Straight to the Bar

All Things Strength


Shrugs – The Most Misunderstood Exercise in North America?
Posted By Maik Wiedenbach
UPDATE 12 Mar 2012 : Maik and I are currently co-writing a book on shrugs, which goes into a lot more detail on the variations & progressions possible.
Leave a comment below, or join us over on the forums, to find out more.

Today’s subject seems rather mundane..I mean shrugs, really? What is there to know? You grab the heaviest dumbbells you can find and perform short, jerky motions right?

Yes, that is pretty much how shrugs are done in every gym I ever set foot in. It’s a pretty cool exercise, you get to move 5 plates on the barbell, make a lot of noise, enforce your tough guy image and, best of all you can’t really mess it up. Or at least that’s what people believe.
First of all, what are when people do shrugs they tend to think only about the small area that’s actually visible toward the ears (unless you are Johnny Jackson, then that part is huge).
TrapeziusBut if you be so inclined and look at the graphic, you will notice that the traps are quite big and cover a large part of your back.
Secondly, the traps elevate and lower the shoulder blades so the traditional way of rolling the shoulders back and forth is not a good idea. Get a feeling for moving your shoulder blades without engaging the arms. A good idea is to have a training partner touch you in the lower trap area while doing reverse shrugs at the lat pull down.
On a side note, I find this an extremely helpful technique with so-called out of sight muscles such as hamstrings, traps or midback. Studies have shown that each set becomes about 30% more effective, if we have the sensation of the touch on the working muscle. Quite neat.
People usually do not have any problems feeling the visible part of the traps, but that only a small portion of the muscle, as stated above.

Thirdly, weight is secondary, feeling the muscle comes first. Too many guys perform shrugs like they are having some sort of epileptic seizure in order to move a large amount of weight. Again, focus on the squeeze and the stretch. The movement is rather short as it is, do not shorten it more by not using the whole range of motion.
So one should break the training down into upper and lower traps exercises to get a full development. Regular shrugs, shrugs with chest support on a bench and reverse shrugs at the cable pull down would be a good combination.
Here is how I would break it down:

  • 3×10 shrugs on incline bench, chest supported, let the dumbbells dangle to the side and focus solely on squeezing the shoulder blades together.
  • 3×15 reverse shrugs at the lat pulldown in a medium wide, overhanded grip, focus on bringing the shoulder blades downward.
  • 3×20 regular shrugs,either with a barbell or dumbbells, the dumbbells will give you a deeper stretch, the barbell allows for more weight. I would also switch grips from wide to narrow on a weekly basis.

A word on straps: put your ego aside, your forearms are much smaller than your traps so they will give out first, thereby holding you back from total trap development. If your grip is of concern to you start the light sets with the thick bar or fat gripz and then use straps as you need them.
What’s the payoff for well developed traps?
If you are a football player, wrestler or boxer it will save you from spinal injuries. As a bodybuilder or regular weightlifter, traps are crucial for shoulder health. A healthy shoulder will enable you to build a bigger chest and arms while saving you a lot of grief. Furthermore, you will not get that 3-D look in your back with well developed traps.
lastly, everyone of us spends hours at the compute, mostly hunched over with the shoulders pulled up. This leads to knots in the upper traps and a weakened lower part of the muscle., which in return causes headaches , shoulder and elbow pain. A well thought trough trap training program will stop a lot of these “office pains” in their tracks.
Check out ” The Desk Athlete” if you want to know more.
So there you have it, the rundown of an exercise everyone thinks they know and hardly anyone does it right.

Incidentally, if you’d like to dive into this topic a little deeper (and I wouldn’t blame you for that – fascinating area), grab the daily Aging & Longevity newsletter. Dive in.

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Written By Maik Wiedenbach
Maik Wiedenbach is an Olympic athlete, personal trainer, and nutritionist. He shares his training wisdom in the 101 Fitness Myths and 30 Secrets for Bigger Arms! ebooks, and the Desk Athlete DVD. Superb. When not in the gym, he may be found training clients over at Adler Training; and also on Facebook and LinkedIn. Swing on by.
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