Exercises You Should Be Doing: Barbell Overhead Shrug

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One of the main bullet points I hit on last weekend while in London was that many of the same movement distortions and predictable postural imbalances we see in overhead athletes manifest themselves in the general fitness population as well.

Specially, when we take someone with a extensive history of lifting heavy things – a meathead if you will – it’s not altogether uncommon to see a gross extension pattern or excessive anterior pelvic tilt with their posture (you can fit a fist inside the T-L junction) along with a depressed shoulder girdle.

Note:  I place an emphasis on noting I italicized the word “excessive” because there is an acceptable amount of anterior pelvic tilt (natural lordotic curve) in the lumbar spine.

Let all of the above marinate for a while and it’s a recipe for poor ability to upwardly rotate the scapulae.

For an overhead athlete this is crucial.  It’s important to have ample upward rotation so as to prevent wear and tear on the shoulder joint itself (namely: SLAP tears).

And even if your job doesn’t involve throwing a baseball 95 MPH and all you’re concerned with is how “abby” you look, it’s still important to have sufficient scapular upward rotation for general shoulder health.

And let me tell you something, chicks loooooooooooooove them some upward rotation. They go nuts for it.

Okay, not really.

I wrote in much more detail what scapular downward rotation syndrome is, as well as how to go about “correcting” a depressed shoulder HERE.

Hint: it doesn’t include Prozac. We’re not referring to that kind of depression mmm kay.

Give that article a read because I feel it will help elucidate in more detail all of the above, including some of the more introductory drills we utilize at Cressey Sports Performance to address the issue(s).

Today, however, I wanted to cover a more advance drill.

Barbell Overhead Shrug

It’s always funny whenever I mention during an assessment that someone lacks upward rotation and that we need to work on some upper trap recruitment and/or development.

They assume I’m going to program a healthy dose of barbell shrugs into the mix and that they’ll finally, finally be able to put their Bane mask to good use.

Not so fast you Tom Hardy wannabe.

Performing traditional barbell shrugs – where you hold the barbell at waist height and then “shrug” the barbell up with your upper traps – only feeds into the dysfunction (and may very well make things worse!).

What the what!?!??!!

How is that possible?

Well, think about it.  When you shrug the barbell with your upper traps – and you do so with a heavy load – what does the barbell do on the way back down?  It pulls you back into more shoulder depression.

Not to mention the scapulae aren’t moving to any high degree and there’s no upward rotation entering the picture.

The barbell overhead shrug IS NOT my first choice to address upward rotation. I much prefer to start with drills like forearm wall slides, bottoms-up KB carries, TRX Ys, or a whole litany of other drills which target the upper traps (< — all of which can be viewed in the article linked to above).

However, assuming one has been incorporating those drills for a tick, has decent anterior core stiffness, and is able to get their arms above their head without any major compensations (forward head posture, hyperextension of the lumbar spine), I really like the barbell overhead shrug.

Here we’re able to place the scapulae in a more upwardly rotated position and then we can perform the same “shrug” pattern in a way that will target the upper traps in a more functional manner.

In this case: helping to address lack of upward rotation. Regular barbell shrugs are fine, and will undoubtedly help build some traps. But if someone is in significant downward rotation/shoulder depression, overhead shrugs will more often than not be a better fit.

Key Coaching Cues:  You’ll want to take a wider-than-you-think grip on these, and at the same time, while you do want to sort of “set” the shoulder blades you want to be careful not to yank down too aggressively and allow the lats to turn (and pull you into extension & depression).

Squeeze your glutes, brace your abs, and don’t allow the rib cage to flare out.  From there simply “shrug” the barbell and hold for a 1-2s count at the top. Then CONTROL it back down to the starting position.

If you find that you’re slipping into lumbar extension and you feel it too much in your back, try reverting to a staggered stance and see if that helps.

Shoot for 8-12 reps.

I like to include this drill as part of an extended warm-up or as part of a “prehab” finisher towards the end of a training session.

Give it a try and let me know what you think!


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