If your traps don’t impair your hearing, they’re not big enough. Okay, maybe not. But try these shrug exercises anyway to get them bigger.
There’s been a lot of debate about shrugs. Some say shrugs are the best exercise for building traps. Others say the exercise is nearly worthless. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Shrugs performed poorly don’t work very well, but shrugs performed the right way certainly do. So, let’s get yoked. Here are 13 variations of shrugs, some you’ve probably never tried before, and how to do them right.
Although traditional shrugs can be performed with a straight bar or dumbbells, I recommend the trap bar. It eliminates body drag. Also, its centered handles place the resistance load nicely under the clavicular attachment of the upper trapezius, promoting an upright body position.
- As you shrug, focus on decreasing the space between the tops of your shoulders and your earlobes.
- At the top, pause momentarily, then lower with control.
Steve Reeves, bodybuilder and old-school movie star, is said to have built his classic physique with these shrugs. Just grab the plates instead of the bar.
Support the barbell with abducted shoulders (arms out to your sides). This reduces the weight you can lift, so it isn’t the “go-to” for building slabs of upper trapezius muscle. However, it does increase deltoid involvement to enhance your V-taper.
If you don’t have plates with grip holes, just load dish-style plates with the lip facing outward. Although a curmudgeonly coach in Wichita Falls, Texas, might take issue with seeing plates loaded backward, it will allow you to hook your fingers around the plates.
- Load a barbell with a lighter weight than you’d normally use.
- Grasp the top of the plate. Get into the starting position by deadlifting the bar.
- Keep the elbows straight as you elevate and retract the shoulder blades to raise the barbell.
- Hold momentarily at the top and lower with control.
The trap bar allows for an upright position without the center knurling of a straight bar dragging along your crotch.
If possible, use a full-length, rackable trap bar. Using a short trap bar reduces the distance between the plates and narrows your grip width, diminishing one of the distinguishing features of Reeves shrugs.
Coach Bill Starr is credited with these shrugs. Because they’re intended to overload shrugs with heavy weight, straps are useful. To get the full benefit of this isometric-to-eccentric exercise, you must load it heavier than traditional shrugs.
- Set the bar on the spotter arms or pins of a rack. Standing tall, the bar should be at fingertip height.
- Brace and set your hips back far enough to allow you to grab the bar just outside of thigh width.
- Do shrugs with your shoulders moving up and slightly back by pulling your body deeper under the bar. Hold your shoulders in this elevated position as you stand tall.
- Lower the bar back to the rack/pins by slowly allowing your shoulders to depress. Reset and repeat.
These shrugs are convenient for home workouts or travel. All you need is a thick resistance band.
Since the band only applies maximum resistance at the top of the shrug, the pause at the end-range position is vital. Depending on the thickness of your band, you may need to perform significantly higher reps to achieve a training effect.
- Grab the band with both hands evenly spaced.
- With your arms at your sides, stand on the center of the band.
- Shrug your shoulders toward your ears.
- Pause with intention at the top before allowing the band to slowly pull your shoulders back down.
These shrugs must be performed unilaterally (one arm at a time). Instead of shrugging your shoulder to your ear, Gittleson shrugs require a larger range of upper-trapezius contraction.
To achieve peak contraction of the upper traps, allow your neck to move as you elevate your shoulder. (More about the nuances in my Smart Lifter’s Neck Training Program.)
- Sit on a bench with a wide stance. Grab a kettlebell or dumbbell at your side. With your non-working arm, grasp the underside of the bench and stabilize.
- Shrug the weight. When you think you’re at the top of the rep, you probably aren’t. Keep elevating the shoulder.
- As you approach the actual top of the movement, you’ll feel your neck bend toward the shrug as your head slightly tips back and rotates away. Allow these neck movements to occur naturally.
- Pause briefly; lower with control.
The strength curve of the upper trapezius corresponds with the modest variable resistance curve of landmine shrugs. (More info about the biomechanics of landmine exercises in Deltoid Detonation.)
You can use straps and load landmine shrugs heavy, or ditch the straps and use that thick barbell sleeve to work on your grip.
Overhead shrugs are unique because they promote more upward rotation of the scapula. The upper trapezius is still heavily involved, but overhead shrugs will also train the serratus anterior and lower traps harder than other shrugs.
As a bonus, overhead shrugs should help to improve positional strength for your other overhead lifts. It can be done standing, but kneeling eliminates leg drive and hits the stabilizing muscles of the core harder.
- Set the catches or pins of a rack at a height that requires a small amount of elbow flexion to get under the bar. Kneel on a foam mat for comfort. Use a wide (snatch-width) grip.
