When reflecting on strength and its relation to muscle size, I agree with Louie Simmons, who said, "Big ain't strong. Strong is strong."
This is not to say that bigger muscles don't correlate to strength gains, because that would be false, but to make the point that the biggest guy in the gym isn't necessarily the strongest.
Unless he has a massive yoke (Or massive glutes, but that's another article.)
Big traps are symbolic of strength because they're not built without lifting heavy weights, and doing big, multi-joint lifts like the deadlift or cleans.
In fact, building massive traps is hard, and many lifters struggle with this elusive goal either because they lack dedication and discipline, or simply don't follow a plan that can succeed.
I won't be able to help you with the first issue, but look no further for the latter.
Below is a compilation of 5 outstanding articles on building big and powerful traps.
There is more than enough knowledge here to make a bulletproof plan for building a massive yoke.
The rest is up to you. Enjoy.
Alexander Juan writes:
Everyone doing shrugs trying to get their traps to grow has been cueing the wrong anatomical area. When doing shrugs, don't focus on raising the shoulders at all. Instead, raise the clavicles as high as you can.
Juan points out that the function of the trapezius muscle is to elevate the clavicle, not the shoulder, and also to stabilize and aid in upper rotation of the scapula. As such, from a training perspective, it is more helpful to focus on raising your clavicles when shrugging, rather than on the frequently taught dogma of raising your shoulders.
Since shrugs are very effective for building the upper traps, I'd suggest incorporating this insight into your shrug training and see if shifting the focus results in greater gains.
Noah Bryant writes:
A lot of people in the gym are clueless when it comes to trap development. They add in a few sets of dumbbell shrugs at the end of shoulder day and wonder why their traps just won’t grow. This is not sufficient stimuli to elicit massive growth.
In this excellent article, Noah points out what I alluded to in the intro: big, compound movements are required to build impressive traps. He reveals 4 of these exercises best suited for this goal. The are:
The clean is one of the most effective movements for building the traps, comprehensively. The first pull in the clean, due to the scapular retraction involved in producing necessary back tightness, builds the lower and mid trapezius. The second pull of the clean includes a shrug motion performed to complete your full extension, which trains the upper trapezius muscle fibers.
There is almost nothing the deadlift doesn't train. With respect to the traps, isometric contraction is required to maintain back tightness during the movement, and the upper traps are involved in keeping your chest up and also in completing the lockout.
Rack Pull Shrug
In a power rack, set the safety pins at knee level, and load the bar with 100-120% of your deadlift 1RM. (If grip strength is a limiter, use straps. If not -- don't.) Now, assume your normal deadlift starting position as closely as possible, pull the bar to lockout and then shrug the weight, all in a single motion. This trains the traps isometrically during the rack pull, and concentrically during the shrug.
Classic barbell shrugs train the upper trapezius (which is the visible part everyone's trying to build). Load the bar with 75-80% of your deadlift 1RM and, according to the conventional wisdom, shrug your shoulders straight up to your ears. (Don't forget, however, what Juan noted above -- perhaps it's best to focus on raising your clavicles instead.) Do this for higher reps (10-20 range).
Joe Giandonato writes:
Prioritize trap training. Do it at the beginning of your workout. Since these areas are never worked with high volume or to failure in strength programs, you won't have to worry about their training affecting performance on subsequent lifts like the Olympic lifts or squats, presses, and rows.
This is a content rich article, outlining a number of effective exercises to directly train different portions of the trapezius muscle, broken into (1) upper trap exercises and (2) lower/mid trap exercises.
To hit the highlights, I've selected a couple upper trap and a couple lower/mid trap exercises to demonstrate below via video. Head over to the article (linked above) for the full list.
One-Armed Smith Machine Shrug
Banded Lateral Raise to Shrug
Mini Range Lat Pull-Down to Isometric Hold
Standing Calf Raise Shrug
If history has taught us anything, it’s that neglecting your weak points is a recipe for disaster. The best way to tackle this issue is to train up your weak points with as much vigor and passion as you would your most impressive body parts. By focusing on your traps as the main course of your workout, you’ll be sure to make fast and impressive development.
To that end, GI gives us the workout protocol used by the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger to build his impressive traps.
It looks like this:
|Barbell Upright Rows||5 Sets, 8-12 Reps|
|Dumbbell Shrugs||5 Sets, 10-15 Reps|
|Behind-the-Back Smith Machine Shrugs||4 Sets, 8-12 Reps|
From Jim Wendler:
The best specialization training is not throwing out the core of your program to accommodate the body part being targeted, but integrating it into a balanced strength program, which means your squat, clean, press, deadlift, and bench press won't be compromised.
I agree with Wendler's philosophy of having a training foundation consisting of big, multi-joint movements such as the squat, bench, deadlift, standing overhead press and clean, on top of which you can add specialized assistance and accessory work to target the traps.
So, first off, get the foundation covered (click over to the article for the training templates Wendler includes if you need help with that). Then, add some assistance trap work that Wendler delineates: