Shoulder

Mastering the Shoulder Shrug: A Comprehensive Guide to Form and Technique

Written by:

Julien Raby

Last updated:

A man performing dumbbell shrugs

Yes, large traps provide an imposing physique. But the traps are used in other compound lifts and contribute to posture, stability, and injury prevention.

But does the shoulder shrug live up to its reputation? 

Don’t panic—we cover everything you need to know about the shoulder shrug exercise, including proper form, the benefits, muscles used, and alternative options in the article below. Read on for more information.

What are Shrugs?

Let’s start with the basics—what is the shrug exercise?

Shrugs are a straightforward weight training movement primarily engaging your upper trapezius, located at the top of the shoulders and the back of the neck. It’s used to develop the upper body. 

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Barbell shrugs are the standard, but dumbbells, machines, kettlebells, and other pieces of equipment work well. 

Nearly any workout routine can benefit from this exercise. The basic shrug improves shoulder and grip strength, posture, stability, and aesthetics. 

How to Perform Shrugs

The correct shrug motion is critical for optimal muscle growth. Performing the exercise with control can yield dramatic results for building muscle in the upper traps and reduce the chance of injury.

Step 1: Starting Position

First, take a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grab the barbell with an overhead grip with your hands right outside your thighs. You can adjust your hand placement to find the optimal grip position if necessary. 

Step 2: Shrug the Weight

Now, take a deep breath and brace your abdominal muscles. Keeping your arms straight, raise your shoulders towards your ears in a controlled and controlled motion. Imagine trying to touch your shoulders to your ears. This is the “shrug” motion.

Step 3: Hold the Contraction

At the top of the movement, take a brief pause and squeeze your trapezius muscles. Focus on the mind-muscle connection and feel the tension in your muscles. 

Pausing is critical, as this will help you increase muscle tension and potential muscle hypertrophy. A 1–3 count hold is recommended. 

Step 4: Return to the Starting Position 

Now, slowly lower the weight to the starting position. Maintain control, taking your time to feel a deep stretch in your upper traps and back. 

That’s one repetition. Repeat the movement for your desired rep range.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

The shrug looks like a simple movement, but it’s incredibly easy to mess up. Whether you’re using a barbell or a shrug machine, there are common pitfalls that dramatically reduce its effectiveness. 

Here are a few to remember the next time you’re at the gym:

Too Much Weight

Heavier weight sounds like a good idea—more weight equals more muscle gain, right? In some cases, this can be true, but too much weight can be counterproductive.

Using excessive weight out of your strength range, or “ego lifting,” can cause you to overcompensate and ruin your form. You might make jerky movements or roll your shoulders forward.

This reduces the range of motion and make shrugs less effective. Too much weight will also increase the chance of injury, strain, and overexertion. Instead, use weights that are challenging, but you can still maintain control and proper form. 

Jerky Movements

One of the most common mistakes is using too much momentum. You might see lifters move their head, necks, arms, or even legs. This is typically caused by too much weight or poor technique. 

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Jerky movements with too much momentum use secondary muscle groups, taking the load off the upper traps.

To get the most out of shrugs, practice control. The weight should travel in a straight vertical path, engaging the traps and upper back. Adjusting the weight or going slower can help mitigate these issues. 

Rolling The Shoulders

Advanced lifters and newcomers alike make the mistake of the “rolling shrug” where they move their shoulders. This is an issue because the primary muscles in the exercise are the upper traps.

The trapezius muscles don’t move in a horizontal plane—they only elevate and lower in a vertical line. 

There’s no need to roll your shoulders forward or backward. Doing so is the incorrect technique. It will make the shrug less effective and place unnecessary stress on the neck, shoulders, and rotator cuff muscles.

Instead, move the weight straight up vertically. Practice control, pausing at the top of the exercise before slowly lowering the weight.

A muscular man performing shrugs using dumbbells at the gym

What Muscles Do Shrugs Work?

Some people consider the shrug a shoulder muscle exercise, while others consider it an upper-back movement. One thing’s for sure—the trapezius muscle is the primary muscle engaged. 

Understanding the basic muscle anatomy of the exercise will help improve your mind-muscle connection, allowing you to get better results from your training sessions. Here are the basics.

Trapezius Muscles

Shoulder shrugs engage the trapezius muscles, which are a set of large muscles located in the upper back and neck. The trapezius muscles can be divided into three regions: upper, lower, and middle trapezius. 

