Exercises You Should Be Doing: Half Kneeling Band Overhead Shrug

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Sometimes as coaches and trainers we need to take a step back and really think about why we do things. Why do we prescribe “x” exercise? What purpose does it serve?  How will it help any given client become bigger, faster, stronger, or more sexifed?  Not only that, why for “x” number of sets and reps?  Why does it matter if it’s done as the first movement of the day rather than the third?  Is there a specific tempo involved?  What type of rest periods are we talking about? Are there any other intricate things to consider like foot stance, hand placement or grip variation?

I mean, these are all important questions, and the list could easily go on and on.

Shirt optional, right?

More to the point, as a coach or trainer, you should be able to explain, definitively, the rationale as to why you programmed what you programmed. What purpose does it serve?

In a like manner, you should also be objective about your programming and not be afraid to admit when you’re wrong or that you possibly overlooked something.

Unfortunately, we all like to think we’re perfect and infallible, but we’re not.  We all like to think we’re open minded and adaptable, but really, many of us our set in our ways.

ESPECIALLY, as coaches.

Take for example today’s exercise you should be doing.  If you happened to have a few ounces of plutonium on hand (and a Flux Capacitor), and decided for shits and giggles to go back in time two years to ask me whether or not I’d include any direct upper trap work into my programs, you’d more than likely find me laughing in your face.

Given most people are walking around with FUBAR’d shoulders as it is, and that recent research has shown that upper trapezius dominance plays a significant role in subacromial impingement, it makes sense.  It’s dumb.

The last thing you want to do with a muscle that’s already jacked up or overactive is to target it even more. This is almost always the case when you’re dealing with someone who spends the majority of their time sitting in front of a computer all day and then heads to the gym, grabs a barbell, and shrugs their face off.

In this instance, they’ll undoubtedly play into the dysfunction (upper cross syndrome, among others), and probably have a pissed off shoulder to boot.


There are cases where some direct upper trap work is warranted.

See what I just did there?  I blew your mind.

With regards to shoulder function we all know that of “stuff” goes down in that area.

The shoulder complex can partake in:  flexion/extension, internal/external rotation, abduction/adduction, horizontal abduction/adduction, elevation/depression, and of course, (scapular) upward/downward rotation.

The latter (upward/downward rotation) is what will be highlighted here.

Sadly, due to any number of factors – namely, the ungodly number of hours people spend sitting playing Angry Birds, poor programming choices, flawed technique, etc – we don’t move very well as a society. Further still, we just get in our own way and end up hurting ourselves.

Using an easy example:  I remember watching Eric assess an older client once who came to the facility with a litany of shoulder issue.  To put it bluntly, the guy couldn’t even extend his arms straight over his head.  Yet, the very first question right out of the gate was, “so, when do you think I’ll be able to add snatches and shrugs into my program?”

See what I mean?  We get in our own way.

However, given we train a fair share of baseball players at Cressey Performance, and it’s kind of a big deal that they have the ability to throw a baseball (which entails going over the head) without compromising the shoulder, doing some upper trap work may indeed be a crucial component to overall shoulder performance and health.

Up until recently, we’ve done little (if any) upper trap work.  Again, as noted above, it’s readily apparent that the upper traps are overly dominant in most individuals (compared to the lower traps and serratus anterior), and haphazardly throwing in exercises like shrugs may only make the issue worse.

That said, we can’t neglect the fact that the upper traps DO play a role in scapular upward rotation, and that optimizing their function is worth some of our time.

Here’s what we noticed, which has been a paradigm shift for us – especially as it relates to our baseball guys (and even some of our general population clients):  we are constantly (like, all the time) telling athletes and clients to retract and depress their scapulae.  Normally this isn’t a bad thing, as it targets the lower traps more and will help offset upper trap dominance.  But sometimes, it can be to the detriment of the shoulder.

Take the following exercises and how we typically like to cue them:

Seated rows:  pull the shoulder blades together and down.

Chin-Ups:  keep the shoulder blades in your back pocket (depressed).

Deadlifts:  shoulder blades “locked” and set (and subsequently the upper traps are on stretch)

Farmer Carries:  don’t shrug, set the shoulders (again, upper traps are on stretch).

Those are just a few examples, but hopefully you get the idea. And just so we’re clear:  I am in no way saying that these are bad cues to use.  Just that, sometimes, we need to be objective.   Anyhoo……..

Soon you may notice a downwardly rotated scapula due to a lengthened upper trapezius.  In this scenario, the excessive length makes the upper trap weak and a less than effective upward rotator of the scapula.  And, I don’t think I need to reiterate that less than optimal upward rotation is a going to be a massive monkey wrench when it comes to shoulder health and performance.

Take me for example.  Other than that being the coolest t-shirt ever, what else do you notice about the picture to the right?

