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Your Guide To Barbell Shrug: Form, Muscles Worked, Benefits, And Mistakes To Avoid

The barbell shrug is a highly effective exercise for building a stronger and more resilient upper back, while also reducing the risk of injury. Despite its association with the universal gesture of confusion, this compound lift can deliver impressive gains in muscle mass and strength for the traps.

Not only does a stronger upper back improve your overall strength and athleticism, but it also helps with other lifts. The barbell shrug, in particular, is a compound exercise that can deliver impressive gains in a short amount of time.

Although there are various types of shrugs, the barbell variation is widely considered to be the best for building muscle and strength. With the small range of motion involved in the movement, you can load up a lot of weight on the bar, leading to significant gains in your upper back strength and power.

So, if you’re looking to take your upper back to the next level, the barbell shrug is a must-add to your workout routine. Read on to learn more about this mass-building exercise, its benefits, and the muscles worked.

What Is The Barbell Shrug?

Your Guide To Barbell Shrug: Form, Muscles Worked, Benefits, And Mistakes To Avoid

If you’re a regular at the gym, chances are you’ve heard of barbell shrugs. But what exactly are they, and why are they so popular? Put simply, barbell shrugs are a weightlifting exercise that targets the trapezius muscles in your back, neck, and shoulders.

This compound exercise is commonly used by bodybuilders and weightlifters alike to build muscle mass and increase strength in the upper body. As a back movement, the barbell shrug is a popular alternative to cable shrugs and can help you achieve a more defined and sculpted physique.

How To Do Barbell Shrugs

Man doing barbell shrug at gym
  1. Set the bar on a rack above knee height and load the weight.
  2. Stand against the barbell and grip it with a double overhand grip, wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Inhale and brace your core, glutes, shoulders, and grip. Ensure your back is straight and tight.
  4. Deadlift the bar up from the resting position.
  5. Hinge forward slightly at the hips.
  6. Shrug your shoulders up and in to lift the weight.
  7. At the top, squeeze your lats as tightly as possible and hold for a second.
  8. Lower the bar (not onto the rack) and exhale.
  9. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
  10. Lower the bar onto the rack and position the safeties just below waist height.

To summarize, assume a standing position with the bar in front of your body, inhale, and grab the bar with a double overhand grip. Stand up tall and ensure your spine remains neutral. Contract the traps to elevate the shoulders, squeeze hard at the top, and slowly lower the bar back to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions. By following these instructions, you can perform the barbell shrug exercise with proper form and maximize your gains.

Pro Tips For Barbell Shrug

If you’re looking to make the most of your Barbell Shrugs, there are a few tips that you should keep in mind. One of the most important tips is to lean forward slightly, as this can help you feel the movement in your traps more. Additionally, it’s important to control the descent of the barbell to maximize the time under tension for muscle growth and avoid injury.

Your Guide To Barbell Shrug: Form, Muscles Worked, Benefits, And Mistakes To Avoid

Another key tip is to shrug as high as possible to optimize the muscle contraction. You should also look slightly up while shrugging, which can help you contract the traps more effectively, but be sure to execute the motion smoothly and without ballistic movements that could result in neck injury.

For maximum gains, incorporate high reps and explosive movements, like snatch grip high pulls, into your accessory work. Be careful to avoid excessive momentum or jerking of the weight, and keep your head from jutting forward excessively, which can compromise your neck. Lastly, adding a pause at the top of the movement can help you enhance the mind-muscle connection.

Barbell Shrugs Muscles Worked

The barbell shrug is a compound exercise that targets several muscle groups in your upper back and shoulders. At the top of the list is the trapezius muscle, which is responsible for supporting your posture, allowing movement of the head, and retracting, elevating, and depressing the shoulders and scapula.

Barbell Shrugs Muscles Worked

This broad and flat muscle group also helps in the internal rotation of your arms. In addition to the trapezius, the barbell shrug also works the latissimus dorsi, deltoids, rhomboids, and levator scapulae muscles. By incorporating this exercise into your workout routine, you can build a strong and resilient upper body that can take on any challenge.

