What is a Barbell Shrug?

Gregg Miller

A barbell shrug is a weight training exercise designed to increase the size and strength of the trapezius muscles. The trapezius muscles are located on both sides of the neck and extend down the midline of the back. The barbell shrug is well recognized as the premier exercise to develop this muscle group.

The barbell shrug strengthens the muscles of the upper back.
The barbell shrug strengthens the muscles of the upper back.

As the barbell shrug's name implies, the process involves placing an appropriate amount of weight on the bar and lifting it upward in a shrugging motion. This is done in a standing position, with the feet placed shoulder-width apart. There are various hand placement techniques for the lift, including placing one hand palm forward on the bar and one reversed, or gripping the bar with both palms facing the body.

The barbell shrug is used to strengthen and build up the trapezius muscles.
The barbell shrug is used to strengthen and build up the trapezius muscles.

It is important for the knees to be kept slightly bent during this lift in order to take the strain off the lower back. There is a tendency, particularly when using too much weight, for the lifter to use a sloppy form that can cause injury. Using the proper stance, and the correct weight for the athlete's fitness level, can alleviate these concerns.

The barbell shrug trains such a large muscle group that the hands are unable to grip as much weight as the back can lift. For this reason, many athletes use wrist straps that wrap around the barbell and allow the person to continue the exercise, even after the hand's grip fails. There also is a tendency to bend the elbows when shrugging, and this bad form can take the emphasis off the back muscles and use auxiliary muscles instead. Wrist straps help maintain the proper form and make the barbell shrug a more effective exercise for the intended muscle group.

In addition to the traditional barbell shrug, there are variations that include using a Smith machine, performing the exercises behind the back or using dumbbells. The Smith frame machine is a good alternative because the weights are supported in a that forces the athlete to keep good form while also providing enhanced safety features. Doing barbell shrugs behind the back will use the muscles in a slightly different fashion that can help promote muscle growth. When using dumbbells, an athlete uses less weight overall but isolates the different parts of the muscle group, ensuring that each portion is addressed.

Barbell shrugs are designed to make the back larger and stronger. Larger trapezius muscles give the overall appearance of larger shoulders. A strong back is important for all other weight training as well, because it provides a solid foundation for any athletic endeavor.

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