Most try to build bigger traps with many types of shrugs. They roll their shoulders from front to back to feel it in every fiber. They elevate their shoulders toward different positions, perhaps to the ears on one set and a bit further back or forward for the next. They use cable pulleys, machines, and free weights to change things up, despite the same joint motions occurring each time.
They may add Olympic weightlifting, which includes explosive cleans, snatches, and other pulls. These certainly work them, but with no advantages over safer exercises along with a very poor reward-to-risk ratio. They may use bad exercises such as upright rows, lateral raises, and face-pulls that lead to shoulder impingement.
The traps never cleanly fit in a bodybuilding split. Do you work the traps with the shoulders or the back? If you dead-lift or do Olympic movements as well, how do these big exercises get placed without affecting other muscle groups? The traps even help to stabilize the shoulder during a bench press. They play a role in many movements.
Anatomy and Function
The trapezius has three functional units. Although different parts of this broad muscle work separately for shoulder elevation and depression, the entire group works intensely during shoulder extension, which occurs during a row or pull-up. The muscle as a whole adducts the scapula and rotates it outward.
The upper trapezius portion functions as a stabilizer, helping to hold weights at your sides, not for shrugging and overhead pressing. The lower trapezius does work during shoulder depression, such as when dipping or a pull-down, but once again serves as a stabilizer for the shoulder as its main role instead. Depression of the shoulder can harm you, and I teach techniques to limit it on a pull-up and avoid other exercises that apply it.
Elevation and depression of the shoulder exist for repositioning the arm, not to overload these functions with heavy weight. Doing so can cause shoulder impingement and excessive shearing forces on the joints. Keep in mind that isolation and using a range of motion for muscles meant as stabilizers can only hamper your results and hurt you. Variety that bodybuilders use makes little sense when viewing the anatomy and can only hurt you for a little or no difference in development. I give a good overview of why when discussing how to get bigger arms.
You would never perform a shrug in real life, but you would have to resist the depression of your shoulder when carrying something heavy. The traps work to keep your shoulders in a safe and stable position when you hold an object. This occurs during the dead-lift. While the dead-lift can serve as a great exercise, many include it due to its badass reputation alone, even if it fits poorly with their routine.
Intervals that involve carrying things, such as walking with heavy weight and farmer’s walks, will address the traps. Any sort of swing with dumbbells or kettlebells will work them too. Intervals develop your conditioning but also work all your stabilizers well, which includes the traps.
Get Bigger Traps
Focus on using proper form with your pull to work your traps. Add weight instead of more exercises. Consider some intervals that involve carrying things to address them further if desired. Avoid shrugs and other exercises that can harm your shoulders. If you desire a look of power that comes through big traps and broad shoulders, get very strong at the basics and build bigger traps along the way.