Shying away from shrugs

Shying away from shrugs

Many women tend to be scared of performing barbell shrugs. While men have no problem embracing the exercise for all its benefits to the shoulders and trapezius muscles, most women think they will end up with the monster trap, no-neck look from doing them.

You will NOT look like this!


Like I’ve said many times before, women are not going to get super bulky from doing any exercise – shrugs included – as they simply lack the testosterone to build muscle like a man. To not include shrug exercises purely because of aesthetic concerns is missing out on the benefits of the exercise, including strengthening your back and shoulders as well as assisting with other exercises such as deadlifts, cleans, presses and lateral raises.

Purpose: No other exercise will isolate your traps in the same way as a shrug. It is very important to regularly include direct trapezius exercises in your workouts in order to round out your shoulder and upper back training. Shrugs hit the trapezius muscles, which are located on both sides of the neck and extend all the way down to the middle of the back, as well as the rhomboids. If you want to sculpt capped shoulders, you need to include shrugs in your program. Shrugs will also improve your grip as they improve your forearm strength.

Set-up: I prefer to deadlift a barbell up into position (I will explain why below), where the bar is resting flat against your body. Your arms should be straight and the bar should feel like a dead weight, with no slack in your arms. You can use either a double overhand grip or a mixed grip. The position of your hands will depend on what part of the trap you want to hit but generally aim for shoulder width or slightly wider. Your feet should also be shoulder width apart and you should be standing up straight with your knees slightly bent.

Because the range of motion is so short, you will be able to lift pretty heavy but don’t go overboard and add hundreds of pounds to the bar. You want to feel as though your shoulders are almost reaching your ears – they won’t even be close, but that’s the feeling to keep in mind.


You can also hold the bar behind your back, to hit more of the middle trap, but note that your weight will decrease significantly. Raising the bar in front of your body will hit the upper traps almost exclusively. You can also perform the exercise with dumbbells, which will allow you to have a more comfortable neutral grip (palms facing in).

Execution: Keeping your arms out of the equation and engaging your trap muscles only, lift your shoulders as high as possible. Hold for one to two seconds before slowly lowering the bar back to the original position, being careful not to forcefully drop the shoulders down. At no time should your elbows bend.

Lift your shoulders straight up and down, not in circles. A little part of me dies when I see people roll their shoulders with horrendous amounts of weight – this will put you straight on the path to a rotator cuff injury!

Finding a decent video is tough, but this woman has an awesome back!

Strength-focused back workout:

If you’re following a body part split program, you can do shrugs on either back or shoulder day. I prefer to do them with back as that’s when I do my deadlifts and am therefore already hitting my traps, but it doesn’t matter as long as you don’t do back and shoulders on consecutive days. It’s also best to stick with a higher rep range.

Deadlifts: 5 x 5
Wide grip lat pulldown: 4 x 6-8
Narrow grip seated cable row: 4 x 8-10
Single arm dumbbell row: 3 x 6-8
Barbell shrugs: 4 x 12-15

Finally, do not perform shrugs in the squat rack if there are other people wanting to use it! Yes, it is easier to load up the barbell but it is also annoying for other people in the gym. The other day I had to wait to do deadlifts on the Olympic platform when some guy at my gym was doing barbell shrugs. And then I got in trouble for taking my shoes off! I love how I’m the one who is scalded for doing something right…

Do you enjoy shrugs or do you feel like they’re going to add too much size?

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