by Paul Kelso
January 1986 – Part One
Over a year ago, I promised Peary Rader an article about the Kelso Shrug explaining what this principle is and how it may be applied. As I state in my course, the Kelso Shrug is not a single magic exercise, but positive and negative applications of the shrug principle to a variety of movements. I experimented for years to apply these moves to Olympic and powerlifting needs, testing them in conjunction with different lifts and on every type of machine available. A large number of bodybuilding benefits came to light during this tinkering and I will present some of them in this article.
Naming an exercise or training principle after oneself may seem rather conceited or presumptuous. I am hardly a Zottman or Hackenschmidt and there is very little entirely new in weight sports. I merely attempt to identify the various movements without causing confusion or being unnecessarily cute.
If there is a Kelso Shrug, it is the first I discovered and still find to be very effective. One day, quite by accident, I picked up a bar with a combined rowing and shrugging movement. I felt an unfamiliar response across my upper back so I spent the rest of the afternoon doing bent-over shrugs; underhand, overhand, close grip, wide grip, rolling motions, noticing the different muscle responses. I worked these movements into my program and realized more sharp, visual gains in my lats and traps in six months than I had in years of training.
Most are familiar with the usual standing shrug; it is a fine movement, but try something else. Here’s how to do a Kelso Shrug . . .
The Lat Shrug: Assume a position for bent-over rowing. Select a weight that can be used for 8 to 10 reps. Using a close, underhand or curl grip, shrug the weight up toward the chest, aiming the direction of contraction toward the lower trapezius and further to the rear, NOT up toward the ears! Do not bend the elbows. Use only the natural mobility of the shoulder blades while “thinking” the lats into action (this may take a little practice). Lower the weight to a full stretch. The lats should feel like they are tearing loose about the 9th rep. That’s the original Kelso Shrug.
Bent Over Shrug: Same position but using an overhand, knuckles up grip 8 to 10 inches apart depending on the lifter. This variation produces much more emphasis on the middle trapezius and less on the lats. concentrate dead center between the scapula and crunch them together, not forward or backward along the spine. This overhand style will do more to develop the middle trap specifically than any other exercise I know.
The Rolling Motion: Also performed in the Bent Over Rowing position. Shrug the bar toward the ears and then roll the contraction, with scapular movement, over and back toward the rear and then return to starting stretch position. Or, contract toward the rear and roll forward toward the ears and then back to start. As this movement works almost the entire upper back area from the back of the neck to the lower lat inserts, it is excellent as a general movement for the first year man or intermediate who does not wish to further specialize.
Many published back routines include four or five of more different rowing or pulling exercises practiced 4 to 6 sets each. It is my observation that such a routine becomes less effective about two-thirds through because of fatigue to the biceps, brachialis, rear deltoid and other assisting muscles. Next time in the gym, do several sets of heavy bent rows. Take the last set to the point of failure so that no more reps can be performed without cheating or heaving the weight. Then, while still holding the bar at arms’ length and in the same position, start shrugging. At least three or four shrugs should be possible. This indicates that the muscles assisting the movement have failed before the muscles targeted by the exercise! Therefore, I recommend that the shrug movements be placed after arm pulling exercises in a program. If the lifter is working with pre-exhaustion techniques, he should do the shrugs first in his routine. I have also ‘supersetted’ using lat shrugs and bent over rows on an every other set basis and even every other REP with the overhand grip. I do not advocate using these shrugs in place of standard movements unless specializing. A combination works best as full involvement of all the major and assisting muscles is necessary for full development.
The shrug principle may be applied in many ways on a large variety of machines varying the direction of the shrug on a line of contraction from the hands to any chosen point along the spine between the neck and the lower latissimus. For instance, the Lat Shrug (curl grip) practiced at a normal angle for rowing can work both the middle trap and the lat depending on direction of contraction. Leaning forward so that the upper torso or spinal plane is closer to parallel with the floor will work the lats more sharply. The “lat angle” may be enhanced further by leaning forward while using a seated low pulley or leaning back using an overhead pulldown machine. A variety of hand spacings and grips produces different effects on muscle groups. The possibilities have not yet been exhausted because of the wide variety of equipment available. I encourage lifters to boldly experiment with what they have at hand.
