Barbell Shrugs vs Upright Rows

Barbell Shrugs vs Upright Row (Is One Better For Strength?)

Barbell Shrugs and Upright Rows are two of the best exercises for targeting the upper back, specifically the traps.

You may be asking yourself though, is one of these exercises to grow your traps better than other? What’s the difference between the two? Which exercise should I have in my lifting program?

In this article, I’m going to answer all of these questions. I will go over how to properly do each exercise along with their benefits. Then, I’ll compare Barbell Shrugs and Upright Rows side-by-side so you can decide which exercise (or both) is better for you and your training goals.

Barbell Shrugs

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell
  • Weight Plates (either Bumper Plates or Steel Plates will work fine)
  • Lifting Straps (optional)

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Set up a barbell on either J-Hooks, or preferably, on the squat rack’s safety bars (if your rack has them)
  • Use an alternated grip, one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand), about shoulder-width apart
  • Place feet hip-width apart, brace the core and stand tall with the bar
  • Now shrug up, visualizing touching your traps to your ears.
  • Do NOT ‘roll’ the shoulders. Shrug straight up and down.
  • Control the weight back down to the starting position and repeat.

Coaching Points

Barbell Shrugs already have a short range of motion. Don’t shorten the range of motion even further by adding more weight than you can properly lift. (A mistake I see quite often)

An alternated grip, one overhand and one underhand, will dramatically increase your grip strength on the bar. This is due to the fact that a barbell has a natural tendency to want to roll out of your hands. By alternating your grip, you are basically counterbalancing that rolling tendency.

The height you place the bar in the rack is probably more important than it gets credit for. Place it too low and it adds a partial deadlift to the exercise but place it too high and you’ll hit the bar off the rack while doing reps.

PRO TIP: If you find (after loading up the bar) that the bar has been placed a little too high, slide some plates underneath the bar to stand on.

Barbell Shrug Benefits

Barbell Shrugs have many benefits.

Barbell Shrugs are one of the best exercises for targeting the upper traps. The upper traps play a critical role in strengthening and supporting the neck area.

This can be particularly important for athletes. Research has shown that having a strong neck can potentially reduce the risk of concussions during sports.

Shrugs are also a great exercise for developing grip strength. This is why it’s important to not just default to using lifting straps for every set and every rep of shrugs. Try to maintain your grip without straps as much as possible and you’ll notice a huge improvement in your grip strength over time.

RELATED –> Looking for a substitution for Barbell Shrugs? Here are some of my favorite Barbell Shrug alternatives.

Horton Barbell Logo 3

Tired of coming up with your own workouts? But don’t want to pay an arm and a leg?

I post workouts 5 days a week right here. (Did I mention they’re free?)

Upright Row

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell*
  • Bumper Plates (or Iron Plates if not dropping the bar after sets)

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Starting position is with your feet shoulder-width apart, slight bend in the knee.
  • Grasp bar about shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold the barbell with an overhand (pronated) grip.
  • Start with the bar at arm’s length.
  • Pull the bar upward along the abdomen and chest toward the chin.
  • At the top, the elbow should be higher than the wrist, and above the shoulders.
  • Lower the bar slowly and under control to the front of the thighs.
  • Do not jerk.
  • Keep the bar close to the torso.

Coaching Points

*Upright Rows can also be done with dumbbells, resistance bands and even a cable machine. Check out more Upright Row alternatives and variations.

The biggest mistake I see, by far, with Upright Rows is swinging way too much to lift the bar. A little swing is okay if you’re trying to grind out the last rep or two of a set.

However, if you’re having to rock your torso for every rep then the weight is too heavy. Take some weight off the bar and use proper form.


The Barbell Upright Row is an upper body exercise that is primarily used to strengthen the muscles in the upper back, shoulders, and arms.

Some of the benefits of this exercise include increased upper body strength, grip strength and improved posture. Additionally, because the barbell upright row is a compound exercise, it can also help to increase overall muscle mass and improve coordination and balance.

Barbell Shrugs vs Upright Rows: Which is Better?

Now, let’s compare both exercises side-by-side to see which is better for some common lifting goals.

Better For Developing Strength and Size: Barbell Shrugs

Barbell Shrug Muscles Worked
Barbell Shrugs work the upper trapezius. (Photo Credit: Makatserchyk /

This one is difficult because while both exercises are great for the upper traps, the movement patterns and therefore the muscles worked are very different.

If your upper traps were a dartboard, Barbell Shrugs would be a bullseye every single rep. They’re basically heat-seeking missiles aimed directly at your traps with the sole purpose of destroying them and making them grow. (Enough analogies? Okay, moving on)

Upright Rows, on the other hand, also hit the trapezius, but they also work the shoulders and even the biceps.

Because of the difference in range of motion, the amount of weight used for these two exercises will be drastically different. If you’re able to Upright Row 135 pounds, you’re moving some respectable weight. And, if you can, then 135 pounds probably wouldn’t even be considered a warm-up set for Shrugs.

This is why I give the edge to Barbell Shrugs, but ultimately, it really depends on what your focus is. Just traps? Go with Barbell Shrugs. Want something more well-rounded? Upright Rows may be the better option.

Better For Beginners: Toss Up

When working with beginners, I like to keep exercises and movements simple and as safe as possible. Things that are easy to learn and easy to execute.

I believe that both Barbell Shrugs and Upright Rows are relatively simple exercises that almost anyone could pick up rather quickly and execute. Just make sure to start with light weight until you feel comfortable and proficient with your technique. Then, gradually increase in weight as your strength increases.

Horton barbell strength programs
Horton Barbell Logo 3

Need a Training Program?

Coach Horton has 20 years of experience training elite level athletes at schools like the University of Tennessee and Georgia Tech. He has also written plenty of programs for other coaches and friends and family.

So, whether you need a program to improve your performance in your sport or you just want to look good at the beach, there is a program designed just for you.

Final Thoughts

I’ve just spent the last section of this article comparing which is better – Barbell Shrugs vs Upright Rows. The truth is, there is no reason you shouldn’t have both exercises in your strength training plan.

Both are excellent exercises for developing strength and both exercises actually complement each other very well. Incorporating both movements (along with their variations) will also add variety and help keep your workouts from getting stale.

So, my final recommendation would be instead of figuring out which exercise you should do, figure out a way to utilize both Barbell Shrugs and Upright Rows into your strength program.

More Links and Info

Check out how Barbell Shrugs compares to some other popular trap exercises:

Barbell Shrugs vs Dumbbell Shrugs

Barbell Shrugs vs Trap Bar Shrugs

Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *