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Shrug Science - Part 2

In Part I of “Shrug Science” we explored the anatomy and biomechanics of the shrug exercise and learned how it is optimally performed. We also discussed acute exercise variables and how to use the shrug for bodybuilding or for sports conditioning. In this article, we will look at the variations of the shrug that can be used to accomplish several specific objectives.

I believe that any and all exercise programs should be periodized following the “Stability – Strength – Power” formula. That is, the first phase of a program should utilize exercises that improve stability, the second phase should focus on strength training and the final phase should be primarily devoted to power training. Thus, I present Shrug exercises that follow this scheme.

The Stability Shrug

Fig 1-A.

Fig. 1-B

The Stability Shrug (Figure1-A & B) is effective for improving the stability of the cervical spine as part of a base conditioning or rehabilitation exercise program. It is applicable to an athlete, exercise enthusiast, or to a patient in rehabilitation.

The Stability Shrug is performed using one dumbbell. It can be performed in front of a mirror where two mirrors adjoin or by using a string hung from the ceiling. For these diagrams, I used a thicker cord to make it easier for you to see body alignment. In the starting position (Figure 1-A), the body is aligned with the feet an equal distance from the plumb line and the umbilicus and nose directly behind the line.

As you begin the shrug, be sure your torso and head/neck complex do not deviate from the line! Activation of the right scapular elevators under load will produce a load against the neck that attempts to pull the head/neck into right side flexion and rotation. The head/neck relationship should stay exactly as it was in the start position (Fig. 1-A) throughout the execution of the shrug (Fig. 1-B). The torso will typically attempt to shift toward the loaded side of the body as you perform this exercise. This needs to be restricted through conscious control of your body. Holding your umbilicus and nose on the line as you perform the shrug will require activation of the deep spinal stabilizer muscles, including the transversus abdominis, which can be accentuated by gently drawing in your navel prior to the shrug. The harder it is for you to hold your body in line, the more likely it is that stabilizer conditioning will contribute to improving your overall level of performance.

Acute Variables

For purposes of rehabilitation, the tempo should be slow. Allow a total work time greater than 120 seconds per set. For example, you could use a 303 tempo for 20 reps. This will encourage the body to progressively recruit the slow twitch fibers and allow focus on the muscles typically involved in stabilization. If you use too much intensity during this exercise, it will result in the gross stabilizers of the neck and shoulder becoming over-involved and will not serve to improve conditioning of the deep stabilizers. The rest periods should always be kept to 1:00 or less. The total number of sets will range between 1-3, progressing as the body adapts over the next few workouts.

If the exercise is being used by someone without a neck/shoulder injury, greater intensities can be used cautiously. If you are able to maintain optimal alignment during the exercise you will generate a significant training effect in the deep and gross stabilizer muscles.

Placement in an Exercise Program

The stability shrug will place significant stress on the stabilizers of the trunk, neck, and shoulder due to the intimate relationship that exists between these structures. With this in mind, this exercise should be performed near the end of your training session, much like performing abdominal isolation exercises at the end of your training session so that you don’t destabilize the torso during training.

The Reciprocity Shrug

The reciprocity principle has its roots in orthopedic rehabilitation as a means of mobilizing joints using muscle forces. The Resiprocity Shrug (Figure 2A & B) is used clinically to mobilize the upper thoracic spin and lower cervical spinal region. The upper thoracic spine, commonly becomes restricted in people with desk jobs, exercisers that over-utilize certain machines, individuals that over-use crunches and sit-ups and even people who squat and lunge with poor form. Restriction in the upper thoracic region is found in people with shoulder impingement syndrome, shoulder instability, brachial plexus injury, chronic neck pain and headache secondary to cervical spine dysfunction.

Fig. 2-A

Fig. 2-B

To perform the exercise, you need a cable machine and a dumbbell. Stand next to a cable machine with the high cable handle in your left hand and a dumbbell in your right hand (Figure 2-A). The load on the cable machine need not be greater than 40% of your max and the load in the right hand should be about the same; if the load is too great, stabilizer activation will block joint mobility. As you can see in Figures 2-A and B, there is alternation between elevation of the right shoulder and depression of the left shoulder against light resistance. Once the prescribed repetitions are completed, the opposite side is trained in the same manner. An exception may be made when under the guidance of a skilled therapist in that only one side is trained to achieve a specific directional mobilization of the spine.

Acute Variables

Low intensities are used to facilitate mobilization of the upper thoracic spine and lower cervical spine. The repetition range is 12-20 repetitions per side. The sets vary between one and four depending on how blocked the region is. Use more sets if there is more blockage. One must be observant and sensitive to their body if not guided by a therapist so that they can determine the appropriate load. If too much load is used, there will be no therapeutic mobilization. If too little load is used, there may not be adequate force to encourage mobilization. The most effective way to determine if you are getting results on your own is to simply see how far you can rotate your neck before and after each set. If your cervical rotation increases after each set, you are getting the desired training response. You will also notice that in most cases, the ability to raise your arms above your head (in flexion) without restriction improves as your upper thoracic mobility improves.