Wide Grip Shrugs: These movements may be done several ways and are performed with a very wide snatch grip on an Olympic or power bar. In the bentover position, the contraction is to the middle of the back. Standing, there are two basic alternatives: to the rear, as in finishing a deadlift, or up toward the ears. All the wide grip movements aid in widening the shoulder girdle, especially with young people.
The bentover position works the middle trap and contributes to the ‘spread’ while the standing shrug to the rear, shoulders back deadlift style, could be considered a basic exercise in a general program as it works the entire trapezius. Shrugging up with a wide grip is specific to the upper trap and strongly involves the attachments high on the back of the neck area. Prepare for some exquisite soreness after the first couple of workouts with this one!
In all of these shrugs it is important not to use a weight so heavy that the full range of motion is impaired! However, after several months the lifter probably will be able to shrug more than he can properly row or pull in the corresponding position. Some experience lower back stress in the bentover position – bending the knees and “sitting” back will help. (Getting to work on the lower back wouldn’t hurt either!) Placing the forehead on a rack or high bench also relieves the strain but the best method is to do the Bent Over or Lat Shrugs while lying face down on an adjustable incline bench set for the angle of attack. This takes the legs and lower back out of the movement and allows the upper back to do the work. Lat and Bent Over Shrugs work best practiced at very low angles with the upper body close to parallel with the floor. Wide grip shrugs may also be worked on an incline bench. A setting of 45 degrees up to nearly perpendicular provides lots of angles for attack. Training partners can help getting the bar into position and there are any number of racks, benches and uprights in a gym that could be used. Use some imagination!
Wide grip shrugs also may be practiced on the cable crossover machine set on low pulley. This supplies negative resistance. Unfortunately, these machines differ widely in cable length and amount of weight available.
The Lat Flair: Inexperienced bodybuilders often have trouble developing the extreme flair or outspread needed for a lat pose. Muscle control is involved and the complaint is that the scapula won’t cooperate. Try this: stand in the cable crossover machine with it set on high pulley. Arms should be extended straight out to the side or slightly up and forward. (The height of he lifter may be a factor; some do this movement seated.). Use enough weight so that the relaxed arms are stretched and the lats and scapula are under strong stress. The feel should be one of semi-dislocation. Then, without bending the arms, shrug the scapula toward each other while concentrating on the lower trap area as a focus. Return to full stretch, keeping the weight under control. Reps in the 10 to 12 range result in increased scapular mobility, muscle delineation and striations of the entire area involved.
By the way, this movement is similar in negative to an old spring set exercise. Remember holding the springs behind the back and pressing the hands straight out, rep after rep? Find that old set, put some springs on it, grab the handles and stretch it across the upper back. Press it out and then extend and contract it with scapular and shoulder girdle motion. That’s right, a lat spread with resistance. A few sets of this and the crossover machine movement in a program will improve anybody’s ‘spread’!
My original course stated that multi-angular shrugs strengthen the entire shoulder girdle and build a foundation for heavy training. This involves the front of the girdle and calls for PUSHING movements. How can there be a shrug for the chest? There are several and the dipping shrug should interest bodybuilders.
Shrug Dips: Warm up with several sets of parallel bar dips. Resume the position but this time raise and lower the body on straight arms using only the action of the shoulder girdle. This is the direct negative of the common standing shrug. Lower the body by allowing the shoulders to raise toward the ears. Raise the body by forcing the shoulders down. Varying the angle of the body activates or stresses different muscles. Leaning forward Gironda-style will make the lats, serratus and pectorals scream and will promote mid-chest pectoral cleavage. A dip belt makes this one a winner.
This exercise is best done last in a chest routine following parallel bar dips or decline work. This can be a very tough movement and may take lots of practice. Many will find the standard width dipping bars too close for comfortable performance; using dip bars that open in a ‘Y’ shape will allow for experiments in hand spacing.
Related movements can be performed in the pushup position, or upright with the hands on boxes with the feet elevated to the front, and so on.
Programs: My guess is that most of the lifters reading this article are not doing 15 to 25 sets per body part like the great champions. Advanced men will be able to work these shrugs into their routines using their own experience. But for the more average person training 2 to 4 days per week using far fewer sets per bodypart, let me make a few suggestions:
Lats: 1.) Bent over rows, seated pulls or overhead pulldowns. 2.) Lat shrug – close, curl grip.
