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Q: When doing shrugs, is it beneficial to rotate in an arc forward to back? I see people doing this and I cannot see why it would be a bad thing … but I’m not sure.

First it’s important to understand that the target muscle in the shrug is the trapezius – a diamond-shaped muscle that can be divided into upper, middle, and lower regions. The trapezius is one of the widest back muscles – it helps you move your head, neck, arms, shoulders, and torso. It also stabilizes your spine and helps with posture. The shrug works only the upper portion of the trapezius. The fibers of the upper traps run vertically along the neck and attach at the base of the skull. Their primary function: is to elevate the shoulder girdle. Elevation is purely an up-and-down movement, in line with the direction of the muscle fibres. Thus, any backward and/or forward motion is not only extraneous, but it saps your energy reserves, causing you to fatigue quicker during your set.

What’s more, rolling the shoulders belies the laws of gravity. Gravitational force is always straight down, right? Now, where does rotating the shoulders back and forth take place? Horizontally, of course! Since an exercise must directly oppose gravity in order to be effective, any ancillary muscle activation achieved by rolling the shoulders forward or backward (predominantly in the mid-traps and rhomboids) will produce little in the way of development.

So what is the best way to perform a shrug? Simply lift your shoulders upward in a straight line as high as possible. Attempt to touch your traps to your ears. Once you elicit a contraction in the topmost position, lower the weight smoothly and under control. Although any modality can be used for exercise, dumbbells are preferable as opposed to bar-based movements. A bar will drag along the front of your body and therefore tends to pull you forward during the move, potentially placing undue stress on the lower back. Dumbbells, on the other hand, can be kept at your sides, more readily allowing you to maintain an upright posture.

If you’re looking to boost the strength of your shoulder, neck, or upper back muscles, or you want to improve your posture, consider adding shrugs to your workout routine. Strengthening your trapezius muscles can help stabilize your neck and upper back and reduce the strain on your neck and shoulder muscles.