Here’s a little-known gym fact, the best shrug variation you’re not doing may be the Kirk shrug.
There’s nothing more imposing than a lifter with a big yoke, otherwise known as a set of massive upper traps, shoulders, and back that will make you stand in awe—and move out of their way as they toss another 45 onto the bar and begin lifting. Then you get to thinking, how do I get huge traps too? Then you head toward the dumbbells and shrug like crazy, blasting them with every variation you know about.
Here we’ll get into all things Kirk shrugs so you can build a big yoke, crushing grip strength, and deadlift PRs.
What Are Kirk Shrugs?
Kirk shrugs are a barbell-shrugging variation with a unique grip and a particular way of performing them. But before getting into that, there’s a story behind this excellent upper trap exercise.
Kirk shrugs got their name from the lifter who first used them, Kirk Karwoski. Karwoski is considered one of the best squatters in the history of powerlifting and currently holds the IPF-equipped world record in the squat of 1,003 pounds in the 275 pounds weight class. Kirk and his coach Marty Gallagher started doing Kirk shrugs to increase Kirk’s deadlift grip strength. Kirk then pulled an 800-pound deadlift, but they both discovered it built a big yoke too.
The particular way of performing them is the thumbless grip and the shrug and pause at the belly button that focuses on the upper back, crushing grip strength, and awe-worthy upper traps.
How to Do Kirk Shrugs
- Set up the barbell in the squat rack at around mid-thigh height.
- Load with approx. 25% of your usual barbell shrug weight.
- Grip the barbell using a thumbless grip by hooking the barbell with only your fingers.
- Shrug using only your traps, upper back, and lats.
- Hold the barbell at belly button level for one second.
- Slowly lower to the starting position, resisting the pull of the weight on the way down.
- Reset and repeat for desired reps.
Muscles Trained With Kirk Shrugs Exercise
Kirk shrugs are predominately an upper-body exercise that focuses on the upper traps with little assistance from the lower body. Here are the primary muscles trained with Kirk shrugs.
- Forearms: Isometric contraction of the forearm flexors and extensors to hold the barbell.
- Upper back (rhomboids and middle traps): Keep you in good posture and are trained when the shoulder blades come together.
- Upper traps: Where the money is made when the upper traps rise towards your ears.
- Lats: When performed correctly, there’s some shoulder extension involved.
Benefits of Kirk Shrugs Exercise
The most obvious benefit of performing any strength exercise is to get you jacked, and Kirk Shrugs will do that and more. Here are some vital benefits of incorporating these into your current workout.
- Improved Grip Strength: The thumbless grip and the extended time under tension is another way besides carries to improve your grip strength for all things gym and pickle jar related.
- Increased Pulling Power: Kirk shrugs will improve your grip strength, no doubt, but strengthening the upper trap and back has other performance benefits too. There is a reason Kirk Karwoski pulled 800 pounds when performing these shrugs as an accessory exercise. Strengthening the upper back is vital in keeping the spine neutral and providing the tension necessary to pull heavily.
- Protects The Head: Kirk shrugs strengthen the neck area, essential if you are involved in collision sports. Adding some strength and muscle to this area has been shown to prevent neck injuries and lessen the effects of concussion.
- You’ll Get Tougher: Physical toughness is excellent, and Kirk shrugs will help you absorb punishment to the neck area and build mental toughness. Every time you gut through a set of Kirk shrugs, your forearms and traps are burning, and you don’t quit; you just got mentally tougher.
Kirk Shrug Form Fixes
Barbell shrugs are different because the weight is anterior; you must pay close attention to your lifting posture to ensure you get the best from this shrug variation. Here are a few form tips to pay attention to.
- Shoulders Down & Chest Up: Not only does this put you in better posture, but it ensures the tension necessary and the correct muscles are being trained. If you like neck pain, performing Kirk shrugs with rounded shoulders is not recommended.
- Don’t Use Your Thumbs: It’s ingrained to use our thumbs whenever we grip anything, but with Kirk Shrugs, it is vital to use a thumbless grip so more muscular action goes towards your upper traps and back.
- What’s The Hurry: When building muscle is the goal, increasing muscular tension is a priority. Not only do you need to pause for a second by the navel but raising and lowering the barbell with control will give you the muscle-building stimulus you need.
- No Assistance From “Other” Muscles: Focus and attention on the upper back and traps are paramount with this exercise, so avoid using any momentum by swaying your upper body and using other muscles to get the job done. Doing so takes away from the effectiveness of Kirk Shrug.
Kirk shrugs are not a 1RM type of exercise but a movement to perform after your big strength exercise to improve the performance and look of your yoke. Here are some general programming recommendations to build the upper traps of your dreams.
Upper Body Finisher
Try for three straight sets of eight to 12 reps rest two minutes between sets at the end of sessions, or choose a weight around 40-50% 1 RM deadlift and go till failure.
For Upper Body Muscle
If you’re a sucker for punishment and want to push your grip and back strength to new heights, try this triset for size instead of your usual back exercises.
1A. Barbell bent over row-10 reps.
1B. Towel pull-ups- until failure.
1C. Kirk shrugs 8-12 reps.
Repeat two to three times, resting as needed.
Kirk Shrugs Variations
If you have trouble shrugging with a regular barbell or with the Kirk Shrug in particular, these two alternatives will build your upper traps nicely.