Overhead Shrugs vs Regular Shrugs

Posted on December 16, 2019

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(Last Updated On: December 16, 2019)

A human being asks,

“Is there a particular reason why overhead shrug is better for improving a low shoulder than just a regular shrug? Is it because it’s easier to use too much levator scapulae with the regular shrug? Or is it that in overhead position it’s easier to improve rhomboid dominance?”

This is a pretty advanced question, so let’s first back up.

Grasping a low shoulder

You can classify a low shoulder in a couple ways. I typically do it by first asking “Is one shoulder lower than the other?”

Example:

Person’s right shoulder lower than left.

That’s a relative assessment i.e. how is one side relative to the other.

If one shoulder is lower than the other, that usually means you have something worth correcting. However, you also want to do an absolute assessment i.e. where is that shoulder by itself? For this, we look at the clavicle.

We’re looking for a clavicle slightly sloping upwards:

It doesn’t need to be precise. Above, the clavicle is clearly sloping upwards, below, the clavicles are clearly sloping downwards:

Of course, you can have one sloping upwards while the other is sloping downwards:

His right shoulder hanging low.

And if one clavicle is merely parallel to the floor, I still classify that as low, since it’s not sloping upwards. 

You could even have a person with one parallel clavicle and another sloping downward clavicle:

Ignore the red dots (they’re where this person wasn’t feeling so great).

You want to assess relatively and absolutely, because you can have one shoulder lower than the other, but neither clavicle sloping downwards. That person might have an elevated shoulder issue, which is rare in my experience, but you want to rule it out. The relative can give clues as to how a person uses one arm relative to another. The absolute gives clues as to what overall needs to be worked on.

What a low shoulder means

Simply, the person’s arm is getting pulled down too much, too often.

This often coincides with the shoulder blade (scapula) going through downward rotation too much, too often, too.

Think about a pull-up. While you’re pulling your body up, your arms get pulled down, and the shoulder blades come towards one another (downward rotation (and retraction too)).

Important tangent

Note, per the above with all the different clavicle relationships, it is not a guarantee when a clavicle is drooping that the shoulder blades are also in downward rotation. Furthermore, the shoulder blades could be in downward rotation, without the clavicles drooping.

For example, one clavicle could be lower than the other because the person’s upper back is tilted that direction. You could be a person who drives a lot, and like this,


Causing your left shoulder to sit lower than your right:

But is that from the shoulder, or the torso tilting?

This is getting into quite advanced posture / movement assessment, so I’m going to stop here. For our purposes, we’re just going to run with low shoulder (probably) = shoulder is pulled down too much.

Anatomy refresher

Ok, so our shoulder is getting pulled down too much, too often. What are some muscles responsible for this?

  • Rhomboids

  • Latissimus Dorsi

Latissmus Dorsi; left and right.

  • Levator Scapulae

Shrugging: Arms down vs Arms up

Let’s first pick on the Levator Scapulae, because it’s the most straight forward.

In addition to downward rotation, the levator scapulae also elevates the shoulder:

So if we do a shrug with the arms down,


  1. We’re working the levator scapulae into elevation
  2. We’re not really getting any upward rotation (there is a tiny bit at the very end of the shrug above (the bottom of the scapulae start tilting upwards))

Upward rotation is meant to occur when the arms move up. Note here how the scapula doesn’t really start getting into upward rotation until the upper arm (humerus) is at about 90 degrees:

Furthermore,

3. Look at how much the shoulder blades are coming together

While this does not necessarily have to happen in an arms-down-shrug, it’s normal, and often how people have learned or been cued to do the exercise “Pull your shoulders up and together.”

This significantly engages the rhomboids, which we know we’re trying to avoid.

Furthermore, while we may not be engaging the lats, we sure aren’t stretching them either, like we can when we place the arms overhead.

Refresher on latissimus dorsi anatomy

We can also stretch the levator scapulae while doing an arms-up shrug.

-> Like I said, this is an advanced question leading to an advanced answer. When in doubt, think about it in terms of the levator scapulae.

-Arms down and levator scapulae gets worked when it almost assuredly does not need it.

-Arms up and the levator scapulae gets stretched when it probably needs it.

Remembering our tangent

If the arms are up, we’re more likely to straighten our potentially tilted spine too.

Which usually involves a tight lat, since a lat, when functioning without the other, can laterally flex the trunk. So, even if we’re not exactly on the money by needing to get our arms into upward rotation, we’re probably still doing something beneficial by stretching the lats. That is, you’re more likely to have your torso tilted to a side when doing an arms-down-shrug than an arms-up shrug.

With that, what I’ve found when trying to reinforce shrugging with the arms down, is people then try to start doing it as part of their activities of daily living. While sitting in their chair, they start squeezing all around their neck, trying to hold their shoulder(s) higher.

That’s not really the goal though.

The goal is to passively get the shoulders in a more elevated position. Where the tension isn’t thought about. Exercise is great for this. We think about the tension during our exercise movements, then hope we’ve worked the area enough that (over time) the tension around the area naturally becomes greater, to the point the shoulders hold themselves higher.

You know that old idea of strengthening muscles makes them tighter? That can have some truth to it, and can be advantageous at times. Sometimes you want an area to get tighter!

-> Exercise isn’t always enough. Where supporting the arms during the day can really help:

Again, this way the shoulder(s) are elevated passively.

See here for more help during the day, like when typing

From a variety of angles, IF the goal is corrective in nature, arms-down shrugs aren’t as effective as arms-up shrugs.

-> If your goal is merely to get your upper traps beefy, arms-down shrugs are better. You’ll be able to use a lot more weight, in a safer manner, than arms-up shrugs.

Technique is still important for overhead shrugs

That said, you can’t just throw your arms overhead and start shrugging. Form still matters.

You could still have too much rhomboid dominance with the arms overhead:

You could also have the neck too engaged by looking upwards:

Better form:

And if you really want to be a stickler, your elbows should probably be facing forward, with little to no lower back arching.

-> This is because the lats internally rotate the arms (turns the elbow(s) out) and extend the spine. So by avoiding those motions, we insure we most effectively stretch them. Yes, they are tough muscles to get at. They’re easy to work, but hard to stretch, which is one reason they can cause so many issues.

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