Barbell Shrugs Exercise Guide

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: June 19, 2023

One thing that makes bodybuilders, athletes, and action heroes look tough is big traps. These muscles run from the sides of your neck out to your shoulders.

And the best way to build bigger traps is by doing barbell shrugs. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen guys (and gals) doing this exercise wrong at the gym.

So I will teach you how to do barbell shrugs correctly to build impressive shoulders and several variations you can do without dumbbells or other equipment.

Barbell Shrugs

What Are Barbell Shrugs?

Barbell shrugs are an exercise where you shrug your shoulders while holding a weight bar in front of you. There are other versions of the exercise using different kinds of resistance, as I’ll explain below.

The movement is similar to how you shrug your shoulders when you tell someone, “I don’t know.” Except when you do shrugs with weight, you train the shoulder muscles to grow bigger and stronger.

Barbell Shrugs Muscles Worked

Barbell shrugs primarily work the trapezius muscles or traps. This large diamond-shaped muscle runs from the back of your neck, out to the top of your shoulders, and down to your mid-back.

However, the shrug movement specifically targets the upper part of the traps. As well as the muscles in your neck and shoulder blades.

Barbell Shrugs Muscles Worked

How To Do Barbell Shrugs

Before you do a barbell shrug, load the bar with the weight you need. You may also want the bar on a rack just above knee level. Otherwise, you will need to pick up the bar from the floor.

Approach the bar and stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Then grab the bar with an overhand grip so your hands are just outside your thighs.

With the bar firmly in your hands, stand up straight so the bar is resting on the front of your thighs. Now shrug your shoulders up towards your ears while keeping your arms straight.

Then lower the weight back to the starting position to complete one rep. Repeat this for the desired reps and set the bar back down. To recap, here is the step-by-step guide and a video.

Here is how to do barbell shrugs step-by-step:

  1. Use an overhand grip just outside your thighs
  2. Stand up with the bar at arm’s length
  3. Shrug your shoulders up towards your ears
  4. Let the bar back down until your traps stretch
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps

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Barbell Shrugs Form

The barbell shrug is a pretty straightforward exercise. Yet, I see many people at the gym throwing around heavy weights without actually engaging their traps.

Some of the most common mistakes are using momentum and “bouncing” the weight up and down. This happens when you initiate the movement with your legs, then pull by bending your arms.

But when you use sloppy form, your traps barely do any work! And that means they won’t respond as much as they could if you perform the exercise with strict form.

Do not do the following:

  • Bounce the weight up and down

  • Pull by bending your arms

  • Push with your legs

  • Perform partial range of motion

In contrast, good form involves keeping your arms and legs as straight as possible throughout the movement. This means you don’t use momentum and do lift the weight using only your traps.

Think of your arms as ropes, with one end tied to the bar and the other to your shoulder. A rope under tension can’t bend; it can only pull. In the same way, your arms shouldn’t bend; they should only pull.

  • Keep your arms and legs as straight as possible

  • Shrug your shoulders up as far as you can towards your ears

  • Squeeze your traps for a 1-second hold at the top

  • Let your shoulders drop at the bottom to stretch your traps

Barbell Shrugs Form
Barbell Shrugs Form 2

Barbell Shrugs Form For Neck Building

As I mentioned earlier, many of the smaller muscles in your neck will activate during barbell shrugs. And you can target the front or back depending on the position of your head.

You will work more of the rear neck muscles when you look down slightly. At the same time, looking straight ahead engages the front of the neck more. Ensure you don’t turn your head to the side to avoid straining your neck.

I like to look straight ahead to work the front of my neck since these muscles are often weaker in weight lifters and bodybuilders.

Moreover, working the front of your neck can help alleviate symptoms of upper cross syndrome. And helps prevent muscle imbalances while improving your posture.

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Barbell Shrugs Variations

There are a few ways to do barbell shrugs with different bars or grips. So here are some additional barbell shrug variations you can try.

Smith Machine Shrugs

The Smith machine shrug is virtually identical to a barbell shrug, except the bar moves up and down in a fixed path. This reduces the need to balance the bar, so you can focus on squeezing your traps.

Sometimes I’ll do Smith machine shrugs if a barbell isn’t available. But other times, I do it to isolate my traps. You’ll definitely be sore after doing strict, heavy Smith machine shrugs.

Trap Bar Shrugs

A trap bar is a hexagon-shaped barbell with handles on either side. During trap bar shrugs (or hex bar shrugs), this bar keeps your hands in a more neutral position at your sides, which is great for targeting your traps.

One thing I don’t like about trap bars is that the handles are sometimes too far apart. This grip width can put unnecessary stress on your arms, especially if you’re shorter or have narrower shoulders.

Trap Bar Shrugs

Behind The Back Barbell Shrugs

With traditional barbell shrugs, you hold the bar in front of you. The disadvantage here is that it’s hard to roll your shoulders back as you pull them up.

But with behind-the-back barbell shrugs, the bar is on the rear part of your legs. This automatically pulls your shoulder blades back, but it’s trickier to balance so you won’t be able to go as heavy.

Barbell Shrug Alternatives

Of course, you don’t have to do shrugs with a barbell or trap bar. You can do several other shrug variations with pretty much any equipment you have.

Dumbbell Shrugs

If you want to maintain a neutral position for your hands while performing shrugs, using dumbbells is another option. With this technique, you hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides and execute the shrug movement.

The benefit of dumbbell shrugs is that you have complete control over your arm position, allowing you to pull your shoulders up and back as you shrug. However, lifting extremely heavy weights with dumbbells may be more challenging.

Kettlebell Shrugs

If you prefer, you can also do shrugs with kettlebells. This variation has the same benefits as dumbbell shrugs. However, you’ll quickly advance to the point where the kettlebells aren’t heavy enough.

Plate Shrugs

Another option is to hold a weight plate in each hand while doing shrugs. Again, you won’t be able to do as much weight. But the benefit of this variation is that you also improve your grip strength at the same time.

Kelso Shrugs

Lastly is a variation called Kelso shrugs. For this exercise, you lean forward face down on an incline bench. Performing shrugs in this position changes the angle of your arm relative to your body and works more of the lower traps and mid-back.

In addition, Kelso shrugs eliminate momentum, so you can’t cheat. And you don’t need as much weight to overload your traps.

More Shoulder Exercises & Workouts

Barbell shrugs are a great exercise to build your traps and strengthen your neck. But this exercise only works a small subset of the shoulder muscle group.

To help you build a well-rounded shoulder workout, here are some additional articles featuring shoulder exercises.

12 Dumbbell Trap Exercises

Complete Pull Day Exercises List

9 Landmine Shoulder Exercises

Best Posterior Deltoid Exercises

17 Cable Shoulder Exercises

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

With this information, you’ll be well on your way to reaching your fitness goals. And if you found this exercise tutorial helpful, click on the articles below for more workout tips and fitness advice!

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