6 Powerful Shoulder Shrug Alternatives

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Doing the shoulder shrug can work your trapezius a lot but you may want something else. Discover alternatives that can offer similar results.

Shoulder shrugs are an exercise where you raise your shoulders. Generally, while holding shoulder workout equipment like dumbbells, a barbell, the cable machine, kettlebells, etc. for extra resistance.

This movement works your trapezius muscles, a muscle that stretches from the bottom of your skull to slightly above the middle of your back. More specifically the top part of the trapezius muscles.

Your grip muscles will have to work a good amount too.

In turn, these things mean that shoulder shrugs can also help you build muscle mass, burn calories, reduce or prevent shoulder pain, and offer other typical exercise benefits.

Whether you don’t enjoy shrugs, you want to focus on more muscles at a time, or you want an alternative for any other reason, these alternatives to shoulder shrugs can offer you some or all of the same benefits.

1. Farmer’s walk

The farmer’s walk is a strength training exercise where you simply pick up some type of weight(s) from the ground and walk a certain distance or time. Make sure you keep your posture upright and your palms facing your body.

Dumbbells or a trap bar are typical examples of weights used for the farmer’s walk but you can also use shoulder workout equipment like kettlebells, certain sandbags, certain weight plates, etc.

The farmer’s walk mainly works muscles like your trapezius and grip muscles. This makes it a good substitute for shrugs.

One potential downside of the farmer’s walk is that it is more of an isometric exercise. In simpler words, this means that you engage your muscles in a more static way, without moving a lot.

On the other hand, you have isotonic exercises where you engage your muscles in a dynamic way, by moving.

Isotonic exercises are generally more useful for building muscle. That means that shoulder shrugs will likely still be more effective than the farmer’s walk for growing and strengthening the top part of your trapezius muscles.

On the other hand, if you are simply interested in training muscle endurance. The farmer’s walk can be a great substitute.

2. Face pulls

For the next shrug alternative, you preferably want to use a cable machine with the double rope grip cable attachment. Take the following steps to do a cable face pull:

  1. Set the cable machine at about the height of the bottom of your face, attach a double rope grip handle, and select your desired weight.
  2. Grab the handle in your hands, hand palms facing each other, with your face towards the anchor. Take a step or two backward with your arms stretched forward. Stand with your 2 feet at about shoulder width.
  3. Move your arms in a smooth motion towards a position where your upper arms are at a 90-degree angle with your body and your lower arms are pointing up and are at a 45-degree angle with your upper arms. Keep your feet in the same position and your back straight during the exercise.
  4. Slowly move your arms back into the position of step 2.

Face pulls work your rear deltoids and a few upper back muscles including the trapezius muscles.

As you may suspect from the different direction of the exercise, face pulls are more focused on the middle and lower parts of the traps.

Depending on your personal situation and training goals, targeting different parts of the trapezius can be an advantage or disadvantage.

3. Upright rows

As the name implies the upright row is similar to a bent-over resistance training row but done while standing up straight. Take the following steps to do an upright row with a barbell:

  1. Load the barbell with the desired number of weight plates. Stand right in front of it with feet about shoulder width apart.
  2. Grab the barbell with an overhanded grip, your hand palms pointing back/down, with your hands at about shoulder width or slightly wider.
  3. Lift the barbell and stand up straight. Keep your spine straight during this initial lift. Let your arms with the barbell hang down for now.
  4. Raise the barbell straight upward in a controlled manner until your hands are at about shoulder height.
  5. Slowly lower the barbell back into the position of step 3.

Because of this change in position compared to the bent-over row, the upright row focuses on slightly different muscles.

More precisely the side part of your deltoids and the top part of the trapezius muscles and to some extent rhomboids and biceps.

One thing to keep in mind is that your shoulder muscles will likely fatigue before your trapezius muscles get in a good workout. That means upright rows are not the best shrug alternative for training your trapezius muscles.

4. Deadlifts

For the next shoulder shrug alternative, you likely need external weights, preferably a barbell. You can also use other free weights and even heavy duty resistance bands.

Take the following steps to do a deadlift:

  1. Stand up straight with your feet at more or less shoulder width in front of a weighted barbell.
  2. Slightly fold your knees and tilt your upper body forward to grab the barbell on the ground.
  3. Stretch your knees and tilt back your upper body at the same time until your upper body and legs are stretched in one straight line. When doing a deadlift it is very important to keep your back in a straight line during the exercise.
  4. Slowly move back into the position of step 2.

Good technique is important in any exercise to avoid injuries but especially so for deadlifts. Before trying to deadlift the heaviest weights it is smart to improve your technique first by starting with light or no weights at all.

Deadlifts are definitely more of a compound alternative to shrugs.

That means that besides your trapezius and grip muscles, deadlifts will also work muscles like your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves a good amount.

Engaging all these extra muscles can be either an upside or downside depending on why you are looking for a shrug alternative.

5. Bent-over rows

For the next exercise, you again need some form of resistance, generally on the heavier side. Take the following steps to do a bent-over row with a barbell:

  1. Load the desired number of weight plates on the barbell and stand in front of it.
  2. Put your feet at about shoulder width, grab the barbell with an overhanded grip, and lift up the barbell with your legs until you stand up straight. Keep your back straight throughout the exercise.
  3. Slightly fold your knees and tilt your upper body forward until it is at about a 45-degree angle with the ground. Let your arms hang down to the ground for now but hold the barbell tightly.
  4. Bend your elbows until your hands reach your body. The goal is to mainly make your back muscles support this movement. Keep your arms close to your body, your upper body in a straight line, and your feet in the same position during the movement.
  5. Lower your hands again to the position of step 3 in a controlled motion.

Upright rows were focused more on the deltoids and the top part of the trapezius. The more typical bent-over version focuses more on the middle and lower part of your trapezius.

Besides that, the bent-over row is a back compound exercise that also works muscles like your grip latissimus dorsi, lower back, erector spinae, and rhomboids.

6. Overhead carry

The overhead carry is an exercise where you hold one or two weights above you with slightly less than stretched arms. In this position, you then walk forward a certain amount of time, steps, or distance.

This shrug alternative is relatively similar to the farmer’s walk but the different position of the weights does change a few things.

Compared to the farmer’s walk, the overhead carry trains your grip muscles less and balance, core muscles, latissimus dorsi, and shoulders more. Besides that, the overhead carry still works your trapezius muscles a good amount.

One downside of the overhead carry is that you are likely not able to get as much weight in position as a shoulder shrug or farmer’s walk.

This can make the overhead too easy on your trapezius muscles for a lot of muscle growth and strength progress.

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Matt Claes founded Weight Loss Made Practical to help people get in shape and stay there after losing 37 pounds and learning the best of the best about weight loss, health, and longevity for over 4 years. Over these years he has become an expert in nutrition, exercise, and other physical health aspects.