Do Shrugs Not Circus- Stupid

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Shrugs is one exercise which is loved by the novices as well as the pros. Big and muscular traps separate a beginner from an experienced lifter and is one muscle which is envy of many. Big trap muscles and a thick neck are surely a sign of strength and power.

Professional sportsmen like boxers, wrestlers, MMA players, rugby players, throwers in athletics etc. are the people who deeply understand the value of strong neck and trap muscles. The exercises which develop the trap muscles will indirectly strengthen the neck.

A strong neck and traps is also of utmost importance in weightlifters doing heavy lifts like Clean & Jerk and Snatch, and powerlifters performing heavy deadlifts.

As per author and coach Paul Check, “the trapezius group is critical to stabilization of the shoulder in any activity requiring use of the arm… The trapezius group (upper, middle and lower) are key contributors to the force generating sequence during most pulling exercises and are critical to most lifts, particularly Olympic lifts.

A 2014 study, found that, in shoulder rehab programs, the shrug exercise has been prescribed to facilitate upward rotation of the scapula by strengthening the upper trapezius muscle.

A 2008 study, determined the level of activation of the neck and shoulder muscles using electromyography (EMG) during selected strengthening exercises in 12 women undergoing rehabilitation for chronic neck muscle pain. EMG activity in the trapezius and deltoid muscles was measured during the exercises (lateral raises, upright rows, shrugs, one-arm rows, and reverse flys). For the trapezius muscle, the highest level of muscle activation was found during the shrug, lateral raise, and upright row.

In a 2010 EMG analysis, researcher Bret Contreras, analyzed upper trap activity with 25 different shoulder and trap exercises. Barbell Shrugs were found to be the best exercise for upper traps activation.

However, in the weight room one can find people performing shrugs in a number of ways and in most cases the technique is as funny as the amount of weight being lifted.

If I have to define the method in which for e.g. dumbbell shrugs is to be performed one line then it would be, “lift two heavy dumbbells by your side, lift your traps slowly and lower slowly”. It is actually as simple as that.

I really don’t know where did these funny movements came from? I once saw a guy lifting some puny dumbbells. He then kept the dumbbells in front of his body, he lifted his traps rolled them back, lowered them, brought them forward again and then straightened his arms to give his traps a kind of a stretch, this was one rep.

The physical meaning of shrug is “to raise and contract the shoulder” and it actually means to show indifference. You have done it number of times without knowing it, but this time do it a bit slowly and deliberately.

The trapezius or the traps is not a single muscle, but three different muscles with different roles and movements, ultimately used to elevate and rotate the shoulder. The bulging traps of a bodybuilder which you see is the upper traps that are primarily used to lift and rotate the shoulder blades upward. The middle traps pull the shoulder blades together and lower traps rotate the shoulder blades downward.

Dumbbells are the best way to target the traps. Shrugs on a trap bar is another way to engage the traps more readily.  When we are holding the dumbbells by the side the upper traps are acting against gravity to move up and rotating them in any direction will not only be less effective but also put undue stress on the rotator cuff apart from wasting your precious energy.

While standing the feet should be parallel, with stance almost equal to the width of the pelvis. Any more wider, and the dumbbells will drag on the outer thigh. While moving the dumbbell up or down, avoid any kind of shoulder rotation or too much elbow flexion (bending), there would be a slight bend in the elbow though. Maintain the torso erect, and don’t arch the back, keeping the wrists neutral all this while.  

Never let the shoulder move or round forward during the lift. This encourages forward head posture, and causes excessive and unwanted loading of the sternoclavicular and acromioclavicular joints”, says Paul Check.

While doing the shrugs the shoulders should move vertically straight up and down, but slight scapular retraction would help even more. This would also help strengthen the other movements like squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts, as scapular retraction is commonly seen in all these movements.

When performing shrugs, it is better to combine it with back or shoulder exercises.

While performing most workouts, shrugs is generally taken at the end of the workout as a finisher, due to which the optimal loading is not done, as the body is already exhausted. Try and take the shrugs in the middle of the workout, and maximize the loading, by lifting heavy.

When combining with shoulder workouts, finish all other shoulder movements like overhead presses before shrugs, as exhausted scapula and traps muscles, due to shrugs, can lead to faulty biomechanics while performing shoulder movement.

Try doing dumbbell shrugs with a 2011 tempo i.e. take 2sec to lower the weight, hold the weight for 0sec at the bottom, 1sec to take the weight up and 1sec hold at the top. This small change in the tempo will bring phenomenal changes in the way your trap fibers are recruited.

There is no limit to the number of sets you want to perform, anything from 3-6 sets is good, though more can be performed by advance lifters.

For a trap roast meal, do a drop set with the same tempo. Lift the weight equal to your 10RM (rep max) and do 10 reps. After every 10 reps lower the weight by 10lbs and do total 4 levels of drop. So if you start at 90lbs, do 10 reps, next do 10 reps with 80lbs and so on till last 10 reps with 60lbs.

Traps muscles are extremely strong and in most cases it is your grip which fails you first. Use a set of lifting straps if required. However, use them only when necessary.

Behind the back barbell shrugs which were made famous by former Mr. Olympia, “Lee Haney” is another good way to target the traps. You can use a smith machine for such a shrug. Again in this shrug it is a natural tendency to roll your shoulder back excessively. Avoid against this practice and keep the bar as close to your body as possible.