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The shrug is a common exercise for building the upper trap muscles. Unfortunately, most gym goers do them incorrectly and never see results.
During the shrug exercise do not move the shoulders unevenly or in a circular motion, tuck the chin, actively bend the elbows, or over-grip the handles. When one or more of these mistakes are made, the traps will not be fully stimulated and may result in a spine or shoulder joint injury.
If you’ve been making these mistakes and are having trouble engaging your traps, don’t fret. Read on for a deeper look into each one and how to fix it.
Table of Contents
1. Don’t Roll Your Shoulders Forward or Backward
Many gurus recommend rounding the shoulder blades backward or forward for more middle trap, rhomboid, or serratus activation. They’ll perform a circular motion rather than an up-and-down shrug motion.
Rolling your shoulders during shrugs is bad since it not only deactivates the upper trapezius but also puts unnecessary strain on the rotator cuff. You may even feel a clicking in your shoulders while doing this.
There are much better exercises to work the rhomboids, middle traps, and serratus. Furthermore, the upper traps are and should remain the prime target as they perform scapular elevation and upward rotation: the correct motions of the movement.
If you’re working out at home, check out my article covering dumbbell-only exercises that in combination, work your entire back.
The Fix: Lean your torso slightly forward and lift your shoulder blades up and in to emphasize these upper trap functions.
2. Don’t Raise One Shoulder Higher Than the Other
I have imbalanced clavicles so whenever I perform shrugs my left shoulder blade likes to raise higher than my right. Over time this can lead to one trap developing more than the other.
The Fix: If you have a similar issue, really be mindful of this and maybe consider doing unilateral dumbbell shrugs. Start each set with the lagging side first and never do extra reps or sets, or use heavier weights on the stronger side.
3. Do Not Hyperflex or Hyperextend Your Neck
Hyperflexion of the neck occurs during shrugs when tucking the chin down or gazing at the floor.
Hyperextension is the opposite and occurs when lifting the chin too high to look at the ceiling for example. Some people just like to reveal their neck striations since they pop with this exercise, which is what I see a lot in my gym.
Either of these can damage the cervical spine when done repeatedly.
The Fix: Face forward, and look at something just above eye level such as your forehead in the mirror to make sure you’re not dropping your chin.
4. Don’t Flex Your Elbows While Shrugging Up
Although the elbows may bend inadvertently on the way up, you should not actively try to bend them. This will transfer tension onto the biceps.
Conversely, if they’re too straight your traps won’t be worked through a full range of motion.
The Fix: Keep your elbow joints soft and your arms relaxed while holding the dumbbells. Focus on the shrugging motion and don’t force or fight the elbow bend.
5. Don’t Let Your Grip Become a Limiting Factor
You may not experience grip fatigue at first, but as you build shrugging strength and start progressing in weight your forearms will be forced to work harder. Oftentimes this leads to the sets being cut short even though the traps still had plenty of reps left in their tank.
Mistakes number four and five are often correlated because as your grip fatigues you may start engaging your biceps and performing partial reps.
The Fix: I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but gripping the handles as loosely as possible while still being able to hold the weight of course, is key. Here are a few strategies to employ if your grip strength isn’t up to par with your trap strength:
- Lather your palms, fingers, and thumbs in lifting chalk.
- Put on a pair of wrist straps, wrap them around the bar, and hold the handles loosely with a thumbless grip.
- Lighten the load and switch to a higher rep range.
How To Safely Do Shrugs
When performing shrugs there are three main form cues to be mindful of to ensure safety and effectiveness.
To do shrugs safely, raise your shoulder blades up and in towards your ears while maintaining a neutral head position by facing directly forward. Also, allow your arms to bend naturally during the upward phase.
Here’s a more detailed look at each of these form cues along with the step-by-step instructions for performing this exercise.
1. Face Forward To Maintain a Neutral Head
By facing directly forward or even lifting your chin slightly up, you’ll reduce compression on your cervical spine. This will allow the traps to move through a full range of motion.
- Grab your weight of choice (dumbbells, a barbell, a trap bar, or cables).
- When using a barbell, grab it with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- If there’s a mirror, make eye contact with yourself or look at your forehead to ensure your neck is either neutral or slightly extended.
- If there’s not a mirror, lock your eyes onto an object above eye level, and raise your chin slightly.
2. Raise Your Shoulder Blades Up and In
The upper trap’s main role is elevation and upward rotation of the scapula. By executing these motions directly, without any forward or backward shoulder movement, you’ll be protecting your glenohumeral joint while isolating the traps.
- If you struggle to execute this shoulder motion try leaning your torso forward by about 10 degrees. Make sure your lower back remains flat.
- With your shoulder blades relaxed toward the ground, inhale before raising them straight up and in toward your ears.
- Get a quick squeeze while exhaling at the top.
- Reverse under control.
3. Bend Your Arms Naturally in the Upward Phase
During the previous step, you should also allow your elbows to naturally bend as the shoulder blades raise. NEVER fully lock your elbows as doing so restricts shoulder joint mobility, preventing the traps from fully engaging.
Put these tips into practice using a lighter weight for 10-20 reps and see how much more trap activation you achieve.