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The Case for Power Shrugs

7204-mind1There are shrugs, and there are power shrugs. Most athletes who do shrugs do them with relatively light weights and merely elevate their traps, lock them into a short contraction and proceed to do another rep in the same fashion. That’s a fine idea for older athletes and those rehabbing an upper back or shoulder girdle, who should not be doing any exercise explosively, as it might irritate the attachments and joints. For younger athletes, though—and that includes those under 50 who don’t have some type of injury that keeps them from doing dynamic movements—the traps have to be worked hard, heavy and aggressively.

Having strong traps is important to every athlete but particularly to those participating in contact sports—including hockey, football, rugby, lacrosse, soccer and basketball. Even those who participate in tame, noncontact sports need strong traps, as they are the primary muscle group that stabilizes the shoulder girdle.

Very few strength programs include heavy shrugs, although most do have some exercises that hit the traps, such as power cleans, power snatches, high pulls and full snatches and cleans. Any exercise in which the bar is pulled above the waist involves the traps, and those movements are all helpful, but in order to make the traps herculean strong, you have to hammer them.

All athletes should covet powerful traps. Not only will they help you perform at a high level in your chosen sport, but they can also save you from a cervical spine injury. Softball isn’t regarded as a contact sport, yet I read that an outfielder sustained a broken neck when he collided with a fellow outfielder while attempting to catch a long fly ball.

The traps are made up of four overlapping muscles. They originate at the base of the skull, tie in with the deltoids and form a triangle down to the middle of the back. They act as a cantilever bridge for the entire shoulder girdle.

Bodybuilders and powerlifters who walk around with a “bookbag slump” are examples of athletes who have neglected their traps, spending the majority of their time in the weight room doing flat-benches presses. That leads to disproportionate strength between the upper back and chest, and if the relative weakness isn’t rectified, they will have discomfort and eventually a great deal of shoulder pain. The lack of strength in the traps pulls the deltoids, and if nothing is done to reestablish the balance, all exercises that involve the shoulders will eventually have to be dropped.

A few years ago many coaches were advocating doing shrugs with straight arms—from start to finish. Their theory was, if an athlete didn’t bend his arms, he worked the traps more directly. Not true. On all the lifts I mentioned above, the arms are bent at the end of the movement. The truth is, the higher the bar is lifted, the more the traps are worked—as well as a great many other groups, such as the lats and rear deltoids.

While it would appear that shrugs are a simple exercise to do, they’re one of the most difficult in all of strength training. You must perform all the sets precisely, and you do the final couple of sets with a very short stroke in a hair-thin line, with all the other mechanics absolutely perfect.

It helps if you have learned to do power cleans and snatches and high pulls before shrugs, but it’s not essential. There are two styles of power shrugs: those done in a power rack and those done outside a rack, which I call “Hawaiian shrugs.” For the first two years I was the strength coach at the University of Hawaii, we didn’t have a power rack. In order to shrug, the athletes had to take the bar off short pins on the back of the squat rack, step back, do their set and then replace the bar on the pins. As you might expect, those are a great deal harder than shrugging inside a power rack. Even after we got a rack, however, I still had them shrugging outside of it every so often, as the Hawaiian style worked the traps in a slightly different fashion.

When using  a rack, set the pins at midthigh. Always use straps. You may not need them in the beginning, but you will once the weights get heavy.

Strap onto the bar. You can alter your grip to build more variety into your trap routine, or just stick with the clean grip. Start with 135. Tuck the bar in tight against your thighs, with your arms straight and your feet at shoulder width. Look ahead or slightly up. Squeeze the bar off the pins instead of jerking it off, and then pull the bar as high as you can. On that initial set the bar may soar up over your head. Good, that’s exactly what you should be trying to do—for two reasons.

First, the higher you pull the bar, the more muscle groups come into play. Second, you want to establish the correct line of pull from the very beginning, and that is, tight to your body all the way up. Coordination and timing are key factors in doing a power shrug.

You must keep your arms straight until you have fully contracted your traps. Only then will you bend your arms—your elbows should turn out and up, not back and down. Should you bend your arms too soon, the bar will come to an abrupt halt. The bar has to stay snug to your body the entire time. If you allow it to float forward, even as much as an inch, you’re not going to be able to finish the shrug strongly or handle much weight.

At the same instant that you bend your arms, climb high on your toes. When the weights get heavy, you may not extend upward very much, yet that little bit helps elevate the bar a few inches—and every inch adds more strength to your traps.

Lower the bar back to the pins in a controlled manner. Don’t get in the habit of letting it crash down on the pins. That isn’t good for your wrists, elbows and shoulders—or your eyeteeth. Reset to make sure the bar is snug against your thighs and your front deltoids are a bit in front of the bar, and do your next rep, concentrating on coordinating your traps with your arms and, finally, your feet. Once you get that down pat, the bar will start jumping.

Five sets of five works well for power shrugs, and in order to build powerful traps, you have to load up the weight. The goal I set for my athletes is to handle the bar plus six 45-pound plates on each side—585. It will seem like a lot at first, but once you master the form, the numbers will climb each week. The only athletes who did not achieve that goal were the smaller ones, but everyone made considerable improvement during the off-season strength program.

While the final couple of sets may only move six or eight inches, if you’re still using perfect form, you’ll be hitting the traps directly. These are best done on Fridays so you have two full days to rest your back. If you’ve fully applied yourself on this lift, your traps will get sore every week. If you don’t, you didn’t work hard enough.

For me, however, one of the most gratifying feelings is to wake up and discover that my traps are sore. Sore is always a good thing in strength training. Power shrugs should be a part of every serious strength athlete’s program. They help stabilize the shoulder girdle, protect the cervical spine, strengthen the upper back and, as a bonus, improve posture. You really can’t ask for more than that from a single exercise.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit


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