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November 10, 2021 9 min read

The shrug is the universal movement for when we want to indicate that we don’t know something. However, it’s also the universal lift for getting massive and strong traps.

The barbell shrug is a simple lift that’ll make your upper back bigger, stronger, and more resilient to injury.

And a stronger upper back goes far in helping with your other lifts. Giving this muscle group its deserved attention should be a no-brainer, and here’s the best way to go about it:

Benefits of Barbell Shrugs

When we think of the barbell, we often think of big, explosive movements that move the bar and weight plates a fair distance. Whether it’s the deadlift or the bench press, the movement itself is impressive. However, the barbell shrug is all about getting a big bang out of a very small movement—the simple shrug.

Shrugs with barbell. 3D illustration

Just shrugging weight is a terrific way to develop your traps especially, and give you a healthier upper back overall. The barbell is particularly useful for this because you can load up a ton of weight onto your traps.

Since both sides of your body are working together to move the same load, you’re going to be able to move a lot more. And as we all know, the more weight we move, the more gains we experience. The barbell shrug hits all the markers for a necessary lift if you’re looking to develop your upper back.

A Stronger Back

The upper posterior muscles are often undeveloped since they’re not necessarily mirror muscles. Since the muscles at the front are the ones most visible to us, it often happens that we give these more attention.

This is bad for a couple of reasons.

Having a big chest and a weak back will lead to poor form and injuries. We’ll get more into some specific carry-over benefits to other lifts down below, but for now, let’s look at the importance of a strong back more generally.

The deadlift is the obvious lift that comes to mind when we think of upper back exercise, but the squat also needs a strong upper back for thoracic extension and to give a meaty shelf for the bar to rest on. Even the bench press—which seems to only require the anterior upper body—needs a strong upper back to create a stable base fro which you can press.

A Bigger Back

This also goes without saying, but developing your traps is going to make your upper body bigger and stronger looking. Even if you’re not going for the bodybuilder look, a set of decent-looking traps will go a long way in making your entire physique a work of art to marvel at. You don’t even necessarily need them massive if you’re not going for that look. But developed traps look good, and if you’re interested in that it’s time to give your traps some special attention.

Preventing Injuries

We’ll go over this in more depth further below, but for now, let’s say that the traps are important in a very wide range of movements. This means that the stronger they are, the better they are at preventing injuries from happening to your neck or upper body.

This is especially useful in sports like football, rugby, hockey, or any contact sport. All of these sports need a very high level of neck strength in order to prevent injuries, and barbell shrugs are one way to get your neck stability up to par.

Carry Over Benefits

We already brought up the carry-over benefits that shrugs have on other lifts such as deadlifts, squats, and bench pressing. However, barbell shrugs are especially useful when it comes to Olympic lifts.

Lifts such as the snatch and the clean & jerk both rely on an explosive shrugging motion to move the bar vertically in the optimal path. A strong shrug will allow for a full extension and improve performance when it comes to Olympic lifting. This is just a cherry on top of all the other benefits that come along with having a stronger upper back.

All About the Traps

The primary mover in barbell shrugs are the trapezius muscles. Known as “traps” for short, these muscles were named after their trapezoid-like shape. They’re found close to the surface of the skin, making them an important muscle to develop if you’re looking for a powerful-looking upper body.

The traps attach at the lower thoracic vertebrae and then to the spine of the scapular, spanning the upper back and neck in a broad and flat shape. If you’re looking for a meathead neck, you’re not going to want to skip your trap workout.

There are several ways that strong traps will benefit you:

  • To support the spine so you can stand straight with good posture
  • Whenever you turn your head
  • Bending your torso from side to side
  • Moving your shoulders and scapula (in elevating, depressing, and retracting)
  • And finally, traps help with the internal rotation of the arms.

Unlike many other muscles, the traps have special roles for different areas of muscle fiber. For example, the upper trap muscle fibers will rotate and extend your neck, the middle trap fibers will retract the scapula, and the lower trap fibers will internally rotate your arms along with depressing the scapula.

Needless to say, the traps are a complex and important muscle—and the barbell shrug is the way to get them in tip-top shape. However, they’re not the only muscles utilized.

Secondary Muscles Worked in Barbell Shrugs

While the traps are the primary muscles targeted with barbell shrugs, they get quite a bit of assistance from some other muscles found in the upper body. For example, the levator scapulae are the muscle that is actually responsible primarily for shrugging the shoulders, so it’s safe to say that it’s going to play an important role. You’re also going to be utilizing other shoulder and upper back muscles in a stabilizer role.

These include the rhomboids and muscles found in the rotator cuff, which will mostly stay engaged to maintain a solid shoulder positioning. Your grip strength will also see improvement from shrugging. The grip is often the first failure point in a lot of lifts and exercises (such as pull-ups), and so developing your grip is a great way to improve your performance in plenty of other workouts.

Finally, your abdominal muscles will keep your torso stabilized.

While they play a very minor role, it is important to remember that they should be engaged throughout to keep you from swinging or keeling over. While a simple exercise, there’s a lot that goes into the humble barbell shrug.

How to Barbell Shrug

Although free weight exercises always add a bit of added difficulty to working out, the barbell shrug is a pretty straightforward lift to perform. It is, after all, called a “shrug.” However, there have been relatively recent changes in how to optimally perform the barbell shrug. With a rotation and 30 degree adduction of the shoulders, it was found that there was better muscle activation with the lower and upper traps.

