Exercise Analysis - Shoulder Shrugs

If you walk into the gym and ask your trainer which of your muscle groups he’s planning on putting the screws to during the ensuing workout, chances are you’d be disillusioned if he indicated he didn’t know. You might even be tempted to find yourself a new mentor. But before you do your best impersonation of The Donald and send the guy packing, I suggest you give him a chance to explain. He might be making a gesture to reveal which exercise he plans on having you do.

Shrugging your shoulders is the universal sign for “beats me!” However, if you see someone performing this maneuver in the weight room, they’re probably in the know. If they are doing it with weights in their hands, they are working a very important muscle group, although they might not even know its proper name.

Ask any gym rate what muscle they are training when they are doing shoulder shrugs and they will probably say, “Traps.” Well, this reply is half right at best. Traps is short for trapezius, a large muscle that spans from neck to mid-torso on the back of the body. The trapezius extends from the spine to the scapula (shoulder blade), so when it shortens to create motion, it causes the shoulder blade to move. An example of this movement would be elevating the shoulder girdle, as you do when performing shrugs.

Shrugs require active shortening by the fibers of the trapezius that angle down from the cervical (neck level) section of the spine. However, the trapezius is a multi-directional muscle with fibers that also angle directly across from the spine at scapulae level, as well as up from below it. Consequently, the muscle group is typically classified into three sections – upper, middle and lower.

Shrugging your shoulders only involves the upper segment of the multi-angled trapezius, so “Upper traps” would be a better answer to the aforementioned query. However, even this response misses the mark. The trapezius is only one of a number of muscles that draw the shoulder blades up. With this in mind, it’s safe to conclude that “Scapulae elevators, one of which is the upper trapezius,” is probably the best answer to give.

When we perform shoulder shrugs, the origin of the upper trapezius (the end emanating from the spine) is fixed, thereby allowing the other end of the muscle (the insertion on the shoulder blade) to move toward it. This requires sufficient tension development in the muscle’s contractile elements to overcome any opposition to shortening that is present. When indicating uncertainty with the common gesture, this is simply the weight of the shoulder girdle and arms. In the gym, opposition is added to induce a training effect.

There are a number of ways to add resistance to shrugs. A barbell can be held at arms length either in front of or behind the body. Dumbbells can also be used. The latter alternative allows for the weight to be held at the side of the body, which you might find more natural. You can also use a cable machine by attaching a bar to the cable coming from the floor pulley. In this case, you could perform the movement either standing or lying supine.   

Muscles grow bigger and stronger when the motion they create can only be maintained for a short period of time. This means that opposing loads during resistance training must be chosen wisely. If the weight you select is challenging enough so that you can only continue to perform controlled repetitions for 90-120 seconds, you’re on the right track. But the location of the limitation to continuance must also be considered. This is particularly relevant when performing shrugs.

The muscles that elevate the scapulae are strong and range of motion covered when performing the movement is short. Consequently, a relatively heavy weight must be used to provide adequate opposition. This creates a problem because you might not be able to hold sufficient weight for a long enough period of time. If your grip gives out before your scapulae elevators, no training effect will be derived in the target muscle, no matter how hard you perceive the effort to be.

One way to strengthen a weak gripping link in the shrugging chain is to augment your grip with lifting straps. While old-school lifters might scoff at this “easy” way out, savvy exercisers realize you can actually train your shoulder elevators with greater intensity this way. And as for your gripping muscles, there are other exercises you can do to isolate and strengthen them once they are pre-exhausted after you’ve sufficiently trained the muscle group you were originally intending to hit.

Another way to circumvent a gripping limitation to shrugs is by supporting the opposing load atop the shoulders. This can be done by using the resistance offered by a standing calf raise machine. Simply stand with the pads resting on your shoulders, as you would when training your calves. However, when it comes time to start performing repetitions, shrug your shoulder girdle up instead of rising up on the balls of your feet.

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at www.newliving.com.





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