The Gittleson Shoulder Shrug – One of the BEST Upper Trapezius Exercises I know for Building Bigger Traps and a Strong Neck

In today’s post, I’m showing you how to perform my new favorite shoulder shrug exercise variations, which I’ve named “The Gittleson Shoulder Shrug” after legendary strength coach Mike Gittelson, who I learned it from at the 5th Annual Strength & Conditioning Conference held by Rob Taylor’s Smarter Team Training. By the way, SST has a great website and produces some great podcasts that you should check out here!


Coach Gittelson is one of the worlds leading experts on concussion prevention and Neck strengthening to improve neck size and “hopefully” prevent/reduce impact related injury. Here’s Coach Gittleson giving one of his famous Neck Training lectures at an STT event:



If you’re looking to build a stronger neck and bigger traps – The Gittleson Shoulder Shrug is one of the best Upper Trapezius exercises I’ve found for getting the job done!



Here’s How to do the Gittleson Shrug


Step 1 – Sit on a bench and grab the bottom of the bench just behind your hip.

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Step 2 – Allow your loaded side shoulder to drop down as far as possible. This puts a stretch (eccentric load) on your left upper trap (as sown below) and, because of the way you’re leaning, it also puts an intense isometric contraction in your right upper trap. That’s a 2 for 1!


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Step 3 – Shrug the Dumbbell up as hard and as high as you can!


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Here’s a video tutorial of The Gittleson Shrug



Additional Comments & Coaching Tips About the Gittleson Shrug


– You can use this shoulder shrug variation as a stand alone exercise to build your traps. Or, it’ll work even better if you use it in conjunction with other battle tested upper trapezius building exercises like: Heavy Deadlifts, Cleans, etc;


– Holding anything by heavy your sides or in front of your thighs is great for building bigger & stronger traps!


– We really emphasize using shrug variations with our high impact athletes such as wrestlers, football players, rugby players, boxers / Mua Thai kick boxing athletes and MMA fighters to build them bigger, stronger neck that can deal with the rigors of their sport.


– “The Upper Traps have a major stability influence on the neck, shoulder and thoracic spine.” Mark Comerford


– Shoulder shrugs seem to get a bad rep among many  coaches because most of us have been told/taught somewhere down the line that strengthening the upper trapezius muscles some how leads to dysfunction, since the upper traps are often overactive / tight.  It’s interesting and contradictory that many of these same coaches promote the use of Heavy Farmers walks, heavy dealifts and cleans, which are well know to be great upper traps builders.


Plus, I doubt you’ll promote poor posture when we don’t allow it in training. Building strength in good posture is more likely to carry over into the body going back to that same good posture when strength is needed in a real life situation. And, as I said in the video above, if you’re using/strengthening the upper traps through a full range of motion, you’ll certainly won’t cause anything to become “short/tight”. In fact, you’ll likely do the exact opposite and actually improve the active range of the muscle.


Additionally, and probably most importantly,  according to functional anatomy experts like Nikolai Bogduk or Mark Comerford – the thought that the upper traps are tight and/or over active is highly flawed and based on a very outdated view of our anatomy.


“Most of the current anatomy text books are at least 25 years out of date.” Mark Comerford



In Comerford’s lectured titled “Trapezius: Clearing up the Confusion” he explores the most current evidence on the role of trapezius and brings us up to date, challenges some accepted (but incorrect) “facts”, and makes a case that:


– Upper trapezius cannot elevate the scapula above neutral (Note: That’s why we drop the working shoulder below the other and side lean slightly during the Gittleson Shrug.) (For more on why the upper traps doesn’t elevate the scapula go here.)


– Upper trapezius is rarely “short” – it is usually excessively elongated in most people with mechanical neck or shoulder pain. We need to shorten it – not stretch it.


– Upper trapezius is not excessively overactive in people with neck and shoulder pain – and it needs to increase recruitment to manage recurrent pain. Most EMG studies that demonstrate this “overactivity” have a common flaw in methodology


– Upper trapezius has similar neurophysiology to transversus abdominis and segmental lumbar multifidus (normally has an anticipatory timing pattern and is delayed with pain)


– Upper trapezius has a similar biomechanical model to transversus abdominis (bilateral activation in the background of all functional movements tensions a fascial structure to control intersegmental vertebral displacement)


– Upper trapezius also experiences sudden decreases in muscle volume in response to pain similar to segmental lumbar multifidus


– Lower trapezius does not pull the inferior angle of the scapula down and in. It’s activation moves the inferior angle laterally and the moves acromion superiorly producing upward rotation of the scapula.



Closing Comments

We at Performance U don’t share that belief that any single exercise causes /enhances dysfunction. We believe that poor coaching and suboptimal program design are to blame for training related dysfunctions and/or potential postural imbalances due to training.


Scientist and Author Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society has a great saying – “Just because you may not be smart enough to do something, doesn’t mean others aren’t either.” We believe this saying applies to the general demonizing of certain exercises over individuals simply stating/admitting that they simply can’t find a way to fit a certain exercise within their own specific training system. That said, at Performance U, we DO use exercises like shoulder shrugs and ab crunch variations within our strength & conditioning programs because we are confident enough in our program design skills, training methodologies and with our critical thinking and use of good old common sense.


If we cannot find a way to successfully apply a specific exercise or concept within our training philosophy, we are certainly humble enough to admit it. But, we are also disciplined enough to understand that we don’t have all the answers and realize that what might not work for us doesn’t mean it won’t work for all. And, instead of arguing with the folks who have found success using techniques and concepts that we may not have been able to, we actively seek them out and try to learn from them.  It’s our belief  that this approach is how a true professional does things and we hold ourselves to the highest standard of professionalism


In closing, the Gittleson Shrug is rooted in the science and is very practical to use in many, if not all, strength training settings. To me, that’s a winning combination!

I’m thankful to have teachers/leaders in the Physical Therapy world like Mark Comerford to provide us with latest scientific evidence on this controversial muscle (the Upper Traps) and to teach us about its real function! I’m also grateful for experienced strength coaches like Mike Gittleson who are willing to share their knowledge and passion about  improving strength and (hopefully) preventing injury with fantastic exercise concepts and techniques like the Gittleson Shrug.



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