The Book On Shrugs

August 24, 2011

By Jimmy Peña MS, CSCS, Photography by Gregory James, Model: IFBB Pro Joel Stubbs It’s probably one of the simplest exercises you’ll ever try, and yet it’s one of the most important and beneficial moves for not only how it completes your shoulder and upper back musculature, but also because of how it prepares your body for many other exercises you tackle in the gym. We’re talking about the shrug, of course. If you haven’t discovered the variety of ways to perform it, keep reading. First off, let’s be very clear: We’re talking about the shrug, and not necessarily about traps, per se. There is a difference, seeing as not every exercise for the traps is a shrug, but every shrug works the traps. Confusing? Well, since we have upper, middle and lower traps, it’s important to realize that despite the myriad variations that can be applied to it, the shrug is limited in what areas of the traps it works. But we’ll tackle those issues and more as we dive into the classic shrug in all its glory.


The most popular shrug is arguably the barbell version and with good reason, one being the fact that you can load a ton of weight on it, and we all know how great that feels! And since the range of motion (ROM) is so short, it’s easy to see why you’re probably stronger on the shrug than anything else for any other bodypart, relatively speaking. But why are you able to move so much weight on this exercise? Well, if you examine the standard shrug, you can see how your arms, shoulders, back as well as your legs are all called into play to perform the very short, up-and-down motion. With so many bodyparts involved, and the fact that the bar is so close to the body, it’s easy to understand why the shrug is considered a full-body move in many regards. Little do you realize, but training diligently on shrugs helps you handle much lighter exercises like curls or even lateral raises, simply because you’ve trained your body to handle a lot of weight from a standing position. So because your entire body, especially your legs and lower back, can handle the heavy shrug, other standing moves are easier to tackle. And though you’ll learn to do a number of shrug variations, it’s important right off the bat to say that the correct shrugging motion is straight up and down, never in circles. Read that last part again because a huge number of bodybuilders do this motion wrong! You have to remember that the shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, much like the hip (but much less stable), and it’s made up of very delicate muscles known as the rotators. Those muscles ⎯ the teres minor, supraspinatus, infraspinatus and the subscapularis ⎯ work to stabilize the bigger, major muscles that we see in the mirror (three delt heads). But many guys think that to completely target the traps, specifically the upper traps, they have to create small circles with their shoulders. However, nothing can be worse for the inner shoulder musculature, and anyone who has ever damaged a rotator muscle will attest to the fact that there are few things worse for a bodybuilder than a bad rotator(s). So, while there are plenty of other ways you can wreak havoc on your rotator cuff, you can protect your shoulders from injury by maintaining a straight up-and-down motion during shrugs.


Those who add standard shrugs to their weekly routine understand that whether you’re a beginner or advanced bodybuilder, the power rack is a great place for them. Reason is, you can load the weight onto the bar that’s resting on the safeties, which are set just below your hands (the bottom of the range of motion). That’s helpful, not only upon failure when you have to release the weight safely, but it’s also helpful as you begin the set. By placing your quads under the bar as you grasp it, you can use your quads to help stand up with the bar in one motion. The more you practice and improve the shrug, the better able you’ll be to get in and out of position, and the power rack is the perfect place to practice it. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the more popular shrug variations and how they differ among and between each other. We’ll start with the most popular barbell versions.

Barbell Shrug & the Behind-the-Back Barbell Shrug

There are basically two ways to do the barbell shrug, from the front, and behind the back. To realize when and why to do either version, let’s take a look at the exact target of each. The upper traps are seen from the front and are responsible for raising the shoulders. The middle traps are seen from the back, and they pull the shoulder blades together. During the standard shrug, with the bar in front of your body, your shoulders naturally round forward slightly. Because of that rounding action, you use more of the upper traps, as well as the serratus anterior. The serratus anterior muscles are responsible for pulling your shoulders forward. Now compare that to the version in which you’re holding the bar behind your back. That version automatically causes you to lift your shoulders up and back right from the start, hitting the upper traps in addition to the elusive middle traps. So if your goal is to target the upper traps with as much weight as possible, the choice should be the standard (bar in front) version. You can easily pull more weight during this version as compared to when the bar is behind your back. However, if you want to target more of the traps (both upper and middle traps), you can try the behind-the-back variety. And for complete development, there’s no reason why you can’t perform both within a single routine. Do your front shrugs first when you’re muscles are the freshest and then turn around and do the behind-the-back variety as you begin to fatigue.

Smith-Machine Shrug

While we’re on the subject of barbell shrugs, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a close cousin of the two barbell versions, the Smith shrug. The Smith shrug differs in a couple of important ways. For one, because you don’t have to worry about balance, performing Smith-machine shrugs to the front allows you to go even heavier than with the standard version. The Smith also ensures a straight up-and-down motion to help protect the shoulder joints. But probably even more enticing about the Smith version is the fact that when doing the behind-the-back shrug, you can step forward, helping to move your butt out of the way, which allows you to pull the bar higher unobstructed, and because your shoulders are pulled back even more, it better targets the middle traps. A double-threat shrug!

