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Smith machine shrug: Behind the back vs one arm vs barbell

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 26th August 2020

Merely training your "back" isn't enough to build an impressive v-taper—you need to think in terms of muscles. So when you're performing back exercises with the Smith machine, it's essential to consider the actual muscle groups that you're working.

bodybuilder performing behind the back shrugs

The 4 main muscles that contribute the most mass to your back are the lats, mid-traps, upper traps and the rear delts. Of course, there any many smaller muscles—rhomboids, lower traps, teres major—that help to strengthen your back, too.

However, they're not going to supply much in the way of back size even when fully developed. Plus, such muscles get heavily worked with virtually every rowing and pulling exercise that you perform. So it's not as if they require direct training to grow.

But, if you want to construct an imposing physique—a body that goes beyond beach muscles—then your upper traps are one muscle group that definitely does need direct work to grow.

And, as you'll soon learn, the Smith machine shrug is one of the best exercises for creating towering traps that turn heads in the street. So let's get into it.

Smith machine shrug exercise details

  • Main muscles: Upper traps
  • Supporting muscles: Forearms
  • Exercise type: Isolation
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Lifting straps, Fat Gripz, hand grip trainer
  • Exercise purpose: Develop a more masculine appearance by building the upper traps

How to do Smith machine shrugs

  1. Set the Smith bar to mid-thigh level.
  2. Put on your lifting straps and then grab the bar firmly with a shoulder-width overhand grip.
  3. Rotate the barbell to unrack it and then fully extend your arms, allowing the bar to stretch your traps.
  4. Shrug the weight up by raising your shoulders towards your ears.
  5. Hold the contraction for a second or two and then slowly lower the bar under control.
  6. Repeat for 3-6 sets of anywhere between 6-20 reps. Both heavy and light shrugs work wonders for the traps.

Smith machine shrug form tips

Pause at the top

bodybuilder training his trapezius muscles

I think it was Ben Pakulski who said: "The people who get strong at the extremes of the range of motion are the people who change their bodies". Not a truer statement has ever been spoken in bodybuilding.

If you can genuinely get strong as a bull at the top of a Smith machine shoulder shrug, your traps are going to blow the you know what up.

Stop rolling your shoulders

man training his trapezius

Stop rolling your shoulders on shrugs. It provides a grand total of zero extra trap stimulation while simultaneously wrecking your rotator cuffs. Plus, when you roll your shoulders in the mirror, it looks like your trying to seduce yourself with some weird mating ritual—and nobody likes a narcissist.

Keep your chin up

bodybuilder doing smith machine shrugs

Keep your chin up—but not too high. Only rugby players with thigh-sized necks can point their chins to the sky. And remember, nobody likes a narcissist—but don't ask me why.

A nice forward eye gaze is what you should try. It creates high trap tension—gives them a third dimension—and oh did I mention it even prevents neck hyperextension.

Resist the negative

man doing dumbbell shrugs

Keep your chin up. Resist the negative. Is this guide about getting huge traps or getting back on your feet?

Well, since building colossal traps makes everything better, you could say it's a bit of both.

Anyway. Whenever you're performing shrugs Smith machine style, you must resist the weight on the way down if you want to stimulate the maximum amount of muscle growth (who doesn't?).

Otherwise, you're leaving half of the possible gains on the table.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine shrugs

"No straps, no traps."
Jason Ferruggia

1. Lifting straps

I use Vera Gripps so that I can take my forearms out of the movement and focus on hammering my traps to make them grow.

versa gripp demo

They're much comfier than regular lifting straps which is why they also command a higher price tag. I couldn't afford them when I first started lifting (gotta buy that protein first) but now that times are a bit better I decided to give them a shot.

And I'm really impressed.

I was so worried about wasting my money on yet another pair of flimsy lifting straps, but my Versa Gripps did not disappoint. My 10-rep-max on shrugs increased by 7.5kg in the first session that I wore them. And that's compared to wearing regular straps, not lifting barehanded.

