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Q: I want nice shoulders and arms, but many exercises that work them also build up my traps, making my neck look shorter. Any ideas?

A: Before we talk exercises, Alli McKee, CSCS, a highly sought-after personal trainer at Evolution Sports Physiotherapy in Baltimore, suggests we examine how the trapezius  muscles (or “traps”) are supposed to work. Your upper traps, the ones you see between your shoulders and neck, draw the scapulae (or shoulder blades) upward. The middle traps, draped across the upper back like a shawl, draw the scapulae in toward each other. And the lower traps, which run down the middle of your back, draw the scapulae downward.

The problem is many of us don’t properly engage the middle and lower traps, leading to chronic overuse (and overdevelopment) of the upper traps. Bad posture — shoulders hunched forward and back rounded — further feeds this imbalance by inhibiting the middle and lower traps.

The solution? Exercise in a way that helps avoid this sort of overcompensation. “Do prone Ys and Ts with your torso supported on a stability ball,” says McKee. “Machine rear-delt flies are another way to engage the backs of your shoulders and upper back while working on proper scapulae and shoulder position.” (For a video of McKee demonstrating these exercises, watch Show Me How: Engaging the Traps.)

It’s important to use proper form, McKee points out, because there’s a tendency to let the shoulders shrug as fatigue sets in, again overengaging the upper traps. Once you get your middle and lower traps working, you’ll have more freedom to perform arm- and shoulder-shaping exercises such as overhead presses, lateral raises, biceps curls and triceps kickbacks without worrying about developing large traps. Just keep those shoulders down and away from the ears at all times, and stay clear of anything that directly engages them, such as shrugs.

This article originally appears as “Can I avoid building thick “traps”?” in the January/February 2013 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Jen Sinkler

Jen Sinkler, PCC, RKC-II, is a fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis. Her website is

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