Traps: 1.) Standing wide grip – shrugged up or toward rear. 2.) Bent over shrugs – overhand grip.
Chest, Torso: 1.) Parallel bar dips – wide grip, elbows out. 2.) Shrug dips – lean forward.
Lat Flair: 1.) Wide grip pulldowns or chins. 2.) Crossover machine shrugs. 3.) Spring set shrug – if desired.
These suggested combinations should be worked in with current programs as needed. Adding them all is just too much. The lifter should choose either the “Lats” group or the “Lat Flair” section. Experienced men with a separate back day might cut their programs back one third and add several of these shrugs.
Two to four sets apiece, 8 t0 12 reps, should be plenty of work for first year and intermediate men. A really ambitious lat and trap program for split training might include bent over rowing, standing wide grip, bent over and lat shrugs. A more specialized lat program would include rows and pulls, crossover machine shrugs and lat shrugs. Again, these shrugs should be performed after an arm pulling or rowing exercise they closely resemble unless pre-exhaustion is being used, then do them first.
Results from using these shrugs include increased thickness, separation and a thickening of attachments along the spine. A generally enhanced sculpturing of muscularity can be expected. The lat shrug not only works the lats and middle traps but aids the shrug dip in carving out the line of the lat along the fib cage as seen from the front. One fellow performs lat shrugs while lying face down on a decline bench. He reports better results this way than in the bent over position. The bench is raised on blocks so that the bar doesn’t hit the floor at full stretch. Others use heavy dumbbells when bent over or using benches. However, the underhand grip effect CANNOT be achieved properly with dumbbells because of the difficulty in maintaining the palms front rotation. Finally, the overhand grip bent over shrug is just flat FINE for filling up the mid-scapular hollow with muscle.
Doubting Thomases always appear when anything new comes along. Let me challenge the scoffers to a test of the possibilities of the shrug variation principle. Jump up to the chinning bar and grab on wide. Get a full hang stretch. Now shrug the body up using only scapular mobility and other torso muscle contractions. Do not bend the elbows. Try several reps. Several sets. Use a weight belt. Any questions? This move should follow chins or pulldowns in a program.
One other thing about these shrugs and a dozen others I haven’t mentioned: They Increase Strength! My next article will discuss variations of he shrug principle for Olympic lifting, the deadlift, and the bench press.
November 1988 – Part Two
I stated in my January 1986 article that shrug movements develop strength and have direct application to Olympic lifting and powerlifting. The “Kelso” or “lat shrug” and other movements were originally designed to act as foundation training for the shoulder girdle to better support heavy exercises and lifts. These variations of the shrug principle, the adduction, retraction or “rotation” of the scapula, take advantage of the full range of motion possible by the shoulder girdle.
Most weight men have practiced standing shrugs with a barbell or dumbbells; primarily, these work the upper trapezius. How about other directions, such as to the rear, down toward the lat insertions, forward using the pecs, out to the side or even a negative movement resembling a dip? Before listing movements specific to aiding the five current competition lifts, I want to explain how the exercises can help. By analyzing a lift and breaking it down into parts, shrugs can be applied to a particular stage of the lift. Sticking points can then be isolated and attacked.
Lifters familiar with my work will have read this before, but bear with me. Many exercise routines do not fully work the muscle or muscle group intended because of the failure of assisting muscles. This is common in back routines. After many sets of bent over rowing taken to failure, the trainee will still be able to crank out four or five reps of bent over shrugs. The biceps, brachialis and rear deltoids fail before the target muscles: the lats, traps, teres. rhomboids, etc. This situation can also occur with the bench press.
The Bench Press
Thirty years ago, the common questions among weight men were “How much do you curl?” and “What can you military press?” The bench press didn’t have the popularity it has now. The lift has taken over as the standard for measuring another’s strength. I would vote for the clean and jerk as a true indication of strength and athletic ability, but I doubt if I’ll get much support these days, so let’s discuss the bench press first.
Magazine articles about “the bench” have concentrated for years on lockout problems, hand and arm position, “finding the groove” and so forth. Less has been written about the initial drive off the chest than any other stage of the lift.