Benefits of Barbell Shrugs: Strengthen, Mobilize, and Protect Your Upper Body

Barbell shrugs are a great exercise that can help you build strength, improve mobility, and protect your upper body against injury. Here are some of the top benefits of performing this exercise:

  1. Build Strength and Muscle: Barbell shrugs can help you stimulate hypertrophy and develop strength in your upper body. You can load the exercise heavily and target your traps, which are important for shoulder retraction and arm elevation.
  2. Better Shoulder and Arm Mobility and Health: By strengthening your traps, you can protect your shoulders and arms against injury. The traps play a crucial role in shoulder retraction and arm elevation, so having stronger, more resilient shoulders and arms can improve your overall mobility and health.
  3. Reduce the Risk of Back Pain: Weak traps can often lead to back pain, so it’s important to strengthen them. The traps and back are connected, so if your traps are weak, they can become a weak link and lead to pain or injury.
  4. Improve Posture: Strong traps can help you improve your posture, which can have a positive impact on your overall health and well-being.
  5. Augmented Grip Strength: If you perform the exercise with your bare hands instead of using straps, you can develop a stronger grip.
  6. Look Bigger and More Complete: Having big traps can make you appear bigger and more commanding, which can help you stand out in a crowd.
  7. Strengthen Your Upper Posterior: By focusing on your traps, you can strengthen your entire upper posterior chain, which is important for maintaining balance, preventing injury, and improving your overall performance.
  8. Resilience to Injury: By strengthening your traps, you can make your upper body more resilient to injury. This is because the traps are responsible for many functions that are important for protecting your neck and upper body.

Barbell Shrug Common Mistakes: How to Avoid Them

Rolling The Shoulders: It is crucial to keep the movement on a vertical, up down plane of movement. Rolling the shoulders places unnecessary stress on the neck and rotator cuffs. To avoid this mistake, ensure that you maintain proper form throughout the exercise.

Swinging the Back: Swinging the back is a common mistake, especially when the weight is too heavy for the lifter. This results in lower trap contraction and enhances the risk of injury. The solution is simple, reduce the load and concentrate on great form to avoid swinging your back.

Bad Head and Neck Positioning: It is essential not to place the head and neck too far forward or backward as this can cause discomfort and place your torso in an awkward position for lifting. To avoid this mistake, drop the weight and focus on excellent form if you feel this happening to you.

Barbell Shrug Variations

There are various Barbell Shrug variations that can be incorporated into your workout routine. These variations include:

  1. Shrugs with bands – The bands can be placed over the neck or around the arms to provide extra resistance during the exercise.
  2. Shrugs with a cable machine – This variation utilizes a rope attachment to perform the exercise.
  3. Shrugs with dumbbells – Using wrist straps can help maintain focus on the traps instead of worrying about grip strength.
  4. Snatch Grip Barbell Shrugs – This variation involves using a wider grip on the barbell to target the traps in a different way.

Barbell Shrug Alternatives

Barbell Shrugs Alternatives are exercises that target the same muscle groups as Barbell Shrugs. They can be done with different types of equipment and are helpful if you don’t have access to a barbell, dumbbells, or a cable machine.

Front Raises: Front Raises target the front deltoids, forearms, and traps. They can be performed using dumbbells, bumper plates, or kettlebells.

Face Pull: The Face Pull exercise targets the rear deltoids, traps, and rhomboids. It involves pulling a cable towards your face while keeping your elbows high and pulling your shoulder blades back.

Rack Pull: Rack Pull is a partial deadlift variation that targets the traps, rhomboids, and erector spinae. It involves pulling a loaded barbell from knee-height to a standing position.

I-Y-T Raise: The I-Y-T raise is a shoulder exercise that targets the rear deltoids, rotator cuff muscles, and scapular muscles. It involves lifting your arms in different positions, forming the shapes of the letters “I,” “Y,” and “T.” The I-Y-T raise exercise was found to produce greater muscle activation in the lower and middle trapezius compared to other common back exercises (excluding deadlift) according to a study sponsored by ACE (American Council on Exercise


Barbell shrugs have remained a popular exercise for building the traps, and for good reason! Despite there being many variations and ways to do it, the barbell shrug still holds up as a top choice, especially for those aiming for strength gains. Plus, incorporating free weight barbells into your workout routine is a smart move for anyone looking to increase their strength.

The barbell shrug is a fantastic exercise because it allows you to lift a significant amount of weight, making it ideal for building both muscle mass and strength. Whether you’re a powerlifter, bodybuilder, athlete, man, woman, beginner, intermediate lifter or advanced lifter, you can benefit from adding barbell shrugs into your workout routine. So, grab that barbell and get to shrugging!


Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant. He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves. Rahul has a master's degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.

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