A Case Against the Shrug

DISCLAIMER: The statements in this article are based off research and my own experience.  This article is not meant to be taken as a diagnosis, but to raise awareness of the potential risks associated with muscle imbalances which shrugs can exacerbate.  If you believe you may be suffering from an imbalance, speak to your physician and obtain a referral to a physio.  I am neither a DPT nor physician and the information provided should not be interpreted as such.

Traps, they are one of the first muscles people notice, and who doesn’t want to look big at first glance?  People wanting big traps means they're probably gonna do one thing: a high volume of heavy shrugs.

Let’s first look at the anatomy and physiology of the trapezius muscle:

  • Upper Trapezius - Scapular elevation and cervical extension, rotation, and lateral flexion.
    • Your typical “shrug” movement, as well as bending your neck back and to the sides
  • Middle Trapezius - Scapular adduction (pinching your shoulder blades), elevation, and superior rotation (i.e. moving the right scapula counter-clockwise).
    • Pinches the shoulder blades together
  • Lower Trapezius - Scapular adduction, depression, and superior rotation.
    • Pulls the shoulder blades down and together

So What’s the Problem?

When executing the shrug, the prime mover is the upper trapezius and there is some help from the levators and middle trapezius; together, these muscles work to elevate the scapula.  If this exercise is done too often, it can exacerbate the, most likely preexisting, common muscular imbalance called upper crossed syndrome (UCS).


Dr. Vladamir Janda's Upper Crossed Syndrome

In 1979, Dr. Vladamir Janda defined UCS (right) as a muscular imbalance in which one’s tonic muscles (working against gravity) are overactive or tight, and one’s phasic muscles (working with gravity) are weak or inhibited (1).

Tonic muscles tend to be Type I dominant and consist of:

  • Upper Trapezius
  • Levator Scapulae
  • Sternocleidomastoid
  • Pectorals (both minor and major)

Phasic muscles tend to be Type II dominant and consist of:

  • Deep cervical flexors (longus capitis and longus colli)
  • Serratus Anterior
  • Rhomboids
  • Lower trapezius

Janda’s upper crossed syndrome can result in forward head posture, kyphosis, winged shoulder blades, rounded shoulders, cervicogenic headaches, and external impingement syndrome (6-9).  If you want to look/be strong, or let alone function properly, these problems certainly will not help.

If you’re interested in learning more about Upper Crossed Syndrome and Dr. Janda, Dr. Phil Page created a website dedicated to the late Dr. Janda: http://www.jandaapproach.com/.

Still skeptical?  Well, you may be complaining that you can’t get your traps to grow, and if this is the case, listen to your body and respond appropriately: decrease upper trapezius work and correct the imbalances if they exist.  Hypertrophy is inhibited when a muscle is hypertonic; this is potentially why your traps are not responding to stimuli (2-5).

What Can I Do About It?

Some things you should consider trying:

I have seen, first hand, the effects of hypertonic upper trapezius in a friend of mine with external shoulder impingement causing ulnar nerve entrapment.  After working on his upper trapezius, full ROM was restored, but only for a brief period of time (~15 minutes).  One must fix the full imbalance of UCS in order to begin “working properly” again.

One can easily get all the trapezius work they need from a combination of numerous back and shoulder exercises, as well as major compound movements such as deadlifts.  Do not give one muscle more attention than it deserves, otherwise you’re asking for trouble.  Remember: keep an equilibrium or your body will fight back.

  1. Liebenson, C. (2007). Rehabilitation of the spine: a practitioner's manual (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  2. Lavelle, E. D., Lavelle, W., & Smith, H. S. (2007). Myofascial trigger points.Medical Clinics of North America, 91(2), 229-240.
  3. Simons, D. G., & Mense, S. (2003). Diagnosis and therapy of myofascial trigger points. SCHMERZ-BERLIN-SPRINGER VERLAG-, 17(6), 419-424.
  4. Staud, R. (2011). Peripheral pain mechanisms in chronic widespread pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 25(2), 155-164.
  5. Fitts, R. H., McDonald, K. S., & Schluter, J. M. (1991). The determinants of skeletal muscle force and power: their adaptability with changes in activity pattern. Journal of biomechanics, 24, 111-122.
  6. Cools, A. M., Declercq, G. A., Cambier, D. C., Mahieu, N. N., & Witvrouw, E. E. (2007). Trapezius activity and intramuscular balance during isokinetic exercise in overhead athletes with impingement symptoms. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 17(1), 25-33.
  7. Moore, M. K. (2004). Upper crossed syndrome and its relationship to cervicogenic headache. Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics,27, 414-420.
  8. Yoo, W. G., Yi, C. H., & Kim, M. H. (2007). Effects of a ball-backrest chair on the muscles associated with upper crossed syndrome when working at a VDT.Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, 29(3), 239-244.
  9. Yoo, W. G., Yi, C. H., Cho, S. H., JEON, H. S., CYNN, H. S., & CHOI, H. S. (2008). Effects of the height of ball-backrest on head and shoulder posture and trunk muscle activity in VDT workers. Industrial health, 46(3), 289-297.

One Comment

  1. Dylan Evans said:

    Thanks for the article. It helps a lot

    July 31, 2013

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current day month ye@r *