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Should You Go Heavy on Shrugs

Should You Go Heavy on Shrugs

Shrugs are arguably the biggest ego lift in the gym. 

As the range of motion (ROM) is so short, it’s easy to load the bar up and put up some significant weight with a barbell or dumbbell shrug. While this looks impressive, especially when people have 400lb+ on the bar, is it really translating to more muscle growth for your traps?

Some important factors for muscle growth are time under tension for the active muscle group alongside training the muscle through its full range of motion (regardless of whether or not the ROM is long or short) and heavy shrugs make it very difficult for people to accomplish this. 

If you’ve been struggling to grow your traps despite lifting what you think is a significant amount of weight, chances are you might actually be lifting too much weight with shrugs and not fully stimulating the traps.

Therefore, should you go heavy on shrugs?

Should You Go Heavy on Shrugs

While you are able to lift heavy weight with shrugs, most people go too heavy and don’t fully stimulate the trap muscles. The short-range of motion with shrugs allows you to go heavy compared to other exercises but you need to ensure you can control the weight and get a full contraction.

The temptation is always there to hit your traps hard with some heavy shrugs. Much like calf raises, the ROM is short so it’s much easier to lift more weight than you could with other muscle groups. As a quick example, it’s not uncommon for most people to be able to “shrug” more than they can deadlift. 

The reason I’ve put shrug in quotes is because most people, when trying to lift as much weight as possible on the shrug, tend to do so with very poor form and as a result, provide minimal stimulation for the traps. I’ll place a video below showing what you’re likely to see in most gyms when someone loads up the bar for shrugs. 

^^ In fairness, he makes a disclaimer to say he’s not focusing on form but aiming for CNS activation, but these are the types of shrugs you’re likely to see when people are ego lifting. 

The technique when going heavy on shrugs is poor for most people. They don’t fully contract the traps and also tend to bounce the weight up with leg drive rather than actually bringing the shoulders as close to your ears as possible by utilizing the traps (like you should). 

The confusing factor however is that the traps have a diverse muscle fiber composition. Therefore, heavyweight will fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers while longer time under tension and higher reps are also needed to fatigue the slow-twitch fibers. 

The issue is not necessarily that people are lifting heavy (as this is beneficial) but that they are lifting too heavy, not fully stimulating the traps, and also not putting the traps under enough tension. Therefore, the boring answer is that you should go heavy on shrugs but only to the point that you can complete a rep under a full ROM and can also do so for sets lasting 45-60 seconds. 

Shrugs Heavy or Light? 

As I mentioned earlier, research shows that the traps have a diverse muscle fiber composition and it’s therefore not enough to simply lift heavyweight. In order to fully stimulate and get bigger traps, you need to use a variety of set and rep schemes. 

This means that a variety of both heavy and light weight should be used to fully stimulate the traps. For beginners, I’d recommend starting with light weight regardless as the key to a well-executed shrug is to get a full contraction. 

Getting a full contraction with a shrug is very straightforward, there is no rolling of the shoulders involved and you simply raise your scapula (and shoulders) in an upwards direction, as high as possible. It’s really straightforward but when you use a weight that is too heavy, you won’t even get close to a full contraction for the traps. 

Therefore, by using a light weight you can develop the correct form and technique that will then allow you to use heavier weight more effectively. You can still use a light weight on shrugs in order to extend the time under tension and fatigue the slow-twitch muscle fibers but when it comes to shrugs in general, it’s usually best to use as heavy weight as possible whilst remaining in the hypertrophy rep range (8-12 reps).

How Much Weight Should You Use for Shrugs

When trying to decide if you are going too heavy with a shrug or potentially not lifting enough and failing to challenge the muscle group, it’s good to get a baseline idea for how much weight you should use when shrugging. There are two ways to choose a weight for a shrug, one (which will touch on shortly) is to use an average based on the population and training level. 

Something most gym-goers use instead of the calculator below is to base their shrug weight on their deadlift weight. This will vary for most people depending on the strength of the lift but to ensure you are lifting a good amount of weight without sacrificing on form, you can take your deadlift number and multiply it by 0.75. 

This is to give you an indicator or guideline only and is not an exact science. Many people will claim that you should shrug your deadlift weight but in all honesty, unless you are an advanced lifter it’s unlikely you can do so with good form. 

By multiplying your deadlift weight by 0.75 you’ll get a 25% reduction on your deadlift weight which will still be a challenging weight for 99% of people but also allow you to train in the hypertrophy range. As an example, if someone has a 200lb deadlift, their shrug weight could look like the following:

  • 200 x 0.75 = 150lbs

Again, this is only to be used as a general guideline and is to ensure you stimulate the traps without going too heavy. 

Average Barbell Shrug Weight 

Ratios help to guide a lifter and give you something to aim for. One of my favorite resource for programming is:

Strength Level gathers user data for most compound exercises and correlates average strength standards based on your weight and training level (beginner, novice, intermediate, advanced, elite). Therefore, to work out your own average you can use their handy calculator to give a good indication of what you should personally be lifting. 

For a brief summary on strength standards for the average barbell shrug weight though – A good ratio to follow when looking at the average barbell shrug weight will be based on weight initially but as you progress, the ratio will be more dependent on training experience. This could look like the following:

  • Beginner – Bodyweight x 1
  • Intermediate – Bodyweight x 1.5 – 1.75
  • Advanced – Bodyweight x 2

As an example, if you are a beginner and weigh 200lb, your formula would be 200 x 1 so your barbell shrug weight (as an average) would be 200lbs. If another individual weighs 200lbs but is an advanced lifter, they will do 200 x 2 and will therefore have a shrug weight of 400lbs (as an average). 

These standards are general guidelines though as everyone responds to exercises differently based on individual characteristics. Therefore, use these ratios as an estimate to test your lifts on and then progress or pull the weight back slightly based on how well you perform/execute the exercise. 

Final Thoughts 

When it comes to shrugging, most people should go heavy. Due to the complex muscle fiber makeup and short range of motion for the traps, you really need to fatigue them with some heavy weight to stimulate muscle growth. 

The issue however is that most people take this too far. 

The key to a good shrug is to be able to lift the weight with no leg drive and hold a peak contraction for 1 – 2 seconds. This will ensure that the traps are the active muscle and that you’re not just bouncing heavy weight up which provides minimal tension or stimulation for the traps. 

To use an estimate for how much weight you should use for a shrug, you can either take your bodyweight and multiply it by 1-2 (depending on training experience), or choose your deadlift weight and multiply it by 0.75. These methods will give you a general base to work from.

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