How to Do Shoulder Shrugs

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on July 21, 2022
4 min read

One of the best and easiest exercises to perform at home is the shoulder shrug. It improves the strength of the trapezius muscle, which physiotherapists recommend for people with shoulder and neck pain. It is particularly beneficial to those with desk jobs that encourage bad posture with shoulders slumped, neck pitched forward, and eyes on a computer for extended periods.

Step 1 is the starting position. Stand in a split stance to stabilize the body. Hold a pair of dumbbells in your hands. Your hands should be neutral, with your thumbs around the handles and your palms facing your body. Place the dumbbells at your thighs with your elbows completely extended. Make your torso rigid by contracting your core and abdominal muscles. Pull your shoulders back and down. Maintain this position while doing the exercise, and keep your head and neck in line with your spine. 

Step 2 is the upward phase. Breathe out and allow your shoulders to shrug up. Avoid rotating the shoulder or bending the elbow. Keep your torso straight without arching the lower back, and hold your wrists in a straight position with no bending. 

Step 3 is the downward phase. Breathe in and lower the dumbbells gently back to the starting position. Keep your elbows extended and maintain a neutral grip position. Keep your wrists, torso, and shoulders positioned, and keep your split stance as well. 

During this exercise, your feet should always be flat and shoulder-width apart. You will maintain stability if you keep your abdominals contracted.  Hold the weights at your side with an overhand grasp. If you'd like, you can use wrist weights instead of free weights. If weights are not available, you can also use soup cans if you can grasp them securely. Exhale and raise your shoulders slowly without bending your elbows, as if you're shrugging your shoulders. Keep your hands perpendicular to the floor throughout the exercise. Repeat the process in three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

As your shoulders strengthen, you can increase repetitions. If you are doing this exercise for neck and shoulder pain, try starting without weights first. Begin slowly with only a few repetitions to ensure you are not aggravating a pinched nerve or an injury. If you are a beginner, you should always start with smaller weights. Five to eight pounds is still heavy enough to build your upper back muscles and trapezius. 

The free weights used with the shoulder shrug target the trapezius. This is a large muscle in the upper back that attaches to the base of the skull. It runs down the middle back. The function of the trapezius is to elevate the shoulder and shoulder blade. Stabilization of the shoulder blades allows the muscle to rotate and extend the neck. 

The secondary muscles are the biceps, serratus anterior, and rhomboids. Strengthening the muscles helps with proper posture and stabilization of the upper back and neck. Everyday movements like lifting, bending, sitting, and reaching are safer and more efficient with a strong, toned trapezius muscle. 

Benefits of a properly done shoulder press include:

  • Improved posture
  • Neck muscle stability 
  • Trapezius muscle stability
  • Increased shoulder strength
  • Increased upper back muscle strength 
  • Increased neck muscle strength
  • Upper back stability 
  • Reduced strain on shoulder and neck muscles
  • Reduced chronic neck pain

There are several variations to the shoulder shrug exercise.

Sitting Variation

Begin by sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Move your weight a bit forward to keep from rounding your back. Relax and keep your shoulders, ears, and hips in line. Raise your shoulders as high as you can, as if trying to touch your ears. Allow your neck and head to stay relaxed and still. Hold them up, count to 10, and release. Repeat this five times. 

Lying Barbell Shoulder Shrug Exercise

You will need a bench, two 12–18 inch boxes, and one barbell. Put your bench on top of the boxes and put the barbell under it on the ground. You should lie on the bench with your face down, and the barbell should be under your shoulder joint. Pick up the barbell with your arms all the way extended. The movement should put a stretch on your mid trapezius. The barbell should have at least 25-pound weight plates to get a full stretch. In this position, pull your shoulder blades back while keeping your chest flat, and hold for a few seconds. Go back to the initial position and repeat 20-25 times in three sets. 

Single-Arm Dumbbell Shrugs

For a one-sided variation, do the single-arm dumbbell shrug by raising one arm at a time. By implementing this into your workout routine, you can focus on your movement. Hold the dumbbell in one hand and do the shoulder shrug.

Barbell Shoulder Shrug

Stand tall while holding a bar in an overhand grip and your hands outside of your thighs. Lift your shoulders straight up and hold them in an elevated position for a few seconds. Then lower them to the beginning position. While doing this movement, keep the shoulders back and the elbows and spine straight. Continue this movement for all of your repetitions. 

Behind-the-Back Dumbbell Shrug

Begin by holding your dumbbells behind the back while exercising to target the upper trapezius, deltoids, and middle trapezius.  These muscles will get more benefits than with the standard dumbbell shrug. In this position, continue to do the shoulder shrug like a normal dumbbell shrug. 

  • Do not do shoulder shrugs if you have a recent injury.
  • Do not do it if you feel constant pain while doing this exercise.
  • If your doctor has told you to rest, do not do the shoulder shrug.