Cable machines are extremely versatile fitness equipment options. Find out what movements you can do to work the trapezius muscles aka traps.
The trapezius muscles span a relatively big area from your upper back to your neck. Depending on what movements you do, you can work the muscles in the upper, middle, or lower part of the traps more.
1. Cable shrugs
Cable shrugs are basically the most popular cable machine exercise to work traps and for good reasons.
Ideally, you would have a double-pulley cable crossover machine for this movement but a single-pulley machine can work too. Take the following steps to do cable shrugs with a double-pulley cable machine:
- Attach D-grip handles to each free cable end and set the pulleys in a low position.
- Grab one handle, walk to and grab the other handle, and stand up straight in the middle of the cable machine. Let your arms follow the pull of the cable.
- Raise your shoulders upward and inward as far as comfortable in a controlled motion.
- Slowly lower your shoulders back into the position of step 2.
Doing shrugs in this direction works your upper trapezius muscles. The cable is one of the best equipment options for weighted shrugs.
This is because the muscle fibers of the upper trapezius muscles go sideways and upward. Exactly the direction a cable machine allows you to work these muscles.
While you should not expect 100% more progress, training muscles in the direction of their muscle fibers will generally be slightly more effective. You could also consider trap and hex bar shrugs to get a similar effect.
2. Bent-over cable rows
The next movement is a popular exercise when it comes to latissimus dorsi and biceps training but many people forget that bent-over rows can be great for their middle/lower traps with a bit of extra attention to their technique.
For this movement, you only need a single-pulley cable machine and preferably a straight bar handle. Once you have these, take the following steps to do a bent-over cable row:
- Set the cable pulley close to the ground and attach the straight bar handle.
- Grab the bar with an overhanded grip and take a step or two back.
- Tilt your upper body forward until the cable is about perpendicular (90-degree angle) to your body. Keep your spine straight and knees slightly bent. To work your trapezius you really want to let your shoulder blades go forward as much as comfortably as possible.
- Pull the handle to your body in a controlled motion by pulling your shoulder blades back and folding your arms. Keep your upper arms close to your sides.
- Slowly move the handle back to the position of step 3 in a controlled motion.
As mentioned, if you are interested in making this cable exercise challenging for your traps, you really want to move your shoulder blades back and forth against the resistance.
Additionally, bent-over cable rows will still be a great exercise for your latissimus dorsi (middle/upper back) and bicep muscles.
On top of that, your erector spinae (lower back) muscles will also have to work a nice amount in this back compound exercise.
3. Cable face pulls
To do this next movement you want a double-rope cable attachment and a single-pulley cable machine. Once you have the required gear, take the following steps to do a cable face pull:
- Set the pulley to about head height and attach the double-rope handle.
- Grab one rope with each hand and take a step or two back. Put one foot forward and one foot back to stay balanced. Let your shoulder blades follow the resistance as far as comfortable.
- Slowly pull your hands with the rope back and slightly up until they are right next to your ears.
- Return your hands to the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
Cable face pulls still mainly work the middle part of the trapezius muscles but you likely also get a bit more engagement of the upper muscle fibers compared to the previous exercise.
Additionally, face pulls work your rear deltoids and scapular muscles a good amount. Your erector spinae muscles will also have to work to a small extent to keep your upper body at the right angle.
4. Straight-arm cable scapula retractions
After two compound trapezius exercises, another isolation movement is welcome. Take the following steps to do a straight-arm cable scapula retraction:
- Set the cable pulley to about chest height. You can use many different types of handles. Ideally, you would sit down on something sturdy like a bench but you can do the movement while standing too.
- Grab the handles, take a step or two back, and sit down or stand with one foot forward and one foot back. Let your shoulder blades follow the resistance as far as comfortable. The angle of your upper body will depend on what trapezius muscle fibers you want to focus on.
- Slowly pull your shoulder blades back as far as comfortable. Your arms stay more or less stretched.
- Return your shoulder blades to the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
Sitting on something like a sturdy bench during this exercise can be helpful to really focus on isolating your trap muscles.
Besides that, you can keep your upper body perpendicular (at a 90-degree angle) to mostly focus on the middle parts of the trapezius muscles.
However, you can also tilt your upper body slightly forward to work the lower muscle fibers too. Similarly, tilting your upper body back during this cable exercise will work the upper part of the traps more.
5. High cable rows
To do cable high rows you preferably have a straight bar or double rope cable handle. The double-D grip could work too but this will be less comfortable on your wrist.
