Quite the versatile exercise!
Shrugs also happen to be my old lifting buddy’s favorite exercise. He liked referring to them as “IDKs” (this translates to “I Don’t Know”s…the message that non-weighted shrugs normally convey).
Regardless of if you like shrugs because of their versatility or because you enjoy using them to signal your indifference, they are a heck of an exercise for upper-body growth.
But…what muscles do shrugs work?
Every time you work shrugs, you’re going to get some upper arm, upper back, and shoulder work. Let’s take a deeper dive into shrugs to explore all of the benefits from this “clueless” exercise!
Table of Contents
What Muscles Do Shrugs Work?
A lot of work is being done throughout the upper body during each shrug repetition. If you’re “shrugging” today, prepare to work your:
The trapezius is actually two, trapezoid-shaped muscles (get it? “traps”!) that start at the lower-back portion of the skull (occipital bone) and extend all the way down to the mid-back region (thoracic spine).
More specifically, shrugs work the upper and middle trap areas (which includes the top portion of the thoracic spine).
The traps are workhorse muscles and are utilized in a number of different lifts and exercises. Shrugs happen to target them directly and the trapezius muscles are their main beneficiaries.
Rhomboid Major and Minor
Like the trapezius, the rhomboid muscles are named after the distinctive shape that the muscles resemble. In this case, they resemble a rhombus shape and are located directly beneath the traps. The rhomboids work collectively with the levator scapulae muscles to elevate the medial border of the scapula, downwardly rotating the scapula with respect to the glenohumeral joint. Essentially, the rhomboid muscles are key contributors to move and stabilize the scapula, the shoulder bone responsible for upper-extremity movement.
You want to maximize your shoulder mobility? Shrugs can help your traps and rhomboids to do just that!
As you might expect, there are a number of other muscles that contribute to the execution of the shrug. Muscles such as the lower arms and forearms are necessary to hold the barbell, dumbbells, etc. in place and must be strong enough to hold the weight stationary during the pause at extension. The time under tension of the weight held can spark forearm muscle growth.
The muscles of the core also work to stabilize the weight during the shrug. Without a strong enough core, the body will be unable to handle the pressure of the weight, the heavier the barbell or dumbbells get.
Benefits of Shrugs
Shrugs of all kinds provide a number of different benefits to lifters. Besides simply building up the associated muscle groups (and assisting in the development of shoulder mobility) shrugs can also benefit lifters by:
Building Shoulder and Upper-Back Strength
The traps are yuge muscles. The rhomboids aren’t too tiny either. By incorporating shrugs into your routine, you can work very large portions of your shoulder and upper-back areas in a single movement.
In addition, due to the relative strength of these muscles, most people are able to load a lot of weight onto the bar when performing shrugs. With so much resistance involved in each rep, you’re bound to experience gains in your shoulder and back exercises after working shrugs for a while!
I’m sitting at my desk writing this article right now, leaning over a keyboard, completely compromising my posture.
(just kidding, I’m actually splayed out on the couch, laid back in a position equally unconducive to improving my posture!)
Either way, our work/lifestyles spent hunched over are definitely not doing us any favors!
Thankfully, shrugs have been found to counteract this deterioration, helping the scapular to adopt a more upward rotation. This not only creates a more upright, “standing tall” type of posture, but also greatly aids overall shoulder mobility and functioning.
Strengthens Olympic Lifts
The “second pull” in the Olympic lifts (the snatch and the clean) is characterized by a strong, aggressive, shrugging of the barbell. This shrugging, combined with an equally violent pull, rockets the barbell up the body as the lifter ascends to full extension.
Athletes with weak shrugging capabilities will still be able to clean and snatch, but will need to compensate in other areas (stronger pull, faster extension, etc.) in order to complete these lifts with heavier weights.
Who Should Do Shrugs?
The better question: “who shouldn’t do shrugs?”!
Shrugs are literally for everyone.
Although most people likely associate shrugs with huge, tank-topped beasts with traps extending to their eyebrows, consider the posture benefits discussed earlier. These can be derived by even doing unweighted shrugs.
This is especially good news for older people and for those who are otherwise unable to accommodate the demands of resistance training. Of course, everyone in between will benefit from the strength gains, muscle growth, and posture improvement that shrugs provide.
How Heavy Should You Go on Shrugs?
Like many of the lifts we have discussed on this site, the lifting standards provided by strengthlevel.com are invaluable. Let’s take a look at the “shrug standards” for our average “regional athlete-sized” CrossFitter below.
For the 200-pound male and 140-pound female, the barbell shrug strength standards are:
And for the hex bar shrug:
And, finally, for the dumbbell shrug (numbers are per dumbbell):
A word of caution with these numbers. The shrug is a bit different than some of the other major lifts in its execution and determining what counts as a “rep”. With a squat, you hit parallel and come up. In a deadlift, you lock the weight out with your upper body at full extension. With a clean, you stand the weight up, holding it securely in your hands and secured on the clavicles.
With a shrug, you have to actually move the weight, but there are no hard and fast rules on how high the weight has to be or how long your pause at the top of each rep has to be.
Word of advice: don’t shoot for a super short range of motion or a non-existent pause for the sake of making it into the “advanced” or “elite” categories with shrugs.
Control the weight. Grow your traps, Get stronger.
Don’t Shrug it Off
Shrugs allow you to work big muscle groups with a lot of weight.
What muscles do shrugs work, specifically? A lot of them!
Even if you go with the unweighted option, shrugs will help to counteract all of that Call of Duty you’re playing, hunched over the keyboard.
Or, load up the barbell and try to look like some of the neck-less beasts splattered throughout this article!
Once you’ve finished your 9th set of shrugs for the day, end your session with some bodyweight movements. I suggest dips; read all about the benefits they provide and the muscles they work.