Are Shrugs Necessary for Big Traps?

| by Truth Seeker |


Short answer: The traps can be developed without shrugs as many back exercises (e.g., deadlifts, rows, overhead presses…etc.) hit the area. Nonetheless, shrugs are the most straightforward method to stress the zone and trigger a hypertrophy response. If you are dedicated to building the best trapezius, that you can, some form of shrugging could be highly beneficial – especially for the upper portion of the muscle since this is the area that receives the least stimulation during rowing movements.

What Are the Main Functions of the Traps?

The trapezius extends from the base of the skull [the occipital bone] and descends to the mid-back. The trapezius’ fibers attach laterally to the spine of the scapula.

The insertions of the muscle allow it to pull in three different directions:

  • The upper fibers elevate the shoulders [scapular elevation].
  • The middle fibers move the shoulder blades together and retract the scapulae [scapular retraction].
  • The lower fibers pull the shoulders blades down [scapular depression].

How Can You Hit the Traps Without Shrugs?

  1. Slow barbell Pulls

As shocking as it may seem to some, the traps are not lifting anything during slow barbell pulls like the deadlift. Their main role is to hold the scapula in place and stabilize it. Their function is entirely isometric.

Slow barbell pulls work the entire trap region.

FAQ: Should I pinch my shoulder blades together during deadlifts? No. Artificially keeping your shoulder blades together during deadlifts is not proper form for two reasons. First, you are shortening your arms and therefore putting yourself in a more disadvantageous position [longer arms make deadlifts easier]. Second, when the weight gets heavy, the rhomboids and the mid-traps will inevitably fail to keep the shoulders pinched.

Deadlifting with exaggeratedly retracted shoulders could cause a tear in the mid-back.

  1. Loaded carries

The function of the traps during loaded carries i.e. farmer walks is similar to their role during deadlifts. They connect the scapula to the back and keep it stable. Loaded carries put more emphasis on the upper portion of the traps.

  1. Rows

Rows focus on the middle traps through scapular retraction. The angle of the upper arm in relation to the torso can increase or decrease the stress on the traps. For example, by pulling the bar to the middle of the chest, the lifter emphasizes the mid-back whereas touching lower engages more of the latissimus dorsi muscle.

  1. Dynamic pulls (e.g., power clean, power snatch, high-pull…etc.)

Explosive pulls like the power clean require heavy activation of the trapezius muscle. The traps are still stabilizing the scapula, just like in other pulls, but they are also explosively shrugging the bar upwards.

  1. Overhead pressing

The overhead press includes heavy involvement of the trapezius muscle when done with a full range of motion. The job of the traps is once again to support the scapulae.

A correctly performed overhead press contains a shrug at the top – a move designed to prevent shoulder impingement. This addition works the traps even harder.

Nonetheless, some experts claim that shrugging at the top of the press is bad and that you should keep your shoulders down by contracting the lats.

I prefer to shrug at the top. Otherwise, I feel discomfort in the shoulders.

  1. Pull-ups

When done properly, pull-ups include scapular depression (down shrug) at the beginning of the lift. This motion activates the lats and lower traps.

Classification of Trap Exercises and The Area They Focus On

Upper Traps Mid-Traps Lower Traps All Three
Shrugs T-bar rows Pull-ups Deadlifts
Overhead shrugs Barbell rows Lat pulldowns Rack pulls
Farmer Walks Dumbbell rows Rows Overhead press
Neck extensions Cable rows Face pulls
Lateral raises

What Are the Benefits of Shrugs?

  1. Direct work. Shrugs hit the upper portion of the traps directly and without limitations coming from other muscle groups except for the forearms. In theory, deadlifts should provide everyone with big traps, but in practice, this doesn’t always happen. Some people’s upper traps need extra care.
  2. CNS friendly. Shrugs do not involve a great amount of musculature and have a short range of motion – two characteristics that make the exercise less stressful on the CNS.
  3. Controlled time under tension. Shrugs allow easy modulation of the tempo which can greatly increase the duration of the strain imposed on the muscle.

How Heavy Should My Shrugs Be?

Many dreamers load the barbell to the max during their shrugs and turn the movement into a stationary exercise to impress strangers in the gym. The truth is that no one cares. People are self-obsessed. Most don’t notice your effort. Those who do, marginalize it.

It’s better to keep the load moderate and preserve the original travel of the exercise.

“What about power shrugs?” says the dreamer.

