The lower traps are easily one of the most neglected body parts on the human body. This is a real shame as the lower traps play a critical role in keeping your shoulders healthy and strong. If your goals include building a big, strong upper body the you must learn how to train your lower traps properly!
- Part 1: Lower Traps Functional Anatomy
- Part 2: Training For Structural Balance
- Part 3: Lower Traps Exercise Selection
- Part 4: Lower Traps Exercise Tempo
- Part 5: Sample Training Programs
When most bodybuilders or powerlifters hear the word “traps” they immediately think of the slabs of muscle resting on top of the upper back in between the ears and the shoulders.
The upper traps are definitely a visually impressive muscle and they play a crucial role in many exercises such as the back squat and the deadlift. It is no surprise that many trainees perform barbell and dumbbell shrugs in their training in order to target this muscle.
Most trainees do not realize that there are three parts of the trapezius muscle:
- The upper traps
- The middle traps
- The lower traps
The lower traps are an extremely important muscle group. Unfortunately most trainees spend far too much time training their upper traps and far too little time training their lower traps!
The lower traps play a key role in stabilizing and depressing your shoulder joint during compound upper body exercises such as bench presses, overhead presses, chin ups and pull ups.
If your lower traps are too weak relative to the rest of your upper body then it will be extremely difficult for you to build a bigger, stronger upper body. To make matters worse a pair of weak lower traps will also increase your risk of injury!
I am truly speaking from experience here: I can’t tell you the number of patients I have personally worked with as a physical therapist who had some type of shoulder injury. In the VAST majority of cases these patients had a pair of weak lower traps that was either exacerbating or directly contributing to their injury.
In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you everything there is to know about training the lower traps.
I will be teaching you the relevant functional anatomy of the lower traps, optimal strength ratios for the lower traps, and the best exercises and tempos for targeting the lower traps.
At the end of this article I will also be providing you with two sample lower trap training programs that you can start using today to bring this lagging muscle group up to par with the rest of your upper body!
If you have any trouble reading the training routines provided here then I highly recommend you consult the following article:
Now Let’s Get Down To Business…
Part 1: Lower Traps Functional Anatomy
There is no getting around it: if you want to reach your goals as quickly as possible then you must understand the functional anatomy of the muscle group you are trying to train. This is especially true when it comes to training the lower traps.
The shoulder joint is easily the most mobile joint in the human body. This is obviously very useful and has helped the human race to become the undisputed apex predator on planet Earth. However, this extra mobility does come at a cost: the shoulder joint is inherently unstable.
The human shoulder relies heavily on two muscle groups to achieve an appropriate level of stability:
- The rotator cuff
- The lower traps
I am sure you have heard of the term “the rotator cuff.” The rotator cuff describes a family of 4 small muscles that originate on the scapula and attach to the upper arm. The rotator cuff is directly responsible for providing stability to the shoulder joint.
However, you must keep in mind that the rotator cuff attaches to the scapula. As you may know the scapula is an inherently unstable muscle as well!
If you want your rotator cuff muscles to function optimally then you also need to make sure the scapula itself is properly stabilized. As it turns out the single most important muscle group responsible for stabilizing the scapula is the lower traps!
The lower traps are located right smack in the middle of your upper back and perform 4 extremely important functions:
- Retract the scapula
- Depress the scapula
- Upwardly rotate the scapula
- Posteriorly tilt the scapula
Don’t worry, I will walk you through each of these different functions so you have a very clear understanding of what the lower traps actually do. To kick things off let’s talk about the first two major functions of the lower traps: retracting and depressing the scapula.
Most trainees are at least somewhat familiar with the idea of retracting and depressing the scapula. In layman’s terms the lower traps help you to do the following two things:
- Pull the scapula down
- Pull the scapula back
That’s it! Think about the bottom position of a chin up where your arms are fully extended. If you wanted to you could actually raise your head up towards the bar without bending your elbows You would accomplish this by activating your lower traps and pulling your shoulder blades down and back.
Here is a great video example:
Any time you perform a compound exercise for your upper body such as bench presses, overhead presses, chin ups, pull ups, dips, or rows your lower traps are activated to stabilize your scapulae. If your scapulae are not stabilized then you will never be able to tap into your true strength level on that exercise.
