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?
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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|
|Overhead shrugs||Barbell rows||Lat pulldowns||Rack pulls|
|Farmer Walks||Dumbbell rows||Rows||Overhead press|
|Neck extensions||Cable rows||Face pulls|
What Are the Benefits of Shrugs?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.