Johnnie Jackson wasn’t like most gym newbies who glued themselves to the bench, pressing away for hours on end. To showcase his strength, a then-15-year-old Jackson would load up the bar in the power rack and shrug until his hands were calloused and bruised. Three plates per side, then four, then five. Though it was a small range of motion, Johnnie found himself ably moving more weight than men twice his age. Today, with a more well-rounded physique, he still boasts the most cartoonishly large set of traps in the sport. Traps of that height and dimension don’t win contests the way legs and backs do, but they’re still undeniably impressive and indicative of a lifter devoted to the totality of his training. Yet there are a great many gym rats who fumble the execution of this simple move and more still who ignore the benefits to be had from its many variations. Here, we explore the different kinds of shrugs at your disposal and give you expert advice on how to put them to work for you in your quest for a Jackson-like set of upper traps.
As we’ve established, traps aren’t exactly a glamour muscle. Most guys, even those who train regularly, live a moderately trapped existence, with larger shoulders and backs that overshadow this smaller bodypart. But when well developed, the trapezius serves as an eye-catching centerpiece for both. Building these sinewy accessories takes a little bit of knowledge about how they work — and how they don’t.
Anatomy. For our purposes, the most fundamental function of this symmetrical, trapezius-shaped muscle is to move your shoulder blades, but it also works as a spinal mover and stabilizer. When moving your shoulder blades up, as in the shrug, the focus is mainly on the upper region of the traps. The middle traps pull your shoulder blades together and the main function of the lower traps is to rotate the shoulder blades downward. These functions are important to note because it keeps you from improvising beyond each area’s given anatomy in hopes of attaining a different result, and it emphasizes the versatility of this oft-overlooked muscle.
Isolation. So can you isolate one area of the traps during exercise? “Yes, to an extent,” says Guillermo Escalante, MBA, ATC, CSCS, fitness director for Sports Pros Physical Therapy in Claremont, CA. “But all shrugging movements emphasize the upper traps.” And while all shrugs produce the same, basic range and direction of motion, subtle adjustments can allow you to get more out of this exercise (see the variety of shrugging options).
Pairings. One of the most frequent questions that comes about when training the upper traps concerns workout splits. Do you train traps with back or shoulders? The answer is more complex than the question.
“Shrugs can be trained with either back or shoulders, depending on what you choose to do,” says Escalante. “Shoulder exercises such as overhead presses and lateral raises also recruit the upper traps, so shrugging on shoulder day following your presses and raises is tantamount to training triceps after chest in the same workout.” In other words, your traps will require less total work in this scenario and could benefit from fewer sets. “If you’re lagging in your trap development, it’s perhaps best to separate your shoulder day from your shrug day so that you hit the traps twice in a week,” Escalante says.
If you’re not setting aside a shrugs-only day in your split, a good alternative would be to do them on back day. “This way, you’ll be targeting a relatively fresh muscle group because most back exercises target the lower traps and middle traps, but not the upper traps.”
In any case, Escalante says, shrugs should always be performed after all of your heavy, compound work has been done.
5 Traps Of Trap Training
Though a shrug involves such a small range of motion, there are a number of dangers that you expose yourself to if you perform them incorrectly. Here are 5 common mistakes to be aware of.
1. The “Roll.” One of the most common mistakes that’s persisted since before the Information Age is the shoulder roll during the shrug. As it turns out, holding heavy weights and rolling your shoulders forward or backward in small circles is one of the riskiest exercises you can do in the gym. “The upper traps are grown via elevation, not rotation,” says Escalante. “Rolling the shoulders will only predispose you to neck injuries such as herniated discs in the cervical spine.”
2. Line of Sight. Deviating your gaze from neutral can have catastrophic consequences. (If you don’t think so, just ask MMI Group Editorial Director Bill Geiger.) “You should always look straight ahead,” says Escalante. “Looking up or down will create stress on your neck musculature and may cause a neck strain, or tear. Additionally, looking up or down when shrugging may place stress on the delicate cervical spine discs, which can lead to a cervical disc herniation.”
3. The Weight. With such a small, isolated movement, technique becomes even more important — better to select weight loads that allow you to do this while still inducing hypertrophy than to use faulty, perhaps injurious form. “Don’t let your ego get in the way,” he says. “It’s not about the weight you’re lifting, it’s about how you lift it. Never sacrifice technique for weight — and that applies to other bodyparts, too.” Escalante suggests using weight loads that bring failure in the 6–15-rep range, with rest periods of 45–90 seconds. Use straps on only your heaviest loads to keep from overreaching.
4. Execution. Besides keeping your eyes straight ahead, there are other form fundamentals to note. “I often see people using their legs while trying to do standing dumbbell, barbell or machine shrugs,” says Escalante. “Some guys also bend their elbows during the exercise and end up cheating by calling other muscles into play such as the biceps.”
