The barbell shrug is arguably the most overrated, overused, and inefficient exercise that most people are using to try and grow their traps. If you’ve found this article then you’ve either been hitting the barbell shrugs hard with minimal results to show for it or you’re struggling to even feel your traps working properly during this exercise.
The reason for this is usually because it’s easy to load the bar up with a lot of weight (which always looks good in the gym and I’ve been guilty of this myself) but you then perform shrugs with a MINIMAL range of motion and use a significant amount of leg drive and momentum to lift the weight.
The shrug can definitely be a great trap builder but for most people, it’s very hard to see the benefit from them unless you are starting from a place with really good genetics. Therefore, looking into some alternatives might be what you need to vary your routine and start seeing some trap growth.
The 9 best barbell shrug alternatives are:
- Dumbbell Shrugs
- Farmers Walks
- Overhead Barbell Shrug
- Cable Shrug
- Lat Machine Reverse Shrug
- Barbell Clean
- Plate Front Raise Overhead
- Incline Shrugs
- Front Squat
In this article, I’ll cover what to look for when training your traps and what some of the best alternatives and substitutes are to the barbell shrug.
Are Barbell Shrugs Necessary
If you want to build bigger traps, barbell shrugs are far from necessary and I’d go as far as saying most people place too much emphasis on this exercise without seeing the desired returns that most would expect.
The main reason for this is that the barbell shrug only trains the upper portion of the trap muscle and it arguably does so with a very poor range of motion. There is the potential to get a full range of motion but as mentioned earlier, not many people use a light enough weight to achieve this with a barbell.
The function of the traps is to upwardly extend the scapula (upper traps) and to retract the scapula (mid traps), with the lower traps compressing to aid upward extension and the upper traps. To fully contract your upper traps when using a barbell shrug, your shoulders need to be finishing each rep as close to your ears as possible.
When you have an overhand grip on the barbell and your arms starting slightly in front of your body it becomes much harder to get this full contraction and your range of motion will be limited, especially compared with a shrug that uses a neutral grip and arms by your sides like a dumbbell or trap bar shrug.
Therefore, not only are barbell shrugs not necessary to develop your traps, they are likely holding most people back from really engaging and stimulating the muscle group.
Can You Build Traps Without Shrugs
The shrug is a popular exercise for a reason, the shrugging movement is basically the functionality for the upper traps. If you take your muscle through its full range of motion while being placed under an external load, you have a key ingredient for muscle growth.
I’ve been giving the barbell shrug quite a tough time so far but that’s more because the barbell is not really the best option to use when utilizing shrugs in your routine. If we consider just the shrug on its own, then it’s definitely a great exercise and primary movement for building your traps.
As the traps have different functions though, in terms of scapular stability, retraction, and extension, you really need to add more exercise variants into your routine. It would be more difficult to build traps without any kind of shrugging exercise however you can still build traps without shrugs.
The choice of exercises will be more limited but as you’ll find in the next section, shrugging is not the only exercise that will build your traps (though it is a key one you shouldn’t ignore!).
Barbell Shrug Alternatives
1. Dumbbell Shrugs
Dumbbell shrugs are a much less glamorous alternative to a barbell shrug because you just can’t load them up as you can with a barbell. Due to the movement having a very short range of motion, it’s possible for a lot of people to lift a lot of weight with this exercise, even as beginners.
Usually, this is detrimental to progress and the barbell is actually more limiting in terms of the range of motion that can be used. With dumbbells, your arms are by your side with a neutral grip (palms facing your body) and this allows for a much greater range of motion and a better peak contraction.
Dumbbell shrugs are the second-best trap builder in my opinion behind number 9 on this list and due to the simplicity of the exercise, there are not many additional tips to point out with this exercise. Just make sure you use a weight that allows you to shrug as high as physically possible and you’ll see progress.
2. Farmer Walks
Farmer walks or even just loaded holds provide a different sort of stimulation for the traps and place them under an isometric hold. Not only are they great for strengthening the posterior chain and improving posture but they also stimulate the lower-mid traps to help add some size to your mid-back.
The key with farmer walks is to keep the scapula retracted and the upper back straight at all times. If you use too much weight you’ll not only cause rounding off the shoulders which shift to focus away from the traps but you’ll also be at risk of injury and posture issues down the line.
As it’s a taxing exercise on both the forearms and traps, it’s usually good to use as a finishing exercise at the end of your workout and wrist straps will also be beneficial if you want to really fatigue the traps without grip strength causing an issue.
3. Overhead Barbell Shrug
The overhead barbell shrug places the traps into a truly isolated position as you place the scapula into a fully rotated upward position which is the primary function of the upper traps. When you train an exercise through its primary function, you’re much more likely to fully stimulate the target muscle group.
While this exercise might feel awkward or uncomfortable at first, you’ll be truly isolating the upper traps with it and can focus on a mind-muscle connection and peak contraction much better than you can with a standard barbell shrug.
