The Barbell Shrug | Form, Benefits and Variations for Stronger Traps!

By
Mike Kenler
October 8, 2020

The Barbell Shrug

The Barbell shrug is an essential exercise used to develop the upper back muscle known as the “traps.” While this motion may seem simple to perform, it is more nuanced than you may think. We examine the barbell shrug from every angle to answer all of your questions about this important exercise.

Muscles Worked by the Barbell Shrug

Primary Muscle Groups:

The trapezius and rhomboids are primarily worked by the barbell shrug. Located in the upper back, these muscles work together to stabilize and pull back your shoulders.

Secondary Muscle Groups:

The barbell shrug secondarily engages both the core abdominal muscles and the forearms. While lifting the weight, your core activates to stabilize your upper body. In addition, the barbell shrug improves your forearm strength as your brachioradialis engages to secure the barbell.

Barbell Shrug Benefits

1. Strength Gains

As stated before, the barbell shrug is a premier exercise to develop strength in the traps, as it fully activates the muscle fibers of the upper back. Not only will trapezius strength give you a broader physical appearance, but strength in this area will help you with other compound exercises such as the squat and deadlift.

Often times, weightlifters and bodybuilders alike tend to neglect the traps in favor of larger muscles such as the lats or pecs. If you haven’t worked out the traps in awhile, the barbell shrug is for you!

2. Better Posture  

Upper back muscles such as the traps and rhomboids are responsible for keeping your shoulders held high and preventing the “hunchback” slouched position of the neck that occurs over time.

When you do the barbell shrug, you create a thicker band of muscles in your upper back, which allows you to work less in order to maintain proper posture. This exercise is incredibly important for your posture physical health in the long-run.

3. Isolation of the Traps

The barbell shrug is one of the best trapezius strengthening exercises because it is an isolation exercise. This means that it specifically targets one muscle group. Compound exercises can activate the traps, but not to the extent of an isolation exercise like the barbell shrug.

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How to Do the Barbell Shrug

Equipment:

To perform the barbell shrug, you will need a barbell and some weights. Start light to master the form and add weights as necessary.

Setup:

1. Set up the barbell on a rack just below your waist level.

2. Assume a standing position in front of the barbell.

Action:

1.  Tighten your abs and firmly grasp the barbell with an overhand grip.

2.  Contract your traps to bring your shoulders up and slightly back at the same time.

3.  Slowly bring the barbell back to the starting position.

4.  Repeat this motion until you complete your desired number of repetitions.

Recommendation:

There is no need to stack on plates and shrug a heavy load for three reps. Instead, choose a lighter weight and do 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions. 

Barbell Shrug Mistakes

1. Using Too Much Weight

If you load on too much weight to perform the barbell shrug, you will be forced to use momentum to shrug the weight upwards. As a result, you will fail to achieve the maximum range of motion. This also greatly increases your risk of injury.

Using too much weight can cause you to “bounce” at the top of each rep, which places too much stress on your tendons and joints. Instead, focus on feeling the full contraction of your traps with a lighter weight load!

2. Shrugging Straight Up and Down

Many people tend to shrug on a completely vertical plane. While this motion does not risk injury, it also does not optimize the contraction of your traps and upper back. When you shrug straight up and down, you are actually engaging the levator scapulae more than the traps.

The levator scapulae is a smaller muscle attached to the neck that is responsible for lifting the shoulders upwards.

Although training the levator scapulae may be important, training the traps is the goal of the barbell shrug. When you shrug, try to bring your shoulders up and slightly back at the same time. You will feel a greater contraction in your traps.

Barbell Shrug Variations

1. Reverse Grip Front Shrug

The reverse grip front shrug is a great variation of the traditional barbell shrug. The reverse grip can help people more easily shrug up while improving their mind muscle connection of the traps.

2. Behind the Back Barbell Shrugs

The behind the back shrug activates the middle-back portion of the traps. This variation may be a bit awkward, but it is certainly effective.

3. Dumbbell Shrugs

You can also shrug with dumbbells for a deeper range of motion. Follow the same form as the barbell shrug and work out those traps!

Barbell Shrug Alternatives

If you enjoyed the barbell shrug, check out these other trapezius exercises to improve your upper back training:

1. Close Grip Upright Rows

Grab a resistance band (or a pair of dumbbells) with your palms facing inwards. Activate your traps to raise your hands upwards. Keep your elbows above your wrists!

2. Lying Superman Raises

With your forehead on the ground, activate your traps to raise your upper body off the ground. Keep your abs tight during this exercise!

3. Resistance Band Side Shrugs

Grab a resistance band and shrug upwards with the same form as the barbell shrug.

Looking for a Full Trap Workout?

Check out this intense 5 minute barbell trap workout!

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Mike Kenler
Director of Writing | Certified in Plant Based Nutrition at T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

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