Shrugs Exercise Guide

Large, powerful traps are often a sign of a serious lifter. The traps, which span across the upper backs of most powerlifters, weightlifters, fitness athletes, and bodybuilders play a crucial role in deadlifting, squats, heavy carries, and the Olympic lifts (just to name a few).

The shrug is a movement that can be used across most strength, power, and fitness sports to increase size and strength if the upper back (traps) and even have a direct impact of some of the competition lifts in strength sports.

In this shrugs exercise guide, we will cover:

  • Shrug Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Shrug
  • Muscles Worked by the Shrug
  • Who Should Do Shrugs?
  • Shrug Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Shrug Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Do a Shrug

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and shrug, specifically the barbell shrug.

Step 1: Establish Your Grip and Set the Upper Body

Start with the hands slightly wider than shoulder width, taking a double overhand grip on the barbell.

Stand erect, with the shoulders set back, chest and head up, and the scapulas slightly retracted and depressed. You should feel a stretch on the trapezius muscles.

Shrug Initial Pull

Step 2: Lift the Shoulders Keeping a Tight Barparth

With straight arms, elevate the shoulders towards the back of the ears, making sure to not jerk the neck or shoulders forward.

Be sure to keep the barbell close to the body, with the chest high.

Shrug Top Position

Step 3: Contract the Traps At the Top

Once you approach the top of the movement, you should feel a muscle contraction in the traps.

You can do so by making sure to keep the shoulders pulled up and back towards the back of the head. Often, lifters will allow the shoulders to slouch forward, which is not correct. Focus on proper positioning.

Shrug Finish Position

Step 4: Lower and Maintain Tension

Lower the load under control to maintain tension on the traps.

Repeat for repetitions in a smooth and controlled manner, focusing on using the traps to perform the shrug; rather than momentum, body swinging, arm pulling, etc.

4 Benefits of Shrugs

Below are four (4) benefits of shrugs that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing shrugs into a training regimen.

Improved Pulling Strength

The traps are a key muscle group of the upper body (in addition to the erectors, latissimus dorsi, biceps, and forearms) responsible for strong pulling and stable positions in movements like heavy carries, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts.

Better Posture

Shoulder shrugs help to increase muscle mass and postural strength of the traps and upper back, which can aid in a better spinal and torso positions in pulling, squatting, and most everyday movements.

Fuller Extension in Olympic Lifts

Movement like shrugs, snatch and clean pulls, muscle snatches, no contact power cleans, etc, are all essential movements to create a more vertical finish in the Olympic lifts. Developing the trapezius muscles, and the vertical finish in the movement patterning can increase overall performance in the snatch and clean.

Stronger, More Stable Neck Muscles

This may not seem important to most, but for anyone who has played a contact sport; such as American football, rugby, hockey, wrestling, or fighting (boxing, MMA, martial arts), neck strength is key for injury prevention purposes. In addition to shrugs — neck flexion, extension, and lateral strengthening should take place to help increase stability and strength for contact athletes.

Muscles Worked – Shrugs

The shrug is an upper body exercise that can be done to increase trapezius and upper back hypertrophy. Below is a breakdown of the primary muscle groups involved in this exercise.

Trapezius

The traps are the primary muscles used in the shrug (as well as the shrug variations and alternatives listed below). Increased trapezius strength can aid in maintaining an upright posture under load and improve pulling strength off the floor. Additionally, the traps can work to elevate the barbell higher in the clean and snatch.

Upper Back and Rhomboids

The upper back muscles and rhomboids (muscles in between the shoulder blades) assist in maintaining proper upright posture under load. Movements like the Olympic lifts, squats, deadlifts, and overhead lifts require shoulder stabilization (rhomboids and upper back) and proper postural alignment.

Forearms and Grip Muscles

In addition to the traps and back muscles, the forearm muscles are responsible for securing a strong grip to ensure the ability to shrug the load. Higher repetition shrugs and or heavier training can also aid in overall grip strength and endurance development.

Who Should Do the Shrugs?

Below are some reasons why strength, power, and fitness athletes can benefit from performing shrugs.

Strength and Power Athletes

When it comes to strength and power athletes, squats, pulls, and presses are at the top of the list of must-do exercises. That said, movements like shrugs (and their variations) are powerful accessory exercises to maximize muscle growth, overall strength development, and even enhance pulling strength and power.

Functional Fitness Athletes

Shrugs can be helpful for some athletes who lack overall back strength and postural strength; many of which may have limitations with heavy deadlifts, weaker grip in carries, and lack of upper back development.

General Fitness and Movement

While shrugs do have their place in more isolated training for trap size and/or sport specific programs, general fitness goers can get many of the same benefits from movements like heavy carries, deadlifts, and hang power cleans/snatches. However, shrugs can be used to increase general grip and back strength and increase postural awareness/strength.

How to Program Shrugs

Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the shrug into specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program shrugs.

General Strength– Reps and Sets

For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.

  • 4-6 sets of 3-6 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

For increased muscular size and hypertrophy, the below repetitions can be used to increase muscular loading volume.

  • 4-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between, with heavy to moderate loads

Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.

  • 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions or for more than 45-60 seconds under tension, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)

Shrug Variations

Below are three (3) shrug variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.

Power/Jump Shrugs

The power shrug is essentially a high hang snatch/clean pull. This exercise can be done to not only increase weightlifting technique, strength, and utilize momentum to allow the lifter to overload the traps which are subjected to very heavy loads and volumes (not to mention the added benefits of explosives-based training).

Kettlebell/Dumbbell Shrug

Using kettlebells and/or dumbbells for shrugs allows coaches and athletes to address muscle imbalances, movement asymmetric, or other weaknesses that are often seen in only training bilateral exercises. Additionally, like most unilateral exercises, kettlebell/dumbbell shrugs allow for greater individualization or grip positioning and range of motion when compared to barbells, etc.

Shrugs with Carries

Carries can increase back, core, and grip strength, making this combination movement a powerful functional movement for trap and back development. Perform shrugs with kettlebells, dumbbells, or other pieces of equipment before, during, or after a set of carries to maximize muscle growth.

Shrug Alternatives

Below are three (3) shrug alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase shoulder strength and muscle hypertrophy.

No Contact Muscle Power Clean

The no contact muscle power clean is essentially a clean done without hip contact, without a hook grip, and without moving the feet; all while receiving the barbell in the power (1/4 squat) position.

In doing so, you require the lifter to vertically extend the barbell by way of the legs, arms, and traps, which can have a significant impact on trap growth and application to weightlifting movements.

Rack Pulls

The rack pull is a partial range of motion deadlift that can be set at various heights to target the traps, upper back, and hips. Due to the high amounts of loading that can be done in the rack pull relative to the shrug, coaches and athletes can expect to promote serious muscle damage and growth.

Farmers Carry

The farmer’s carry is a functional movement that can increase postural strength, grip development, and increase trap and upper back hypertrophy (with time under tension). This exercise has the capacity to be done with supra-maximal loads and/or with lighter loads for longer durations; both of which can increase trap strength and muscle hypertrophy.

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.

Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.

Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.

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