If you have been in the 'Iron Game' for a long time, then you may have come across a quirky book called Kelso's Shrug Book by Paul Kelso. Paul has been singing the praises of various shrug variations for decades in the lifting community, although many people today have no idea who he is nor do they really understand the beauty of shrugs. As the zeitgeist has moved away from the Bodybuilding ethos of yesteryear to the Functional Training, Crossfit, and Natural Movement camps of today, we may have all but forgotten about the value of isolation exercises.. In this blog, i want to expand on a few thoughts regarding isolated scapular work (i.e.-Shrugs!) and how it can be an excellent tool to be used in training and rehab.
For the sake of this article, a shrug is essentially any movement that involves scapular retraction, depression, protraction, or elevation (or any combination of these movements) performed with a straight arm. Gymnasts call this 'straight arm strength', and it manifests in gymnastics conditioning with skills like front levers, back levers, side levers, planches, handstands, etc. Unfortunately, much of the lifting community avoids any straight arm work as it is not part of their competitive or aspirational repertoire. I think this is a mistake and something that those that participate in any of the lifting events should incorporate into their training. I think that Paul Kelso's discovery of applying various shrugs in training provided some unique benefits as an adjunct to the traditional lifts:
1) Increased Motor Control of the Scapulae: i have nicknamed this 'Scapular Intelligence' (tm). Shrugs can be a way to teach active control of the scapulae without compensating by using the arms, thoracic spine, and/or neck. If you need proof of this, go to your local gym and watch how poorly people control their scapulae in basic movements like chin-ups, push-ups, and dips.
2) Increased Hypertrophy of the Upper Back, Scapulae and Shoulder Stabilizer Muscles: One of the benefits of a shrug is that you can load the movement quite heavy since it is such a small range of motion. If adding some meat to your upper body is a goal, then a shrug is an excellent way to get more upper body volume into a program without being too taxing on the CNS. And, as we know, the recipe for hypertrophy is lots of volume (and calories)! Adding some meat to your upper back and shoulders--as an example--could help with squatting, as a common point of failure in a loaded squat is due to an inability to keep the spine in a neutral posture (i.e.-your torso is weak relative to your legs).
3) Increased Confidence with Heavier Weights: Since you can utilize very heavy weights with shrug variations, they can also provide some psychological benefits as you can start handling weights that you can't necessarily lift with a full range yet, but you certainly can try either holding it in your hands for time or start shrugging it.
4) Shrugs help with Scapular Upward Rotation: Even if you're not interested in building massive traps, the movement of shrugging can actually assist with scapular upward rotation, which is commonly lacking in people with shoulder issues. The upper/middle traps have gotten a bad wrap over the years because a thought-virus has been pervading about how people are "over-dominant" in their upper traps and need to learn how to relax them. What if they are weak? For a worthwhile read on this concept, check out Physiotherapist Adam Meakins blog titled Upper Traps, Over-Assessed, Over-Blamed, and Very Misunderstood.
What you will notice in those people that have avoided straight arm work in their training is usually a poor ability to dissociate the scapulae from the arms (i.e.-they do chin-ups with their shoulders up in their ears or anteriorly tip their scapulae in a pushup), they can't keep their elbows straight in a loaded position (i.e.-a push-up position plank or bear crawl feels really hard muscularly because they can't full extend their elbow)--This is very common in bodybuilders who do a lot of hypertrophy work over time without maintaining the ability to lock out their joints. Even movements like bear crawls, crab walks, and weighted carries can be considered straight arm work and can be easily folded into a workout or basic warm-up routine as a way of training or maintaining your scapular intelligence and strength.
Here are some useful variations of Scapular Intelligence drills that i use often to bring awareness, control, and strength to the scapulae:
Scapular Assessment (Unloaded Scap Circles): This is a quick and easy assessment to see how intelligent and mobile your scapula is. A scapular circle encompasses all movements of the scapulae (protraction, depression, retraction, and elevation), however, you can isolate each one of the four movements separately if you find that one particular movement is limited. You may need to also assess the scapulae passively if active movement competency is not ideal. Common errors are t-spine extension instead of retraction, t-spine flexion instead of protraction, bending of the elbows, and compensatory movements of the head and neck. Assess ability to isolate protraction, retraction, depression, and elevation if the circle looks disconnected or choppy.
Scap Shrugs (Protraction): Scapular protraction is often missed in strength training communities (i.e.-Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, Olympic Weightlifting) as scapular retraction and depression are more commonly trained (i.e.-in the Bench Press. This drill can also be used as a teaching element for pushups. A good pushup should express clean scapular movement from full protraction at the top to retraction at the bottom.
Overhead Shrugs (Elevation and Upward Rotation): Great for those learning handstands as it trains the body to get long through the torso, lengthens the lats, and allows the scapulae to upwardly rotate and protract.
Dip Shrugs (Depression): This drill can help with those that have a hard time depressing the scapulae, and can also serve as an accessory exercise for progressing into dips. I like to cue shoulder external rotation at the end range of the movement (full scapular depression). You can use yoga blocks or paralettes, progressing to full bodyweight on a dip bar or parallel bars.
Scapular Pull-Ups (Depression): As an accessory to Chin-up/Pull-up work, i like to see that trainees have a good awareness around how to initiate pulling from the scapulae. The variation in the picture below is a good starting place as it takes bodyweight off by having the feet anchored. This can then be progressed by performing the movement with full bodyweight hanging from a bar.
Band Pull Aparts (Retraction): This is an old-school drill used commonly in powerlifting to train and condition scapular retraction. There are several variations of this drill, but i use this most commonly as an accessory drill for teaching and training the Barbell Bench Press. Start with a light band and progress to heavier bands as needed. For Bench Press, i also teach this drill with thoracic extension to mimic the arched position in the Bench Press, but trainees should also learn how to retract the scapulae WITHOUT lifting the ribs.
Use your scapular assessment to guide decision-making and observe how well they understand scapular mechanics in pushing and pulling activities. The drills above can be used as a warm-up and/or tacked on to the end of a workout as accessory scapular training to bolster and reinforce good control and strength in deficient ranges.
About the Author
Charlie Reid considers himself an "anti-guru", an educator, and an enthusiast for all things that make humans stronger and more resilient. His pragmatic approach centers around helping others find solutions that are practical, while sifting through all the hype so prevalent on the internet.