That being said, take the following steps to do a high cable row:
- Set the pulley to your preferred height and attach the handle. As long as you adjust the angle of your upper body, you can work similar muscles at different pulley heights.
- Grab the handle, take a step or two back, let your arms (including shoulder blades) follow the resistance for now, and tilt your upper body so the cable is at about a 90-degree angle to it.
- Slowly pull your hands towards your chest and your shoulder blades back. Raise your upper arms so that they are somewhere between 45 and 90-degree angles to your sides.
- Return the handle to the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
The high cable row looks and is similar to the bent-over cable row but by changing the angle of your upper arms you focus on different muscles.
More specifically, instead of mainly working the latissimus dorsi muscles, high cable rows focus more on the back parts of the deltoids (main shoulder muscles).
Besides that, your middle trapezius and bicep muscles still have to work in good amounts.
6. Seated cable rows
When it comes to growing back muscles with cables, the seated cable row is definitely one of the most popular choices.
Ideally, you have a specific cable row machine with a platform to put your feet against. At the same time, you could make something work with a regular cable machine too.
Take the following steps to do a seated cable row with the dedicated machine and double-D handle:
- Sit down on the bench, put your feet on the platform, grab the handle, and move back until your legs are slightly less than stretched. Let your arms and shoulder blades follow the resistance for now.
- Pull your shoulder blades back and the handle to your body in a controlled motion.
- Slowly return to the position of step 1.
Compared to bent-over cable rows, the seated version works the lower back muscles less. At the same time, you still work your latissimus dorsi, biceps, and middle traps a lot.
This reduction in erector spinae engagement can be good or bad depending on your training goals.
One downside of seated cable rows is that the dedicated machine is not always available. In that case, you may prefer one of the other cable machine trapezius exercises over a suboptimal setup.
7. Upright cable row
There are different ways to do weighted upright rows but you may prefer the cable machine. The double rope and EZ curl bar handles will likely be the most comfortable on your wrists but you can also use a straight bar handle.
Once you have the required gear, take the following steps to do an upright cable row:
- Set the pulley close to the ground and attach the handle you want to use.
- Grab the handles, stand up straight, and let your arms follow the resistance for now.
- Slowly raise your hands until your upper arms are about horizontal. Keep your hands close to your body throughout the range of motion.
- Lower your hands back into the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
Upright cable rows are another exercise that works the upper part of the trapezius muscles. Additionally, your side deltoids, front deltoids, and biceps will have to work a lot too.
One thing to note is that some people find upright rows uncomfortable on their shoulders. If you have any issues in this area, you may want to keep your upper trap, side delt, and bicep exercises separate.
8. Incline cable rows
To do this next exercise you will need an incline bench, a single-pulley cable machine, and a double-rope handle. Once you have these, take the following steps to do an incline cable row:
- Set the cable pulley close to the ground, attach the double-rope handle, and put the incline bench in front of the cable machine with the padding facing away from the machine.
- Grab the handle, put your chest against the top of the incline bench, and let your arms and shoulder blades follow the resistance for now.
- Slowly pull your shoulder blades back and your hands toward your body.
- Return the handles to the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
Incline cable rows are also called chest-supported cable rows because of how you use the incline bench.
For your upper back and arm muscles, the movement is similar to a few of the other rows on this list.
However, by bracing yourself against a bench, you don’t have to pay attention to stabilizing yourself and don’t have to work your lower back muscles.
In turn, this could make it easier to really focus on working your upper back muscles and improve your mind-muscle connection with your traps.
9. Cable rear delt fly (with scapula retraction)
You could do each side separately but for this next trapezius exercise, you preferably have a double-pulley cable machine. Take the following steps to do a cable rear delt fly with some trap engagement:
- Set the pulleys to about shoulder height and attach a D-grip or single-rope handle on each side.
- Grab one handle with the hand of the opposite side, grab the other handle, and stand upright in the middle of the two pulleys.
- Keep your arms slightly stretched and horizontal and slowly move them outward as far as comfortable. Also pull your shoulder blades back to work your traps a bit.
- Return your hands to the position of step 2 in a controlled motion.
The rear delt cable fly is typically done as an exercise to isolate the back part of the deltoids (main shoulder muscle).
This is definitely still the main focus of the movement but by pulling your shoulder blades back, you get some middle trapezius engagement too.
That being said, the range of motion of the traps will be relatively small. Additionally, you will likely not use that much weight since the rear deltoids tend to be a lot weaker than the trapezius muscles.
So this last cable exercise will engage your traps to some extent but you should not really expect too much growth or strength progress. Instead, it will likely mainly improve muscle endurance in this area.