“Pencil Neck Geek” was a novelty song written by pro wrestler Freddie Blassie that ridiculed men who did not have bulging traps and thick necks. Wrestlers, boxers, and football players certainly understand the importance of having a strong neck and traps – and there is considerable research available to suggest that strengthening these muscles can help reduce the risks of concussions. The question then is not if these muscles are important, but rather if it’s necessary to do special exercises to develop them.
The trapezius muscle is shaped like a diamond and has three sections: upper, middle, and lower; the muscle helps elevate and rotate the shoulders. Shoulder shrugs, performed with the torso upright, tend to focus on the upper portion of the traps, but there are secondary muscles involved such as the levator scapulae and, of course, the forearms.
Exercises that develop the upper traps will also develop the neck, especially those neck muscles involved in extension (which include the suboccipitals, splenius capitis, and semispinalis capitis). This development is evident in powerlifters, who perform deadlifts, and Olympic-style weightlifters, who perform snatches and cleans. Generally, these athletes seldom perform any direct exercises for the neck muscles.
Because the trapezius are involved in stabilizing the upper body, one benefit of performing shoulder shrugs is that they may help you use heavier weights in military presses and curls performed from a standing position. If you struggle with these exercises, shrugs may be the answer to achieve structural balance.
Shrugs can be performed with a straight bar, but one of the best ways is with a trap bar. In the 80s, Iron Game journalist Paul Kelso introduced the idea of using a triangle-shaped bar as a more effective way to develop the traps. The bar placed the hands alongside the thighs, rather than having them in front as with a straight bar, creating a more effective line of pull. Also, there is no friction from the bar as it does not contact the thighs during the exercise.
An improvement on the trap bar was the hex bar, which has a hexagonal shape that did not tip as easily and provided more legroom. Often, coaches would have athletes perform deadlifts with this bar, and then finish off each set with a few reps of shoulder shrugs.
Most people can shrug considerably more weight than they can deadlift. To provide sufficient overload, the barbell (or hex/trap bar) should be placed in a power rack set across pins; or the plates can be positioned on elevated platforms, such as the blocks weightlifters use to perform partial variations of the lifts.
Another version of shoulder shrugs is to perform them with dumbbells, which also places the hands directly at the sides. The dumbbells are a bit harder to stabilize than a barbell, especially when you have to lift them from a lower height and take a few steps back to assume the start position. Many people use straps as the hands are a limiting factor; however, for those who want a more powerful grip, using thick-handled dumbbells will give your grip a tremendous workout. One practical approach to achieve maximum development of the traps and grip is to start with conventional dumbbells, use straps with the heaviest sets, and then finish off with a set using thick-handled dumbbells (or use thick-grip adapters such as the Fat Gripz) without straps.
Shoulder shrug machines are convenient because they position the hands at your sides and start the exercise from an elevated position. To accommodate different body types, most people find that their arms will be at an angle and not directly vertical, which restricts the range of motion and places more emphasis on the deltoids.
Another effective exercise to develop the traps is the one-arm barbell shrug, which also places the hands at your sides and provides a greater range of motion than holding the bar in front; it also avoids having the bar contact the body, thus permitting a much smoother motion. The best way to perform this exercise is within a power rack with the barbell set across pins; this also makes it easy to load the bar. To increase your stability so you can use more weight, brace yourself with your free hand on one of the posts.
With all shrugs, you should move the bar straight up and down – don’t rotate your shoulders. Next, retract your chin slightly; you do not want to poke your head forward as this will develop, or reinforce, bad postural habits. Finally, consider that because shrugs have a relatively small range of motion, higher reps are usually performed; you can also increase the time under tension, which favors the development of more muscle mass, by pausing for a predetermined time (such as 2 to 6 seconds) at the end of the concentric range of motion.
When performing variations of shrugs with your hands at your sides, especially when using dumbbells or a single barbell, keep the hands in a neutral position – don’t allow the weights to move towards the front of the body (medially). For those with poor posture, maintaining this position requires a strong isometric contraction of the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles that are involved in external (backward) rotation of the shoulder. Performing these exercises with perfect technique will help correct structural imbalances that occur with round shoulders.
If you’re not a powerlifter or weightlifter but want to look like one, consider adding a few sets of shoulder shrugs to your workout.