January 14, 2022 8 min read
Lifters commonly focus on their lats in a back workout and ignore other back muscles like the trapezius, which are highly visible and play a crucial functional role in body movement.
Dumbbell shrugs are a great low-stress isolation exercise that targets the upper traps.
This exercise guide will teach you all about the dumbbell shrug, how to program it into your routine, and a few variations that will keep your workout interesting.
After we run through the instructions for the dumbbell shrug, you’re gonna think it’s the easiest exercise of all time. And you’re not totally wrong - one of the reasons it’s such an effective isolation exercise is because it only features a single short movement and its opposite.
But it’s surprisingly easy to mess up, taking your traps out of the equation or reducing their strain, negating the benefits you should be seeing from your dumbbell shrugs. Look out for our form notes after this step-by-step.
Here’s how to do dumbbell shrugs:
Although the traps are the main muscle targeted by this shrug exercise, the rhomboids and forearm muscles feature in as secondary muscles as well.
A large muscle found on the upper back and neck, the trapezius is divided into three sections that together control scapula (shoulder blade) movement and neck extension. Specifically, the upper traps elevate and rotate the scapula upward in addition to extending the neck, which is what happens when you lean your head forward.
The middle traps bring the shoulder blades closer together while the lower traps bring the scapula down and help with forward rotation. From a functional perspective, the traps help your delts throw objects and raise your arms over your head. Since the arms and shoulders work in tandem so often, the traps are important for almost all upper body movement.
Located just beneath the trapezius muscles, the rhomboids comprise a major and minor muscle and primarily contribute to scapula movement. They also provide stability for the shoulder joint and protect the scapula itself. Retraction, elevation, and rotation of the shoulder blade are all supported by the rhomboid, in addition to other muscles such as the levator scapulae. Any exercise that brings your shoulder blades closer together (retraction) will target your rhomboids most effectively.
They might not get as much benefit from this exercise as they would from plate pinches or a towel pull-up, but the forearms are needed to support the weight of the dumbbells in this exercise. Your brachioradialis will be working hard in particular.
Like some other strength training exercises, dumbbell shrugs help relieve neck pain according to Harvard Medical School. It’s hard to build muscle in the neck with the bigger compound lifts because larger muscles in the chest and arms take over. The dumbbell shrug makes the traps the primary muscle. From a programming perspective, this is an easy exercise to fit in. Your back day routine is the most likely place it can fit, but if you already use dumbbells in your arm and shoulder exercises, you can use dumbbell shrugs on those days as well.
Dumbbells allow you to move through a wider range of motion during a shrug exercise.
Some people prefer the barbell variation, but we’ll talk more about the pros and cons of that approach a bit later. Strengthening neck muscles also promotes better posture, which is helpful in other lifts and in life more broadly. If you spend a long time sitting down, exercises like the dumbbell shrug and fitness in general will improve your overall wellness.
Most lifters miss out on one of the biggest advantages of the dumbbell shrug, which is that you don’t even have to set aside time for it specifically. The shrug motion can be included at the beginning of virtually any row or cable exercise that targets the arms or shoulders. Shrug before each repetition when you’re running through your upright rows and you’ll have a nice little blended superset going.
Even a move this seemingly straightforward can be corrupted and undermined with improper form. The first and by far most common mistake is shoulder rotation during a dumbbell shrug. Remember what the traps are for: scapula movement, not shoulder movement. Rotating your shoulders doesn’t do anything for the traps and since they aren’t under much strain it won’t do anything for your shoulder muscles either.
Make sure the weight is coming straight up and going right back down. As with many other bodybuilding exercises, speed is a common problem with shrugs. Get going fast and the likelihood you miss out on trap activation and start rotating your shoulders or incorporating your biceps only increases. Speaking of biceps, make sure you aren’t actively lifting the weight of the dumbbells. Just let it hang there and focus on raising your shoulder blades with the traps.
When you’ve completed the brief hold at the top of the movement, let the weight back down with control.
Lots of people simply let their muscles go slack and drop into the starting position rather than returning to it. Not only is that more likely to cause an injury, but you’re missing out on some of the exercise’s highest levels of resistance. Try to maintain some consistency between reps as well. This is another big reason why we recommend limiting how heavy your dumbbells are, so that you can give your traps the same burn with each repetition.
