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I used to waste so much time and energy trying to perfect my form on dumbbell shrugs to build bigger traps. Looking back, that time should have been focused on learning how to do rows and overhead press variations properly.
Shrugs are not necessary for building trap muscles if your workout program already includes compound exercises such as deadlifts, rows, overhead presses, and squats. Collectively, these exercises stimulate trap growth and maintenance without training them directly.
Nonetheless, shrugs can be a good addition to put a bit of extra mass on your traps. However, there are times when this targeted exercise may lead to unnecessary fatigue and time wasted, which I’ll discuss below.
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Why Shrugs Aren’t Necessary
Shrugs are an isolation exercise that mainly targets the traps. These muscles are located in the middle and upper back and the base of the neck. They are recruited during horizontal and vertical pulling and overhead pressing exercises.
More specifically, during bent-over and seated rows, deadlifts, lat pulldowns, pull-ups, overhead presses, face pulls, shrugs, and even reverse flys and lateral raises. Heck, even squats, especially front squats recruit the traps.
So, what does this mean for the shrugs?
They are essentially a filler exercise used by us gym bros to put extra tension on the traps in hopes of sparking additional muscle growth.
On the other hand, some people just like doing them, enjoy lifting heavy weights up and down with a very minimal range of motion, or think this is the only way to build bigger traps.
Shrugging extremely heavy weights is an easy way to limit the traps from their full contractile potential. This reduces the amount of complete muscle fiber damage and growth incurred.
That’s not always the case though as the traps, particularly the upper portions do respond well to heavy training. However, shrugs are not the only exercise that can accomplish this, so why do so many people swear by them?
I conducted a general poll on Instagram, asking people if they do shrugs, and whether or not they’ve seen significant trap development. The question I asked was, “If you do shrug, have you seen good trap gains?”
Less than half of the initial 130 voters noticed trap gains from shrugs, while 22% didn’t see noticeable gains.
|Yes, my traps have grown||No, my traps are still small||I don’t do shrugs|
I asked the 38% who don’t do shrugs what they do instead. Of the seven people who replied, over half of them swear by rows and deadlifts for trap development.
With this in mind, the carryover of shrugs for deadlifts and squats is minimal compared to doing bent-over rows or chest-supported rows.
For example, many rowing angles and variations significantly work your traps, along with the rest of your meaty back, and your leg muscles, and improve grip strength.
While shrugs primarily strengthen the traps, neck, and forearms with some lower back stimulation, depending on which variation you’re doing. In this case, they would be low on the hierarchy of exercise importance compared to rowing variations.
What’s more, the traps are a larger muscle group than people think. They stick out above your neck and are inserted between and beneath the shoulder blades.
They are responsible for so many functions and shrugs only emphasize one of them, which is lifting the shoulder blades up.
I’ve always felt awkward and had trouble performing this motion when holding weights. If I use too light of dumbbells I can’t engage my traps very well, but if I go too heavy my biceps get involved. It’s hard to find that happy medium.
It wasn’t until I placed more focus on Arnold presses and horizontal pulling exercises that I started noticing better growth.
The Traps Already Get Worked on Push and Pull Day
If you’re following a structured program, odds are you’re doing compound pushes and pulls that work the traps.
For push, this includes overhead barbell and dumbbell presses and squat variants, while compound pulls are deadlift variations, rows (horizontal or upright), pull-ups, pulldowns, and face pulls.
You may also be doing accessories such as lateral raise and reverse fly variations to build your shoulders.
My brother Dillon, a former competitive bodybuilder turned powerlifter, uses heavy lateral raises to target his upper traps and side delts simultaneously. Research conducted by Bret Contreras showed more peak upper trap activation with a 40 LB cable lateral raise than heavy barbell shrugs.
Performing a combination of a few of these exercises throughout the week will spark similar growth in your traps as shrugging once or twice a week. Plus, they’ll build more total body musculature and improve your technical ability to perform complex movement patterns.
So instead of worrying about including shrugs in your routine, focus on practicing and progressively overloading those main bread-and-butter exercises.
If you’re not already doing some form of rowing, deadlifting, and pressing, prioritize fitting them into your program, not shrugs.
Performing Shrugs Will Increase Cumulative Fatigue
You might be thinking, “Well, the only time I feel soreness in my traps is after shrugs, but never from deadlifts or rows”, I understand. However, muscle soreness isn’t always a sign of muscle growth and can sometimes hurt your training program as a whole.
Let’s say you’re doing heavy deadlifts on Mondays, squats on Thursdays, and rows on Saturdays. Each of those exercises is going to put tension on your traps, stress your central nervous system, and fatigue your lower back.
By adding shrugs in between, your recovery may be hindered, depending on how intensely you’re doing them. This could cause overactive or excruciating soreness in your upper trap and levator scapulae muscles.
In turn, this causes uneven muscle engagement when rowing or deadlifting, less stability during squats, and lowered strength potential.
Shrugs Mostly Train the Upper Traps and Levator Scapulae
The traps consist of a lower, middle, and upper portion. However, regular shrugs with the upper body vertical only accentuate the upper fibers. They also recruit the levator scapulae, which is a muscle in the back of the neck.
Overworking these two areas is common when performing shrugs. This leads to hiked-up or uneven shoulder positioning and sometimes even tension headaches.
Pressing overhead can also be impeded since these muscles are responsible for overhead movements.
