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October 25, 2022 7 min read

Have you ever stopped to consider what actually happens when you shrug your shoulders? You might be surprised to learn that shrugs activate several muscles. The movement that occurs when you shrug elevates your shoulder blades, or scapula bones, causing them to slide toward your neck.

Despite the movement being isolated to one joint in each shoulder,  various muscles are activated to make the shrug happen.

We use shoulder shrugs (without weights) in our daily lives to loosen up shoulder and upper-body tension. Hours of tension building while sitting at a desk, or working on a computer can usually be relieved by shoulder shrugs.

However, strength builders do shrugs for more than stress relief. Shoulder shrugs help strengthen muscles that play crucial roles in pull-ups, deadlifting, bench presses, weightlifting, squatting, carrying, Olympic lifts, and other weight training.

What muscles do shrugs work?

The trapezius muscles are the primary targets of shoulder shrugs. Bodybuilders, weight trainers, fighters, and action stars love to show off their traps. Whether you need big traps to improve your performance in weightlifting, or to meet your aesthetic goals, the shrug is an excellent addition to your training program.

Working the traps for these reasons involves working with weights like dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and more.

However, the trapezius muscles can’t do the range of motion on their own,  and several other muscles collaborate as synergists and stabilizing muscles.

Trapezius

Often called traps for short, these muscles, particularly the upper traps, are the main targets of shoulder shrugs and major back muscles. They stretch from the middle of the back to the posterior of the neck or cervical spine.

Lats & Shoulder Muscles– Image from Shutterstock

The traps are mostly superficial muscles located close to the surface. They are connected to the shoulder blades and are responsible for their movement and rotation. These are the motions that allow us to raise our arms above shoulder level.

You can feel how the traps tighten by pulling your shoulders up as high as you can in a shrug, even if you're on the couch or at your desk.

The trapezius muscles also stabilize the upper body, and the way they work in this exercise is in the range of motion of the shrug itself.

Shrugs contract the trapezius during the upward motion and then relax the traps during the downward movement.

Furthermore, added to elevating the shoulder, the upper traps support the shoulder girdles against the forces pulling them down during the performance of heavy lifts like farmer’s walks and deadlifts.

However, shrugs can only be effective if they are performed correctly.

The motion should be a vertical up-and-down movement of the shoulders. Moving your shoulders backward or forward, or rotating the shoulders will not be effective, and you should also ensure you lift weights appropriate for your weight and fitness level.

Synergist Muscles

A synergist muscle is a muscle that helps another muscle to effectively perform a particular function.

The middle trapezius muscles are some of the synergist muscles engaged in the shrug movement. Likewise, a muscle that you can feel on the side of your neck, the levator scapulae, plays a secondary role in shrug movements. As the name indicates, it helps elevate the shoulder blade, while also holding the scapula in place against the trunk.

Stabilizer Muscles

Like synergists, stabilizers also collaborate with the trapezius, the primary muscle in performing shrugs. Stabilizers contract do precisely that — they contract to stabilize your position.

In the case of shoulder shrugs, the erector spine acts as the stabilizer muscle.

The erector spinae muscles stretch between the tailbone and the lower part of the neck. Shoulder shrug exercises strengthen the erector spine muscle to improve stability and reduce injury risks. 

Shrugs are ideal additions to the workout routines of strength builders with weak lumbar regions

Other stabilizing muscles that maintain a strong shoulder position during shrugs include upper back muscles such as the rhomboids major and minor, latissimus dorsi, and muscles of the rotator cuff. For example, during barbell shrugs, these upper back stabilizing muscles resist the inward and forward pull of the bar.

SECONDARY MUSCLE GROUPS

Shoulder shrugs work secondary muscle groups like those in the arms and core whenever weights are used.

For example, when performing dumbbell shrugs or barbell shrugs, forearm strength is improved when the brachioradialis muscle works to grip and secure dumbbells. When you lift dumbbells or other weights the abdominal core muscles serve to stabilize the upper body.

However,  shrugs can’t be seen as isolation exercises. 

Depending on the manner in which the shrugs are performed, and the equipment used when building strength doing shrugs, a range of other muscles could be activated.

  • Shoulder muscles protect the shoulder joint
  • Upper arm muscles
  • Delts, or Deltoids
  • Lats or Latissimus dorsi
  • Obliques
  • Glutes
  • Quadriceps
  • Adductors
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Wrist Flexors

Many of these muscles, like the glutes and quads (or the lower body muscles), are secondary, mainly providing support to maintain good posture during shrugs.