See those sloped shoulders? Definitely not ideal, and sets the shoulder girdle a little too low for optimal function.  Now, thankfully, my baseball career is long over, and I don’t suffer from any long-term shoulder issues.  But needless to say, some dedicated upper trap work would be in high order for someone like me.

Likewise, this is exactly the type of shoulder symmetry (or, more appropriately, asymmetry) we’re more cognizant of at the facility when dealing with overhead athletes.

The key, though, is to step away from the stupid and not hightail it for the barbell shrugs.  As both Mike Robertson and Bill Hartman have noted on numerous occasions:

A shrug with the arms at the sides will certainly activate the upper trapezius, however it also strongly recruits the levator scapulae and the rhomboids, the downward scapular rotators. This feeds the imbalance causing the downward scapular rotation dominance.

The key, then, is to perform a movement where the scapulae is already in an upwardly rotated position which places a larger activation of the upper traps, which in turn will help offset the pull of the downward rotators (rhomboids and levator).

Half Kneeling Band Overhead Shrugs

This was a video I took while I was down in Florida last week at the commercial gym I was training at (so you may see some exercises you SHOULDN’T be doing in the background).  In it, you’ll see how I use a regular ol’ exercise band and place it underneath my knee.

From there, with my arm fully extended, I shrug and hold for a 1-2 second count.  I reset my scapulae and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.  Ideally, I’d shoot for anywhere from 8-12 reps per side.

Key Coaching Cues: Squeeze the glute of the kneeling leg to gain more of an active stretch in the hip flexors.  Wrist should be neutral.  And, you may need to play around with the band tension.  I was pretty limited with what I had available at the time, but suffice it to say, you may need to finagle a bit with how much of the band you place underneath your knee.

Additionally, this isn’t the type of exercise where I’m looking to overload the traps, so don’t be too concerned with using a monster band or anything like that.  Rather, it’s more of an activation and it’s imperative that you focus on the QUALITY of reps (feeling the actual muscle do its job).

Try it out today, and let me know what you think!


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Comments for This Entry

  • Anonymous

    Yes! Like it Tony. Played with this for the first time on Monday's session. No bands so used a cable on low setting. Good article mate! 

    March 15, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply to this comment

  • Todd Bumgardner

    Awesome, Tony! What if you did a variation with the elbow flexed to 90 degrees instead of fully extended? Would that still limit the involvement of the levator scap and rhomboids, or would they still be active? Keep it real.

    March 15, 2012 at 10:28 am | Reply to this comment

    • Anonymous

      Hmmmm, kind of awkward that way to be honest, and I feel you lose the effect. I will say though, doing facepulls with the arms more abducted is a good way to (and with less leaning back) is a good way to recruit the upper traps and limit the rhomboids and levator.

      March 16, 2012 at 6:08 am | Reply to this comment

  • Nicholas St John Rheault

    Nice stuff TG...... It never seems to amaze me how nerdy you guys are at CP.....  Keep it up Master Yoda.  What I enjoy the most about you guys is "you leave no stones unturned" approach to knowledge and being more proficient. 

    March 15, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Darfy

    Great blog post tony, I have questioned all the scap retraction work and no upper trap work for a while. As I. The dooche with crappy shoulders. Downwardly rotated, internally rotated, scap winging and no traps (upper or lower). I noticed us were "sloped" but saw your scap function and looked great so just put it in the thought box. Olympic weightlifting has helped me tremendously due to the need for traps and scap stability. Cheers. Darfy.

    March 15, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Anonymous

      Like with most things in this industry (intervals vs. steady state; fasted vs. non-fasted training; crunches vs. no-crunches), we seem to take a black or white approach. I like to think I'm more of a "middle ground" kind of guy and can see some applicability to most anything. Once Eric brought all of this up, it made complete sense! Glad you liked the post.

      March 16, 2012 at 6:11 am | Reply to this comment

  • Domenic

    I've noticed alot of my clients that have excellent glute function but knee issues from years past have upper body issues and are strangely weak bench pressing, pullups and have shoulder problems. Lower body tension imbalance causing thoracic spine problems leading to overuse of pec minor to make up for lack of thoracic movement, thoughts?

    March 15, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Francisco Maia

    This UTs asymmetry is something I have been seen a lot with my neck/upper back/shoulder PT patients. The exercise I have been doing with them, which I believe comes from Sahrmann's book, is a forearm wallslide in the sagittal plane. Similar to what EC had on this post but straight up instead of an angle and finishing with a shrug. http://www.ericcressey.com/5-lose-fat-gain-muscle-get-strong-move-better?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+CresseyTrainingSystems+%28Cressey+Training+Systems%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

    March 15, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Read and get smarter – 16.03.12 « Martin Hanstvedt

    [...] Exercises You Should Be Doing: Half Kneeling Band Overhead Shrug av Tony Gentilcore viser en fin øvelse for øvre trapezius. [...]

