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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
Updated On: August 03, 2023
Most lifters would agree that there is no better business card for your physique than a well-developed pair of traps. They are not easily achieved, which is why they are equally rare and impressive.
The shrug is the critical exercise responsible for building those slabs of muscle that stick out of the top of your shirt. For anyone new to training and unfamiliar with the shrug, think of when someone asks you a question and you make the “I don’t know” motion. Did you shrug your shoulders up? Boom, that’s the movement in a nutshell. Just add weight. A lot of weight.
But the best things in both the weight room and life don't come easy, and the shrug certainly isn't as straightforward as it appears. There are a lot of little tweaks, tips, and guidelines for performing these correctly. If you can master these, you are on a one-way trip to traps city.
In today’s article, we will cover everything you need to know about shrugs, including:
Ok, so there’s a little more to it than the "I don’t know" motion we mentioned. Shrugs are an isolation exercise that work the trapezius muscles, which sit on top of your upper body on each side of your neck.
There are many variations and ways to alter this movement to see what works best for you. More on this in a bit!
There are a couple of things to consider when answering this question. If you are a newer lifter, it may be overkill to start by focusing excessively on shrugs to build your traps. Once you have made a solid foundation of strength using main compound lifts and are looking to add some extra muscle to that area, then it's time for the shrug to shine.
This is one of the most challenging areas for many people to build muscle, and that’s why it’s so impressive to see someone with big traps. For most people who are lagging with muscle growth in that area or want to focus on growing them, the shrug is worth doing!
Besides being a perfect mirror muscle, the shrug and building the traps are one of the best things you can do to help with your posture and even help improve neck and shoulder pain1. In fact, shrugs are one of my favorite neck exercises for mass and pain relief!
As you have already gathered, the main muscle worked in the shrug is the upper trapezius. These are the trapezoid-shaped muscles that sit on each side of your neck.
They extend from the bottom of your skull to the lower thoracic vertebrae of your spine and laterally to the spine of the scapula. Their purpose is to elevate the scapula. Along with the upper traps, other muscles worked are several other upper back muscles, including the middle traps, lower traps, and rhomboids.
In addition, it activates the rotator cuff muscles and forearm muscles, essential for grip strength. Together they support the arms, stabilize and move the shoulder blades, and stabilize and move the spine and neck.
Today, everything is done sitting at a desk or looking down at a phone. Most people complain of head, neck, and shoulder muscle pain after the wear and tear of our sedentary and technology-based lifestyles begins to take a toll.
Fortunately though, working the traps can help with this. Building them makes them look fantastic, improves posture, and plays a huge role in athletic movements like passing or throwing2. An extensive set of traps also helps protect your neck in sports like football or MMA.
Sound important enough yet?
Shrugs may be a reasonably simple movement, but there are plenty of options for you to implement in your weight training, no matter your favorite workout split. Here are some of the best equipment options and a little bit about them.
This variation is performed in front of your body with palms facing you while holding onto a barbell. It's an excellent addition to any workout routine. Famous in Instagram videos worldwide are lifters who load this with all the plates and seem to be doing a chicken dance with their neck.
You can load this variation heavier than others but remember to focus on controlling the weight through a full range of motion to hit the traps best.
The standing dumbbell shrug exercise allows you to hold the weights at your sides (although you can move them anywhere around your body) and keep your hands in a neutral grip.
This allows your shoulders better odds of not rounding forward and crowding the muscles into impingement (you don’t want that). They are versatile and can be used in various positions to try and find what hits the muscle best for you. This is a great addition to your upper body dumbbell workout.
This is another variation that can be loaded much heavier than dumbbells will allow. What’s cool about this is that even while using a much higher weight, you can keep your hands in a more shoulder-friendly position at your sides, similar to when using dumbbells.
Similar to the dumbbell variations, the kettlebell weight hangs down like a cannonball under your hand, which can be easier on your hands and wrist compared to the dumbbell. If your hands stay in control, your arms will stay straight, which means a better chance of your shoulders not coming forward.
It may look the same as a barbell shrug, but it’s slightly different. The smith machine uses its guide rails to assist the weight as you perform your exercise. This can help control the tempo and focus on a mind-muscle connection.
However, the smith machine operates in a more curved line that you do not have any control over. Depending on your anatomy, this variation may make the shrug a bit more awkward and challenging to perform.
Cable back exercises are the best, as they provide a unique benefit for the shrug, offering more constant tension during the entire exercise. The cables allow you to fight the tension coming from the cables as they pull the handles back down toward the stack. Often, the lowering of the shrug is the hardest part for people to control.
If you are lucky enough to have a shrug machine at your gym, give it a try during your next full body gym machine workout. It’s similar to the dumbbell shrug with your hands in the neutral position. It can be loaded heavier and gives you more natural motion than the smith machine. They can be done seated or standing, depending on your machine.
We've included step-by-step directions for both the dumbbell shrug and barbell shrug, so you can master the perfect form.