When I first learned about power shrugs (a form of shrugging in a power cage that includes an aggressive hip thrust) from Bill Starr’s and Rippetoe’s articles, I got excited. The exercise instantly allowed me to lift more than I could deadlift. But it didn’t feel like I was accomplishing more and returned to the classic version. If you can achieve the same effect with 2 plates, why lift 5?

Barbell vs. Dumbbell vs. Trap Bar Shrugs

Dumbbell shrugs. The main benefit of DB shrugs is that you can get your hands in line with your legs or past them. This maneuver increases the muscle mass of the traps involved in the shrug. The main downside of dumbbell shrugs is the inconvenient set-up.

Barbell shrugs. Barbells are the most popular way to do shrugs as they are easy to scale and program. However, they have some negatives too. The classic barbell shrug done with the weight in front of you makes the movement upper trap focused. To hit a larger portion of the muscle, some people do shrugs behind the back. The flaw of this version is the weird bar path and the barbell clashing against your posterior chain.

Trap bar shrugs. The trap bar is ergonomically better for shrugs than a straight bar because the weight is over your feet rather than in front or behind. The main disadvantage of trap bar shrugs is that loading them up in a power rack could be problematic since the plates may get in the way depending on the equipment models. If that’s the case, you could put the bar on blocks. The final option is to simply deadlift the bar from the floor and then shrug.

Will Shrugs Build Up My Neck?

Big traps are essential for thickening the rear part of the neck because the trapezius inserts right under the skull and participates in neck extension. However, most trap exercises do little for the muscles involved in neck flexion which have to be trained too if you want to make your neck as thick and wide as possible.

Should I Be Doing Olympic Lifts for My Traps?

Olympic weightlifters have massive traps, but before indulging into Olympic weightlifting, consider the following:

  1. Olympic weightlifters are not natural in the vast majority of cases.

Oly brahs inject because anabolic steroids have a very profound effect on strength cultivation and muscle development. Moreover, the traps are great responders to anabolic steroids as the muscle has a high concentration of androgen receptors.

  1. Olympic weightlifters train for hours almost daily.

Weightlifters don’t just lift, they train. The Olympic lifts are skills that require frequent practice. As a result, Olympic weightlifters accumulate an enormous training volume responsible for a lot of their trap growth.

Replicating that training just to get big traps is no different than trying to do a gymnastic iron cross on rings to get bigger lats. There are more direct ways to accomplish your goal.

If you want to do Olympic weightlifting, do it because you like the sport. Bigger traps should be an extra, not your main motivation.

Having said that, Olympic exercises like high-pulls could add some “weightlifting magic” to your trap routine at an affordable price.

Should I Use Straps for My Shrugs?

If you are doing shrugs solely to add volume to your trap workout and do not care about the grip strength that the exercise could build, straps are a logical choice when you begin lifting heavier weights. Beginners, however, have little need for straps.

Relying on straps solely for your work sets or some of them is a middle-ground approach that gives you the best of both worlds – forearm training and extra trap work.

Can You Give Me Some Unconventional Shrug Variations?

The first that comes to mind is the Hise shrug popularized by the legendary strength athlete Joseph Curtis Hise who developed the exercise specifically to improve squat performance.

The Hise shrug is done as follows:

Step 1. Position the bar exactly as you would for a high-bar back squat.

Step 2. Brace your core and shrug your shoulders up as high as you can.

Step 3. Pause at the top and then lower the weight.

Step 4. Repeat

The exercise promises to make regular high-bar squats feel lighter by acclimating the CNS to heavy weights on the back and by building a solid base for the bar to stand on.

The major downside of the Hise shrug is that it’s very taxing, and the bar digs into your back. Some people find it weird and inconvenient.

Those performing the Hise shrug for its muscle-building properties often “hack” the exercise by doing it in a calf machine with soft padding.

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  1. Brett

    Doing high rep lateral raises hits the traps very hard.

    Wide grip Barbell shrugs (upper traps)
    Lateral raises (mid side traps)
    Bent barbell rows (lower traps)

    Carrying a moderate heavy rock also hits the entire traps if you dont have access to weights.

    1. Capitan UperBody

      Men can you just make one article on bringing you upper body as fast as possible.I think it will be more reachable because nobody gives a flying fucka bout legs. Make it how to bring your Arms, Delts , Back as fast as possible. Tnx

      1. Brett

        I replied to your comment before and told you ‘how to do it’.

        What do you think truthseeker has a ‘special program’ to give you special fast upper body gains that somehow steal the gains from your lower body and blow up your upper body?

        Think about what you are asking. All you asking for is a program that doesn’t train legs. Thats it.

