Small movements can result in big gains, and the barbell shrug demonstrates this perhaps better than any other exercise. Since the movement involved is so small, you can load up a lot of weight on your bar, and all that weight means the strength and power gains in your upper back will be considerable.
This barbell exercise primarily targets the traps, which respond to the challenge of moving the heavy weight used for the motion by growing bigger and stronger, so if you’re chasing a monster upper back then the barbell shrug is one move that will quicken your pursuit.
How To Do The Barbell Shrug
Stand tall, holding a bar in an overhand grip with your hands just outside your thighs. Lift your shoulders straight up, hold for one or two seconds in this elevated position, then lower them back to the start. Throughout the exercise, make sure you keep your shoulders back and your spine and elbows straight.
Barbell Shrug Variations
Behind-the-back barbell shrug
Hold the bar behind your back in both hands for a variation on the exercise that puts slightly more focus on the middle traps rather than the upper traps, which are the focus of the standard movement. Be careful to ensure you’re not stressing your shoulders or upper back unduly with this variation.
Using a set of dumbbells instead of a barbell works each side of your body independently so you can even out any imbalances in your strength. Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your waist with your palms facing each other. Shrug your shoulders up, pause for a beat or two, then lower back to the start.
Dumbbell upright row to shrug
Combine these two upper back exercises for an efficient double hit. Hold two dumbbells by your waist in an overhand grip. Using your upper back, row the weights up to your chest, taking your elbows out to the side, then shrug to raise them a little higher. Then lower the dumbbells back to the start.
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Joe Warner is a highly experienced journalist and editor who began working in fitness media in 2008. He has featured on the cover of Men’s Fitness UK twice and has co-authored Amazon best-sellers including 12-Week Body Plan. He was the editor of Men’s Fitness UK magazine between 2016 and 2019, when that title shared a website with Coach.