Sometimes, particularly when we’re struggling to move weight, our bodies try sneaky ways to incorporate other muscles to help. In the dumbbell shrug, that’s most often done by getting the biceps and triceps involved. If you notice your elbows bending, stop and regroup. Neck movement is also a sign of improper form. A lot of the time it doesn’t serve any purpose like bringing in the arm or shoulder muscles would do - it’s just something lifters include in their shrugs because they aren’t focused or they’re moving so fast that the neck is moving as a secondary effect.
Forward movement is most common, but side-to-side movement can happen as well. In the end, just make sure that you can feel the burn in your traps. It might not happen until the next day or it could happen before you even leave the gym, but if these shrugs aren’t exhausting your trapezius muscle, then something is wrong.
You can get big traps by including these dumbbell shrugs one or two days a week, depending on your workout split.
Arm, shoulder, and back day are the best times to program shrugs because you’re probably already using dumbbells on those days. The nice thing about the shrug is that it’s not incredibly intense. That being said, if you’re murdering your traps one day you might want to fit in a core or back day to give them a chance to rest.
For instance, your five-day split might look like this:
This split allows you to do as many shrug exercises as you can handle on day one and give your traps time to rebuild themselves before you bring them back in on days 3 and 5. Like other isolation exercises, shrugs are a great way to exhaust a specific muscle after more complicated weightlifting exercises like deadlifts and squats. Unlike other exercises, though, shrugs don’t make a great warm-up because they could wear out your traps before you get to the bigger lifts. Don’t assume you have strong traps already. Many very strong folks who train diligently find they don’t need more than 20-30 pound dumbbells when they first bring the shrug into their workout routine.
Barbell shrugs are the most common variation of this exercise. The two are very similar but they don’t have exactly the same benefits. As we’ve already touched on, the dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion. With a barbell, you can only go as far as the bar will let you. Dumbbells are more open, which is great when you’ve practiced the exercise enough to do it with perfect form. The barbell will likely let you handle more weight, which is helpful if you want to do a power shrug, which we’ll get into more detail about shortly.
You can also try different grip widths on a barbell, although it doesn’t have as much of an effect with this exercise as it would with, say, a bench press. The dumbbell version puts much less strain on the lower back, so if you struggle with pain or have a history of injury there, that’s the one you should go with. Since dumbbells don’t allow you to work with as much weight, you’re less likely to commit some of the form errors we talked about earlier and you can get a feeling for what it feels like to lift with your traps.
That’s why it's recommended to start with dumbbells when you’re learning the proper way to shrug. Even if you move on to barbells or decide they’re more fun later, you’ll have the form mastered and get better gains out of it.
Here are some of the best ways to up the ante with your dumbbell shrugs:
Keep it bodyweight with this dip variation, which hits the serratus muscle and helps guarantee your legs aren’t assisting during the exercise. Find two parallel bars you can support your weight on. Put a hand on each one and lift so your feet are completely off the ground. A foot of distance is plenty. Now focus on your traps and shrug. Make sure you aren’t dipping the way you would with a tricep dip or similar exercise. Return to the starting position to complete one rep.
Many lifters love this variation. Simply load up a barbell and do your shrugs with lots of weight. Bear in mind that learning with dumbbells is essential before you graduate to this variation.
You don’t have to change much to turn the dumbbell shrug into a whole new exercise. In this case, simply kneel on the ground as you perform your reps to make sure the lower body isn’t assisting with the lift in any way. You’d be surprised how much you can cheat with the standing dumbbell shrug by comparison.
This is a stellar variation because you can put the aptly-named trap bar to work. Load one up and stand in the middle, then grab onto the handles or bar and hoist them up until you’re in a standing position. Walk a short distance, then pause for shrugs. Continue until you’re completed your normal farmer’s walk. You can also stick with dumbbells or use a tire for this exercise. As you can see, the shrug is versatile enough to be added to your routine in several different ways.
If you want to build a barn door back, dumbbell shrugs are an indispensable part of the routine. Targeting your traps is difficult with bigger lifts where other muscles tend to take over. Luckily, the shrug fits in well with a ton of different routines and exercises so programming it is a cinch. Add it into your back, shoulder, or arm day routine to get massive traps.