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How to do the Barbell Shrug + Variations (2019)

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The barbell shrug is perhaps the go to movement when looking to tone or put on mass on the trapezius muscle. There are several variations of the barbell shrug, which we will show you in this article.

 

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But first, what is the trapezius muscle?

The trapezius muscle is a large muscle at the top of your back and neck that supports the scapula and your arms. It is a muscle that is harnessed continuously on a daily basis and plays an integral role in supporting shoulder and neck movement.

The barbell shrug is often called the shoulder shrug as the trapezius is very frequently trained as part of a shoulder routine, although it is situated ranging from your lower back up to your neck in the shape of trapezium:

barbell shrug image

Image Credit: www.living-with-back-pain.org

Learn how to barbell shrug with three different movements, how to execute them, the benefits of each and how to integrate them into your next workout.

  • Barbell Shrug

  • Behind the back shrug

  • Overhead Barbell Shrug

Picking the right weight when performing the barbell shrug exercise:

This is debatable and certainly goal orientated. As you will see in just a moment, we would recommend aiming towards:

8 – 15 REPS – Muscle Growth

15 – 25 REPS – Tone

This is due to the biomechanical and grip aspects that come in play when executing correct barbell shrug form. 

Read on to see how to perform the movement….

 

Barbell Shrugs / Shoulder shrugs

The barbell shrug or shoulder shrug as it is commonly referred is a very simple exercise to implement, but when performed incorrectly can cause more damage than most exercises. This is because the trapezius, which is the prime muscle worked during the barbell shoulder shrug helps support the neck and head, therefore caution needs to be taken when undergoing this exercise:

Set Up & Equipment

Use either a smith machine or Olympic bar (recommended) or even better if there is a trap bar at your gym. Alternatives such as dumbbells, plates, kettlebells or cables for shrugs can be utilised. Read on later to for alternative shrug variations, to add variety into your workout.

Starting Position

  • Stand with your fee just wider than shoulder width apart with them pointing out up to 15 degrees, whichever is more comfortable.
  • grip the bar with an overhand grip. Its recommended to use an overhand grip to prevent muscular imbalances or injuries at the joint.
  • Grip the bar wider than shoulder width apart so your arms can lift at a 30 degree abduction. 

(Many online publications say to be at a natural position by your side, this however is not optimal. Creating a 30-degree angle allows your trapezius to achieve optimal scapular rotation and really isolating the muscle.  

Execution

  • Lifting the weight with your legs (not your back) in the same way as executing a deadlift. Or, if using a rack, place the bar above keen height so you can easily lift the wright without placing undue stress on the lower back.
  • As you lift the weight thrust your hips forward and once at a fully erect position with your arms fully extended, the barbell should be just above knee level depending on the length of your arms.
  • Lean forward very slightly (10 degree recommended) and you can put a slight bend in the knees to allow a smooth contraction all the way up.
  • Raise your shoulders vertically and in, as high as possible, hold the contraction and squeeze, before very slowly releasing back to the starting position.
  • Drive your shoulder blades up and slightly forward round as you want to create scapula elevation and rotation simultaneously.
  • Remember to exhale as you contract and inhale on the downward motion, keeping your core engaged and keeping your head up and facing forward throughout each repetition.

How to barbell shrug image

Barbell shrug Muscles Worked:

Prime Mover: Trapezius

Secondary Muscles: levator scapulae, rhomboids

Mistakes to Avoid with the Barbell Shrug:

  • Over Flexion in the elbows – Keeping your arms straight throughout the movement is critical for creating isolation and preventing placing tension onto your arms .A slight bend is required to create rotation when driving the shoulders in.
  • Not doing the full range of motion (ROM) – Often found when using weights that are too heavy, you don’t get the full benefit of the movement and do not put your trapezius under maximum stress. 
  • Pulling your Head back – This is called hyperextension. Your head and neck should always remain in a still, neutral position. This is both for safety and for maximum isolation and sustain good barbell shrug form. 
  • Lack of control during the lowering phase – Every movement should be performed with control both during the concentric and eccentric contraction. However, with the barbell Shrug you must be extra careful as quickly lowering the weight can pull your neck and damage your joints.
  • Back Swinging – Swinging the weight normally caused due to trying to go too heavy is a big no. Leave your ego and lower the weight and help prevent yourself getting both lower and upper back pain.

 

Should you use Barbell wrist straps?

Yes!!....

