How To Perform The Kirk Shrug

Develop Your Back and Traps With This Shrugging Variation

The kirk shrug is an exercise that was developed by 7-time USPF national powerlifting champion, Kirk Karwoski or “Captain Kirk”. 

It is thought that the exercise was used to help Karwoski improve his pulling strength and allow him to lift heavier with the deadlift.

The exercise is performed to primarily bring about changes in upper back and trap size, along with an improvement in grip strength.

This article will cover the kirk shrug in detail, providing a breakdown of the technique and highlighting a number of benefits associated with the movement.

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Kirk Shrug Technique

The differences between the kirk shrug and standard barbell shrug are not huge, therefore pay close attention to the following coaching points.

In terms of the weight on the bar, use approximately 25% of your normal working weight for a barbell shrug.

Step One

Start with the loaded barbell on a rack as you would with a standard shrug. Place the feet directly under the hips and grasp the bar at shoulder-width using a thumbless grip. 

Before lifting the bar from the rack, push the chest up, pull the shoulders back and down and brace the core muscles.

Step Two

Shrug the barbell upward by contracting your lats and traps, imagining that you are attempting to pull the shoulders up to the ears.

Remember that movement should only be initiated from the shoulders. The arms should bend slightly to bring the bar up to the belly button, however, ensure that the hips and legs do not assist in any way.

Throughout the shrugging motion, ensure that the shoulder blades are pulled back and down. Squeezing tightly between the shoulder blades throughout should help.

Step Three

Once the bar has reached the belly button, perform a static hold for one second while maintaining the contraction of the lats and traps.

As far as possible, keep the shoulders shrugged for the full second before controlling the descent of the bar back down to the hips. Resist the weight as far as possible and avoid dropping the bar too quickly.

Kirk Shrug Muscles Worked

The kirk shrug will typically work the same musculature as the standard barbell shrug but in a slightly different manner.

Traps

The trapezius muscle is often seen as the muscle that sticks out from the top of the shoulder. However, this is just the upper portion of the trap muscle.

The muscle actually originates from the thoracic (mid) spine and stretches upward attaching to the shoulder blades, collarbones, cervical (upper) spine, and skull.

Considering the number of connections that the traps have, they contract to cause a range of shoulder, neck and head movements.

The traps are highly active during shrugs as they contract to retract, elevate and depress the shoulder blades.

Lats

The lats are the large wing-like muscles that stretch from the low back up to the shoulders. These muscles contract to cause a variety of movements around the shoulders and spine.

The lats insert onto the scapula and when the muscles contract they pull the shoulder blades down. In addition, the lats work to stabilize both the shoulder joint and spine.

Therefore, while the lats are not the primary movers during the kirk shrug, they do assist in the depression on the scapula and engage to increase shoulders stability.

Forearm Muscles

The thumbless grip that is used in the kirk shrug places a great demand on grip. By removing the thumb’s involvement, it immediately becomes more challenging to hold the bar.

As a result, the muscles of the forearms that control the fingers must work extremely hard to keep the bar in the hands.

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Kirk Shrug Benefits

Regardless of whether you are a bodybuilder, powerlifter, sports athlete or are simply just looking to improve your fitness, the kirk shrug can have a substantial impact on the body.

This section will detail three of the biggest benefits associated with the kirk shrug. 

1) Increases Strength and Stability

Considering the actions and muscle activated during the exercise, the kirk shrug can bring about significant improvements in the upper back and grip strength, as well as improved shoulder stability.

Building upper body strength, shoulder stability, and grip strength can help to enhance your workouts, reduce the risk of injury, and simplify a number of everyday tasks.

The upper back and shoulders are an area of the body that is commonly affected by poor posture with weakness and instability often being the primary causes.

Therefore, a further benefit associated with building upper back and shoulder strength is that poor posture may be rectified (1).

2) Enhanced Performance

If you have reached a plateau with your deadlift or wish to accelerate deadlift progress, the kirk shrug will be valuable.

Improving the upper back strength and shoulder stability can allow you to drive the bar more powerfully from the floor and allow you to move beyond any sticking points.

If you find grip to be an issue during the deadlift, especially when lifting heavy, consider using the kirk shrug to develop your grip strength.

The thumbless grip that is used in the kirk shrug will cause grip strength to substantially improve as the bar is difficult to grip. Increasing your grip strength may contribute to a better deadlift.

As well as facilitating deadlift performance, improving your grip has the potential to improve performance with other pulling exercises such as pull-ups, chin-ups, rows, and lat pulldowns.

3) Building Trap Size

In the world of bodybuilding, aesthetics are everything. One thing that is often very eye-catching with top-level bodybuilders is the sheer size of their traps.

