5 Shrug Alternatives to Build Huge Traps

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 6, 2022

The shrug is among one of the most common exercises used to target the trapezius muscle group atop the shoulders.

The reason for its popularity is something often bemoaned by athletic coaches and professional bodybuilders alike, as though it is indeed capable of developing strength and size in the traps, there are a number of more suitable exercises for such a purpose.

It is for this reason - alongside many others - that lifters will often seek out an alternative to the shrugs, maximizing the effectiveness of their training program while also retaining the positive characteristics of the shrug itself.

Why Should the Shrug be Substituted?

Apart from the comparatively poor training stimulus that the shrug exercise can provide, there is also the case of the maximal load being limited by the exerciser’s grip strength - alongside the relatively short range of motion.

barbell shrug muscles

These factors all point towards the shrug being largely ineffective for training the entirety of the trapezius muscle group, and even make it potentially injurious if performed with particularly high amounts of weight as well as poor form.

Furthermore, the shrug is particularly poor in terms of isometric trapezius contraction, featuring almost entirely dynamic kinetics in short repetitions that provide little time under tension.

All in all, though the shrug can indeed build the trapezius muscles, there are far more effective methods that can provide better muscular developments within a shorter frame of time.

Characteristics of a Shrug Alternative

Not every exercise is suitable to act as an alternative to the shrug, as it must share certain aspects with the aforementioned exercise so as to retain its original purpose within the training program.

Substituting the shrug with an exercise that does not train the same muscles or utilizes mechanics that are disadvantageous to proper training methods will defeat the entire purpose of substituting shrugs in the first place.

Of course, in addition to these characteristics, the alternative exercise must also fit whatever requirements the exerciser may have; be it a history of injuries preventing movement of certain joints, a need for greater resistance or even the usage of specific fitness equipment.

Muscles Worked

The sole requirement of any shrug alternative (in terms of muscle recruitment) is that of the trapezius muscle group, though certain types of athletes may also wish to recreate the isometric contraction of the forearm muscles as well.

barbell shrug benefits

Equipment

Though the shrug is often performed with a straight barbell and pair of weight plates, exercisers without access to such equipment may wish to instead use an alternative exercise that conforms to whatever equipment they have available.

As such, any alternative used as a substitute to the shrug should be compatible with the available equipment of the exerciser, whether it be a pair of dumbbells or more advanced equipment such as a plate sled.

Intensity, Mechanics and Biomechanics

Any alternative used to replace the shrug within a workout program must also meet the intensity and mechanical needs of the exerciser, as well as that of their training program.

This means that if the exerciser is a more advanced weightlifter and finds the shrug to be insufficient in terms of intensity, they may instead choose to replace it with another exercise that features a greater amount of resistance, or allows for more volume per set.

Likewise, if the main reason behind the substitution of the shrug is due to its usage of certain mechanics or biomechanics, so too must the alternative meet such requirements - avoiding such factors so as to reduce the risk of injury recurrence or physiological incompatability.

Shrug Variations

The first alternative to look at when searching for a potential shrug alternative is that of the multiple variations available, each of which may be exactly what you are looking for in a potential substitute exercise.

While these variations are still technically the shrug exercise, they are distinct enough from the conventional shrug that using them as alternatives may in fact be sufficient for your needs.

1. Behind the Back Shrugs

A variation of the conventional shrug that places the source of resistance beind the exerciser’s back - this particular shrug variation allows for a greater activation of the triceps brachii while simultaneously reducing deltoid muscle involvement.

behind the back shrugs

As such, for exercisers wishing to train their trapezius muscle to an extent greater than what conventional shrugs can offer, this variation may be the most suitable.

2. Overhead Shrugs

On the opposite end of the spectrum to behind the back shrugs, overhead shrugs are a variation of the shrug that raises the weights over the exercisers head so as to activate the entirety of the upper and middle back musculature.

overhead shrugs

Overhead shrugs are a more suitable alternative for exercisers that find the isolated muscular recruitment pattern of the conventional shrug to be inefficient and time consuming, allowing them to train the entirety of their back and shoulders in a single exercise.

Various Equipment-Based Shrug Variations

For exercisers simply substituting the standard shrug because they do not have access to a barbell and weight plates, it is entirely possible to perform variations of the shrug with any number of weighted fitness equipment. 

These are, but not limited to; dumbbell shrugs, plate shrugs, kettlebell shrugs, trap bar shrugs and any other number of shrug alternatives that do not make use of a conventional barbell.

1. The Farmer’s Walk

The first and most applicable alternative to the shrug is an exercise known as the farmer’s walk.

The farmer’s walk is a strength and endurance training exercise that makes significant use of trapezius muscular endurance to maintain the exerciser’s grip on a pair of weights as they walk a predetermined distance.

farmers walk

Due to the convenience and simplicity of the farmer’s walk, it may be performed practically anywhere and with any sort of fitness equipment - making it suitable for a variety of situations.

Unfortunately, it is not a trapezius isolation exercise like the conventional shrug is, and as such is entirely unsuitable for training programs that require such a manner of muscular recruitment be utilized. 

Who Should Perform the Farmer’s Walk as an Alternative

The farmer’s walk is a suitable alternative exercise to the shrug for exercisers seeking a greater length of time under tension for their trapezius muscles, athletes seeking a more functional alternative to the shrug or those seeking greater isometric contraction instead.

