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What Muscles Do Shrugs Work?

    Shoulder shrugs are less common among gym-goers and mostly used by those who want to correct their posture, reduce neck and back pain, or straighten their spine. Although true, these benefits aren’t the whole story, and you can even add bulk to your upper body with this exercise. But what muscles exactly do the shrugs work?

    Shrugs work your traps primarily, and your levator scapulae, erector spinae, forearms, and core subordinately. But that’s only true if you learn how to handle it in practice. Stand up erect while shrugging, and raise only your shoulders for each lift. Also, pick a suitable weight and regular program.

    This article lets you know what muscles shrugs can exactly target and how. It also instructs you on how to perform different shrug varieties, how many reps you’ll need, plus other tips to maximize their impact.

    Muscles that Work During Shrugs

    Shrugs are an isolation activity, meaning they stimulate only one specific muscle or muscle group. However, there are also helper muscles in play. Read on to get familiar with both the primary and secondary targeted muscles.


    Whether you shrug with cables, dumbbells, or a barbell, your Trapezius is the main muscle that works.

    Also called traps, it’s a pair of trapezoid-shaped muscles in the back of your neck that starts from your occipital bone, extending vertically to the cervical and thoracic spine. Horizontally, it fills all your shoulder-width and lies right over your scapula.

    These muscles help to abduct your shoulder blades and arms. So when you ascend and descend a weight with your arms, you constantly squeeze and release those muscles to fire them up. That’s why most bodybuilders have prominent traps: these muscles get engaged in almost all weightlifting activities.


    Levator Scapulae

    Although traps are the prime movers in shrugs, no physical activity is done by one muscular area. There are also helper muscles called synergists. And the synergist for your shoulders’ up and down motions is levator scapulae.

    This muscle sits in the posterior sides of your neck, connecting to the top of your trapezius. It’s also responsible for elevating your shoulder blades and glenoid fossa.

    Levator scapulae

    Erector Spinae

    Besides synergists that work alongside your initial movers, there are also stabilizer muscles that help create your range of motions. They don’t directly assist in lifting weights but fixate some of your joints so that you can move others. Simply put, they form a sturdy base for your heavy weightlifting motions.

    The stabilizer in shoulder shrugs is your erector spinae—a group of muscles that reside on either side of your spine, all the way through your lumbar, thoracic, and cervical regions.

    Once you strengthen this muscle by shrugs, you’ll have a more flexible core and can move your upper body easier.

    Erector Spinae

    Other Muscles

    Although your traps and shoulders do the best part of the weightlifting job, other muscles play a role in gripping the bar.

    Your rotator cuff, for example, bears some force to maintain a balanced shoulder position, and your rhomboids work to fixate the bar so you won’t sway it back and forth. Plus, since you recruit your hand grip to squeeze the bar, your forearm becomes more developed.

    Here are a few other sub muscles that shoulder shrugs can drive through:

    • Abs.
    • Glutes
    • Quads.
    • Hams.
    • Calves.
    • Adductors.
    • Obliques.
    • Wrist Flexors.

    How to Do Shrugs Efficiently

    You won’t be targeting the above muscles unless you apply the shrugs with a proper form, technique, weight, and number of sets. So, it’s vital to learn them first.

    Shoulder shrugs have three variations: cable shrugs, barbell shrugs, and dumbbell shrugs. Here’s how to perform each appropriately.

    Barbell Shrugs

    1. Stand shoulder-width apart in front of a barbell and grab it with an overhand grip.
    2. Keep your spine straight, your abdominals tight, and your head in a neutral position.
    3. Pinch your shoulder blades together to avoid hunching, and put more tension to your upper back.
    4. Slowly raise your shoulders until they’re in line with your ears. Keep your elbows locked and linear. And try to focus on your traps by mindfully squeezing them (it’s all about mind-to-muscle connection).
    5. Wait one second in the elevated form before you gradually lower the weight back in the starting position. The downward motion should take about two seconds, and you should be stretching your lower body while doing so.
    6. Don’t forget to inhale as you lift the weight and exhale as you push it down.
    7. Do it for three sets of ten reps.

    Dumbbell Shrugs

    1. Stand erect and distance your feet about your shoulder width.
    2. Grip the dumbbells while facing your palms in, and keep your hands to the sides—not in front of your torso.
    3. Breathe in as you raise the dumbbells as high as you can, sing your shoulder strength. And again, don’t bend your elbows while doing so.
    4. After a second, pull your shoulders back and the weight down while breathing out.
    5. Three sets of ten reps are ideal for a starter.

    Cable Shrugs

    Doing cable shrugs remains the same as the two above methods, with the only exception being grabbing a straight bar attached to a low pulley row.

    Just remember to step back before you lift your shoulders, so your arms remain in a diagonal angle—rather than the straight form in the above steps.

    However, if you want to add a bit of variation to your cable shrugs or simply don’t have access to a Straight cable bar, here’s how to perform it with a dual functional cable trainer.

    1. Sit on your knees in the center of the pulley machine—this will limit the lumbar strain while grabbing the handles. Then, grab the lower handle of each side and fasten the straps tightly to ensure a secure grip.
    2. Stand up and step forward, so your arms stretch backward, shaping a slanting direction.
    3. Bring your shoulders to your ears just like you do in a standard shrug, and repeat for three sets of ten reps.

    The Right Amount of Weight

    A shoulder shrug isn’t a kind of workout at which you can max out, according to Dr. Alejandro Badia, orthopedic surgeon and founder of OrthoNOW. So, as a rule of thumb, you should choose a load that you can handle for about 12 reps with no hassle.

    For an average novice man, it usually translates into 5 or 8 pounds per hand. But as you gradually build strength and do the exercise for at least a few weeks, you can push it up to even 25 pounds.

    As you may know, the weight you lift also depends on your age, fitness level, and gender. And this chart is the best tool to find your optimal target.

    Just make sure you won’t overtax your traps in the first sessions as it can cause neck and pain injuries.

    How Many Sets and Reps

    Three sets of 10 reps are usually the ideal program for shoulder shrug newcomers. And after a few sessions of training, you’ll get better results if you increase it to 15 reps. However, that’s only about building strength.

    If you really dream about a big hulking neck and upper back, the best way is to increase your sets per session. Do about 4-6 sets of 10-25 reps per day. And repeat at least four days a week.

    Final Thoughts

    Unlike their name, shoulder shrugs aren’t to make your shoulders scapular but to make your upper back more prominent. And they do so by emphasizing your traps, erector spinae, and levator scapulae.

    Yet, you first need to dip your toes in the exercise by learning the right technique and form. That’s because it’s more about what muscles YOU can hit in execution than where the exercise THEORETICALLY targets.

    Keep a straight position and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Start with ¼ of your body weight per hand, and raise/lower the bars steadily. Put stress on your traps.


    James Wright

    James (36) has been working out since he was 15 years old. He has a home gym where he pumps iron, does bodyweight workouts and boxing. He likes sharing his experiences with others who want to build a better physique.

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