The built-in arch support for carpal tunnel and the nifty nerve damage protection mechanism is the icing on the cake. I work a desk job and spend way too much time on my phone outside the gym. So naturally, my hands are always aching by the time I actually hit the weights.

man using straps to lift a barbell

However, with my Versa Gripps, I have no such pain because the straps replace my hands as the hooks that connect my body to the bar or dumbbell. My joints are feeling healthy again, and I just love the feeling!

Obviously, I know that not everyone can rationalise paying for Versa Gripps in these tough times. So I went ahead and tried out the Beast Gear Weight Lifting Straps to see how they stacked up.

If I'm honest, they just don't compare to Versa Gripps as far as comfort goes. But, for the price, these straps provide a really firm hold on the bar, and they're by no means uncomfortable. I definitely recommend giving them a try if you're on a tight budget.

"Your grip is your connection point, so if your grip is not strong enough to lift something, then you're probably not gonna be able to lift it."
Brian Shaw
4x World's Strongest Man

2. Fat Gripz

After learning just how vital strong hands are for virtually every weight lifting exercise, I decided to order some Fat Gripz.

dumbbells with fat gripz

I'd heard a lot of good thing about them from fitness celebrities. But still, I was a little apprehensive because I knew I'd have to lighten the weights significantly. Anyway, they came with a 30-day money-back guarantee, so I figured that I had nothing to lose.

Well, my fears were confirmed—I did have to lighten the weight. However, my traps still got a decent pump, and my forearms were burning as if someone embedded a flamethrower underneath my skin.

After 8 weeks of using Fat Gripz on my arm and back days, my forearms have grown by half an inch, and my arm veins are looking much more prominent (according to are lass).

man showing how to put fat gripz on a barbell

But best of all, when I perform shrugs and other pulling exercises without Fat Gripz, the weight feels ridiculously light because I'm so used to gripping thick barbells. Seriously, Olympic bars feel like a kid's toy after using Fat Gripz!

Anyway, I highly recommend Fat Gripz is you want to take your forearm size and strength to the next level. I'm also thinking about getting the Fat Gripz Extremes. So if you've tried them then defo let me know what you think.

3. Hand grip Strengthener

captins of crush gripper in its packaging

After having great success with Fat Gripz—and becoming mildly obsessed with grip training—I went ahead and bought 4 Captains of Crush Hand Grip Trainers.

I was watching Juji and some other lads on YouTube using the grippers for months before I actually pulled the trigger. Whether or not they were legit, I thought they looked like a lot of fun—you know, something that you'd bring down the pub to show your mates.

Thankfully my hundred quid investment paid off in more than just laughs. None of my mates could close anything past the CoC Sport gripper, and even the roided up doorman at one of the clubs couldn't closer anything past the CoC Trainer (IronMind's 3rd lightest of 11 grippers!).

close up of captins of crush hand grip trainers

Anyway, these grippers are a great laugh. But they've also sent my hand grip strength through the roof. And dare I say, they're even more potent forearm builders than Fat Gripz.

I never realised just how critical a strong gip was for lifting heavy. But now that I've increased my deadlift by 10kg, the message is more than clear. If the hooks (hands) aren't strong then it doesn't matter how powerful the machinery is (your legs and back)—the weight simply won't budge.

Smith machine shrug muscles worked

Traps

bodybuilder doing the most muscular pose

Nothing builds titanic traps faster than well-executed, well-programmed shrugs. Don't be "that guy" who puts a random amount of weight on the bar and shrugs his shoulders until his traps burn. If you want to achieve the fastest and best results, then you need to be very deliberate about your trapezius training.

Treat it like you would your bench press. Track the weight. Add resistance weekly—and watch your traps blow up.

Forearms

muscular man looking at his biceps

Heavy shrugs provide some decent forearm stimulation. But if your physique is even the slightest bit in proportion, then there's no way that your grip strength will be able to keep pace with your traps.

Regular lifting straps will do the job. However, once you get past a certain weight (about 100kg), bog-standard straps quickly start to pull on your wrist and chafe your skin, which is uncomfortable, to say the least.

That's why I personally wear Versa Gripps.

They allow you to maintain a considerably firmer grip on the bar than standard lifting straps. But, more importantly, Versa Gripps provide much more comprehensive wrist support, which is crucial if you want to remain in the lifting game long term.