Through all phases of the exercise, an attempt should be made to maintain alignment (Fig. 2-C). Failure to do so will result in excessive movement of the body above and below the region of the upper thoracic spine and will be of little therapeutic benefit.

Fig. 2-C

Placement in an Exercise Program

The Reciprocity Shrug should be used at the beginning of your training session. Improving the mobility of a hypomobile upper thoracic and/or lower cervical spine will facilitate optimal function of the head/neck/shoulder complex and assist in optimal development through exercise and motor skills development.

Low Cable Shrugs

The Low Cable Shrug is excellent for improving the strength of the scapular retractors. These muscles are commonly weak in people with forward head posture. They are also lacking strength relative to the protractors of the shoulder in those athletes that over indulge in the bench press relative to pulling exercises.

To perform the exercise requires two cable columns side by side as seen in Figure 3A &B. Set the cables to the bottom of the column and take one step back (Fig. 3-A). This encourages a force of depression and protraction from the cables that must be overcome by the elevators and retractors of the shoulder girdle. The shoulders are elevated toward the ear as far as possible and then rolled backward, bring the shoulder blades as close together as possible while you slowly lower the load (Fig. 3-B).

Fig. 3-A

Fig. 3-B

It is important to maintain good structural alignment during this exercise and your knees should stay unlocked at all times. It is natural to lean back slightly, although the less the better. The head should never be allowed to protrude forward into forward head posture, a cardinal no-no commonly seen among those using the shrug exercise!

Acute Variables

To improve rounded shoulders and/or forward head posture, it is important to always stretch the pectoralis minor, medial shoulder rotators, scalenes and trapezius muscle groups prior to this exercise.

Once your stretching is complete, the exercise can begin. For those of you wanting to use the exercise to correct forward head carriage and rounded shoulders, I suggest using a series of isometric holds. Hold the shoulders slightly elevated and fully retracted, as though you were trying to hold your shoulder blades together for as long as you can. Time how long you could hold them in this position and then rest for 50% of your total work time. If you can’t hold the isometric shrug/retraction for at least thirty seconds, you need to lower the load or you will end up producing strength, not postural endurance. The combined work time for all your isometric holds should be between 3 ½ minutes and 5 minutes. It is best to start with only one set of retractions for approximately 3 ½ minutes and waiting to see how sore you get before attempting a second set. If you find in sequential sets that you can no longer hold the position for thirty seconds, you should discontinue the exercise for that day.

If you are using the Low Cable Shrug for general conditioning or motor skills development, the repetition zones can vary from 4-6 reps for 4-6 sets (rest 2:30 – 3:30) for the more intense sessions. Repetitions of 8-12 reps with a 1 minute rest can be used for hypertrophy, and 12-20 reps for 1-3 sets using a 1 minute rest can be used for strength/endurance training.

Placement in an Exercise Program

If the Low Cable Shrug is being used to correct posture, it should be used as a final exercise of the workout. This exercise will fatigue the stabilizers of the neck and shoulder girdle, thus predisposing you to joint injury should you attempt more dynamic exercises under load after reaching fatigue with this exercise. When using the Low Cable Shrug in a dynamic format for the purpose of developing mass and strength, it can be placed after all dynamic exercises that require that the stabilizer system be fully capable. Examples of exercises that should precede the Low Cable Shrug are Olympic lifts, Push Presses, Military Presses, Single Arm Cable Push, plyometric Push-ups, explosive pushing or tossing of medicine balls and the bench press.

The Overhead Press Shrug

Imagine the rigors of being a figure skater that must hold his partner overhead while not only skating across the ice, but while spinning too! Have you ever done any renovating or your house? It takes quite a bit of strength to get a sheet of dry rock from the truck to the house, let alone hold it up to the ceiling while trying to secure it. The Overhead Press Shrug makes the standard shrug look like an exercise for kids or the nearly dead! Don’t believe me? Just give it a try.

For those of you that are athletically inclined and have excessive thoracic kyphosis (middle back curvature), the Overhead Shrug Press encourages strengthening of the thoracic erectors. This is due to the thoracic spine extension required for the shoulder girdle to sit on the rib cage and distribute the load effectively throughout the rib cage. If you are restricted in thoracic extension and attempt this exercise, you will feel your thoracic erectors working overtime! I will also suggest to use a moderate intensity if your thoracic spine is not mobile; you can easily strain a thoracic erector or multifidus attempting this exercise.

