Smith Machine Shrug: How To & Common Mistakes

smith machine shrug featured taken by Jake Woodruff, Strength Coach

Beginners can especially benefit from doing shrugs with a Smith machine. The machine has a fixed bar path so novice lifters can focus on learning proper form and technique before moving to more advanced shrug variations.

However, shrugs can be done with many pieces of equipment.

Read on as I cover all the details of the Smith machine shrugs so you can tell if they’re right for you. You’ll learn how to do shrugs with a Smith machine, common mistakes, and how to add them to your workout.

How To Do Smith Machine Shrug

How To Do smith machine shrug, taken by Jake Woodruff, Strength Coach

The proper form to do a Smith Machine shrug is as follows:

  1. Face the bar, standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and holding onto the bar with a double overhand grip about hip-width apart
  2. Un-rack the weight and keep a slight bend in your elbows. Pinch your shoulder blades to set your upper back muscles
  3. While keeping your arms straight, bring your shoulders up to your ears
  4. Reset back to the starting position

Pro tip: Aim for the peak of your shoulders to finish just behind your ear lobes. That way your shoulders won’t round forward too much and you can activate the traps to maximal ability

Curious about how much the Smith machine bar weighs at your gym? Check out my full article.

Common Mistakes Doing Smith Machine Shrug

Common Mistakes Doing smith machine shrug, taken by Jake Woodruff, Strength Coach

Common mistakes I see people doing while performing Smith machine shrugs include:

  • Bending Too Much With Elbows
  • Letting Shoulders Roll Forward
  • Rocking Body Backwards

Bending Too Much With Elbows

The elbows should have a slight bend, but the exercise should not be based on using your elbows. When you bend too much at the elbows, the tension then turns to the biceps and deltoids, becoming more of a bicep curl or upright row. Make sure the pull is from the trapezius muscle.

Letting Shoulders Roll Forward

The most common mistake I see with shrugs is the shoulders rounding forward at the top. Before each rep, make sure you retract your scapula so the traps are in the proper position to do the rep. Usually if the shoulders round forward at the top of a rep, that means the upper back muscles are too weak to retract the shoulder blades during the rep.

Rocking Body Backwards

If the weight is too heavy, a common mistake is to hyperextend the spine at the top of the movement. This happens because there is too much load for the traps to handle, so the lifter resorts to using their full body to rock the weight up to the top of each rep.

Check out another back exercise you can do with the Smith machine: the deadlift

How To Add Smith Machine Shrug To Your Workout


Depending on your goals, there are different rep schemes for adding Smith machine shrugs to your workouts.

Increase Muscle Size

  • If your goal is to add muscle mass through hypertrophy, I recommend doing 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps with a 2-second pause at the top of the rep.

Increase Muscle Strength

  • To build long-lasting muscle strength, I recommend doing 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps with heavier weights.

Smith machine shrugs are one of my favorite exercises to add to a Smith Machine back workout too. 

Muscles Worked During Smith Machine Shrug

Muscles Worked During smith machine shrug, taken by Jake Woodruff, Strength Coach

The shrug is an isolation exercise for the trapezius muscle, but a few accessory muscles assist in the movement.

  • Trapezius: The traps are a big muscle across the upper back that attach behind the neck. They are responsible for pulling the shoulders back and stabilizing the neck and upper back.
  • Levator Scapulae: The levator scapulae is a small muscle that sits under the traps on both sides of the neck. This muscle aids the traps in elevating the scapula.
  • Forearms: The muscles on the inside of your forearm will get some work during shrugs because they will be isometrically activated while holding the bar.

One study found that doing shrugs with 30 degrees of shoulder abduction resulted in greater upper and lower trap activation. That is why I recommend holding on the bar about hip-width apart, so your arms are roughly at 30 degrees of shoulder abduction to target the trapezius to the max.

For more options, check out how the barbell shrug differs from the dumbbell shrug

Alternatives To Smith Machine Shrug

Alternatives to Smith machine shrugs should target similar muscles with similar biomechanics. The two best alternative exercises are barbell shrug and dumbbell shrug.

Shrugs were one exercise included in a study that evaluated exercises to improve neck pain relief in industrial workers. The study found that an exercise intervention utilizing dumbbell shrugs effectively improved neck pain relief for the subjects.

Barbell Shrug

The barbell shrug targets the traps and uses the exact same technique as a Smith machine shrug. It is the next step up in terms of difficulty because the bar is free-standing. However, you will not have the assisted bar path that the Smith machine offers, so you will need to have a bit more control of the movement.

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and hold the barbell about hip-width apart. Set your shoulder blades and brace your core, then bring your shoulders to your ears. Squeeze the top position for a 2-count, and then return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Shrug

Using dumbbells for shrugs is my favorite way to do this exercise. Dumbbells can help correct bilateral differences between your right and left sides. You can still go pretty heavy with dumbbell shrugs to build your upper back and improve your posture.

Hold on to a dumbbell in each hand. Set your shoulder blades back and brace your core. Bring your shoulders to your ears, hold the top position for a 2-count, and then return to the starting position.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Smith Machine Shrugs Better On The Front Or Back?

I recommend doing Smith machine shrugs in front of your body because that positioning allows you to do heavier weight and maximize upper trap gains. When you do Smith machine shrugs behind your body, your shoulders are in an awkward position that may be painful for some people.

Is It Better To Go Heavy On Shrugs?

My coaching philosophy always supports lifting heavier weight, but you MUST use correct form. Go heavy on shrugs but if you can not get full range of motion or cut the reps short, lower the weight a little so you can get the most out of your reps.


  1. Pizzari T, Wickham J, Balster S, Ganderton C, Watson L. Modifying a shrug exercise can facilitate the upward rotator muscles of the scapula. Clinical Biomechanics [Internet]. 2014 Feb 1;29(2):201–5.
  2. Zebis MK, Andersen LL, Pedersen MT, Mortensen P, Andersen CH, Pedersen MM, et al. Implementation of neck/shoulder exercises for pain relief among industrial workers: A randomized controlled trial. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2011 Sep 21;12(1).