The primary function of the trapezius muscles is to stabilize and move the shoulders and neck. The upper traps receive the most engagement, which can benefit other exercises like the deadlift and farmer’s walk. 

Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae muscles are also activated. These muscles run along the sides of the neck, helping you shrug the shoulders up toward the ears. 

Forearms

You have to hold the bar with something, right? Although shoulder shrugs engage the traps, the forearm muscles are also recruited. This can benefit your grip muscles, allowing you to lift heavier weights during Olympic lifting movements and similar exercises.

If the weight keeps falling out of your hands during the shrug, consider using a hook grip or lifting straps. These will help you lift heavier weights without sacrificing form or increasing the risk of injury.

A man doing shoulder shrugs using dumbbells at home

What Are the Benefits of Shrugs?

The all-important trap muscles don’t just help with a stunning physique; they provide you with better upper body strength, proper posture, shoulder stability, and a lower chance of injury.

Here are some of the key benefits of incorporating shoulder shrugs into your workout routine:

Upper Body Development

Shrug variations contribute to better upper back and shoulder strength. Specifically, the traps are involved in everyday movements like lifting, reaching, and pulling. Stronger upper back muscles can improve your ability to perform daily activities and other exercises more effectively.

Better Posture

Thousands of adults claim they have bad posture or are worried their posture could be improved. Many of these concerns come from people who work desk jobs, where chronic neck pain is abundant.

Fortunately, strong trapezius muscles help support the neck and shoulders.

Enhanced neck muscle strength may lead to improved posture. By regularly performing shoulder shrugs, you can help counteract the adverse effects of prolonged sitting and rounded posture.

Injury Prevention

Strong trapezius muscles can help prevent injuries related to the shoulders, neck, and upper back. This is especially important if you engage in activities that involve repetitive overhead movements or heavy lifting.

The levator scapulae muscles, which are also engaged during shoulder shrugs, play a role in neck movement and stability. Strengthening these muscles can contribute to better neck function, reducing the chance of injury further. 

Better Compound Lifts

The gains you make from shoulder shrugs translate to other compound lifts. Olympic lifts, like the clean & jerk and snatch, require explosive upper back strength. Heavy deadlifts require a strong upper back and grip strength to lock out the weight.

Movements like the barbell back squat require a strong upper back for the weight to rest on. This makes the shoulder shrug a useful move for improving other lifts in the gym. 

Improved Physique

Who doesn’t want a better, more athletic physique? More robust, larger traps can provide you with a wider upper body. This can help you achieve the “V-taper” physique many experienced lifters desire. 

Not only does a more athletic frame come with health benefits, but it can make you more confident and improve your self-esteem. This makes it easier to meet people, make connections, and pursue your dreams.

A woman doing barbell shrugs using an hex bar

Shrugs Variations

We covered the barbell shrugs, but there is no shortage of shrugs variations. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, cable machines, resistance bands, and even trap bars. Here are a few to keep in mind:

1. Kettlebell or Dumbbell Shrugs

Don’t have access to a barbell? No problem! Dumbbell and kettlebell variations provide you with an easy way to perform the shrug exercise if you don’t have access to a barbell. These variations offer many of the same benefits but also have the unique advantage of being in a unilateral movement.

This means you use one arm at a time to lift the weight. Because you have a weight in each hand, one side of your body cannot overcompensate, which is likely for a barbell. This can help you address most of the bounces and strength discrepancies and improve your technique further.

2. Wide-Grip Shrugs

Another variation you can try is the wide-grip barbell shrug.

This movement will change muscle recruitment, helping you target different portions of your upper back. The wide grip variation is also fantastic for Olympic weightlifters, as many exercises require a wider grip.

The most suitable position for you does partly rely on how your body is built. If holding the weights with a broader grip helps you feel more muscle tension, then it suggests that using the wider grip might be a better choice for you.

Shrug Alternatives

If you can’t perform shrugs, or you’re looking for alternatives at training volume to really develop your upper back, there are countless alternatives you can try. Here are some of the best shoulder shrug alternatives to incorporate into your training regimen.

1. Face Pull

The Cable Face Pull is a beneficial exercise for enhancing the strength of your upper back and traps. Using a cable machine, you pull the handle towards your face, which engages your shoulder blades and upper back muscles. 

