It’s not uncommon to find a couple of gym bros loading up a bar at any given time, preparing to shrug an obscene amount of weight.
I mean, this is how you build traps that could catch a bear, right?
Well that depends on a TON of different factors. Two of the primary ones being posture and joint position.
Contrary to popular opinion, shrugs aren’t the only way to develop your upper traps.
As a matter of fact I want to give you 4 reasons why shrugs can cause shoulder and neck pain, and why you should consider cutting them from your training altogether!
The upper traps are primarily responsible for scapular elevation, which is another way to describe bringing your shoulders up towards your ears. Essentially the shrugging motion.
Before we keep going, stop and examine your posture at this exact minute. If you are like most people, your head is forward, and your shoulders are rounded and elevated. Now sit up straight and relax your shoulders. You probably noticed a big difference in the two positions.
What we can take from this is, most of us sit with our upper traps in a shortened position. As that becomes a habit our lower traps become lengthened and under-active.
Related: Why Training Low Traps Is Essential!
If we do not fix our posture, but still continue to do heavy shrugs, we are making the problem worse.
It’s only a matter of time before this starts to negatively impact your shoulders and neck.
As I mentioned briefly in the section above, lower traps are important to “balance out” all three of the trapezius muscles.
Shrugs do very little to engage lower traps.
As a generalization, most people are upper trap dominant. Watch your client during their next session and note how often their shoulders elevate, especially when they start getting fatigued.
The lower traps are responsible for scapular depression. This is a tough motion for many people, and upper trap dominance plays a large role in that.
Lower traps are essential to shoulder health. They should be an equal contributor to scapular motion along with upper and middle traps. Without this balance of muscle activation, we put our shoulders at risk for impingement.
Assuming your client has unaddressed poor posture and upper trap dominance, they are likely shrugging their way to shoulder and neck issues.
Two muscles that become very tight with poor upper body posture are the upper traps and levator scapulae. As time goes on these muscles start to take over and do most of the work. This leaves the other the other scapular muscles on “vacation mode”.
The problem is we need those muscles to do their job in order to have healthy shoulders.
If you are not strengthening lower and middle traps, but continue to do copious amounts of shrugging, you are making the imbalance worse.
Luckily, shrugs haven’t cornered the market on upper trap development. There are other exercises that are extremely effective for building the upper back.
When performed correctly these will activate the upper traps in conjunction with middle traps, rhomboids, and biceps. Let’s not forget the rotator cuff contribution as an added bonus.
My favorite thing about this exercise is how it works the upper traps in a more functional way. Carrying all 30 bags of groceries upstairs in one trip is very similar to doing farmers walks. Now thats what I call functional!
Assuming that your mobility is good enough, deadlifting can be a great upper trap exercise. Being able to put some decent weight on the bar should please the inner powerlifter side of you. Lifting things from the ground is absolutely functional, and you can build some sizable upper traps in the process.
First look at your client’s posture and movement patterns. Can they reach overhead without arching their back and elevating their shoulders?
If the answer is no, I would suggest working towards a uncompensated overhead reach before shrugging.
Start by releasing tight muscles, training weak ones, and then integrate some of the exercises listed above.
As you client’s shoulder mechanics improve, their risk for shoulder and neck pain while shrugging decreases!
Have questions? Comment below!
Doctor of Physical Therapy Candidate, Corrective Exercise Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer
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