Power Shrug

The shrug can also be turned into a power source. In its simplest terms, power is the ability to move an object quickly. The faster you can move a heavy weight, the more power you have. By training the shrug movement to produce power, you can help your overall strength from head to toe, because as you’ll soon learn, the power shrug calls upon the entire body to explosively move the weight a very short distance. And while it requires more legs and calf involvement than the typical shrug, the traps are still hard at work. But before hitting the power shrug head-on, there are a few power points to remember. First, if you attempt the power shrug, you’re not going to be using the same kind of weight as you do during other kinds of shrugs, because more power is generated when using between 30–50% of your 1RM (that is, just 30–50% of your single-rep max); much less weight than you’re accustomed to lifting, especially compared to the standard shrug. Because of that, you’ll be looking to keep your reps low, from 3–5. As a bodybuilder, this is probably unfamiliar territory for you, but research suggests that keeping reps at this range is ideal for triggering power-producing qualities in the target muscle. And not only are a few reps sufficient to elicit power, they also prevent fatigue. That’s important to remember since your ability to generate power isn’t contingent upon taking any of your sets to failure. Whereas in your typical mass program, you may take most of your sets to failure, during the power version of the shrug, you never want to go anywhere near the point of failure. Just remember that it’s the quick explosion of each rep and not the overall fatigue of a set that’s the most important element.

Seated or Standing Dumbbell Shrug

Almost as popular as barbell shrugs are the dumbbell version. The great thing about dumbbell shrugs is the fact that you can apply intensity techniques like drops sets with greater ease. And because your hands are neutral (facing in) during the dumbbell version, some bodybuilders actually prefer them to the bar since that’s the most comfortable position for your arms to be in. (You can also angle the weights so they’re at a slight angle to the body.) But probably the most dramatic difference is the fact that you can actually do the dumbbell shrug from a seated position. Of course, when you stand for the shrug, you bring into play the power of your legs (which is nonexistent in the seated style), and the strength of your back and other stabilizers. Add in a little bounce or ‘give’ from your knees, and you can obviously go heavier when standing. But if you want to completely remove the momentum and better isolate the upper traps, the seated dumbbell shrug is your next best choice. Of course, you can do both, or alternate them from one workout to the next. If we can add a word of caution for the seated version: Be careful not to bounce the weight on the downward (negative) portion of the rep. Reason is, as opposed to the standing shrug in which your legs absorb the energy, when you’re seated all of the force is sent to your tailbone and lower back.

Shrug Machine

If you like the idea of removing momentum and body english from the equation, yet you prefer to do a standing shrug, then the standing machine shrug is the move for you. This type of shrug can either be plate loaded or selectorized (pin loaded), and the great thing about machine shrugs is that you can alter your footing, much like you can on say the Smith-machine shrug, but your hands can remain in the comfortable neutral position as they are during the dumbbell versions. Add to those elements the fact that the machine allows for strict up-and-down motion, helping protect your shoulder girdle, and you’ll see why this is a favorite among bodybuilders. END

Strapped In

If you’re an avid reader of MuscleMag you know that we’re big fans of pulling straps. And while shrugs aren’t necessarily trained on back day, they do require an enormous amount of grip work. And we believe that the best way to handle shrugs is to remove your hands almost entirely from the equation. Pulling straps should be used on each and every version of the shrug, no matter the grip. Whether it’s behind the back or with dumbbells, straps will send the force to the traps. The fact is, your hands will fail long before your traps. Indeed, our traps are so strong that we dare say your hands will be a limiting factor from the very beginning of your workout. Begin using straps on the very first set; don’t wait until you feel fatigue. If you tend to alternate your grip during shrugs, one hand pronated and the other supinated, be sure to switch which palm is up and down from one workout to the next to ensure balanced development.

Hitting the Middle & Lower Traps

The majority of the shrugging moves we’re doing best target the upper traps, and that’s important since the upper traps make up most of the mass in that area. But you can’t forget the smaller middle and lower traps. And like we said in the beginning, since the traps function as three muscles ⎯ the upper traps lift and rotate the shoulder blades upward, as in a shrug; the middle traps pull the shoulder blades together; and the lower traps rotate the shoulder blades downward ⎯ it’s important to incorporate moves that can locate and target those other areas with accuracy for optimal muscular development. Here are some shrugs as well as other moves that target other parts of the traps. Want big traps? Include them in your shoulder, back or traps workouts!


Straight-Arm Seated Row: This exercise is essentially a seated cable row with two differences: You use a rope attachment, and you keep your arms straight during the entire movement, squeezing your shoulder blades together, as if to wedge a pencil between your middle back muscles. Hold this position for a count, and then release. Don’t bend your elbows or pull the rope into your midsection as in a standard row. Prone Incline Shrug: A shrug performed by lying prone on an incline bench set at about 45 degrees. Keep your chest pressed against the back-pad and make sure your chin clears the top of the bench. Allow the weights to hang straight down toward the floor. Shrug your middle traps by pulling your shoulder blades together. Lift your arms straight toward the ceiling; your arms extend from your body at roughly 45-degree angles since you’re positioned at an angle.


Prone Incline Front Raise: A front raise done facing an incline bench set at about 45 degrees. Straddle the bench backward or put your knees on the seat, holding the dumbbells with an overhand grip. Keep your chest pressed against the backpad and make sure your chin clears the top of the bench. Allow the weights to hang straight down toward the floor. Keeping just a slight bend in your elbows, lift the dumbbells in front of you until your arms are parallel to the floor. Hold for a count, then slowly lower the weights to the start position. Barbell Front Raise to Overhead: Here you take your standing barbell front raise but don’t stop at shoulder height; instead, take it all the way overhead. Squeeze your delts at the top, then slowly lower the bar back to the start position, just a few inches from your quads.