Your traps are a very large muscle and can take far more strain than your forearm. When you’re utilising heavy weights, your grip will go first, thus using barbell straps is a must. If you’re looking to target grip strength also, performing one set without the use of straps and performing a few forearm exercises separately to reinforce is a good idea.

Beast Gear Barbell Straps - £9.99 on Amazon

  

ALTERNATIVE: Behind the Back Shrugs

Reverse shrugs or behind the back shrugs as they are also referred help place emphasis on a different part of the trapezius. Remember, although shrugs are often called “shoulder shrugs” it is the back that it is actually designed to target.  The trapezius muscle breaks down into three muscle groups:

  1. superior fibersCovers the posterior of the neck
  2. middle fibers – Just below is a narrow band of middle fibers which insert into the scapula
  3. Inferior fibers - Insert into the spine of the scapula covering large parts of the back

The barbell shrug places a slightly different emphasis on each muscle fibre type, which is why it is good to utilise both within your workouts. The front barbell shrug should be your go to exercise as it recruits more muscle fibres and can be less awkward, but slipping in a behind the back shrug definitely has its place as it focsuing more on the middle fibres.

Set Up:  

You can use either a smith machine (for safety) or Olympic bar on a rack with an appropriate weight. Use a weight lighter than you would on the front barbell shrug. 

Starting Position:

  • Stand with your feet roughly shoulder width apart with your back to the barbell set at a height around waist height.
  • Stand close to the bar but allow space or the bar to move past your body by moving your hips forward.
  • Bend your knees to grip the bar with a reverse underhand grip, wider than shoulder width apart or wider is perfectly fine, and so that when the bar is released your knuckles are facing down and palms facing behind you.
  • Keep your head up, core engaged and maintain a neutral spine.

Execution:

  • Lift the weight up, keeping your arms straight and feet flat on the floor.
  • Breathe out on the way up and try and point your shoulders towards your ears.
  • Squeeze at the top of the movement and then slowly eccentrically contract before repeating the movement.

barbell shrugs Image

Mistakes to avoid with the behind the back shrug: 

  • Position to the bar – Yes this even happens to seasoned pros. When you stand too close to the bar, your body will obstruct the weight moving up and when you stand too far away from the bar you risk injury.
  • Leaning forward – When performing a shoulder shrug exercise behind the back on a smith machine, do not lean forward when performing the movement. As the bar can only move in a fixed, vertical movement, resulting in wasted energy expenditure and can damage your rota cuff and neck.

Overhead Barbell Shrug

The overhead barbell shrug is rarely seen on the typical gym floor as it it’s viewed as a more corrective exercise than a barbell shrug for mass. It is utilised to activate and isolate the upper trapezius and superior fribres. 

Set Up:

For this exercise you need an Olympic bar or a standard barbell if you prefer a lighter weight.

Starting Position:

  • Place the bar on a power rack at slightly above head height place on the floor.
  • Keep your feet slightly wider with feet pointing slightly out for extra support and balance.
  • Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width apart with an overhand grip (pronated).
  • Carefully lift the barbell directly over your head with arms fully extended. 

Execution:

  • Keeping your feet firmly planted on the floor, shrug your shoulders up again aiming your shoulders towards your ears.
  • Really squeeze at the top of the movement, before slowly releasing in a controlled manner, keeping the barbell stable at all times.
  • Core engagement and maintaining a neutral spine are key to sustaining your balance.

Overhead barbell shrug image

Mistakes to avoid with the overhead barbell shrug:

  • Not engaging your core and creating neutral spine alignment – although this is true of most exercises. It is far more prudent with the overhead barbell shrug as balance is a key factor with weight being applied directly down. Not engaging your core can easily make you lose balance and drop the weight or cause injury. 

If you’re new to this exercise you can do it seated or via a smith machine, but free-weight is best as it actively engages the core.

 

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Conclusion

That's how to do the barbell shrug, overhead barbell shrug and behind the back barbell shrug that you can implement into your next workout.

Take a look at our guide to the cable crossover and if you're serious about fitness check out OriGym's Personal Training Courses or our accredited nutrition qualifications to start your journey in fitness.

Or, go ahead and download our latest prospectus here for more info on what you could be learning!  

Written by Luke Hughes

CEO and Co-Founder

Luke is the CEO and Co-Founder of OriGym. Holding a first-class degree in Sport and Exercise and an MSc in Sport and Nutrition, he is also qualified as a Level 4 Personal Trainer with various specialist credentials covering the entire spectrum of health, fitness and business. Luke has contributed to a variety of major industry publications, including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Metro, Cosmopolitan, The Mirror, The Sun, The Standard and more.