Shoulder Shrugs or Overhead Presses

Overhead presses effectively target the deltoids.
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One of the difficult, confusing aspects of weight training – for beginners and the experienced alike – is knowing the muscles that each exercise targets. This is made more difficult by variations in form of the same exercise, by all of the secondary muscles that come together to help the primary targets complete the lift, and sometimes by the misleading names some exercises are given. For example, a beginner may think that the shoulder shrug and the overhead press both work the shoulders. That beginner would be wrong. Each of these exercises targets a different part of the upper body, and choosing one exercise over the other isn’t as simple as finding the best exercise for a specific muscle.

Shoulder Shrug

Despite its name, the shoulder shrug doesn’t target the deltoids. It’s primary target is the trapezius in the upper back. The shrug is a simple, one-joint motion that isolates the trapezius, while only working in stabilizers in your arms and upper back for support. Perform the exercise with either a weighted barbell or two dumbbells, and perform the motion in unison, meaning that both sides shrug at the same time. Since the shrug doesn’t work multiple muscles in the back, the exercise by itself will not provide many gains and should be performed in conjunction with other exercises.

Overhead Press

The overhead press directly targets the deltoids and also works several other muscle groups secondarily. The secondary muscles vary depending on whether the press is performed while standing or while seated. The triceps and upper pectorals are always worked, while the standing position also engages the core and the quads as stabilizers. The exercise is typically performed with a weighted barbell and flat-back workout chair when doing the seated version. There are also racks available that assist with the motion of an overhead press. The press is a compound, multijoint exercise that begins with the bar at your upper chest and ends with the bar directly overhead with your elbows locked.

Schedules and Routines

Since the exercises are not interchangeable, it matters which one you choose for each workout. For example, shoulder shrugs are not ideal for the days where you work your chest, triceps and shoulders, because that exercise should be folded into your back workout routine. Likewise, overhead presses should only be performed in conjunction with chest and triceps routines. The two exceptions to this are full-body routines, where you work every muscle group during each workout session, or when you do supersets, which pair exercises for opposing muscle groups. In either case, though, the limited impact of shoulder shrugs may make them ineffective toward your long-term goals.


The overhead press requires a certain level of familiarity with weighted barbell exercises and a relatively high level of comfort for pressing weight above your head. When doing the exercise from the standing position, be careful how much you attempt to lift and how many reps you do for each set. Have a friend spot you to help guide your form and minimize the risk of injury. Shoulder shrugs suit any experience level, giving some benefit to both novice and advanced lifters.

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