The greatest strength coach of all time Charles Poliquin often said that bench pressing with a pair of weak lower traps is like trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe! It doesn’t matter how much force you are applying, if you are not pressing from a stable foundation then you are never going to get very far.
IFBB Pro Ben Pakuslki is also a big believer in training the lower traps to improve your ability to control your scapula.
I highly recommend the following video featuring Ben to learn more:
Now let’s talk about the third major function of the lower traps: upwardly rotating the scapula. The lower traps also play an absolutely critical role in overhead pressing movements.
The scapula itself has to rotate upwards any time you reach overhead or perform an overhead press. The scapula does not just do this on its own – it relies on various muscles to perform this function. As you may have guessed the lower traps help to upwardly rotate the scapulae.
If you have been stuck at an overhead press plateau for a long time then your lower traps may actually be the muscle group holding you back.
Finally let’s talk about the fourth major function of the lower traps: posteriorly tilting the scapula. Most people living in the modern world have extremely poor upper body posture. Their shoulders are anteriorly tilted or rounded forwards and inwards.
This places an enormous amount of stress on the shoulders, neck, and upper back.
There are many reasons why so many people have poor posture these days; computers and cell phones immediately come to mind. Of course poorly designed training programs are also a huge factor!
The lower traps are the muscle group chiefly responsible for combating this kind of hunched-over posture. The lower traps actually force the scapula to tilt backwards which prevents your upper back from rounding over in the first place!
The bottom line is that the lower traps play a huge role in maintaining optimal shoulder posture and bio mechanics. A strong pair of lower trap muscles will allow a bodybuilder or powerlifter to make MUCH faster progress and prevent unwanted shoulder injuries.
Part 2: Training For Structural Balance
Clearly it is important to train your lower traps. But how strong should your lower traps actually be? Fortunately for us Charles Poliquin answered this question all the way back in 1992!
For those of you not familiar with the man Charles Poliquin was the greatest strength coach in the world. He trained Olympic medalists in 24 different sports and countless professional athletes.
Charles was absolutely obsessed with producing the best possible results for his athletes. In 1992 Charles published the world’s first upper body structural balance norms. Charles figured out that when the muscles of the upper body are all in proper balance with each other his athletes made much faster progress in the weight room.
In other words Charles figured out that there is always a weak muscle group limiting your overall progress on a lift.
The key to progressing as fast as possible is to identify this weak muscle group and strengthen it. Powerlifting guru Louie Simmons is also a big proponent of strengthening weak muscle groups. Louie likes to say that “a chain is only as strong as the weakest link.”
Charles discovered that almost all of his athletes had a weakness in their lower traps that was limiting their overall performance on various upper body indicator lifts such as the bench press. Charles used advanced statistical analysis on the training logs of his clients to discover the following strength ratio:
- Close grip bench press: 100%
- Unilateral unsupported lower trap raise: 10.2% x 8 reps
In other words, if you can close grip bench press 300 pounds for 1 rep then you should be able to perform a unilateral unsupported lower trap raise with 30.6 pounds for 8 reps.
Here is a video demonstration of a close grip bench press:
And here is a video demonstration of a lower trap raise:
Most of you reading this will not even be close to achieving this strength ratio. I have coached hundreds of clients and it is very rare that I have a first-time client who can use more than 5 pounds on this exercise!
Trust me, it is well worth the effort to strengthen your lower traps so that they are in balance with the rest of your upper body. Of course in order to do this you need to know which exercises to use…
Part 3: Lower Traps Exercise Selection
It is not enough to understand the importance of training the lower traps. You must also know which exercises to use to strengthen this muscle group!
Here is a list of the best isolation and compound exercises for the lower traps. These exercises are presented in no particular order:
Lower Trap Isolation Exercises
- Scapular depressions
- Prone trap 3 raise
- Unsupported trap 3 raise
Lower Trap Compound Exercises
- Pull ups and Chin ups
- Overhead presses
- Klokov muscle snatch
Of course the Olympic lifts such as the power clean and power snatch etc. are also very effective at developing the lower traps. For the purposes of this article we will not be discussing variations of the Olympic lifts.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these exercises:
Lower trap exercise #1: scapular retractions
One of the best exercises to teach your body to “turn on” and active the lower traps is actually scapular retractions performed on a wide overhand grip pull up. The basic idea is to try and pull your chest up to the pull up bar without bending your arms.