This has been happening to me recently, and funny enough I’ve just started re-introducing shrugs after a few years of not doing them consistently. And the only reason is because the workout program I purchased has me doing them.
When reaching my arms overhead, I’ve noticed that my left trap gets tense before my arm is fully vertical. My left shoulder also hikes up when I retract my shoulder blades.
Shrugs Don’t Have Much Exercise Carryover
I am only doing shrugs once a week though as they are not a critical part of my program. They are included for three moderate weight sets toward the end of my second pull workout of the week.
My main focus is performing rows, pulldowns, squats, presses, and pull-ups throughout the week. Again, these are the compound exercises that will produce carryover from one to the other.
Think about it like this, the concentric action of the shrug elevates the shoulder blades with slight abduction and upward rotation. Sure, the upper traps are working hard, but there is little to no shoulder retraction, protraction, depression, flexion, or assistance from other joints.
Most compound exercises don’t prioritize elevation, so this won’t provide much benefit.
When Are Shrugs Useful for Trap Development?
From an efficiency standpoint, shrugs aren’t an exercise that you need to prioritize. However, there are certain cases where doing them is helpful and maybe even detrimental.
The baseline factor of a successful workout program is adherence and you’ll be less likely to stick with it if you don’t enjoy the exercises. So, if shrugs give you that little spark of dopamine and keep you disciplined to follow your routine, by all means, do them.
Or maybe you have a goal of developing massive trap muscles for no particular reason. This is when shrugs would be useful.
Like I said before, compound exercises will elicit trap growth to an extent. However, your traps might plateau after a while. This would be the perfect time to add a few sets of shrugs per week.
I’d suggest doing a low-taxing variation especially if you’re also doing rows, squats, and deadlifts. This way your traps will get extra stimulus without accumulating as much fatigue.
Personally, the cable shrugs have been working well for me as they don’t fatigue my lower back. They do take a toll on my upper traps for a few days though. However, it’s minimal compared to what a loaded barbell variation would do to me.
In the poll, I also asked what variation of the shrug people preferred. Out of 82 responses, 59% percent prefer dumbbell shrugs.
|Preferred Shrug Variation||Percentage of 82 Voters|
The arm motion of the dumbbell version isn’t as natural for the trap muscle fibers, but it is generally less taxing than a barbell or hex bar.
If you want to learn how to do dumbbell shrugs, check out this article.
Do Shrugs if You Want Extra Trap Growth
Let’s say you’re performing variations of overhead presses, rows, deadlifts, and barbell squats, each for 2-4 sets per week. These will elicit good trap growth as long as you increase the reps, sets, and weight over time.
Growth will be accelerated if you’re also doing accessory exercises like lateral and bent-over raises.
Here are the common variations of the non-shrugging exercises that can grow the traps:
|Lateral Raises||Rows and Pulls||Deadlifts||Squats||Presses|
|Bent-over (Reverse Fly)||Upright Row||Rack Pulls||Barbell Front||Arnold Press|
|Dumbbell||Bent-Over Row||Conventional||Barbell Back||Barbell|
|Cable||High Elbow Row||Sumo||Zercher||Machine|
|Resistance Band||High Pulls||Romanian||Dumbbell|
However, there may come a point, after years of proper training, when your traps reach a peak and they slow or stop growing. At this time, incorporating shrugs would help to break that plateau to get them a little bit bigger.
The growth may not be significant if you’ve already gotten them close to their genetic limit.
Do Shrugs To Help Fix Underdeveloped Traps
If your upper traps are not where you’d like them to be after a few years of training with a consistent focus and proper technique on squats, deadlifts, rows, and presses, consider shrugs a go.
Since they isolate the upper fibers, you can develop a mind-muscle connection much easier and safer compared to trying to “feel” them working on rows for instance.
That’s because shrugs are much less complex an exercise, so you can do them slower and push the traps harder without other muscles becoming the limiting factor.
Do Shrugs if You Can’t Perform Compound Exercises
The only time shrugs may be considered a necessity for trap growth is if you physically can’t do compound exercises.
For example, a leg, lower back, or elbow injury might prevent you from squatting, deadlifting, rowing, or overhead pressing. To ensure you’re still training the traps completely, you could perform shrugs at a variety of angles to accentuate each section.
Standing cable shrugs and incline bench shrugs would target the upper and middle fibers, respectively. While implementing reverse shrugs on a lat pulldown machine would work the lower fibers. Even so, these aren’t the only low-impact exercise options when working around an injury.
Key Takeaways: Should You Do Shrugs?
Depending on your physique goals and current training structure, shrugs may or may not be helpful to include.
Consider including them if:
- You want to get your traps as big as possible as quickly as possible.
- They add a level of enjoyment to your routine that you’d miss without them.
- You’re unable to perform compound back and shoulder exercise variations of rows, deadlifts, and overhead presses.
- You’ve been performing a combination of rows, overhead presses, squats, and deadlifts consistently for years, following progressive overload principles, and haven’t seen the desired trap growth you’re after.
Remember they’re not detrimental, especially when:
- You’re performing 8+ sets of rows, deadlifts, overhead presses, and squats each week and are happy with the trap growth from doing this after a few months or years.
Not having shrugs in your workout program shouldn’t keep you up at night. Instead, focus on the exercises with more carryover and total muscle stimulation.