Muscles Involved in Barbell Shrugs

Photo of man's muscle back
A man is flexing his upper back and shoulder muscles. (Image: Chris_Tefme/iStock/Getty Images)

Although often included in a shoulder workout, barbell shrugs target the muscles of the upper back. Understanding muscle function and proper execution of the exercise helps you best incorporate it into your strength-training routine. When performing the shrug, take specific precautions and perfect your form to maximize results.

Exercise Description

To perform the barbell shoulder shrug, stand and grab a barbell with an overhand grip. Allow the barbell to hang in front of your body with your arms shoulder width and elbows extended. Keep your gaze forward. Draw your navel in toward your spine to contract your abdominals. With the bar as close to your body as possible, exhale and draw your shoulders up toward your ears. The slope of the shoulders should remain horizontal. Pause at the top momentarily and release the shrug. Repeat for the desired number of sets and repetitions.

Muscles Activated

The primary muscles activated by the barbell shrug are the trapezius, or traps, and rhomboids.The trapezius gets its name from its trapezoid shape, and runs down the upper region of the spinal cord from the base of the skull to the middle and lower back. The muscle is responsible for upward shrugging, drawing the shoulder blades together and pulling the shoulder blades down, the Fitstep website explains. The rhomboid major and minor are other muscles of the back that connect the shoulders to the spinal column. The shrug also activates secondary muscles including the biceps, flexors, serratus anterior and the three muscles of the abs: rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis and obliques.

Caution

Avoid rotating the shoulders forward or back and bending the elbows while shrugging upward. Keep your back, straight as bending or arching compromises the effectiveness of the move and may cause back injury. Remember to shrug upward rather than roll the shoulders back. Preserve wrist neutrality, advises the American Council on Exercise; bending may cause irritation at the wrist joint.

Alternatives

Instead of a barbell, you may use dumbbells to perform a shoulder shrug. Hold the dumbbells along the sides of your body, with the heads of the weights facing the front of the room. Another alternative is behind-the-back shoulder shrugs, in which you hold the bar behind you with an overhand grip. You will flex your elbows slightly during this exercise as you hold the bar just above your glutes, to activate the traps and rhomboids from a different angle.

Strategy

Use weights heavy enough to fatigue you in just eight to 12 repetitions to build strength. Incorporate shrugs on days you target the muscles of the shoulder. Make them part of a workout that also includes machine military presses, dumbbell lateral raises, upright rows and dumbbell front raises, to work the shoulders from multiple angles and maximize development.

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