Barbell Shrugs: The Essential Benefits (Plus Variations)

If aesthetically pleasing, mountain-sized traps are your goal, then it is in your best interest to introduce the Daddy of all shrug exercises: Barbell shrugs. Throughout several decades, the bodybuilding greats such as Larry Scott, Sergio Olivia, Serge Nubret, Franco Columbo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all used the superior mass-building compound exercise to grace us with some of the most impressive traps ever witnessed.

Although the barbell is considered the most widely respected shrug exercise, it would be naive to disregard the other available variations, too, as they are just as impactful and impressive.

This article will explain everything there is to know about the barbell shrug, plus some fantastic alternative variations to try.

How Do You Shrug Properly?

Traditional barbell shrugs are not the most challenging exercise in the world to learn, so here is a step-by-step breakdown of how to perform it:

  1. Stand straight, holding the bar with an overhand grip with hands just outside your thighs.
  2. If the barbell is in a rack, unrack it and proceed to lift your shoulders to your ears, hold for two seconds, then lower them back down.
  3. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Tip: Avoid rolling your shoulders while performing each repetition. Also, be sure to lock out your elbows too for maximum impact.

While this traditional lift undoubtedly stimulates the traps, an alternate shrug causes improved muscle activation in the upper and lower traps, according to a study in 2013.

The outcome of this variation is an increase in muscular contraction, which causes greater isolation in the traps.

Below is a step-by-step breakdown of the variation:

  1. Set the bar up on a rack above knee height. Using an overhand grip, hold the bar beyond shoulder-width apart so that you get optimal arm abduction.
  2. Push through your heels and stand tall, ensuring your back is straight and the chest is up, with hips forward too.
  3. If needed, back out of the rack area and adjust your feet, so they are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Create a slight hinge in your hips and keep your shoulder blades neutral.
  5. Shrug your shoulders up towards your ears and slightly out while squeezing your traps at the top of the movement.
  6. Lower slowly back to the bottom so your shoulders are back to their relaxed position.
  7. Repeat.

A common mistake I see (and not just from newbies) with people doing shrugs is that they use far too much weight than they can handle, which means their form goes out the window, and they’re not activating the intended targeted area.

A knock-on effect of going too heavy means the shoulders tend to roll forward or backward because of the pressure they’re under, which again means the appropriate amount of stimulation is not being produced.

What Muscles Do Barbell Shrugs Target?

The primary muscles worked during barbell shrugs are the trapezius muscles.

The trapezius is a large muscle in your back that starts at the base of your neck and extends across your shoulders and down to the middle of the back.

The muscle looks like a trapezoid and is called “traps” for short.

The Function of the Trapezius Muscles

The trap muscles can be divided into three areas, each having its unique responsibilities:

Upper Trapezius:

Starting at the base of the neck and extending across the top of your shoulders, this muscle is the smallest section of the trapezius.

It helps you shrug your shoulders, enables you to lift your arms, and rotate, extend, and tilt your neck and head.

Middle Trapezius:

The middle traps go across your shoulders and stabilize them when your arms are moved; they also have the responsibility of assisting you in pulling your shoulders back and extending your arms behind you.

Lower Trapezius:

The lower traps start around your shoulder blades and form a “V” shape in the middle of the back.

This part of the traps assists and stabilizes your spine when you twist and bend, and it also allows you to bring your shoulders down from your ears.

Trapezius Muscle

Barbell Shrug Variations

1. Dumbbell Shrug

People love the dumbbell shrug because it offers less restriction and more contraction than barbell shrugs. It is a very isolated movement, targeting the traps specifically, and for that reason, the amount of weight you lift will be much less than you otherwise would using a barbell.

2. Behind the Back Barbell Shrugs

While nothing prevents you from using a barbell alone here, I would always opt to do this exercise using the Smith Machine for increased safety and isolation.

It tends to be a love-it-or-hate-it type exercise; however, it’s worth a go if you have never tried it before.

An important note here is to be mindful of how much weight you use. You do not need much to isolate the traps on this exercise directly.

3. Trap Bar Shrug

This exercise gives you the best of both worlds. You not only get similar isolation to what the dumbbell shrug provides you with due to your arms being at your sides close to your body, but you also get to lift weight comparable to barbell shrugs which are great for building strength.

What Are the Benefits of Barbell Shrugs?

1. Better Isolation

While alternative compound exercises undoubtedly stimulate the traps, nothing comes close to barbell shrugs as they isolate them in their entirety.

The isolation creates a better mind-muscle connection, creating bigger and stronger traps.

2. Less Prone to Injury

Referring to the article earlier, strengthening the traps reduces the risk of injuries to the upper body, specifically the neck, back, and shoulders, similar to strengthening the hamstrings and gluteal muscles, which has been shown to reduce injury.

Therefore, incorporating a shrug-type movement into your exercise regime is highly beneficial.

3. Improved Posture

The barbell shrug isn’t just about attempting to gain muscular traps; when you perform the exercise, you create thick upper back muscles as a byproduct, and the benefit of this is that it helps you maintain correct posture.

Although overlooked, the trapezius and rhomboids are the muscles worked that enable your shoulders to remain upright and stable. Put it this way, without functional traps; you’d have atrocious posture and be slouching 24/7.

4. More Aesthetically Pleasing

You’d be surprised at how few people train their traps. The main body parts that stand out tend to be muscular arms and chest.

However, a physique doesn’t look complete without a well-developed upper back and traps in aesthetic terms.

They play a considerable part in making one appear more commanding and noticeable, and one doesn’t necessarily have to be a 250lb giant mass monster to support good traps, either.

They are one of – if not the – first thing you notice on a physique.

So if you want big traps – train them.

5. Increased Strength

Barbell shrugs don’t only make you stronger in shoulder pressing exercises; they will also help add poundage to your squat and deadlift.

A powerlifter will never tell you weak traps are the key to their progress. Instead, they will ask you to work your traps directly to get strong like them.

Barbell Shrug Alternatives

1. Resistance Band Side Shrugs

Using the same form as the barbell shrug, use a resistance band instead and shrug your shoulders upwards.

2. Face Pulls

Face pulls are a great exercise for working the upper posterior, which gym trainers often neglect.

Watch the video in full to understand how to perform them correctly.

3. Close Grip Upright Rows

You can do this exercise with an EZ bar, regular barbell, dumbbells, or resistance band. However, ensure palms facing inward throughout the movement and keep your elbows above your wrists.

Barbell Shrug Mistakes

1. Rolling of the Shoulders

We’ve all seen someone in the gym doing the shoulder roll shrug.

The truth is the shoulders are meant to elevate and lower vertically in a controlled manner. Any rolling of the shoulders is not only causing limited stimulation to the muscle, but it’s also placing considerable amounts of stress on the neck, upper back, and rotator cuffs.

In other words, it is an injury waiting to happen.

2. Using Excess Weight

Again, this is another surefire way to get injured.

There should be zero momentum during each repetition, only focusing on the maximum range of motion. When there is too much heavy weight on the bar, there is often a bounce at the top of each rep.

Instead, leave your ego at the door and reduce the weight to experience a mind muscle connection.

3. Compromised Head and Neck Positioning

Ensure your head is neutral during the lift and not too far forward or backward; otherwise, your upper back and neck take on the stress of the weight and not the traps.

Too much weight on the bar is usually the result of compromised head positioning, so be mindful of this before each lift.

About the author

Chris Jones

I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).