In order to do this you have to forcefully pull your shoulder blades down and in. If you do this correctly you should be able to elevate your chest by 2-4 inches without bending your arms!
Here is Charles Poliquin coaching his client through a set of pull ups where he first pre-fatigues his lower traps with some scapular retractions:
As a general rule of thumb this exercise works best with long pauses in the top or shortened position of the strength curve. You may want to experiment with 2-6 second isometric pauses in the shortened position of this exercise to maximally fatigue the lower traps.
Lower trap exercise #2: prone trap 3 raise
The prone trap 3 raise is easily one of the most effective lower trap isolation exercises. It is also one of the most versatile lower trap exercises as it can be performed on either a 15, 30, or 45 degree incline bench.
Here is the 45 degree prone trap 3 raise:
Here is the 30 degree prone trap 3 raise:
And here is the 15 degree prone trap 3 raise:
As you can see you are going to be laying face-down on an incline bench set between 15-45 degrees. The first thing you want to do is to retract and depress your shoulder blades. This will help you to activate the lower traps.
Once you have your scapulae pulled back and down you will then raise your arms in a “Y” pattern. That is, you raise your arms diagonally up and to the sides. This movement pattern perfectly matches the orientation of the lower traps and helps to maximally recruit this muscle group.
It is not uncommon for some extremely strong bench pressers to have to resort to the pink dumbbells the first time they try this exercise!
As a general rule of thumb you should start out with the 45 degree incline bench. The 15 and 30 degree incline benches are much more mechanically challenging and should be progressed to only once you have mastered the 45 degree version of this exercise.
Lower trap exercise #3: unsupported trap 3 raise
This is by far the most advanced of the lower trap isolation exercises. The exercise is very similar to the prone trap 3 raise. The main difference is that you will not be laying face-down on an incline bench. For example:
This exercise is normally performed one arm at a time. This exercise requires a significantly greater degree of scapular control than the prone trap 3 raise. This is also the exercise that Charles Poliquin uses in his upper body structural balance evaluation.
Lower trap exercise #4: pull ups and chin ups
Pull ups and chin ups are some of the most effective exercises to develop the lower traps. However there is a big caveat to this statement: they have to be performed correctly! The real magic of pull ups and chin ups for developing the lower traps occurs at the top of the movement.
It is EXTREMELY important that you arch your upper back and try to touch your upper chest to the pull up bar. Yes, I said your upper chest! For example here is a properly executed set of pull ups:
The only way to accomplish this is to maximally recruit your lower traps.
Of course there are ways to make pull ups and chin ups even more effective for recruiting the lower traps. Two great exercise variations are the sternum pull up and the lean away chin up on rings.
The sternum pull up involves leaning back throughout the concentric range so that your lower sternum touches the bar in the top position!
This is an outrageously difficult pull up variation and should be reserved for highly advanced trainees.
The lean away chin up on rings is another great way to overload the lower traps. When you lean away on the eccentric range you are eccentrically overloading the lower traps as well as the other scapular retractors.
Of course you do not have to resort to highly advanced pull up and chin up variations to strengthen your lower traps. The key is to focus on bringing your upper chest to the bar whilst maximally depressing your scapulae.
If you find yourself internally rotating your shoulders in the top position then you are doing yourself a disservice. As Charles Poliquin used to say, “garbage reps gives you garbage results.”
Lower trap exercise #5: overhead presses
Not many people know this but the lower traps are heavily involved in all overhead pressing movements. As we discussed earlier one of the major functions of the lower traps is to upwardly rotate the scapula.
Basically whenever you perform an overhead press your lower traps have to work extra hard to keep your shoulder joint properly aligned. If your lower traps are too weak relative to your upper traps then your performance on all types of overhead presses will be severely limited.
All forms of overhead presses are beneficial in terms of addressing a lower trap strength deficit. However, as a general rule of thumb exercises that emphasize shoulder abduction rather than shoulder flexion tend to recruit the lower traps more.