Watching top lifters can be revealing. What is the first thing that happens when the referee calls “press?” Most would say arm drive or explosion in order to gain enough height to allow the elbows to rotate into position to begin the follow-through to lockout. Well, look again. Not only is there arm drive, but a spreading of the lats and a shoulder thrust upward. Not all lifters do this; some don’t know to, but many of the best use this technique.
Record breaking Rick Weil has written about it, describing the use of the back and shoulder girdle as a timed and sequential part of the lift requiring considerable practice. This thrust can be developed by using the movement I call the bench shrug.
The Bench Shrug: Take the bench press position on the bench. Hand spacing should be the same as regularly used of perhaps a finger width or two closer. Lower the bar with straight arms by dropping the shoulders down toward the bench and crunching the shoulder blades (scapula) together; force the bar upward by spreading the scapula out to the side (like a lat spread) while raising the shoulders off the bench. Use pectoral contraction tot roll the shoulders up and in toward the sternum. Keep the arms straight at all times during the movement. The bar will travel only three or four inches either way.
Not only will the initial drive be enhanced by raising the bar, but control in lowering the bar will increase.
Always use spotters when doing the bench shrug. It is performed with straight arms and can easily land in the lifter’s lap if the bar travels off line. If spotters aren’t available, power racks will suffice. Just set the pins below the low point of bar travel, and start out with a weight that can be benched six to eight reps. Keep adding poundage over time.
It is common for a lifter to eventually handle several reps in the bench shrug with the same weight as his best single bench. For example, I have done four reps with 15 percent over my best single several times.
I suggest adding two sets of the bench shrug at the end of a bench workout. Several of my college lifters experienced a gain of 20 pounds in the bench press after one month. This had two causes: added shoulder girdle strength and control coupled with learning to use the upward “shrug” and roll during the initial drive.
It is possible to do this movement on the incline bench, but it is trickier to control and more limited in range. Olympic lifters may want to try it on an incline as a support move for the clean and jerk. I no longer recommend an unusually wide grip unless working with moderate weights because very heavy loads with an extra wide grip can cause injury to the shoulders. But closer grips are worth experimenting with for pectoral work, as is the shrug dip.
The Shrug Dip: These dips are the direct negative of the regular standing shrug. These should be done immediately following parallel bar dips. The lifter assumes the position for dips but raises and lowers the body on straight arms by allowing the shoulders to rise toward the ears and then lifting the body by forcing the shoulders down using pectoral, serratus and latissimus contractions. Use of a heavily loaded weight belt is a must if shrug dips are intended as an assistance exercise for he bench press.
Lance Dreher, Mr. Universe, told me recently that he had learned the shrug dip in the late ‘70s from former A.A.U. Mr. America Bob Gajda. He called the move “monkey dips” and also advocated lean-forward shrugging. Why lean-forward shrugs at a variety of angles, and how do lean-forward shrugs affect the lifts? Let’s analyze the movements and see.
Snatch, Clean and Jerk, and Deadlift
I am not going to discuss the performance and techniques of these lifts as I assume readers are familiar with them. These lifts are different but have similar stages. The first for our purposes is the initial drive off the floor to the point where the bar is roughly just below the knees. This varies depending on the size and proportions of the lifter. The second phase includes thrusting the hips forward while driving the upper body toward the vertical. Third, as the body extends vertically, the shoulders are shrugged upward and pulled to the rear followed by arm pulling. In the deadlift, the shrug part of the lift is directed primarily to pulling the shoulders back instead of up (there is no arm pull in the deadlift, of course).
At this point I’d like to ask a few questions:
Why do 95 percent of all lifters practice only the regular standing shrug when the upper body in the first stage above is angled at 35 to 40 degrees in relationship to the floor and 55 to 65 degrees in the second stage?
Why do Olympic lifters use only a clean-width grip in shrug training when the wide grip used in snatching causes a different direction of pull force during contraction of the muscles involved?
Why are deadlifters not using their competition (over and under) grip when shrugging in the gym?
I am not leading a crusade against the standing shrug. It is a specific movement within the clean and jerk and the standing shrug is absolutely required for gym training so that maximum bar height may be obtained. However, it works the upper trap primarily, and it is not necessarily the best assistance movement for the lower stages.
