Trap Exercises: Top 4 Shrug Variations

In this post I’m showing my top 4 shrug exercise variations.

Just like I do throughout my new book, Your Workout PERFECTED; the following provides basic trap exercises and shows you how to do them better than how they are commonly performed. This will help you train smarter, more safely, and efficiently. All it takes is a couple of small tweaks.

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Before we get into it, I wanted to remind you that we’re only a few weeks away from the Brolando Experience with myself and Alan Aragon in Orlando, Fl. We’re premiering all new courses, and this event will not be filmed. So, you’ve got to be there with us live and in-person on Feb 10-11th, 2018.

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1. Wide-Grip Barbell Shrug

The general functions of the upper trapezius is scapular upward rotation and elevation. So, loading those actions dynamically (like in all the exercises highlighted below) or isometrically (like in a deadlift) is what you’d want to do.

With this in mind, research has found that starting a shoulder shrug in 30 of glenohumeral abduction (i.e., arms slightly out to the sides), which is a component of slight scapula upward rotation, generated greater upper trapezius muscle activity in comparison with the shrug with the arms at the side (1).

Note: Yes! I’m very well aware of the limitations of EMG research, and I understand that we can’t simply say that greater EMG surely means greater muscle gains. However, although an in-depth discussion on this topic is far beyond the scope of this post, I do think it there is some relevance, and I’d argue that increased EMG levels do make a given exercise more likely to be effective at developing a given muscle group than exercises that show much lower EMG levels.

When translated to the gym floor, this means that performing barbell shrugs with the wider-grip (i.e., snatch-grip) if you’re looking to get more upper trap involvement.

You can apply the same concept of performing shrugs (with your arms slightly outside your body) to single-arm shrugs variations, which are great if you’re trying to focus one side at a time. Here are my three favorite single-arm shrug variations.

2. Single-Arm Low Cable Angled Shrug

 These are best for higher rep sets (12 reps+) because you can only go so heavy without being pulled off your feet.

3. Single-Arm Leaning Dumbbell Shrug

 These allow you to use heavier loads than low cable angled shrugs, which makes them a great option for lower rep sets. Plus, this exercise gives you isometric trap work on the side you’re holding yourself up with. However, this can also be a limiting factor of this exercise. In that,  your grip could fatigue given it doesn’t get a chance to rest since both holding yourself up and holding the dumbbell demand grip work.

4. Leaning Gittleson Shrug

 The video demonstrates a tweaked version of a single-arm shrug I originally learned from strength coach Mike Gittleson, which is why I coined it the “Gittleson Shrug.” The only thing I’ve added to it is the slight side-lean (due to the research discussed above), hence the name Leaning Gittleson Shrug.

This is basically a seated version of the leaning single-arm dumbbell shrug. So, because you’re holding on with the other arm, you’re getting both isometric trap work and grip work on that side.

Also, because you’re seated, you have a great base of support to use heavy loads if you’d like. Of course, you can also perform this and the standing version for higher reps sets with lights load if you wish.

Nick’s Upcoming Live Events

In Orlando, FL teaching at The Brolando Experience (with Alan Aragon) on Feb 10-11, 2018

In Norfolk, Virginia teaching at the NSCA Tactical Strength and Conditioning (TSAC) Conference on April 2-5, 2018.

In Brokane, Wa teaching at the Inland Empire Fitness Conference on April 6-7, 2018

In Sydney, AUS teaching at the FILEX Fitness Convention on April 20-22, 2018.



1. Pizzari, Tania et al. Modifying a shrug exercise can facilitate the upward rotator muscles of the scapula. Clinical Biomechanics , Volume 29 , Issue 2 , 201 – 205

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