Shoulder Shrugs Don’t Get the Attention They Deserve & Why You Need Them

A woman doing dumbbell shoulder shrugs to strengthen her traps.

Are shoulder shrugs part of your strength-training routine? Well, why not?  Oftentimes, this exercise doesn’t get the attention and respect it deserves. In fact, most people don’t do them at all.  Yet, shoulder shrugs are a simple exercise and one that most of us could benefit from, particularly if we sit in front of a computer a lot or are prone towards upper back and neck pain. If you have bad posture, shoulders shrugs may help your alignment as well.

Why are shoulder shrugs such a valuable movement? This simple exercise mimics a movement you do in everyday life – shrugging your shoulders. Shrugging the muscles in your shoulders against resistance works two large, diamond-shaped muscles in your back, the trapezius. This exercise mainly targets the upper trapezius. The levator scapulae, small muscles that run down the sides of your neck and connect to the trapezius, help out the trapezius muscles when you shrug by acting as synergists. These smaller muscles come into play when you elevate your shoulders. You want your trapezius and levator scapulae to be strong and capable.

But, there’s another reason to shrug. The upper trapezius helps maintain healthy posture and aids in movement and stabilization of the scapula or shoulder blade. From a postural standpoint, the top of your trapezius muscle pulls down and back slightly on your shoulder blades to help you maintain good posture. But, you also need strong traps for shoulder stability. Plus, you depend on the strength of your trapezius muscles every time you bend over to pick up something heavy. Let’s make sure it’s strong!

Aesthetic Considerations

Shoulder shrugs can also enhance body aesthetics. Strengthening your upper traps with shoulder shrugs will improve your appearance if you have downward sloping shoulders. In fact, weak, sloping shoulders are a sign of an underdeveloped weak, upper trapezius. Adding shrugs to your routine, over time, helps correct this problem and will give you a more balanced physique.

Yet, there is a point of diminishing returns. Some bodybuilders develop their traps to the point that it impedes their ability to do overhead movements like serving a tennis ball effectively. Too much trap development can also create an imbalance that leads to upper back or neck pain. But, you’d have to train your trapezius muscles pretty hard and use heavy resistance to get to this point.

Few exercises are as effective at targeting the upper traps as shoulder shrugs. Yet, some people, especially women, shy away from them for fear of getting a bulky upper back. But, it’s difficult for a female to train her traps hard enough to build significant bulk in the upper back. So, bulging traps is unlikely to be an issue unless you have a high testosterone level due to polycystic ovarian syndrome or some other cause. Instead, if you shrug regularly, you’ll become stronger in the upper back and will be able to perform other upper body exercises, particularly curls and presses, safely and more effectively. So, embrace shoulder shrugs rather than fear them!

How to Do an Effective Shoulder Shrug

So, now you know why you need to shrug. But, how do you do a shoulder shrug properly? You can use dumbbells or barbells to do a shrug or even start out without weights until you get the feel for the movement. Keep in mind, dumbbells are a bit harder to stabilize than a barbell. To perform one using dumbbells, hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms straight in front of you. Your palms should face inward toward your thighs. Hold your core tight and slowly shrug your shoulders upward toward the ceiling as you exhale the air from your lungs. Hold the position for a second. Then, slowly lower the dumbbells as you breathe in. The rest of your body shouldn’t move when you shrug.

If you’re using a barbell to shrug, place the barbell in front of your thighs. When holding the barbell, your hands should be roughly shoulder-width apart and your palms facing your thighs. Raise the barbell as you exhale, hold for a second, and slowly lower the barbell as you breathe in. You can also use a trap bar, a bar with a hexagonal shape with handles at each end to help you hold the bar with a neutral grip.

Resist the urge to use too much weight with this exercise as your form will break down and you could potentially injure your shoulders or upper back. It’s important to use a resistance that’s light enough to do a full shrug rather than cheat and do a partial one. Also, make sure you’re not rolling your shoulders forward or backward when you shrug to avoid injury. This is the most common mistake people make when they do shrugs.

How Much Resistance Should You Use When You Do Shoulder Shrugs?

Confused about how much weight to use? Go for lighter resistance and higher reps for this exercise. Choose a weight that you can complete between 12 and 15 reps and do a total of 3 or 4 sets using good form. Shoulder shrugs are an exercise where form matters more than how much resistance you’re using.

When should you do them? A good time to do shoulder shrugs is the day you train your back. However, make sure you’re not doing shoulders and back on consecutive days as you’re also placing stress on your shoulders when you do shoulder shrugs. Your back and shoulders need 48 hours rest after doing shrugs.

The Bottom Line

Now you know why you should include shoulder shrugs in your routine when you work your back. It’s an exercise that strongly focuses on the upper trapezius, a muscle you use frequently in daily life.  A strong trapezius muscle helps stabilize your shoulder girdle, maintain a healthy posture, and makes it safer to bend over and pick something up. It’s a basic exercise you can do with dumbbells or barbells that will pay off substantial dividends.



Stack.com. “Big Traps May Look Good, But Do You Need Them?”
J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2003 May;33(5):247-58.


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How Balanced is Your Back Training?

Hunched Shoulders – What Causes Them and How to Correct Them?

The Best Exercises for Broader Shoulders

Building Strong and Beautiful Shoulders: is Your Shoulder Workout Balanced?

What Does It Mean When Your Shoulder Hurts When You Lift Weights?


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