What is a Barbell Shrug?
Barbell shrugs are a simple exercise that strengthens your grip and upper back. The movement targets the trapezius muscle, which makes up most of the mid and upper back, and serves crucial functions related to scapular stability and shoulder health (1).
Performing barbell shrugs is fantastic for developing your grip, improving your posture, and strengthening your core and upper back. As a result, you become more athletic and better able to handle everyday tasks like carrying groceries.
We recommend including the barbell shrug near the middle of your workout. Pick a moderate load and perform at least 6 to 8 smooth repetitions, controlling the barbell on the way up and down.
Level of Exercise: Beginner/Intermediate
How to do a Barbell Shrug
- Position the barbell on a rack at hip height.
- Stand in front of the bar and grab it with a double overhand grip. Have your hands slightly more than shoulder-width apart.
- Engage your abs, bring your shoulders back, and unrack the bar.
- Take a step back and position your feet in a comfortable stance with toes pointing slightly out.
- Take a breath and elevate the barbell by shrugging your shoulders. Keep your arms straight.
- Move the barbell as high as possible, squeezing at the top and holding for a moment.
- Lower the bar in the same controlled manner as you exhale.
What muscles does barbell shrug activate?
Barbell shrugs target the trapezius (traps), which originate from the base of the neck and attach to the scapula. The muscle’s primary functions are stabilizing, retracting, and elevating our shoulder blades (1). Our traps engage and produce the necessary force to elevate the weight vertically (2).
Other upper back muscles (lats, rear deltoids, erector spinae, rhomboids, etc.) contribute to barbell shrugs. Similarly, a range of midsection muscles contract to provide torso stability and keep us in position as we shrug.
Holding a barbell also strengthens our forearms and develops our grip.
Tips on Form with the Barbell Shrugs
One of the essential tips to keep in mind for effective shrugs is to perform each repetition smoothly and through a good range of motion. Pick a weight you can control and squeeze your trapezius at the top of each repetition.
Another essential tip for the barbell shrug is to keep your elbows extended from start to finish. You can even flex your triceps to ensure your arms remain straight. Doing so is vital for keeping your biceps uninvolved and forcing your traps to do all the work.
Our third tip for effective shrugs is to squeeze the barbell as hard as possible during each set. As a result, you can hold onto the weight and stop it from slipping to your fingertips. Often, people struggle to do enough repetitions not because they’ve exhausted their traps but because their grip limits them.
Variations and Modifications of Shrug with a Barbell
1. Power Shrugs
Power shrugs are a more advanced variation where you lift and lower the barbell more explosively. Doing so allows you to use more weight, recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers, and build more strength.
2. Snatch-Grip Shrugs
Snatch-grip shrugs are a variation you perform by gripping the barbell as wide as possible. Doing so could be beneficial for feeling your trapezius better if the traditional grip doesn’t lead to good activation.
3. Dumbbell Shrugs
Instead of using a barbell, grab a pair of dumbbells and perform shrugs as you usually would.
Mistakes to Avoid
Rolling Your Shoulders
A common mistake people make with shrugs is elevating the barbell and rolling their shoulders back. Doing so doesn’t help with muscle activation and might increase the risk of shoulder issues. Avoid the error by lifting and lowering the barbell in a straight vertical line.
Performing Ego Shrugs
The second common mistake with shrugs is loading too much weight and moving the bar only an inch. Instead, you should pick a lighter weight that allows you to move through a more extended range of motion, feeling your trapezius stretch on the way down and contract as you squeeze at the top position.
Similar Exercises to the Barbell Shrug
Upright Row (Barbell)
Upright barbell rows are a fantastic exercise for overloading your trapezius, deltoids, and biceps with more weight (3). The objective is to stand tall, have the barbell in front of you, and row it from your hips to your chest.
Scapular Pull Ups
Scapular pull-ups are a movement where you repeatedly transition from a dead hang into shoulder retraction. Doing so strengthens your trapezius, lats, and other upper back muscles because they contract to produce scapular retraction.