    March 16, 2012 at 9:08 am | Reply to this comment

  • Dan

    Ok so do I love these because a)they showed a sneaky little energy leak in my right ql/glute. b) they felt pretty cool to do. or c) I felt a little like superman trying to take off from a kneeling position, which automatically makes me and them awesome. Answer = all of the above.  Thanks Tony

    March 16, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Lance Jacob Goyke

    I've been playing with these for a while now. I've got the same depressed shoulder problems (they get really sad in the winter months), and it gives me some KILLER headaches when neglected. Your past intern Jay Bonn is another greatly affected by this. The best part about the fix is that I now look like the elusive Jackedasaurus with these visible upper traps.

    March 16, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Chris K

    Because the lats are downward rotators of the scapula, I see this issue in a lot in males who perform heavy rowing, pull ups, etc. The band wall slide progression described in Sahrmann's first book is great for this issue.

    March 17, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Anonymous

      Exactly Chris - great point. Like I noted in my post, we've gotten so engrained to cue people together and down, that we've totally neglected the fact that the upper traps DO play a role in proper shoulder function.

      March 19, 2012 at 6:36 am | Reply to this comment

  • Eric Schoenberg

    Nice post Tony.  I couldn't agree more.  Your shoulders were made for this exercise!  We find it's  important to cue people to control the descent as well, slowly lowering the scap. and not just "pulling into depression" on the way down.  A nice progression is band to kettlebell to bottoms-up kettlebell.  But I agree, lighter is better to ensure proper activation.

    March 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Anonymous

      Awesome - thanks for chiming in Eric, as I know you're a HUGE reason we're even addressing this issue at the facility in the first place. Nice call on the descent portion. I'll be sure to cue a more controlled descent with my athletes. Bottoms-up kettlebell just seems brutal!

      March 19, 2012 at 6:37 am | Reply to this comment

  • Ann Wendel

    Best part of the article is a new quote for me: "Step away from the stupid." I love it! Thanks for making my day :)

    March 19, 2012 at 7:54 am | Reply to this comment

  • Miha

    Great article! I just want to know if you do the same number of repetitions on both sides?

    March 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dood

    Just curious as to whether barbell presses perform similarly? I can understand NOT using overhead presses in populations that have shoulder issues or t-spine issues already, and your baseball players, but what about for a general population?

    March 19, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 3/21/12 | Eric Cressey | High Performance Training, Personal Training

    [...] Exercises You Should Be Doing: Half-Kneeling Band Overhead Shrug – Here, Tony Gentilcore highlights an exercise we use quite a bit at Cressey Performance with some of our athletes who are stuck in scapular downward rotation.  It’s a big hit with those guys with low shoulders (especially right-handed pitchers).  As an aside, I actually prefer the tall kneeling version over the half-kneeling variation, but that’s minutia. [...]

    March 21, 2012 at 5:02 am | Reply to this comment

  • Stephen Thomas

    Tony nice post.  Just a few things I would add.  In overhead throwers the "lower" presentation of the dominant shoulder isn't necessarily do to a downwardly rotated scapula.  This presentation is commonly caused from protraction and anterior tilting which due to the contour of the thorax makes the shoulder look lower and downwardly rotated.  Also this resting position of the scapula typically doesn't represent what occurs dynamically.  For example the "lower" dominant shoulder will normally have increased amounts of upward rotation compared to the non-dominant arm.  Other researchers and myself have shown this previously.  The exercise is an interesting alternative to the common use of scapular depression and retraction to target the lower trap and serratus anterior.  I agree that the upper trap still does need to be targeted during rehab however it needs to be targeted in exercises that also incorporate the lower trap and serratus anterior.  I believe this exercise does accomplish that by positioning the shoulder in a position of abduction and upward rotation.  However, I feel this exercise should be more of an advanced exercise  for overhead throwers.  Typically overhead throwers have difficulty activating the lower trap and serratus to provide sufficient upward rotation, therefore if this exercise is initiaed prior to that level of neuromuscular control then the athlete can develop shoulder symptoms.  Thanks for the post its nice to see people thinking outside of the box!

    March 21, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dan Pope

    Very interesting Article Tony.  I guess this would be a great exercise for someone with a "SICK" scapula.  Is the half kneeling position mostly to mimic a throwing position and have the core and glute activated while working the trap?

    March 22, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Doug

    Great post Tony. You touched in the beginning that not that everyone needs upper trap work. Can you be a little more specific? Did you mean sedentary desk jockeys for the most part and Uncle Fester look a likes? Thanks. Doug

    June 6, 2012 at 10:16 am | Reply to this comment

  • cassie

    Blew my mind! I've been doing these - but on seated shoulder press machine - shrugging weights in upward direction trying to focus on recruiting traps and rhomboids - just discovered they are really helping me rehab my shoulder - after serious overuse injury from swimming (scapula was frozen to ribcage)...now I understand the "why". Thanks!

    July 3, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Reply to this comment

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