How to Perform a Farmer's Walk

Performing the farmer’s walk is quite simple; the exerciser grips a pair of weighted equipment on both sides of their body and walks for a predetermined distance or length of time, all the while maintaining upright posture and engaging every muscle throughout their upper body.

how to farmers walk

Advantages Over the Shrug

Farmer’s walks provide significantly longer time under tension to the trapezius than the conventional shrug, resulting in greater endurance and strength developments.

Furthermore, the farmer’s walk exercise is far more applicable to sports and real world activities than the rather small range of motion involved in the shrug, creating a more well-rounded athletic program when included within a workout.

2. Cable Face Pulls

The cable face pull is one possible alternative to the shrug that provides both rehabilitative and training-related benefits, as it not only induces significant activation of the trapezius muscle, but also the posterior deltoid and biceps brachii.

cable face pull

As a machine based exercise, cable face pulls fulfill several niches that may be required of a potential shrug substitute, especially in regards to time under tension and achieving a full range of motion for the trapezius.

Unfortunately, the cable face pull is considerably lower in terms of intensity than the shrug, and as such is otherwise an unsuitable alternative for athletes seeking development of greater trapezius power or an exercise of higher intensity.

Who Should Perform the Cable Face Pull as an Alternative

Cable face pulls are most effective a shrug alternative for exercisers seeking greater specificity of training, athletes wishing to reinforce their shoulder girdle or individuals that find the free weight nature of barbell shrugs uncomfortable.

How to Perform a Face Pull

The cable face pull is performed by the exerciser facing the pulley machine and gripping both ends of a double rope handle.

how to cable face pull

Raising the handles to face height, the exerciser will then draw the handles behind his head with the elbows perpendicular to the torso, squeezing the shoulderblades and maintaining a foreward head posture throughout the repetition.

Advantages Over the Shrug

The face pull’s main advantage over the shrug is in its low risk of injury, greatly reducing the chance that the exerciser will sustain chronic shoulder overuse injuries as a consequence of the conventional shrug’s angle of resistance.

Furthermore, the face pull provides a number of benefits not solely focused on trapezius muscle mass, developing upper body stability, reinforcing the posterior deltoid and even improving shoulder mobility if performed in the correct manner.

3. Barbell Upright Rows

Though it may surprise some, the barbell upright row is in fact quite an effective trapezius builder - surpassing even that of the conventional shrug. 

It does this by allowing a greater amount of loading to take place while contracting the trapezius through its full dynamic range of motion, producing better results than the shrug.

upright row

Unlike the shrug, however, the upright row is relatively unpopular due to the unfortunate fact that it can be quite dangerous when performed with high amounts of weight, potentially placing the shoulder and elbow joints at risk of acute injury.

As such, this particular alternative is entirely is more suitable for powerlifters or other strength athletes wishing to maximize the loading potential of their trapezius and deltoid muscles.

Who Should Perform the Barbell Upright Row as an Alternative

As previously mentioned, the barbell upright row is an excellent shrug alternative for strength athletes seeking greater loading potential of their trapezius.

Furthermore, lifters wishing to emphasize their posterior deltoid head and biceps brachii alongside comparatively more effective trapezius recruitment will also be served quite well by substituting the shrug with the barbell upright row.

How to Barbell Upright Row

To begin performing the barbell upright row, the exerciser will stand upright with a barbell gripped in both hands at approximately hip level.

Bracing the core and facing the head forward, the exerciser will then lift the barbell up to chin level with the elbows being the first joint to move so as to reduce shoulder joint pressure.

upright row

Once the barbell reaches the apex of the repetition below the neck or chin, the exerciser will squeeze their shoulder blades and trapezius prior to allowing the barbell to return to its starting position in a slow and controlled manner.

Advantages Over the Shrug

Apart from a greater loading potential than the shrug, the upright row directly carries over strength developments of the upper back to other pulling exercises, like the barbell row or deadlift.

This is only further reinforced by the full trapezius range of motion involved in the upright row, targeting the entirety of the muscle group instead of solely the upper portion as is the case in the shrug.

Closing Statements

Though these are just a few of the numerous exercises that can act as alternatives to the shrug, they are nonetheless the most effective in terms of raw training stimulus.

In truth, it is difficult to not train the trapezius muscle during the course of an ordinary weightlifting workout - and as such, substituting the shrug is not as important as one many guess, with the aforementioend alternatives being better off used as accessory exercises instead.

So long as proper workout programming and recovery methods are followed, the traps will invariably grow, with targeted trapezius isolation exercises simply being icing on the cake.

References

1. Schory A, Bidinger E, Wolf J, Murray L. A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF THE EXERCISES THAT PRODUCE OPTIMAL MUSCLE RATIOS OF THE SCAPULAR STABILIZERS IN NORMAL SHOULDERS. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Jun;11(3):321-36. PMID: 27274418; PMCID: PMC4886800.

2. De Mey K, Danneels L, Cagnie B, Van den Bosch L, Flier J, Cools AM. Kinetic chain influences on upper and lower trapezius muscle activation during eight variations of a scapular retraction exercise in overhead athletes. J Sci Med Sport. 2013 Jan;16(1):65-70. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2012.04.008. Epub 2012 May 31. PMID: 22658589.

3. Kibler WB, Sciascia AD, Uhl TL, Tambay N, Cunningham T. Electromyographic analysis of specific exercises for scapular control in early phases of shoulder rehabilitation. Am J Sports Med. 2008 Sep;36(9):1789-98. doi: 10.1177/0363546508316281. Epub 2008 May 9. PMID: 18469224.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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