- Straighten your elbows to get into the starting position.
- Raise the bar as high as you can by reaching through your shoulder blades.
- Keep your elbows straight and allow your shoulder blades to lower with control.
These shrugs also bias upward rotation and train the overhead position. Unilateral loading ramps up the demand on the core. The kettlebell’s offset center of mass provides a unique challenge to your shoulder musculature.
For safety, practice first with a spotter. If the kettlebell starts to come down unexpectedly, try not to catch it with your teeth.
- Hold the kettlebell with your forearm in front of your chest and the weight of the 'bell resting on your outer elbow (the rack position).
- Place your working-side knee on the ground or a foam mat with your other foot flat on the ground in front of you.
- Press the kettlebell overhead. Make sure it’s resting on your forearm in a position behind or slightly to the outside of your body.
- Shrug the kettlebell toward the ceiling. Reach for the sky!
- Slowly allow the shoulder blade to lower back to the start position. Maintain an upright and motionless torso throughout.
Do shrugs with the barbell sitting on the upper traps, like you would in a high-bar squat. Hise shrugs take the arms out of shrugs and apply a unique, more direct load to the scapulae.
There are two variations. While both shrugs are phenomenal for teaching the body to simultaneously breathe and brace under axial load, the first variation focuses on breathing and the second (below) favors moving heavy weights.
Joseph Curtis Hise and other old-time bodybuilders used breathing squats and shrugs for “ribcage expansion.” Whether that actually worked or not, there’s no doubt that breathing under load is essential for high-rep lifting. If you’re interested in training your respiratory muscles, try these shrugs.
- Load the bar with light weight. The weight shouldn’t prevent you from taking a full breath or restrict the full shrug motion. Use about 30% of the weight you’d use for traditional shrugs.
- Place the bar on your upper traps, which lie above your shoulder blades.
- Slowly take in a full breath of air as you simultaneously elevate your shoulder blades. Focus on getting the maximum volume of air into your lungs. Use the full range of motion.
- After a pause at the top, slowly exhale as you allow your shoulder blades to lower.
- Repeat with the next breath cycle. The typical rep range is high (15-25).
These shrugs are also performed in the high-bar position, but instead of focusing on breathing in as you elevate the weight, load the bar heavily and exhale with the effort (as in a typical heavy lift).
Some powerlifters load Hise shrugs with a weight greater than their squat 1RM. I don’t recommend starting there, but the weight should be substantial.
- Place the bar on your upper traps.
- Elevate your shoulder blades by driving the bar toward the ceiling. Don’t use hip drive or push with your arms.
- Pause in the top position; lower with control.
If you can get your hands on one, a safety-squat bar is the most comfortable way to do Hise shrugs. It can also be done in a standing calf machine or Pendulum squat machine. The increased comfort and stability of these variations allow for heavier loading.
These shrugs use hip drive to allow you to overcome the inertia of the bar and overload the shrug. Once you have the technique down, your working sets should be heavier than shrugs with strict form. Since we’re not specifically using these shrugs to improve Olympics lifts, a trap bar is useful.
- Stand upright by deadlifting the bar off the ground.
- Get into the “hang” position by pushing your hips back, allowing the bar to lower several inches.
- Drive the hips into extension as if you’re attempting to jump. Transfer this momentum into the bar and shrug.
- Squeeze and hold momentarily at the top. This is not a high pull. If the weight is heavy enough, there should be very little bending of the elbows.
- Slowly return to the starting position.
Bar Pads: It’s true, well-developed traps serve as a bar pad. Depending on the amount of muscle or soft tissue you currently carry on your upper back (and the morphology of your thoracic spine), traditional barbell Hise shrugs could be uncomfortable or downright idiotic to perform without protection.
If Hise shrugs hurt during your work-up sets, use the bar pad or towel. If someone gives you a hard time, take solace in knowing that person likely has some serious frustrations or unresolved issues. Use the pad if you need it and go about the business of getting yoked.
Lifting Straps: Most lifters can shrug for reps with more weight than they can grip for reps. If your primary goal is trap development, use straps.
“Rolling” Shrugs: Somewhere along the way, lifters began deliberately rolling their shoulder girdle during shrugs. But the target muscles elevate and upwardly rotate the shoulder girdle. So, the protraction, retraction, and tilting movements of the scapula that occurs with these rolling shrugs are out of plane. They are not effectively resisted by the line of force of the weight.
At best, rolling shrugs are sloppy and unnecessary. At worst, they invite compensations at the low cervical spine and generate momentum. Keep your form strict.
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