Learning to hold a load overhead is a challenge that works every muscle in your body, from your uvula to your abductor digiti minimi. (Things start to get real fun when you’re at a fourth rep of a 6RM load!) While this exercise is a great way to develop functional strength in the scapular elevators, it is a total body conditioning exercise, an exercise that will jack your metabolism up like throwing gasoline on fire.

To perform the exercise (Fig. 4-A), start with a weight that you could comfortably military press for about 10 reps. Press it overhead and practice shrugging it six to eight times (Fig. 4-B). As you can see in figure 4-A, a grip slightly narrower than a snatch grip will provide optimal mechanics. If you feel like your muscles or joints are binding, try moving your hands inward or outward until you find a natural groove for your body mechanics while performing this exercise.

Fig. 4-A

Fig. 4-B

With your knees slightly bent and your umbilicus drawn inward to activate your transversus abdominis, keep your arms as straight as you can without locking out at the elbows. From there, perform a shrug action, holding the arms as straight as comfortable; think of lifting your shoulders to your ears. A good tempo to start with is 202 until you learn to control the load.

Acute Variables

This exercise is not an ideal exercise for developing hypertrophy simply because the rest of your body will likely fatigue long before you ever break down enough tissue in your traps to get a hypertrophy response. This exercise is for developing maximal strength and/or power for pressing or holding anything over your head. Your rep ranges will vary with your intent, as will your tempo. The rest period will also vary depending on the intended use of the exercise. However, I recommend starting at 2 ½ minute rests and progressing as high as 5:00 as you approach the 1-2 rep range.

Placement in an Exercise Program

The Overhead Press Shrug, when used in a workout containing other Olympic lifts, is a great supplementary lift and is best performed after your traditional lifts. In a strengthening program consisting of traditional machine training (which is mostly garbage training) it should be performed as one of the first exercises you perform. The only reason it would not be first is if you were also going to include heavy squatting or lunging exercises, as these require a fully functional set of scapular elevators to support the bar and protect the brachial plexus.

Jump Shrugs

Jump shrugs are an excellent complement to any athlete that wants to improve their vertical jump, their Olympic lifts, their ability to throw people out of the bar, or to increase the mass of their upper traps. The exercise is performed explosively and recruits every fast twitch fiber in the same zip code as the upper traps. As Poliquin would say, “if you are going to do these, you better get a buzz cut before the workout because you may not comb your hair for 7-10 days!”

Before you begin this exercise, you must warm-up through at least three stages of progressively increasing intensity. To perform this exercise, as demonstrated in Figure 5-A, you should drop down to the same depth that you would if you were shooting a jump shot in basketball. From that position you explosively jump off the ground, carefully timing the extension of your legs with elevation of your shoulders secondary to an explosive contraction of your scapular elevators (Figure 5-B). While it is normal to leave the ground completely with lighter loads, as your intensity level reaches 90% and beyond, the heels may come well off the ground but the toes stay on the platform or floor. Care must be taken to resist any attempt to protrude the head forward. This is a common mistake made by many athletes that encourages trauma to the upper and lower cervical spine.

Fig. 5-A

Fig. 5-B

Acute Variables

This is a 100% raw power exercise . . .go as hard and fast as you bloody well can! Six reps could be considered a long set, but I’ve found an intensity level of approximately 90%, or a 4RM load, works well. A conditioned athlete can perform as many as six sets of this exercise, yet it may be a good idea to keep your first exposure to three sets. Even if you think you are Superman, if you do more than three sets your first time, you may think someone poured kryptonite over your neck and shoulders the next morning!

Your rest period will vary depending on your rep range and intent for this the exercise. If you are a farmer and are training to improve your endurance in the hay field, you may want to keep your rest periods to 2 ½ minutes and perform eight rep sets. If you are a shot putter, you may want to work in the four-repetition range and rest between 3-4:30 minutes between sets.

Placement in an Exercise Program

The Jump Shrug is very demanding. To get a good training response, I would suggest using it in the beginning of your workout. If you were using the Jump Shrug in an Olympic training session, an exception could be made, placing it after your primary lifts. If you are a bodybuilder and want to blast your fast twitch fibers, you will do well to start with Jump Shrugs and progress to standard shrugs.


In this two part series on the Shrug exercise, we have looked closely at how to set-up and execute the Shrug exercise for maximum effectiveness and minimum chance of injury. Developing strength in the scapular elevator muscles is not only useful for improving sports performance and aesthetics, it is useful in conditioning manual laborers in their various jobs. The Shrug exercise is useful in preventing injury to the cervical spine and shoulder. The Stability Shrug and Low Cable Shrug are effective for improving spinal stability and posture, while the Reciprocity Shrug is a very useful exercise for improving mobility in the commonly hypomobile upper thoracic region of the spine. The Shrug exercise should not be left out of any upper body condition program or sports performance program and should be considered a staple lift in anyone’s training program.