time you perform this exercise you will understand exactly what I am talking about.
If you have access to a safety squat bar then I highly recommend you give safety squat bar squats or especially safety squat bar good mornings a shot.
Exercise #10: Farmer’s Walk
The farmer’s walk is another highly underrated exercise for developing the lower traps. Here is Stan “The White Rhino” Efferding showing us how it’s done:
Research has clearly shown that the lower traps (as well as the rest of the scapular retractors and the rotator cuff) are STRONGLY recruited during the farmer’s walk to help stabilize the shoulder joint.
These muscles actually have to contract isometrically to keep the shoulder from flying all over the place. This exercise may not cause serious soreness in your lower traps but believe me when I say your lower traps will be recruited very strongly.
This is simply one of the best exercises you can do to promote optimal upper body structural balance. If you have access to a pair of farmer’s walk handles then I strongly recommend you give these a shot.
Of course if you do not have access to farmer’s walk handles then the choice is clear: switch to a hardcore gym!
Exercise #11: The Olympic Lifts
Variations of the Olympic Weightlifting lifts are extremely effective for developing not only the lower traps but the middle and upper traps as well. One of the major drawbacks of the Olympic lifts is that they are extremely technical exercises that require many years of training before they can be performed with perfect technique.
If you are a regular reader here on Revolutionary Program Design then I highly doubt you compete in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. My articles are more geared towards bodybuilders, powerlifters, and anyone who wants to build muscle mass and strength as quickly as possible.
Don’t worry, there are ways to reap the benefits of the Olympic lifts without having to spend years mastering exercise technique. I recommend that you instead perform modified versions of the Olympic lifts.
Specifically I recommend you consider performing the following three exercise variations:
- The power clean
- The power snatch
- The Klokov muscle snatch
All three of these exercises are performed VERY explosively and allow you to overload your traps without worrying too much about picture-perfect technique.
Here is a video of the power clean:
This exercise is extremely popular amongst football players and other athletes who need to display high levels of explosive strength. The key with this exercise is to rapidly accelerate the bar once it is right below your knees. Your lower, middle, and upper traps are heavily recruited in order to maximally accelerate the barbell.
The power snatch is another great exercise that you can perform. For example:
Unfortunately this exercise does demand a higher level of technical skill to perform than the power snatch. If you do not want to invest the time necessary to learn this exercise then I have a fantastic compromise for you: the Klokov muscle snatch!
Basically this is a snatch performed from the bottom position of a squat. As you can see this movement is performed very explosively during the concentric range.
The Klokov muscle snatch is hands-down one of THE BEST lower trap exercises that you can perform. It is also extremely effective for developing the middle trapezius, the rhomboids and the delts.
One of the reasons that this exercise works so well is that your arms are extended diagonally out to your sides during the movement. This exercise almost mimics the prone trap 3 raise but with significantly more weight!
Trust me, the day after you first perform this exercise your lower traps will be more sore than you can imagine. I highly recommend this exercise if you have superior flexibility in all the major joints and access to Olympic-style bumper plates.
The lower traps are a very important muscle group. Unfortunately most trainees have no clue as to why they should train the lower traps or which exercises they should use to train them.
I hope this comprehensive guide shows you once and for all the best exercises to use to train the lower traps. If you make at least some of these exercises a core part of your exercise selection then I am confident you will be well on your way to a bigger, stronger, and healthier upper body.
“If you want to turn a vision into reality, you have to give 100% and never stop believing in your dream.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
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