Whether you're doing a barbell shrug or an upright row, your trapezius -- the triangle-shaped muscle that stretches from the bottom of your skull and extends to the middle of your back and to each shoulder -- will get a workout. However, an upright row is a compound exercise that also builds your shoulders and back muscles. A shrug is an isolation exercise that primarily hits your traps.
Elbows or No Elbows
When you perform barbell shrugs, the movement involves pulling the weight straight up and down with your arms extended by your sides. The elbows are kept straight throughout the exercise's minimal range of motion. In contrast, upright rows involve bending your elbows and pulling the weight to just under the chin. It's a longer range of motion in which your elbows rise vertically and flare out to the sides. This exercise puts more stress on your arms and shoulders than the barbell shrug. Also, when you perform an upright row, the last thing you want to do is shrug. The correct technique dictates that you keep your shoulders retracted and down.
Load Versus Efficiency
A key benefit of doing shrugs is that you can use very heavy weights. Although a barbell shrug targets the upper traps, you have to use your entire body to perform a short up and down motion with a lot of weight. The exercise can prepare you for lighter exercises, such as lateral raises or biceps curls. In contrast, the advantage of doing upright rows is that your traps and deltoids are both primary movers in the single compound move. Rows also activate all the muscles in your shoulders and upper back. If you don't have much time, you can work that whole region of your body with at one time with rows.
Risks of Rowing
When you perform an upright row, your arms bend at the elbow and then internally rotate. If you add resistance while raising and rotating your arms, it puts excessive stress on the small tendon in your shoulder. In addition, at the end of the range of motion of an upright row, the top of your upper arm bone -- the greater tubercle of the humerus -- doesn't have enough space to clear the furthest tip of your shoulder blade -- the scapular acromion. Every time you lift a weight in an upright row, the top position causes impingement, or inflammation, and can result in impingement syndrome of your shoulder joints as well as cause problems with your rotator cuffs. If you regularly do upright rows, it can cause long-term injury to your shoulders, according to MuscleMagFitness.com.
The Trouble with Shrugs
If you're using incorrect form, shrugs can pose a safety issue as well as make a bad posture even worse. Many people battle the symptoms of poor posture -- rounded shoulders, tight hip flexors, swayback -- due to sedentary lifestyles or working at a computer for long hours. When your traps are weak, your shoulder blades separate and move forward. If you perform shrugs with a hunched posture, you're strengthening your back muscles in such a way as to cement that posture. In addition, people tend to roll their shoulders forward on shrugs, putting too much stress on the shoulder joints. This extraneous movement can set your shoulders up for injury.
About the Author
Kay Tang is a journalist who has been writing since 1990. She previously covered developments in theater for the "Dramatists Guild Quarterly." Tang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Yale University and completed a Master of Professional Studies in interactive telecommunications at New York University.