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What are shrugs?

Shrugs are isolation exercises for the upper back which target the trapezius muscle.

To perform a basic shrug as a bodyweight exercise, simply shrug your shoulders. The act of lifting your shoulders up into a shrug works the traps.

Of course to make this exercise more difficult for a more taxing workout and to build more muscle, we need to add some weight to the lift in the shape of a barbell, dumbbells or cable machine.


What muscles do shrugs use?

The shrug exercise mostly target the trapezius muscle. This muscle is used when you nod your head, shrug your shoulders, tilt your head forward or twist your neck to either side. This muscle is also used to stabilise the shoulders.

The traps are made up of three main parts – the upper, middle and lower traps. The upper traps raise the shoulders, the middle traps and lower traps pull the shoulder blades together.

Shrugs concentrate on the shrugging motion of lifting your shoulders up which causes the traps muscle to bunch up, then moving the shoulders back down again into a relaxed state.

How to perform shrugs

To perform a good shrug exercise, you need to concentrate on using the full motion of the movement. Do not worry about adding  lots of heavy weight as lifting too heavy can actually inhibit your shrug movement and make the exercise less effective.

The traps respond well to a high rep workout as they naturally have a high level of endurance. This is because this is a well-used muscle as your traps are at work most of the day throughout our regular movements, turns and stretches.

This means you need to do plenty of repetitions of the shrug exercise with lower weights to work the muscle most effectively.


For a basic shrug exercise, hold a barbell with hands placed about a shoulder-width apart, so the bar rests naturally at arms length on the front of your thighs. Keep your knees slightly flexed.

Slowly shrug your shoulders so you lift the bar up to the highest extent until you can’t lift the barbell any higher using your traps. At this point your shoulders are bunched up and your traps are fully flexed.

Be careful not to strain the neck or pull your chin down to try to meet the shoulders. Keep your other muscles relaxed and concentrate on moving the shoulders up with your trapezius muscle only. Be careful not to use your bicep muscles to help with the movement.

Once you have reached the maximum flexion point, pause and then slowly move your shoulders back down to their starting point.

Keep looking forward throughout the motion, keeping your arms straight, abs engaged, spine neutral and knees slightly flexed to maintain good posture.

Variations on the shrug exercise

As with many exercises you can perform many different types of shrug to target slightly different areas of the traps, such as the upper traps, middle traps, lower traps and the sides of the traps.

As the trap muscle is a large diamond shape at the top of the upper back, it can be targeted in different ways in order to create great overall development.

Behind the back shrugs

As a variation on the basic front barbell shrug exercise, you can hold the barbell behind your back to perform a ‘behind the back’ shrug.

With this type of shrug exercise, your hands can grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width to enable a comfortable grip.

Behind the back shrugs are not the most comfortable of exercises because your backside might get in the way of the lift.

Also, the more awkward angle will mean you will probably not be able to lift as heavy as with the regular front barbell shrug.

However, it is still useful to perform behind the back shrugs as they target the middle and lower portion of your trapezius more strongly.


Dumbbell shrugs

For those without a barbell or who prefer the feel of more evenly distributed weights, you can hold dumbbells at your sides instead of a barbell while you perform the shrug exercise.

Dumbbells shrugs can work to target the side traps more strongly than the barbell as the weight of the dumbbells is positioned at your sides. Holding dumbbells can also feel more comfortable as your arms get to hang naturally at your sides.


Cable shrugs

You can also do shrugs using a cable machine with a low pulley. This can be using a regular bar or ropes.

If using a regular bar imagine the bar is a barbell and keep arms straight, using only your traps to lift.

Another type of cable shrug is a shrug using a resistance band. Keep the band secured on one end as lift as with a regular cable machine with low pulley.

Resistance bands are great for recreating your own cable pulley for working out at home.


Single arm shrugs

Finally, an interesting alternative type of shrug exercise is to perform single arm shrugs.

Single arm shrugs targets each side of your traps more individually so you can get a more intensive workout as you can flex (contract) the muscle by lifting one shoulder at a time.

What do you think are the best type of shrugs for training your traps?

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