Shoulder Shrug Exercise Benefits

The primary benefit of shrugs is their contribution to building big, strong traps, but that’s not all. Here are additional benefits of shoulder shrugs.

Dumbbell shrug bodybuilder – Image from Shutterstock

 

1. Increases cervical spine strength and balance:

Certain exercises can be more effectively performed with more weight, but then the strength builder has strong traps and neck muscles, and cervical spines. These exercises include standing curls and military presses.

Shoulder shrugs create balanced upper, middle, and lower parts of the trapezius muscle.

Having imbalanced traps typically causes neck and shoulder pain, and it increases injury risks while working out.

2. Improves your Physique:

Performing shoulder shrugs makes heads turn:

  • Strong shoulders and traps create a better posture. Strength builders who neglect exercising their traps and neck could develop shoulders dropping inwards because their traps are loose and weak. Performing shoulder shrugs can improve posture by tightening and strengthening the trapezius muscles and neck muscles.
  • Broader shoulders make the waistline look smaller, to provide the much-desired V-look. Dumbbell or barbell shrugs are sure to build up their traps and neck muscles, ultimately resulting in a muscular look that is sure to turn heads. Shrugs are one of the best ways to make your traps grow. Big, strong traps help create the appearance of a muscular frame that many lifters are seeking.

3. Reduces neck and back pain:

Building strength without including shrugs to strengthen the neck and shoulder muscles face severe risks of workout-related injuries that could cause chronic upper and lower back pain.

The muscles like the trapezius which are the primary muscles worked, in turn, play secondary roles in other upper body workouts. Therefore, including shrugs in workout routines can support other muscles in the performance of other exercises involving the upper body.

4. Joint reinforcement:

Shoulder shrugs reinforce the glenohumeral joint articulation. This involves the humeral head with the glenoid cavity of the scapula, and it represents the major articulation of the shoulder girdle. 

Who Should Do Shrugs?

The shrug has the potential to benefit many different types of lifters and athletes, but also those who live stressful lives and do shrug to relieve stress. Here’s who can benefit most from using shrugs in their workout programs. 

Strength and Power Lifters

Strength builders and power lifters can benefit significantly from including shrugs in their workout routines. Squatting, pressing, and deadlifting are but some of the exercises that are best performed by those with strong upper traps and shoulders.

Physique Athletes and Bodybuilders

Physique Athlete – Image from Shutterstock

 

For most bodybuilders and physique athletes, shrugs are an excellent exercise to increase the size of their upper trapezius, especially if hypertrophy of the upper traps is their goal.

Shrugs are versatile because they can be incorporated into various exercises, whether you’re in a standing position, lying face-down, or face-up.

You could be doing back exercises, shoulder exercises, glute workouts, or working on your upper arms working biceps and triceps, a few perfectly performed shrugs can be worked into the workout plan – at the top of the movement, or as you return to the starting position.

Shrugs are not essential for beginners or newcomers to the weight room because doing carries and deadlifts could get their traps growing sufficiently.

However, when intermediate and advanced lifters are ready to advance to new levels, shrugs are typically their preferred choice of exercise to work into their lifting routines.

General Fitness

Because the primary goal for general fitness trainers is not massive shoulders, personal trainers do not typically include shrugs when they design workout routines. Their reason for not favoring shrugs is the possibility of causing upper trap dominance. However, shrugs done properly can improve a person’s posture, and a few reps each day could also relieve stressed shoulders.

Warning

This is a reminder to avoid injury and muscle strain by ensuring you use the proper form for the shoulder shrug. The shrug should be a vertical motion moving the shoulder up and down.

Avoid circling the shoulder or moving it forward or backward during this exercise.

The shoulder movement should have your shoulder blades moving upward toward the ears, and definitely not scapular retractions, which are those exercises that require you to pull the shoulder blades together toward the spine.

It is important to have at least a basic understanding of the mechanics of the shrug exercise you intend to perform, whether it is part of your weight training or flexibility exercise Exercises require particular starting positions of the body in order for optimal exercise in targeted muscle groups.

You can't just lift a barbell or a pair of dumbbells and rotate your shoulders, and call it a shrug exercise.

Progressive resistance torque, weights via gravity, needs to be applied in any strength training exercise by situating the load against a force so that the intended movement or target muscles are challenged throughout a targeted range of motion, typically throughout the full range.