There are a few drawbacks with this exercise though and these will be more noticeable for beginners. Firstly, to do this exercise effectively you need to be able to get into the correct overhead position. If you have any issues holding an overhead position you won’t be able to utilize this exercise.
Secondly, the weight you can lift is significantly less than other exercises. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as you are truly isolating the traps with this exercise but it can be hard on the ego to swap out a barbell shrug loaded with 45lb plates in favor of the overhead shrug where you’ll likely just be using the bar, to begin with.
The benefits of the overhead barbell shrug are widely documented though for hypertrophy of the traps so it’s definitely worth dropping the ego in order to reap the benefits of more muscle growth.
4. Cable Shrug
My favorite trap exercise is the cable shrug and the main reason being that you keep active tension on the traps throughout the entire movement. With a barbell or any other type of shrug, it’s very difficult to maintain tension on the traps at the bottom range of the exercise.
When the weight is hanging by your side or in front of you, it can be hard to maintain tension and this is especially true if you are not doing slower (2 – 3 second) eccentrics. With a cable stack, however, tension is maintained throughout the full rep making this a much better alternative for those that don’t feel their traps working during a standard barbell shrug.
While this exercise works well using a rope on a single cable stack, the best contraction and stretch is found when using the D-handle in a cable crossover cable stack.
5. Reverse Shrug
The reverse shrug is definitely one you won’t see many people doing but it’s an excellent exercise for shoulder health and targeting the lower traps. A reverse shrug also shouldn’t be confused with a behind the back barbell shrug, the reverse shrug is done on a lat pulldown machine, cable stack, or pull-up bar (more advanced).
The range of motion on this exercise is relatively short and it can therefore be difficult to get a grasp for the technique. The key thing to keep in mind is that the only body part moving during this exercise should be the shoulder girdle (mainly the scapula).
While this exercise isn’t necessarily a mass builder, it’s one that will strengthen the lower traps which are often an underused and weak link in the posterior chain. It will therefore have a significant carryover to other compound lifts like the deadlift and barbell row.
6. Hang Cleans
This is the most technical exercise on this list by quite a long way so if you are a beginner or don’t yet have the muscle and movement control to perfectly execute the basic lifts (bench press, overhead press, squat, row, deadlift) then this isn’t going to be a good alternative for you.
For a more experienced lifter though, hang cleans are a highly rated exercise for developing the traps. It’s an explosive movement that allows for the use of heavier loads whilst specifically targeting the fast-twitch muscle fibers which are the most responsive for growth.
A hang clean takes the traps through a good range of motion and while it’s not a full ROM, all three sections of the traps are activated during the movement as the upper traps initiate and pull the weight for the first half of the movement while the mid and lower traps stabilize the scapula and weight for the second part of the movement.
7. Plate Front Raise Overhead
If you need a warm-up or finisher for the traps then the plate overhead front raise is a good exercise. A plate front raise is primarily a shoulder exercise that targets the front delts and when you stop at the forehead or below with each rep, you mainly keep the tension on the front delt.
As soon as your arms go past a 90-degree angle though, your traps will become more activated as you raise your arms into an overhead position.
This exercise is therefore one that is typically used when training the shoulders but due to the trap activation, it’s a great exercise to use a higher rep scheme and target the slow-twitch muscle fibers. You won’t be able to use a lot of weight with this exercise either so focus on high reps and only bring the weight down ¾ of the way on the eccentric as tension will be non-existent at the bottom of the lift.
8. Incline Shrugs
The incline shrug is an exercise solely focusing on the mid traps. This is definitely an exercise that taller lifters with long wingspans will want to consider adding into a routine. For these people, the mid and lower traps are hard to isolate and are often underdeveloped parts of the traps when compared with the upper traps.
A bench should be set to around a 30-degree angle to start with and you’ll be lying chest first against the bench. The main thing to keep in mind with an incline shrug is that you’re not shrugging upwards, the goal instead is to squeeze your shoulder blades together.
The range of motion is short with the exercise so a focus should be placed on a maximum squeeze on the concentric, higher reps (10 – 15 reps), and a slower tempo (45 – 60 second sets).
9. Hex Bar Shrugs
The final alternative is arguably the most obvious and that is one that also has a bar named after it. The hex bar (or otherwise known as the trap bar) is the best alternative to a standard barbell shrug. It combines the optimal neutral grip hand positioning with the option to load up the bar as you would with a barbell.
There’s really not too much you can say about this exercise, if you like a barbell shrug then try to replace it with a hex bar shrug as a more optimal variation.
The traps are either an incredibly easy muscle group to grow or an incredibly difficult muscle group to grow. While shrugging is arguably the best way to build a decent set of traps, it’s also one of the movements holding many people back from really developing that upper back area.
The use of a barbell shrug is normally the thing holding people back the most as the range of motion, form used, and variety of exercise selection usually leads to underdeveloped traps. Therefore, the above are some of the best barbell shrug alternatives to mix up your trap training and trigger new muscle growth.
You don’t need to ditch the barbell completely but test out some of the exercises above and you are guaranteed to notice a difference in muscle activation and DOMS the next day.
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