How to do the Dumbbell Shrug:
How to do Barbell Shrugs:
The shrug is one of the most botched exercises in the gym. If you can avoid these common mistakes, you are on your way to mastering this exercise and packing some muscle to fill your shirt. Remember, go slow and opt for lower weights if heavier ones are hurting your proper form. And no matter what weights you're using, progressive overload is still crucial.
Avoid these 3 mistakes.
Loading up too much weight on the bar sounds like a good idea in your head because people will be impressed, right? Wrong! Pick a weight you can control first and then add weight only if you keep the same form.
This will kill your form and range of motion and will likely lead to rounding your shoulders forward or crunching your neck up and down. Ego lifting almost always results in less muscle hypertrophy, so drop your weights if you need to.
It’s common to see a rolling shrug where people move their shoulders forward and back. This doesn’t help or work and is considered improper form. It’s simple science: There is no horizontal resistance from this exercise, so there is no need to retract or round your shoulders.
Simply focusing on not letting your shoulders fall forward will provide the necessary retraction, and the exercise only works in an up and down motion (remember the muscle function).
Similar to using too much weight, bouncing through the rep to either perform higher reps or to try to use a heavier weight will not help build your trap muscles. The traps respond best to an extreme mind-muscle connection, so control the tempo and feel the traps doing their job.
The main difference when it comes to these two variations includes where your hands are placed and how the weight is distributed. With dumbbells, you can have the weight at your sides and keep your hands in a neutral grip.
As mentioned earlier, this will give your shoulders a better chance of not rounding forward. If you find that your shoulders continue to round forward regardless of adjustments you make and weight used, try working these lat stretches into your back routine, since tight lats often results in a hunched upper back.
With the barbell, your main selling point is that you can load it much heavier than the dumbbells. However, with the weight in the front of your body, you will have to focus a bit harder on ensuring it doesn’t pull your upper body forward into a rounded posture.
Choosing between these two comes down to your goals and training level. If you are an experienced lifter who can tackle more demanding workouts, like a 5 day split, feel confident with the form, or need to load much heavier, go with the barbell.
If mind-muscle connection and form are what you’re after as a newer lifter, give the dumbbells a try. You can always alternate later and see which one may work better after some practice.
There is certainly no shortage of shrug variations to include in your routine.
This will put your hands in a neutral grip position at your sides. The bar evenly distributes the heavier weight around you and allows your traps to work properly straight up and down.
This is the most bang for your buck if you try to do heavier shrugs while maintaining good form. If grip strength is an issue, consider using lifting straps so it doesn't limit your weight used. This is a great move to add to your favorite trap bar exercises routine.
Hold your barbell or dumbbells straight overhead and perform the same shrugging motion. This is tricky if you’re new to lifting because it adds some wrist mobility requirements to the lift. If you cannot keep your arms straight or wrists/hands engaged with the dumbbells, then you will likely slouch into a lousy posture.
If you're struggling with wrist mobility, consider strengthening your wrists before incorporating this exercise. If you can keep that stuff in check, it’s a great exercise to work the traps with the arms in a different position overhead.
Standing will emphasize functional training more and will require you to engage the rest of your body to maintain an excellent position to execute the movement. Seated will give you more freedom to focus on the arms being straight and the traps controlling the movement.
Both are great options to fit into your programming, depending on how confident you and your body are with the exercise.
Using a barbell, you will have your hands wider than normal. After that, the same shrug motion can allow you to engage the traps slightly more than normal straight bar shrugs.
This depends on seeing if this variation works better for your body type. If your posture starts poor and your shoulders are rounded forward, it’s probably not the best starting point for you.
This variation allows you to use the incline bench in a chest-supported position. This will eliminate the difficulty of standing and using the rest of your body to maintain your position. It also will allow your shoulders to retract a bit due to the angle, making it a good rhomboids exercise, in addition to working the traps.
This is another great variation for the advanced lifter or athlete. This is essentially the beginning of a hang clean. Using a barbell, you will use more momentum and power to shrug the bar up. It’s going to be a heavier variation and isn’t at the top of the list for hypertrophy but trumps them all for developing power.
What works best? Like most muscle groups, when determining how often to train muscles, you can hit shrugs from various rep ranges and volumes depending on your goals. They are an isolation exercise, so this won’t take up the bulk of your workout. Rather, it should be incorporated into an exercise program primarily filled with compound moves.
The simple answer is whichever day you like to do them. Depending on your programming, they can fit into either your back workout or a shoulder workout. Keep an eye on whichever one you’re able to feel the muscles working better.
If they are fried from a particular workout, and you have a more challenging time maintaining form or feeling the muscle, maybe try the other day or switch variations. Track and adjust as needed.
By now, you should be ready to get in the gym and build those mounds of muscle that people see coming from down the street. You now know different variations and implements, along with frequency and when to do shrugs. So what are you waiting for? Get to building those traps and improving your posture!
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