Barbell Shrugs

Barbell Shrugs (How To, Muscles Worked, Variations)

Barbell Shrugs are one of my all-time favorite lifts. Partly because I was always good at them and partly because I always wanted big traps. However, as a coach looking to reduce the risk of injury for athletes, shrugs are one of the best options we have for helping to prevent concussions.

In this guide, I will teach you how to properly do Barbell Shrugs, explain what muscles they work and give you a few variations.

How To Do 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

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.

Should I Use Lifting Straps When I Shrug?

We generally had a rule in the weight rooms that I’ve worked in that you were allowed to use straps once you had 405 pounds on the bar. Anything less than that and you had to rely on your grip.

I’m still a big fan of this rule because it still allows the lifter to work on grip strength for lighter sets and still be able to lock into heavier weight to focus on the traps. Keep in mind though, that this is dealing with collegiate football players. I would suggest adjusting the weight standard for straps based on your situation.

If you’re new to using straps and wouldn’t mind a quick tutorial, I created a ‘How To Use Straps‘ you can check out.

How Many Reps?

Shrugs are a supplemental strength exercise generally done toward the end of a workout. Recommended rep ranges are 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps each.

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.

Muscles Worked

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

Shrugs primarily work the upper trapezius muscle.

Shrug Variations

Looking to add some variety to your training or need an alternative because of a lack of equipment? You may be able to give these exercises a try:

Dumbbell Shrugs

Dumbbell Shrugs

The most common variation of Barbell Shrugs is Dumbbell Shrugs. This works great if you don’t have a barbell or to add variation to your training program. The movement itself stays exactly the same.

Kettlebells can be used as well if you have access to kettlebells.

Snatch Grip Shrugs

Snatch Grip Shrugs is a little-used variation except for possibly Olympic weightlifters.

Instead of the typical shoulder-width grip, take a snatch grip. A snatch grip is wide, typically outside of the snatch rings on a barbell.

Need more alternatives for Barbell Shrugs? Here are my 10 favorite Barbell Shrug alternatives.

More Links and Info

For more lifts focused on the chest, shoulders and back check out the Upper Body Lifts section of the Exercise Library.

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