Considering that the shrugging exercises place the highest amount of stress on the traps (2), there is great trap-building potential.

If you have noticed that barbell shrugs aren’t really doing it for you anymore, changing to the kirk shrug may be beneficial. The change of stimulus should allow the traps to begin increasing in size once again.

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Why Powerlifters Should Perform Kirk Shrugs

While it is true that shrugs are more commonly in bodybuilding, the kirk shrug can prove to be invaluable for powerlifters.

Using the kirk shrugs as an accessory exercise can facilitate an improved performance with all three lifts – the squat, deadlift, and bench.

As highlighted, regularly performing the kirk shrug can significantly build upper back and grip strength and improve performance with pulling exercises such as the deadlift. 

However, it can also lead to improvements with the bench and squat too.

Firstly with the bench, a large degree of shoulder stability is required. Additionally, increasing the size of the upper back and shoulder can give you a larger, more solid base to bench press from.

A combination of increased upper back and shoulder size, strength and stability will ultimately have a positive impact on how much weight you can lift for bench press.

Finally, for squats, by building the size of your back, the barbell will have a better “shelf” to sit on. This may improve leverage and confidence when handling heavier loads.

Back Size and Grip Strength Workout

For those who wish to develop upper body muscle size and strength, consider using the following workout that incorporates the kirk shrug.

Exercise 1:

Barbell Rows
3 sets x 10 – 15 reps

One of the best exercises around for back and grip development. To maximize the demand on grip, use an overhand grip and avoid using wrist straps as they will reduce the need for grip strength (#).

Once in the bent-over position, avoid moving the trunk or hips and focus on pulling the bar into the body through movement of the shoulders and elbows only.

Exercise 2:

Towel Chin-Ups
3 sets x failure

For this exercise, drape a towel over chin-up bars and pull on the towel. The towel will make grip very challenging which will lead to significant grip strength development.

Complete as many reps as you possibly can and look to hold the top position of the exercise for as long as possible during the last set.

Exercise 3:

Kirk Shrugs
2 sets x 8 reps

Programming 8 reps will give you the opportunity to lift heavy and maximize improvements in the upper back strength and grip strength.

Exercise 4:

Standing Cable Crunch
5 sets x 10 – 20 reps

You may be wondering why there is an abdominal exercise incorporated into an upper back session.

The abdominals are a key antagonist muscle to the back which means that, when the back is working, the abs generate force to assist in the control of the movement.

Therefore, it is important that the abdominals develop at a similar rate to the back muscles so that they can effectively assist the muscles of the back (4).

With each rep, hold the contracted position for one full second.

Final Word

There is no doubt that the barbell shrug is an effective exercise for upper back, shoulders, and grip development.

The addition of the static hold and increased range of motion in the kirk shrug increases the intensity of the exercise and therefore, may help to accelerate the strength-building process.

References:

1 – Kim, DeokJu; Cho, MiLim; Park, YunHee; Yang, YeongAe (2015-6). “Effect of an exercise program for posture correction on musculoskeletal pain”. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 27 (6): 1791–1794. doi:10.1589/jpts.27.1791. ISSN 0915-5287. PMC 4499985. PMID 26180322.

2 – Schory, Abbey; Bidinger, Erik; Wolf, Joshua; Murray, Leigh (2016-6). “A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF THE EXERCISES THAT PRODUCE OPTIMAL MUSCLE RATIOS OF THE SCAPULAR STABILIZERS IN NORMAL SHOULDERS”. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 11 (3): 321–336. ISSN 2159-2896. PMC 4886800. PMID 27274418.

3 – Coswig, Victor S.; Machado Freitas, Diogo Felipe; Gentil, Paulo; Fukuda, David H.; Del Vecchio, Fabrício Boscolo (2015-12). “Kinematics and Kinetics of Multiple Sets Using Lifting Straps During Deadlift Training”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 29 (12): 3399–3404. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000986. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 26595133.

4 – Hirai, Hiroaki; Miyazaki, Fumio; Naritomi, Hiroaki; Koba, Keitaro; Oku, Takanori; Uno, Kanna; Uemura, Mitsunori; Nishi, Tomoki; Kageyama, Masayuki; Krebs, Hermano Igo (2015). “On the Origin of Muscle Synergies: Invariant Balance in the Co-activation of Agonist and Antagonist Muscle Pairs”. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. 3: 192. doi:10.3389/fbioe.2015.00192. ISSN 2296-4185. PMC 4656836. PMID 26636079.

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Jacob Ladon
Jacob Ladon is a staff writer and former amateur bodybuilder. He has been passionate about bodybuilding since he was 15 years old and discovered the joys of training in the gym. He reports and comments on all bodybuilding related matters.