In the lower stages of the three lifts, the traps and lats are engaged in maintaining and gaining bar height as well as stabilizing the bar and keeping it close to the body. The upper traps have only a partial role in pulling the shoulders to the rear.
Here’s what I recommend in answer to the three questions above:
First, lie face down on a heavy duty adjustable incline bench set at about 35 to 45 degrees. A free standing bench is best. This angle should match the angle of the spine in relation to the floor during the initial drive of the pull. Have training partners hand you the bar. Get a full stretch every rep and shrug the bar up toward the chest. Grip selection depends on which lift or muscle group is being targeted.
Then, move the bench up to 55 to 65 degrees for a set or two. This setting aids the second stage of the lifts, as the lifter begins driving toward the vertical. Mentally focus the contraction on a spot between the shoulder blades. Crunch the scapula together. Don’t contract up toward the ears. Never use a weight so heavy that it prevents full stretch or contraction. The lower the angle of the bench, the more the lats are involved, especially if an underhand grip is used.
Second, because of the angle of the arms during the snatch, the direction of contraction during the shrug at the top of the lift is not just up but at an angle from the hands to the base of the neck. The scapula move toward each other as well as up. Olympic lifters should practice snatch grip shrugs at several angles as well as with the clean width grip. Using a wide grip is the way it’s done during the snatch itself, so why not during the assistance exercise?
Third, from what I read of top deadlifter’s published routines, most do 25 to 30 lifts per workout. At least two-thirds of those reps do not seriously challenge the lifter’s ability to get his shoulders back. A few sets of lat pulls and shrugs are tacked on at the end. The standing shrugs are usually pulled up first and then “rolled” back. Why not practice shrugs on the bench using the two angles mentioned above and work all the muscles for he upper back involved in drawing the shoulders to the rear?
Lean-forward shrugs will increase all lifters’ ability to “set” their shoulders at the beginning of all lifts and keep the upper back straight and head up throughout. The lean-forward shrugs should be practiced regularly with the competition grip for two reasons. It’s the one used during competition, and secondly, there is a very subtle difference in muscle action between one side of the back as compared to the other when using the over and under grip. Not only will these back shrugs help get the shoulders back, but they will aid in keeping the bar close to the body as well. This is extremely important.
I suggest using a bench or some other support so that greater weights may be used and more specific muscle groups targeted. Many lifters are capable of handling huge weights for sets and reps with shrug movements, often more than they can deadlift for a singe. This being the case, straps are a good idea.
I said earlier that I’d talk about shrug variations for the five competitive lifts. So, what kind of shrug variation can help the squat? I know of no shrug that can build hip and thigh strength, but give me time. I do know one that will build confidence and upper body power which will allow the lifter to manhandle a lot of weight. This movement will get new trainees past the stage of the bar hurting the shoulders, knit the shoulder girdle together and expand the bone structure.
I’m talking about the Hise Breathing Shrug. The story of Joe Hise has been told many times, so I won’t get into it, but he is known as the first powerlifter. The Hise Shrug and high rep breathing squats were the keystones of many bulk and power courses during the ‘50s. I didn’t develop this movement, but it was he first shrug I ever attempted back in 1955.
Back out of the rack with a weight that can be handled for eight reps in the squat. Don’t use a powerlifting stance. Keep the bar in a high position and shrug upward toward the ears with trap and scapular action. Try for eight reps. After several months, weights can be handled in excess of the lifter’s best squat single. This will increase squatting ability as the lifter not only gains shoulder girdle strength and stability, but also confidence as he practices backing out and setting up with overloads. The back shrugs I described will help keep the back straight and the head up during the lift. Combining them with the Hise movement helps prevent losing the bar forward over the head during the squat.
Powerlifters should add two sets of Hise shrugs, bench shrugs and facedown incline bench back shrugs at the end of their squat, bench and deadlift workouts respectively. Olympic lifters will want to try snatch and clean grip shrugs at the positions discussed: initial, midpoint and vertical. I say try them all, but get serious about those that meet immediate needs, such as sticking points, getting the shoulders back or the drive explosion in benching.