Build a Massive Upper Back and Traps With “Kirk Shrugs”

If you know a little bit about me, you might remember that I earned my PhD studying the history of strength, but that my own research focused specifically on the early 1900s — before powerlifting in its modern form really began. Trust me: that doesn’t dampen my admiration from the lifters of the 1980s and 1990s one bit. In fact, all of my favorite lifters are all more recent: Ed Coan, Bev Francis, and Kirk Karwoski.

So I was pretty psyched when my friend Darren Taylor came up to train with me at The Shop near my new home in Manassas, Virginia. Darren is close friends with “Captain Kirk,” who — if you don’t know — is a legendary powerlifter whose accolades could comprise an entire article all on their own. He’s also pretty intense dude, and I find that inspiring:

Darren shared with me one of the Captain’s favorite movements: A shrug variation that left me, well, pretty wiped out:

What are Kirk Shrugs?

At their core, Kirk Shrugs are similar to most shrugs: they primarily target the upper back (especially the traps) and shoulder girdle. However, a few nuances in the movement make it much more demanding and much, much more effective.

To perform a Kirk Shrug:

  1. Set up a loaded barbell in a rack as if you were going to perform a normal shrug, but load it with about 25% of your usual working poundage.
  2. Grab the bar with a thumbless, double-overhand grip (suicide or monkey grip).
  3. “Shrug” up by contracting your traps and lats and try to pull the barbell as high as you can without using your arms, legs, or lower back. Keep your scapula retracted (shoulder blades back and down). Your arms should bend to allow the barbell to travel to about your navel, but they should not help raise the bar at all.
  4. Here’s the tough part: you must hold the barbell in the top position for a one-second count. Trust me: this isn’t easy.
  5. Allow the weight of the bar to pull it back to the starting position, resisting as much as you can throughout the entire eccentric movement. Be sure to keep your shoulder blades back and down as you lower the bar.

Captain Kirk liked to train to failure, but I recommend starting out with 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps until you get the hang of the movement.

Besides being incredibly intense (and therefore a great “finisher” for an upper-back training session), these will help to develop the musculature of the upper back, strengthen the grip, and improve shoulder stability.

Ben Pollack Kirk Shrugs How To
Ben Pollack Kirk Shrugs How To

Why Kirk Shrugs Are Great for Powerlifting

Shrugs are typically thought of more as a bodybuilding exercise rather than an assistance movement for the powerlifts, but all shrugs — and especially Kirk Shrugs — can be a fantastic method for improving the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

First, remember that your upper back and shoulders act as a stabilizer on all three lifts. The role of the shoulders in the bench press is obvious, but you might not realize that by developing your traps, lats, and rhomboids, you can also build a thicker, more stable base to press from. That means a shorter range of motion, more power off the chest, and, overall, bigger numbers.

It’s a similar story in the deadlift. Depending on what style you use, improving your shoulder stability and upper-back strength can help to break the bar off the floor or to grind through a sticking point above the knees or near lockout. And doing high-rep shrugs with a thumbless grip is a great way to strengthen your hands, which is crucial for anyone who suffers from the bar slipping away from them on max or near-max lifts.

The benefits of developing the upper back and shoulders for the squat are a little less obvious, but in truth, the more muscle you’ve got in that area, the better “shelf” you have on which to rest the bar — which means more confidence, better leverage, and again, bigger lifts.

An Upper Back and Grip Assistance Program

Sold on the benefits of Kirk Shrugs? Great. Here’s how I suggest incorporating them into an upper-back and grip workout designed specifically for powerlifting:

  • Barbell Row: We’re starting with the heaviest movement in the list, but you’re still going to train this a bit lighter than you normally would, because I want you to use a double-overhand grip without straps. Don’t worry: your grip strength won’t limit you much, because I also want you to perform these with the strictest of form. Don’t use your lower back or hips to assist in the movement, and pull the bar all the way up to touch your upper abs on each rep. Lower it with a 3-count negative. Perform 3 sets to failure, using a weight that allows you to get at least 10 but no more than 15 reps per set.
  • Towel Chin: If you’ve never done these before, they’re simple. Just hang a towel over a chinning bar and hold on to the towel while you pull yourself up. Again, 3 sets of max reps, but this time, just try to get as many reps as you can on each set. Don’t add weight. On your last set, hold the top position for as long as you can.
  • Kirk Shrugs: As described above for 2 sets of 8 reps. The lower reps will allow you to go a little bit heavier here.
  • Standing Cable Crunch: Yes, this is an upper back session, but the abs are an important antagonist for the back. If those two muscle groups aren’t evenly developed, you’ll find yourself limited by the weaker one. 5 sets of 10-20 reps here, holding the contracted position for a one-count pause.

I know it’s only four exercises, but trust me: this session will kick your butt.

Have you ever tried Kirk Shrugs? If so, leave your advice on them in the comments below!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image courtesy Ben Pollack.