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What are Shoulder Shrugs: Muscles Worked and Why You Should Build Them

Man getting ready for shrug muscles worked


Have you ever incorporated shoulder shrugs into your workout, not knowing exactly which muscles you’re targeting? Or maybe you do know but need a refresher. Well… you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to find out the what, why, and how: the basics for the shoulder shrug. 

Shoulder Shrugs Muscles Worked

Shoulder shrugs are a highly effective movement that targets the trapezius from the upper and middle areas. Trapezius muscles are shaped like a diamond (or trapezoid, to be more exact) and stretch from the bottom of your skull, down to mid-back and outwards to the shoulders. This exercise is an awesome way to build strength and definition in your shoulders and upper back. (Check out our page on lower trap exercises!)

Doing shoulder shrugs will essentially contribute to better posture and a well-balanced upper body aesthetic. Whether you’re using a dumbbell or other weight, it’s important (as with most exercises) to use proper form and engage the muscles involved. 

It is very nicely stated by the American Sports and Fitness Association, “Strong trapezius muscles are crucial for maintaining proper posture and supporting the movement and stabilization of your shoulder blades.” [1]

Why are Trapezius Muscles Important?

Your trapezius muscles play an important part in balancing and supporting upper body strength and function. Keep reading on why you’ll want to build your trap strength! 

  • Head and Neck movement: Upper trapezius muscles perform the shrugging motion and tilting your head from side to side. For daily exercise and activity, you’ll want to maintain this mobility with ease!
  • Upper Back Strength: Whether you want to build your upper body or maintain activities of daily living, shrug muscles worked also play a role in carrying, lifting, and pulling objects. As you continue doing upper body routines, other exercises will benefit if they involve any overhead motions as well. 
  • Posture: Trapezius muscles contribute to stabilizing the shoulder and neck area, helping to promote better posture. Better posture, in turn also means less pain or injury often associated with bad posture. So, no more slouching or hunching at the shoulder!
  • Better Grip: Since you will be using a barbell, dumbbell, or similar weight, grip strength is necessary to control and maintain the motion. A strong grip is also important for everyday tasks, exercises, or sports. 

It was beautifully written by Ourieff, Scheckel, and Agarwal who compared the muscles of this area to a construction crane, “The giant arm is the most obvious feature of the crane, but the jacks that anchor the cab of the crane to the ground are essential to its stability. Without these muscles, the upper limb (the arm of the crane) would be useless.” [3]

If you play contact sports, having strong neck and shoulder muscles can also prevent injury. Strong impact can put you at risk for whiplash or neck strain and building your traps can better equip you against sudden, aggressive movements. [5]

Ultimately, having bigger or well-developed trapezius muscles assists with upper body strength, and can condition you better for contact protection and upper body aesthetics.

How to do Shoulder Shrugs: Muscles Worked and Activating is Key

Keep reading if you’d like to start doing some shrugs ASAP:

  1. Sit up or stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keep a neutral spine for the duration of your exercise, lifting the chest and slight pull back on the shoulders. Staying aware of this form can help activate traps properly and minimize the risk of straining your spine and neck area.
  3. Keeping your arms at your sides and staying relaxed, hold the weights in each hand.
  4. Inhale as you lift up smoothly and with control. Act as though you’re touching your shoulders to your ears. 
  5. When at the top of your shrug, hold for about a second, to feel the tension in your traps.
  6. Exhale as you lower back down.
  7. Repeat for your desired number of reps.

Variation: How to Do a Barbell Shrug

  1. Hold the barbell in your hands with the desired weight
  2. Using an overhand grip with hands and feet shoulder-width apart, raise shoulders to ears
  3. Keep your elbows straight!
  4. Hold your position at the top for about 3 seconds
  5. Using a rep count of 15-20 per set can lead to bigger gains

Other Shrug Variations You Can Try

  • Behind the back barbell shrug
  • Trap bar shrug
  • Banded shrug
  • Chin up shrug
  • Push-up scapular shrug [5] 

Try incorporating different shrug variations into your upper body routine! Just like your other workouts, try increasing intensity or reps over time. 

Tips on doing Shoulder Shrugs: Muscles Worked Need Proper Form

You should be completely exhausted in your neck and upper back area by the time you hit your last repetition. Higher reps along with longer holds at the top of your shrug will add up to bigger gains. 

Using a lighter-weight barbell or dumbbell will allow for a wider range of motion during your reps. This technique will activate more of the upper trapezius muscle fibers.

As with most exercises, use a weight that is not excessive to the point where you lose proper form or control. These are essential factors to keep your trapezius muscles activated. 

With some experience and getting your shoulder shrugs muscles worked into your routine, other types of resistance or weights can be used - barbells or resistance bands all work great and also give you a variety of grips. [1]

Shrugs Muscles Worked Need Mind-Muscle Connection

You know that moment during your set when you hit that muscle you’re focusing on juuuust right? You know you have activated it because of your use of mind-muscle connection. Experienced lifters can achieve this easily as if second nature, and the more you can do it, the better for your progress.

It may be hard to experience a mind-muscle connection with exercises that seem short and simple. If you’re conscious and mindful when it comes to contracting your muscles during every single repetition, you’ll be more effective in your overall routine. 

If your overall goal is to maximize hypertrophy (grow your muscle size), studies show that making use of mind-muscle connection is the best approach, “It is likely that the molecular signaling for all 3 primary mechanisms of muscular hypertophy, namely mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage, are increased when the exerciser focuses their attention internally… ” [4]

Shrugs Muscles Worked: Conclusion

Hopefully, this post has shed some light on the importance of how shrug muscles worked are important not only for looks but also for function. As it helps with shoulder stability and posture, including it in your routine can contribute to your daily life activities as you age. Who wouldn’t want to maintain the ability to carry and throw things (or weights) without issue? I know I wouldn’t! If you’re looking to make progress building your back muscles, check out our other posts on back muscles and continue making those gains! 


[1] American Sports and Fitness Association. Carve your shoulders and traps: the top 10 benefits of shoulder shrugs.

[2] How to get a thicker neck: 3 exercises & common mistakes.

[3] Ourieff, J., Schreckel, B., Agarwal, A. Anatomy, back, trapezius. StatPearls, 2023. 

[4] Schoenfeld, B. Attentional focus for maximizing muscle the mind-muscle connection. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2016. 

[5] Beat gym boredom with these 11 shrug variations.

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