Barbell Shrugs Exercise Guide

The barbell shrug is one of the best back isolation exercises, which involves shrugging your shoulders while holding a barbell in front of you.

Barbell shrugs may appear simple but they are an essential exercise for developing the upper back muscle known as the "traps". Trap muscles are responsible for many movements including elevation, rotation, and retraction of the scapula or the shoulder blades. 

Barbell Shrugs Exercise Guide

How to Do Barbell Shrugs

Setting Up

To prepare for a barbell shrug, load the bar with an appropriate weight and set it up above-the-knee height on a rack. You can increase the load once you get used to the exercise and are sure that you are performing it with the correct form.

Assume a standing position in front of the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart, and firmly grab the bar at arm's length in front of you with a wider-than-the-shoulder-width, overhand grip. This is your initial position.

Exercise

With the bar firmly in your hands flatten your back and dip your hips. Initiate the movement by shrugging your shoulders upward to your ears. Maintain straight arms while doing this motion.  You should lift the bar to a position above the upper thighs.

Contract your traps to raise the shoulders until they have reached their full extent of motion, and hold this position for one second while squeezing hard. Slowly return to the starting position. Allow the weight to pull your shoulders forward and downward while its still feel comfortable.

Repeat this motion several times until you reach your desired number of repetitions. 

Tips

  • Increase the contraction of your traps by looking slightly up during the shrugging movement.
  • Using wrist wraps while doing the exercise will help you get a better grip on the barbell.
  • Avoid using momentum to help you shrug the weight; instead, use your biceps to left the barbell. Use slow and controlled motions from the beginning to the end of the rep.
  • Keep your legs, back, and arms straight throughout the movement.
  • Shrug as high as you can to get to maximize the contracting of the muscles and get the most out of this exercise.
  • To save your strength for the actual shrug, you can place the bar on a rack.  Place the bar about 4 inches below the highest point of where you would shrug.
  • Use straps and a lifting belt if you are going heavy.
  • Different grips will hit your traps in different ways so vary your hand placement.

Benefits

  • Provides spinal support and keeps your upper back upright which helps improve your posture.
  • Improves performance on other lifting exercises such as deadlifts and bench presses.
  • Builds and strengthens your trap muscles which helps prevent injuries in the neck and shoulder area
  • Provides a broader physical appearance

Illustrated Guide

How To Do Barbell Shrugs

Muscles Worked

Primary Muscles

  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids

Secondary Muscles

  • Core
  • Forearm muscles

Barbell Shrug Variations

Dumbbell Shrugs

Instead of a barbell, the dumbbell variety of shrugs involves holding a pair of dumbbells to your sides with a neutral grip. This is also a great exercise for developing strong shoulders and upper traps.

With dumbbells, you have complete control of your arm position, allowing for more freedom and a better range of motion.

However, if you are looking for faster progress and more room for muscle growth, barbell shrugs are the better choice for you.

Behind-the-Back Barbell Shrugs

Behind-the-back Barbell Shrug is similar to the traditional barbell shrug except that the weight is held behind your back. Because of this, it hits the traps differently.

While the barbell shrug to the front is the best choice for building bigger and higher upper traps, behind-the-back shrugs are perfect for targeting the middle portion of the muscle. Including both the front and back versions in your bodybuilding routine is ideal for building thicker and overall development of the trapezius muscles.

Overhead Barbell Shrug

If you’re looking to build the upper body muscle group and tone your shoulders, the overhead barbell shrug is a great exercise to consider. Overhead barbell shrugs involve pushing your traps up in order to move the barbell, which emphasizes your shoulders more than traditional shrugs.

This type of shoulder movement trains your erector spinae and core, and helps improve balance and strength in your upper traps, leading to healthier shoulders and improved posture.

Barbell Shrug Alternatives

Face Pull

The face pull is a great upper-body strength exercise that works several upper back muscles including rhomboids, rear delts, and traps. It also helps improve the strength and stability of your shoulders.

To do so, face the pulley and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Grasp the handles with both hands, palms facing in. Take a few steps back until your arms are fully extended. Pull the handles back toward your face with your elbows flared outward toward the sides.

Pause in this position for a few seconds, then slowly straighten your arms and return to the starting position. Repeat until desired number of reps is achieved. 

Farmer's Carry

If you're looking for an intense exercise that targets the entire body, look no further than the farmer's carry. This challenging move involves holding a weight in each hand and walking for a distance or time.

While power shrugs are great for traps/upper back, Farmer's Walks are better overall exercises because they also target the hips, legs, trapezoids and grip strength.

A farmer's carry involves grabbing a heavy set of weights in each of your hands. With your chest out, and your shoulders retracted, start walking forward.

Depending on your preference, you can then either walk for a certain amount of time or cover a certain distance. We recommend walking for around 30 seconds and extending this period after due practice. 

Hang Clean

The hang clean is a movement often seen in Olympic weightlifting tournaments which involves lifting a weight from a hanging position to the shoulders. It essentially works out the whole body and actives several muscles including the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, gastrocnemius, and soleus.

The hang clean is a perfect alternative for lifters who are concerned about internal joint rotation or pain caused by concentrated loads. 

To perform a hang clean, start with placing a barbell on the floor and standing in front of it with your feet hip-width apart. While keeping your back straight, use your core to lower yourself in a squat position. Extend your arms fully and grasp the barbell firmly in a wide, overhand grip.

Steadily lift the bar and bring it to the starting hang clean position. As your body reaches full extension, quickly pull the barbell upwards while flicking your wrists and elbows under it. You should end in a front rack standing position. Return to the initial position and repeat for the desired number of reps.

Avoid the mistake of swinging the bar away from your body during lifting as this can cause injuries. Maintain the correct form by keeping the bar as close to your body as possible.

Back Exercises Guide

Kevin Harris
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