There are at least 4 major free weight overhead press exercises that you should be familiar with (you can click on the links for videos of each exercise):
This last exercise is particularly effective at overloading the lower traps so I will discuss it in more detail here. The snatch grip behind the neck press is often called a “Klokov press” because of the efforts of Dmitry Klokov to popularize this exercise.
Many people who have a hard time performing a shoulder-width behind the neck press find they can easily perform this exercise. It is almost unbelievable how hard this exercise works your traps.
Lower trap exercise #6: Klokov muscle snatch
In my opinion the Klokov muscle snatch is the absolute king of compound exercises for the lower traps! This is another exercise that was popularized by the Russian weightlifting superstar Dmitry Klokov.
Here is a video of Dmitry himself performing this exercise:
Basically you are performing a snatch from the bottom position of a deep squat. The idea is to snatch the weight up to an overhead position as explosively as possible using your shoulders and mid-lower back.
This exercise activates the lower traps in a very similar manner to the prone trap 3 raise.
Trust me, your lower traps will be absolutely DESTROYED the day after performing this exercise! Charles Poliquin believes the best set / rep scheme for this exercise is 5 sets of 6 reps and I am inclined to agree.
Part 4: Lower Traps Exercise Tempo
If you have extremely weak lower trap muscles then I HIGHLY recommend you experiment with long pauses performed in the shortened position of any isolation exercise.
For example Charles Poliquin was a big proponent of having trainees perform prone trap 3 raises with a 4/0/X/6 tempo. In other words you have to pause for a full 6 seconds in the shortened position!
These long isometric pauses in the shortened position absolutely murder the lower traps and dramatically increase your ability to recruit this muscle group with more regular tempos.
After 2-4 weeks with extended pauses in the shortened position your lower traps will have taken a big leap forward in development and you can progress to more traditional lifting tempos.
Part 5: Sample Training Programs
If your lower traps are uber-weak then it makes sense to prioritize them in your next training cycle. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered: I am about to provide you with a full 9-week lower trap training program!
Actually I am going to provide you with two such programs. The first program includes a progression of lower trap isolation exercises that you can perform at the end of your upper body workouts.
You can simply tack these exercises on after your regular upper body workouts without any other changes. This is a good option if you have a routine that you like to follow but you still want to bring this muscle group up to par.
The second option is a little more involved: I am going to give you a full 9-week upper body training program. All exercises will be included for not only your lower traps but your entire upper body. This is a FANTASTIC program to run if you are looking to blast through a training plateau by dramatically improving your overall upper body structural balance.
Lower Trap Program #1
- Weeks 1-3: Bilateral 45 degree prone DB trap 3 raise, 3 x 6, 4/0/X/6, 120 seconds rest
- Weeks 4-6: Bilateral 15 degree prone trap 3 raise, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/1, 120 seconds rest
- Weeks 7-9: Unilateral unsupported trap 3 raise, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/2, 120 seconds rest
As I mentioned earlier this is a great program to run if you want to improve your lower trap strength without changing the rest of your upper body training.
Make sure that you are using appropriate weights for each of the three lower trap exercises. When it comes to training the lower traps it is FAR more important to use perfect form than it is to use heavy weights!
Lower Trap Program #2
This program is much more ambitious than the first one listed. You are going to perform a series of three different upper body workouts. Each routine should be run for a total of 3 weeks. For the purposes of this program I recommend that you use either a 3 or 4 days per week upper body / lower body split.
If you are using a 4 days per week upper / lower split then you would perform each routine 6 times before moving on to the next one. If you are performing a 3 days per week upper / lower split then you would perform each routine 4-5 times before moving onto the next one.
I will be telling you exactly what you should do for your upper body workouts. What you decide to do for your lower body workouts is completely up to you.
Check it out:
Routine #1 (weeks 1-3)
- A1: Seated DB overhead press, 4 x 8-10**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Medium supinated grip chin ups, 4 x 6-8**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B1: Reverse pec dec, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 60 seconds rest
- B2: T-bar row, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Bilateral 45 degree prone DB trap 3 raise, 3 x 6, 4/0/X/6, 30 seconds rest
- C2: Standing cable external rotations (arm adducted), 3 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 30 seconds rest
**Perform a rest-pause set on your 4th and final set for this exercise. The procedure for a rest-pause set is as follows: train to failure or just shy of it in your target rep range, rest 20-30 seconds, train to failure or just shy of it again using the same weight, rest 20-30 seconds, train to failure or just shy of it again using the same weight, done!
