This week's email is the first in a series of articles that will be titled Exercises You Probably Don't Need (EYPDN).
Today I'm going to analyse a popular exercise in gyms: the shrug.
The shrug is generally performed with either the barbell or a pair of dumbbells. The arms remain relatively relaxed, while the shoulders shrug upwards and back. The target muscle is primarily the trapezius (traps). These are the big bulky muscles that sit between the neck and the shoulders.
Why You Don't Need Them
Don't get me wrong: I'm all for trap growth, the shrug just isn't a good choice for most people. The vast majority of people I've seen performing this exercise are beginners. As I've covered dozens of times now, beginners will do best to take advantage of their propensity for rapid gains by prioritising large multi-joint exercises.
To put it in lay terms: getting your deadlift up to 200kg is going to do far more for your traps than spending valuable training time doing shrugs.
Anecdotally, I've been told I have big traps, and I've never done a set of shrugs in my life. And my traps weren't big before starting deadlifts.
Are They Useless?
If you're an advanced lifter, training the traps directly may be necessary if you want to get those last few percent of trap growth. Remember: I said advanced. That means it doesn't apply to me or probably anyone reading this.
Second scenario for shrugs: injury. If you have some kind of upper body injury that means you can't do standard pushing or pulling exercises, you may be limited to isolation work like shrugs. Again, this scenario doesn't apply to many people (think two broken arms).
What to Do Instead
First and foremost, deadlifts. In the deadlift your traps contract isometrically to stabilise your shoulders. This is a tough task during a heavy deadlift, hence the biggest deadlifters have had monster traps.
Additionally, the farmers walk (see above photo) can be both a good conditioning tool and trap-grower once you reach intermediate level. If you're still a novice lifter though, deadlifts are more than enough for trap growth.
So in summary:
Ditch the shrugs. Pick up heavy stuff instead.