5. Balance. As Johnnie Jackson will tell you, endless sets of heavy shrugs will build great traps and little else. If you’re concerned with building a physique that’s heavily muscled and symmetrical, balance your shrug work with a healthy dose of fundamental back-and-shoulder exercises such as overhead presses, pull-ups, rows and raises. Not only will this keep your upper body musculature in balance but it’ll fortify you against injuries that can arise as a result of overtraining one particular muscle group.
Incline Bench Shrug
Do It Right: Set an adjustable bench to a 60-degree incline. “This shrug variation will shift emphasis to the upper traps as well as the upper portion of the middle traps. The fact that your chest is pressed on the bench will make it difficult to use momentum to drive the weight up.”
>>This variation allows you to also build depth and detail in your upper back. Focus on keeping the plane of travel completely vertical (perpendicular to the floor) to ensure proper muscle activation. You can also use various angles on the bench to slightly change the emphasis.
Standing Dumbbell Shrug
Do It Right: “This version carries the same general benefits as the seated dumbbell shrug but it may be preferable for those seeking greater size since you can lift more weight with a little assistance from the legs when you’re getting close to failure,” says Escalante.
>> To get the most out of this move, concentrate on getting a peak contraction on every rep.
Barbell Power Shrug
Do It Right: While the execution is nearly identical to the dumbbell version, the barbell power shrug has a slight limitation. “The downfall is that you must hold the bar in front of your thighs, which isn’t directly aligned with the line of pull of the upper traps.”
>>Get the power into the move by starting with a slight bend in your knees and extending forcefully through your hips and knees onto your toes in the top position.
Trap Bar Shrug
Do It Right: “The trap bar makes shrugging relatively comfortable since the weight is lined up directly in line with the line of pull of the upper traps,” says Escalante. “The thighs don’t get in the way of the movement.”
>>If your gym doesn’t have a trap bar, the dumbbell shrug is this move’s closest variant.
Dumbbell Power Shrug
Do It Right: This variation actually calls for a slight cheat. “This allows for the use of maximum weight loads since the momentum is initiated from the legs,” says Escalante.
>>Even though it’s a power move, the contribution from the legs should be minimal. A small “bounce” out of the bottom position is all that’s required. You may even go up on your toes.
Seated Dumbbell Shrug
Do It Right: “The good thing about dumbbells is that you can place them where they feel comfortable — there isn’t a pre-set line of pull. As with the machine, the seated dumbbell shrug also minimizes the use of momentum from the legs.”
>>Don’t use straps, except on your heaviest sets. Keep your arms straight and locked throughout to maintain the tension on your traps.
Seated Machine Shrug
Do It Right: “The seated and standing machine shrug both target the upper traps in a relatively comfortable position and is similar to the trap bar shrug,” says Escalante. “The difference between the seated and the standing version of the machine shrug is that the seated machine shrug minimizes the use of momentum from the legs. This means less weight lifted, but it also means extra emphasis on the upper traps via better technique.”
>>The machine shrug is excellent for beginners but is also a great option for more advanced lifters looking to finish off a heavier traps workout using a fixed range of motion.
Do It Right: “This unconventional shrug variation keeps constant tension on the upper traps because placing the arms overhead requires their activation. It’s important to keep the elbows locked so that you don’t cheat by using your triceps or shoulders to help get the weight up.”
>>This move can also be performed from a seated position in a power rack, with the safety pins set high to allow for a safe range of motion.
Do It Right: This staple exercise allows for the most weight to be used. “While cheating on this exercise is relatively easy to do, it’s wise to limit weights to a load that you can handle with strict form for 10 reps or so. One downfall is that you must hold the bar in front of your thighs, which isn’t directly aligned with the line of pull of the upper traps.”
>>For added safety, perform these in a power rack where you can rest the bar on safety pins between sets, or in the event of failure.
Smith-Machine Shrug (not shown)
Do It Right: “This exercise keeps the movement of the exercise in the line of the Smith machine,” says Escalante. “Just like the standing barbell shrug, it’s important to keep the contribution from the legs to a minimum.”
>>If the Smith’s line of pull is slightly angled, choose the side of the barbell that allows for a pull that’s slightly up and toward you, rather than up and away from you.
Behind-the-Back Barbell Shrug
Do It Right: “This variation of the shrug also emphasizes the upper traps but may require the use of less weight because the shoulder is placed in a slightly strained position, just behind the plane of the body,” says Escalante. “The problem with this variation is in the size of the lifter’s glutes. The larger the glutes, the bigger hump you have to get over — or through!”
>>If you’re new to this move, try it first in a power rack with the safety pins set a few inches below the bottom of your glutes. Despite the awkward angle, concentrate on keeping the line of pull as vertical as possible to prevent any additional stress on your already-stretched shoulders.