This routine is fantastic for improving the structural balance of not only your lower traps, but for your entire upper body. Anyone who has spent too much time abusing the bench press could benefit from this type of workout.
Relatively higher repetition ranges are utilized on purpose to lay a foundation for the second and third workouts of this training cycle. I want to bring your attention to the tempo utilized on the 45 degree trap 3 raise at the end of the routine.
It is EXTREMELY important that you take a full 6-second pause in the shortened position as instructed by the 4/0/X/6 tempo. These extended pauses in the contracted position are extremely beneficial in terms of increasing your ability to “turn on” and recruit the lower traps.
Routine #2 (weeks 4-6)
- A1: Behind the neck press (shoulder-width grip), 6 x 7/5/3**, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Wide overhand grip pull ups, 6 x 7/5/3**, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree incline DB press, 4 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Barbell dead stop row, 4 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Bilateral 15 degree prone trap 3 raise, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/1, 30 seconds rest
- C2: Seated DB external rotations, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 30 seconds rest
**Performed as a 7/5/3 wave loading protocol. Perform 7 reps on your 1st set, 5 reps on your 2nd set, 3 reps on your 3rd set, 7 reps on your 4th set, 5 reps on your 5th set, and 3 reps on your 6th set.
This routine takes advantage of the 7/5/3 wave loading protocol to really start driving some significant strength gains in your overhead pressing strength and your upper back. The rest of the workout continues to emphasize exercises designed to improve your overall upper body structural balance.
The main overhead pressing exercise for this routine is the behind the neck press. For this routine I recommend you use a shoulder-width grip. If you do not feel comfortable using a shoulder-width grip then it is acceptable to substitute this exercise for a snatch grip behind the neck press (aka a Klokov press).
The lower trap exercise chosen for this routine is much more mechanically demanding than the one utilized in the first 3-week block. Do not be surprised if you have to use less weight than you expected to make this exercise work.
Remember, it is more important that you feel your lower traps engaged and working than it is about using as much weight as possible. If you do not feel your lower traps working then this exercise is useless!
Routine #3 (weeks 7-9)
- A1: Standing military press (shoulder-width grip), 5 x 5**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Sternum chin ups (neutral grip), 5 x 5**, 2/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Klokov muscle snatch, 4 x 6, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Unilateral cable external rotation (arm abducted), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C2: Seated zottman curl, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster sets protocol. You are performing 5 sets of 5 reps with your estimated 3-rep max. In order to make this work you rest for 15 seconds in between each of the 5 reps in a given set.
This third and final routine is designed to peak the strength of your lower traps as well as the rest of your upper body. Cluster sets are probably one of the very best ways to boost strength gains in a particular lift so you can expect some SCREAMING fast strength gains from this routine!
If you are paying attention you may notice that you are not performing any lower trap isolation exercises in this routine. Instead you will be using the Klokov muscle snatch as your primary lower trap strengthening exercise.
This exercise is outrageously effective for increasing the strength of your delts, mid-traps and lower traps. If you do not have access to the Olympic-style bumper plates that you need to perform this exercise then you may want to perform an unsupported unilateral trap 3 raise in its place.
By the end of this 9-week training cycle the strength of your lower traps (as well as your overall upper body strength) should have shot through the roof!
The lower traps are an incredibly important muscle group to train. They play a critical role in stabilizing your shoulder blades and keeping your shoulders strong and healthy. You are now equipped with all of the knowledge that you need to start training the lower traps like you mean it.
I am confident that your overall progress will shoot through the roof if you apply the information presented in this article.
“Be hungry for success. Hungry to make your mark. Hungry to be seen and to be heard and to have an affect. And as you move up and become successful, make sure also to be hungry for helping others.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
Chad Wesley Smith is one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry today. Chad has competed at the absolute highest levels in three different sports: shot put, powerlifting and strongman....
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