This exercise not only contributes to better posture and shoulder stability but also focuses more directly on the upper back muscles compared to the barbell shrugs. 

Here’s how to perform the Face Pull:

  1. Step up to the cable machine and attach a rope handle to the highest position.
  2. Take a few steps back, gripping the rope with your palms facing one another.
  3. Now, pull the cord towards your face, squeezing your shoulders.
  4. Pause at the height of the movement for a brief second.
  5. Now, slowly return to the starting position and repeat for reps.

2. Farmer’s Carry

The Farmer’s Carry is a valuable exercise for improving overall strength and stability. During this exercise, you walk while holding heavy weights in each hand, like carrying farmer’s market bags. 

This engages your core, shoulders, grip, and lower body muscles, enhancing muscular endurance and balance. It’s a simple yet effective exercise. Farmer’s carries offer a practical alternative to traditional workouts, helping you develop functional strength and resilience in everyday activities.

Here’s how to perform the Farmer’s Carry:

  1. Bend your knees and pick up a weight in each hand.
  2. Tighten your core and pull your shoulder blades down and back as you stand straight again.
  3. Take a step forward and start walking. Look ahead, push your shoulders back, and keep your abs tight.
  4. Keep walking for the amount of time or distance you want.

3. Bent-Over Row

Bent-Over Rows are a valuable exercise for building a solid back. In this movement, you bend at your hips, keeping your back straight, and lift a barbell or dumbbell toward your abdomen. 

This action targets muscles like your lats, rhomboids, and lower back, promoting better posture and overall upper body strength. Bent-over rows are an effective alternative to other back exercises essential for a comprehensive upper-body workout routine.

Here’s how to do the Bent-Over Row:

  1. Position a barbell on the ground in front of you. Assume an athletic stance with your feet roughly shoulder-distance apart, toes pointing forward.
  2. Bend at your hips and grip the barbell while keeping your back straight, slightly bending your knees.
  3. Pull the weight towards your lower core by bringing your shoulder blades back and together. Position your elbows close to your ribs during the movement.
  4. Focus on squeezing your back muscles as you pull until it nearly touches your lower abdomen.
  5. Hold the position briefly, squeezing your back muscles for maximum contraction.
  6. Slowly lower the weight back to the original position while maintaining control.

Rep Ranges and Training Tips

If you’re ready to add the shoulder shrug into your training regimen, you might think, “How many reps should I do?” 

The correct number of reps and the weight range will vary depending on your fitness goals. Here are a few recommendations and considerations to keep in mind.

For Strength

If your primary goal is to develop upper back strength, you’ll want to stick with lower reps using higher weight ranges. 

Because high amounts of weight can ruin your shrug form, we recommend performing 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps. This will provide you with enough training volume while challenging the muscles.

For Size

If you’re trying to build upper back size, you’ll want to perform higher reps using lighter weights. We recommend performing three sets of 15–20 reps. This is an excellent range for the shrug, as you can develop endurance and size without neglecting strength.

Don’t Forget to Pause at the Top

Pausing at the top of the shrug exercise is one of the most essential parts of the technique. This provides more time under tension, increasing the potential muscle stimulation.

We recommend pausing for 1–3 seconds at the top of each rep. Afterward, lower the weight with control. This will help you build a mind-muscle connection and feel a deep stretch in the trapezius.

A man doing shrugs at the gym

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Are Shrugs Good For?

The shoulder shrug is a fantastic exercise for engaging the trapezius muscle. It can be helpful as an isolation exercise to add training volume to your back or shoulder days. Strengthening the traps can benefit your posture, upper body strength, and compound lifts.

How Do You Do A Proper Shrug?

To perform a proper shrug, grab a barbell with a comfortable grip roughly shoulder-width apart. Take a deep breath and raise your shoulders straight toward your ears. Pause at the top of the movement before slowly lowering the weight.

Are Shrugs A Good Movement?

Shrugs can be an excellent exercise for engaging the upper and middle traps. The movement is straightforward and can be easily added to the end of an upper body session. It’s a good accessory movement for improving strength, neck stability, posture, and back size.

About Julien Raby

My name is Julien Raby and I’m one of the owner of BoxLife. Here’s my background on LinkedIn if you want more info. I’ve been active pretty much my whole life and I discovered Crossfit about 7 years ago. I want to help you improve your Crossfit performances by giving tips on specific movements, workouts and equipment. You have a question? Get in touch!