While this may not make that big of a difference, it is good to know if you’re wondering how “exact” good form should be when it comes to the shrug. The primary reason for this is that the traps have a bigger role to play in upward rotation than the muscles on the upper back, so this rotation and adduction will allow you to better isolate them.

Positioning yourself to lean slightly forward during the lift is also a good idea if you want to place a little more emphasis on the traps. This is mostly because of the positioning of the traps and their better utilization at an angle. Taking these things into account, here is how you perform a barbell shrug:

 

  1. You can either start with the barbell and weight plates on the ground or secure them on a rack. If you’re using a rack, make sure that the position of the bar is just above knee height, at around mid-thigh level. If the pins on the rack are too high, you’ll have trouble going through the full range of motion.
  2. Once you’re set-up, grab the bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width distance. This will allow for greater arm abduction and better trap isolation. However, the best grip width will also come down to your anatomy, so it’s best to find what’s comfortable.
  3. Make sure your chest is up and your back is straight, pushing through your heels in order to stand up straight. Also, push your hips forward while you’re in the starting position. If you need some extra space, walk yourself backward with the bar. Your feet should be planted a bit wider than shoulder-width apart and pointed slightly out.
  4. Hinging at the hips, maintain a slight bend forward while also keeping your shoulder blades in a neutral position. This means neither having them come forward or pinching them backward. It’s not necessary, but you can bend at the knees if you’d like to have some more stability.
  5. Initiate the movement by driving your shoulders upward to your ears. Once you’ve reached the top, hold the position for a count and squeeze your traps without having your head, legs, or body swing. If you’re unable to hold the weight at the top position, that’s a sign you’re using too heavy of a load. You can bend your elbows slightly to get your shoulders in the best position, but try to avoid lifting the weight with the elbows.
  6. In a controlled manner, slowly lower the bar. Taking 2 to 3 seconds on the descent  to maximize time under tension. Once you’ve reached the bottom of the position, you should feel a good stretch in your traps.
  7. Repeat for the number of reps in your programming.

Programming

Most people tend to either train them with the delts or the back, but it really is up to you. The back makes a lot of sense since the traps are part of the back musculature. On the other hand, a lot of bodybuilders work traps with delts since blood is then pumped into an area away from the other shoulder work.

Whichever day you choose for your trap work, you’re also going to need to decide whether you’re training for size or for strength. If your aim is to cultivate more muscle mass (hypertrophy), you’re going to be looking at using lower weights balanced out by much higher set and rep ranges.

For example, anywhere from 3 to 6 sets of 10 to 20 reps is a good ballpark range to aim for. However, this will largely depend on your starting fitness level.

If the goal is strength training, then you’re going to be looking at quite the opposite workout routine.

Anywhere from 4 to 6 sets of 5 to 10 reps is the way to go. The key is that you’ll want to be using a load that’s quite heavy, so you’re still gassed out after fewer overall reps.

Working Out with Barbell Shrugs

There are also fun workouts you can do with supersets and as-many-reps-as-you-can (AMRAP).

With supersets, try supersetting the barbell shrug with the behind-the-back barbell shrug, which is guaranteed to lead to some serious development.

Then there’s also the option of going for as many reps as possible.

One way to do this is to aim for 100 total reps and do as many reps as possible in each individual set. So, if you get to 50 reps in your first set you can then rest for 60 seconds before continuing. Each set will get progressively more difficult and so it’s a great way to add some additional volume to your traps.

Keep in mind that the traps see more development over higher rep counts and more explosive movements.

The rep counts outlined above are already on the higher end (for both strength training and bodybuilding), but it is something to remember if trying to program the lift into your training program. The explosive movement will come from how you actually perform the shrug, which leads us to some other tips to take into account when shrugging.

Tips and Tricks

While the barbell shrug is a relatively simple movement, the fact that you can use a lot of weight means that optimizing form is important to avoid injuries and make the workout more efficient. One key is paying attention to the positioning of your head. For one, you don’t want to allow your head to come too much forward when you squeeze the traps. Doing this will compromise the position of the neck, potentially resulting in injuries further down the road.

What you do want to do with the head is to look slightly upward.

Looking up while shrugging can assist in improving the contraction of the traps since traps also work to control the movement of your head. However, if you do opt to look slightly up as you shrug, make sure that the movement is controlled and not explosive.

Controlling the Weight

Most form breakdown comes down to choosing a weight that’s way too heavy. If you find yourself relying on momentum and jerking the weight around, it’s time to choose a lighter load. You also won’t be able to get through the full range of motion, which will impede your development and possibly lead to injury down the road. A good indication of using too much weight is bouncing the bar once you get to the top of every rep. You want to be focusing on the contraction instead of relying on momentum.

Variations

Variations of barbell shrugs can be useful in hitting the traps at a different angle, leading to bigger traps in the long run.

Some good variations include:

  • Smith machine shrug
  • Dumbbell shrug
  • Behind the back shrug
  • Trap bar shrug

 

And if you’re looking for alternatives that hit your upper back differently (but still build muscle), look no further than deadlifts, upright rows, and farmer carries.

Shrugging Your Way to Wellness and Strength

The barbell shrug proves that good things can come in small packages. Although the shrug is a humble movement, it can have amazing consequences for the overall development of our upper bodies. The key is to support this development with enough sleep, proper nutrition, and a well-rounded workout plan.

If you’re looking to turbocharge your trap gains, implement barbell shrugs into your workouts and you’ll have a stronger, bigger, and more resilient upper body.