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Exercise of the Week: Barbell Overhead Shrugs

Written on April 17, 2013 at 10:40 am, by Eric Cressey

Barbell shrugs have been labeled a “meathead” exercise by a lot of people, but with some quick modifications, you can make them really valuable inclusions in a strength training program, as not all shrugging is created equal.  Check out this exercise of the week video to learn more:

As I mentioned, if you’re looking for another variation that’s unloaded, try including wall slides with overhead shrug in your warm-ups; they are a great teaching tool.

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  • http://www.primalmovement.com.au Chris Jones

    Hi Eric,
    Thank you for the excellent post, I use this exercise exactly as you describe. I’m interested in the rep ranges that you use for this exercise and whether you generally target fast or slow twitch fibres? Kindest regards Chris Jones

  • Ben

    If you are training and performing the press correctly then you are already doing overhead shrugs anyway. But I guess you can do them with more weight than you press if you start them from high pins so that the bar is at lockout.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Chris,

    Not really worried about fast vs. slow twitch; just worried about teaching good movement quality. You won’t be doing it for heavy sets of three, though.

  • Vincent Brunelle DC

    Eric
    I love the fact that you can alway remind everyone there is a more effective version of most exercises.
    Vin

  • James

    My reaction lines up with Ben’s. What would this add for someone who’s already doing mechanically sound overhead pressing, which includes a small shrug at the top? I mean, if you lack ROM in shoulder flexion, external rotation, or thoracic spine extension, or you’re a baseball player already prone to overhead-related overuse injuries, okay, this is an alternative while you work on that, but for anyone who can overhead press pain-free, this just strikes me as kinda superfluous. Am I missing something?

  • Matt

    Thanks for great article, very timely as i have similar depressed scapula (note my right shoulder sits lower than left) as your client and cannot do any overhead pressing at the moment (as advised by physio due to thoraric / scapula imbalance). This therefore looks like a great remedial exercise to engage upper traps. Would you suggest focusing more on the right (lower side) using DB rather than BB to help even up shoulder imbalance?

  • T ferguson

    I love your methodical and scientific approach to training.

    I’m still recovering from a stubborn shoulder injury (rotator cuff?/jiu jitsu).
    I have pain at front delt/ collarbone junction when I get my arms vertically shrugged at the top of the wall slide.
    What does this mean?
    How do I fix it?

    Thank you.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Matt,

    Yes, you can do this unilaterally.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    T,

    It’s really hard to say without evaluating you in person. Could be an AC joint issue, cuff problem, labral tear, etc. It might also be that the congruency between the ball and socket is off. So, it could be a structural OR functional issue. I’d encourage you to get it checked out by someone who can see you in person.

  • Tyler

    Hey Eric, would love for you to clear some things up for me.

    1. By shrugging overhead are you not going into scapular elevation not actually upward rotation therefore shutting off your low traps? Isn’t this a dysfunctional pattern as we are trying to teach the upper trap to upwardly rotate by itself? I learned the shrug up cue from mark rippatoe years ago and actually think it was ineffective at actually producing good upward rotation. I focus on cuing upward rotation through protraction and serratus recruitment, external rotation of the humerus, and keeping the humeral head firmly in the socket rather than driving everything “upward”. I do understand people have inhibited upper traps but don’t think a very shrugged up shoulder is really what the top of a functional press or overhead position should look like. Also I don’t understand how the lats would produce the posture your describing. I can see they would limit humeral movement via flexion overhead and good rib cage, low back position and external rotation but without an attachment at the scapula I don’t see how they would limit scapular movement. Isn’t it levator scap, pec minor and rhomboids we are really after in someone like this because they are stuck in downward rotation not scapular depression, although i understand the similarity. I really appreciate your clearing this up. I have been wondering these things for quite some time.

  • Steve

    Hi Eric,

    I have one shoulder that is significantly lower than the other, and also have slight pain in this same shoulder when elevating my arm overhead. The pain disappears after foam rolling my lats however. Do you think it would be beneficial to perform single arm over head shrugs to try and lift this shoulder back up?

    Many thanks,

    Steve

  • Andy

    Love wall slides to balance out the increased scapular depression and downward rotation postural dysfunction resulting from over facilitation of lats with pull ups and dead lifts for those who make such routine exercises in their programs, which ends up giving some people neck pain due to upper traps becoming hypertonic in a lengthened position to counteract gravity and hyperactive lats… All about balance, great key and go to exercises!

  • Andy

    Another good alternative for scap upward rot and elevation is with a pulley machine, get in half kneel and have the pulley arm low to the ground, then punch diagonally upward at a 135 deg angle in a pressing motion.

  • http://2bfitinEtown.com Stacia

    I just saw another post on this same subject of overhead shrug. However, their reason for choosing the overhead version as opposed to arms hanging straight down was when uppertraps were more dominant, this overhead position would help to engage more of the mid and lower traps to even out the imbalance. Now with this you seem to be focused on mainly upper trap recruitment with this variation. how much lower and mid traps are worked in this version?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Stacia,

    In order for the arms to be overhead correctly, the traps have to fire together. Lower traps are a crucial part of upward rotation, so you’ll get some of all of them.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Steve,

    Hard to say without evaluating you, but it’s a good assumption on your part. Check out my write up on scapular depression in this article:

    http://www.ericcressey.com/what-i-learned-in-2012

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Tyler,

    In some folks, the added shrug helps to complete upward rotation, as upper traps are the missing component to the “force couple” in many people.

    Lat DOES attach to the scapular in most individuals. Look at this cadaveric study. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16092134

    And, even if it didn’t, it’s such a large and powerful muscle that I’d argue it could create these actions indirectly by moving the entire shoulder girdle, as opposed to just the rib cage. Essentially, I think people substitute lumbar extension and scapular depression for posterior tilt.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    James,

    I’d argue that only a very small percentage of the population has what I’d consider perfect scapular upward rotation. If you’re overhead the right way, no need to include. That’s not everyone, though.

  • Kieran

    How do you define scapular depression? I’ve tried to find out a definitive answer based on anatomical landmarks, or angle of upper traps, or something similar, with no luck. I feel like I have ended up with depressed scapulae due to the constant ‘down and back’ cues etc but I’m not sure

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Kieran,

    Scapular depression would be defined as the superior angle of the scapula sitting below the level of T2. Downsloped shoulders are usually a quick giveaway.  You’ll often see scapulae that sit in downward rotation, too.

  • sam

    What if you sit in scapulae depresssion, and have extremely tight lats, rhomboid dominance, and Can not reach overhead to do the overhead shrug, even though you make the t spine mobilizing, and core strengthening exercises? Is there any other way to train the upper trap then, without feeding the levator scapulae and depressed scapulae with usual barbell shrugs?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Sam,

    If that’s the case, this exercise is too advanced for you.  Start with wall slide variations that don’t require as much shoulder flexion. I like wall slides at 135 and serratus wall slides with bands.  And, obviously, work hard on getting shoulder flexion ROM.


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