        Now either you a troll or you don’t read very well. Because i’ve just told you the same thing as before.

        1. Capitan UperBody

          Where, my little friend ?

          1. Brett

            We not friends, bud.

  2. El Pacino

    In my case, despite being an Ecto, my traps are decent as a side effect of the Deadlift and i don’t have to work them specifically.
    Can’t be doomed from A to Z.
    I would like to thank you for your book “Potential: how big can you get naturally?”
    I wish i could read it sooner.
    It is litteraly a real eyes-opener.
    Reminds me of the Plato cave myth.
    That is the shame that a lot of people (not everyone) don’t act with intelligence and common sense to get results.
    Human nature can’t be blamed.
    If it sounds too good to be true, guess what? then it is – and you can bet that Muscle Mainstream Gurus are making a fortune of it.
    Best regards.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Thank you for the support, El Pacino.

  3. Im Not A Misanthrope I Swear

    I’ve been studying biomechanics for a while and I can tell that traps are a pretty misunderstood muscle group. Yes, the upper fibers elevate the shoulder (scapular elevation), the middle fibers move the shoulder blades together (scapular retraction) and the lower fibers pull the shoulder blades down (scapular depression) but there’s more to it than that.

    First of when you raise your arm overhead, movement does not only occur in the glenohumeral joint, but also in the whole shoulder girdle and there’s an additional movement, the upward rotation of the scapule. That movement is done by the upper traps primary, but from a certain point it’s finished by the lower traps. A correctly performed overhead press does NOT contain a shrug at the top, it contains scapular upward rotation, if you further elevate your shoulder blades, that’s an overhead shrug.

    The middle fibers are purely shoulder adductors, let’s say. Unlike the the rhomboids and lower traps which have other functions as well.

    Now, the lower traps depress the scapula but that’s not their only task, also the lower traps are not the only depressors of the shoulder blade. If you depressed your scapulae and hunched forward all you did was concentrically activating the pectoralis minor. The lower traps is the most active when you depress and retract the scapulae but what does that cause? Its’ effect is posterior tipping (sometimes called posterior tilting) of the shoulder blades, in other words the lower traps roll the shoulder back. That’s why you want to keep your shoulder blades back and down when you bench, because it leads to activation of the lower traps therefore posterior tilting of the shoulder blades, so the congruency between the glenoid fossa and the humerus increases and you „make some space” in order to lower your arms (horizontal abduction) safely.

    Now, looking at all these stuff, I’d argue that ELEVATING your scaps against resistance alone is a very benefitial invest of your time. I think doing overhead press (upper traps), some form of rowing (middle and lower OR upper traps depending on your form), and some corrective exercises like YTWA’s will get you covered (lower traps). Now if your traps are still not growing I’d say focusing on OHP specialization (more volume, incorparating overhead shrugs etc.) in the first place is still a better idea than shrugs. OHP has a big ROM and compresses the spine but also is very stubborn and does not allow for a ton of load. Therefore using your potetial for recovery to further push OHP is just more benefitial. Hammering low load cable, band, ring or STRICT barbell rows is simply a better idea from a stimulus to fatigue standpoint. If your traps are still don’t grow, doing more volume on farmers walks come to play. Shrugs are probably the last thing I’d advise.

    Another note that I would add is the vast majority of humans in Western societies have fucked up postures and a lot of mobility restrictions. A lot of stuff people do at the gym like lateral raises and rows already load the upper traps, as well as deads and farmer walks and the least options may „stretch them” but they ultimately make ’em more active. In that regard, direct work is more important for the middle and the lower fibers.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Thank you for the insightful comment, Im Not A Misanthrope I Swear.

  4. mattsk1

    Shrugs are an ego lift in my opinion. Building traps is not complicated from my experience. Pick up something heavy and walk with it. Mankind has been doing this since the beginning of time. A bonus about heavy carries is you don’t need to do that much else and build an solid power look. Not ideal for bodybuilders look, but diffidently a I look like I lift look and can back it up.

    1. CJ

      Are all these posts a result of self quarantine? I’ll take it nonetheless. What are you’re thoughts on this game? Maybe u can tie it in to fitness somehow per usual

  5. Capitan UperBody

    Can you make article about bringing you UpperBody as fast as possible.For those who dont give a fuck about Legs which i think is most of the people.

  6. Chris

    Try using the safety squat bar if you have one for Hise Shrugs. The padded yoke enables you to train without too much discomfort when the weights get north of 250 pounds

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