Smith machine shrug benefits

Better trap pump

bodybuilder doing shrugs in the gym

Smith machine shrugs provide a more potent pump than barbell shrugs because they allow you to focus purely on the working muscle. You don't have to stabilise the weight, and you most certainly don't have to waste valuable energy by deadlifting a loaded barbell off the floor.

In other words, Smith machine shrugs are the purest form of a shrug—except for maybe the Hammer Strength shrug machine. But then we're talking about small 1% differences. The point is that with machine shrugs, you can devote 100% of your effort to training your traps, which, when you think about it, is the whole point of an isolation exercise.

Who does shugs to work their "stabiliser muscles" (rotator cuffs)?

I certainly don't.

Bigger Traps

bodybuilder flexing upper body muscles

Performing shrugs on Smith machine stations rather than with a barbell is the fastest route to bigger traps because machines naturally let you overload your muscles with more weight.

Of course, weight isn't everything. But, provided that your form and diet are in check, it's usually the difference between stagnation and hypertrophy [1].

Stronger Neck

bodybuilder flexing his muscles

While shrugs probably won't give you a neck like a WWE wrestler—you'll need neck curls and roids for that—they will help to strengthen your neck muscles and make them more resistant to fatigue [2].

Thicker forearms

bodybuilder holding a protein shake

If trap growth is priority numero uno, then I always recommend strapping up so that your grip strength (or lack thereof) won't limit your trap stimulation.

However, every now and again, I'll throw a light weight onto the bar and train with my Fat Gripz.

My traps still get a decent pump, but my forearms get lit on fire! Then, when I go back to regular shrugs, the weight feels ridiculously light because I'm used to gripping much thicker bars. This, in turn, actually creates a new growth spurt in my traps because I can perform more reps without fatiguing.

Smith machine shrug alternatives

Smith machine rack pull

If your "gym" doesn't have a power rack, then first of all, find a real gym. However, if that's not possible, then performing rack pulls on the Smith machine is the best way to overload your traps with growth-provoking weight.

Smith machine upright row

The Smith machine upright row is one of the all-time great Smith machine trap exercises. In my opinion, upright rows provide a significantly more intense peak contraction than shrugs—if you do them correctly.

This exercise can be harsh on the shoulders—it's injured more rotator cuffs than virtually another other lift. But as the saying goes, no risk, no reward.

Barbell shrug

When it comes to the Smith machine shrug vs barbell shrug, there are some key differences that you should know: [3]

  1. You can lift more weight on Smith machine shrugs.
  2. Barbell shrugs activate more stabiliser muscles.
  3. Smith machine shrugs don't hit your glutes when you do them behind the back.
  4. Smith machine shrugs waste less energy because you don't have to deadlift the bar off the floor.

FAQ

What are Smith machine shrugs?

bodybuilder doing smith machine shrugs

Smith machine shrugs are a machine-based back exercise that trains the upper fibres of your trapezius muscle.

Are Smith machine shoulder shrugs dangerous?

sporty man wincing in pain

Smith machine shrugs are only dangerous if you roll your shoulders. Otherwise, they're perfectly safe if you use the proper form and don't have any existing medical conditions [4].

Is the behind the back Smith machine shrug better than front shrugs?

bodybuilder doing shrugs in the gym

The Smith machine behind the back shrug works more of the mid traps than front shrugs. So whether Smith machine reverse shrugs are truly better depends on your goals. Do you want to increase your back thickness? If so, then the Smith machine back shrug is the best choice [5].

However, if you want to increase your trap height, then front shrugs are a better choice because they focus purely on the upper traps.

Are one arm Smith machine shrugs worth doing?

thinking women with question mark on white background

Doing the Smith machine shrug one arm at a time is a brilliant way to even out muscle imbalances. However, unless you have a sturdy object to hold onto, the exercise quickly becomes impractical. So if you want to develop symmetrical traps, then I recommend doing dumbbell shrugs instead.

What rep range is best for upper traps?

photo of a bodybuilder's back muscles

Since the range of motion is so small, high reps are more effective than low reps for building the upper traps. Anywhere from 10-20 reps per set is ideal for most people on the Smith machine shrug.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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