Dumbbell Shrugs Guide

How to Perform This Exercise Properly for Thicker Traps

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: March 26, 2024

The shoulder shrug exercise is an excellent exercise for building your traps. Plus, dumbbell shrugs offer several benefits over other exercise variations.

However, you must perform shrugs with proper form to actually work the target muscle. And I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen doing this exercise with terrible form!

That’s why this article will show you how to do dumbbell shrugs correctly with a step-by-step guide, short video, and form tips.

Dumbbell Shrugs

What Are Dumbbell Shrugs?

Shrugs are an exercise where you elevate your shoulders while holding a weight. The movement is like the way you shrug your shoulders when you tell someone, “I don’t know.”

Moreover, shrugging your shoulders with resistance is the best way to build muscle and strength in your upper back, shoulders, and neck. Regarding types of resistance, dumbbells are one of the best ways to perform shrugs to work the target muscles.

Dumbbell Shrugs Muscles Worked

All shrug exercises primarily target the trapezius muscle, also called traps. This is the large diamond-shaped muscle that runs from your mid back towards your shoulders and up to your neck.

More specifically, shrugs work the upper traps. Or the part that sits between and on top of your shoulders, running from the rear delts to the back of your neck.

In addition, shrugs also work the levator scapulae, which are posterior neck muscles.

Dumbbell Shrugs Muscles Worked

Dumbbell Shrug Benefits & Limitations

Dumbbell shrugs provide a unique opportunity to train your traps using both arms simultaneously or one arm at a time. You don’t usually get this independent arm movement with bars or machines.

Also, barbell shrugs can restrict your range of motion by keeping your hands in front of your body. By comparison, dumbbell shrugs allow you to pull up and back as you shrug and give a deeper contraction.

In addition, dumbbell shrugs are easily adapted to different body positions and arm angles. So you can target different parts of your upper traps and lower traps.

Another benefit of dumbbell shrugs is that you can do these exercises with minimal gym equipment and space. So whether you have a small home gym or workout in a packed commercial gym, you can make it work.

Of course, the downside is that you may be limited in weight with dumbbells, and it’s much easier to go super heavy with a barbell or plate-loaded machine.

Pros

  • Each arm works independently
  • Greater range of motion
  • Able to change the grip and pulling angles
  • Minimal equipment needed

Cons

  • Could be limited to lighter weight

How To Do Dumbbell Shrugs

To do a dumbbell shrug, grab a dumbbell in each hand and stand up straight with your feet about hip-width apart. Your palms should face toward the sides of your thighs.

From this starting position, shrug your shoulders towards your ears while keeping your arms straight. Then, hold the contracted position at the top of the movement for a brief pause, squeezing your traps.

Slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position in a controlled manner. And repeat for the desired repetitions.

Throughout the exercise, engage your core and keep your back straight. Also, avoid any excessive leaning forward or backward.

Here is how to do a dumbbell shrug step-by-step:

  1. Grab dumbbells with palms facing in
  2. Stand straight with feet about hip-width apart
  3. Shrug your shoulders straight up towards your ears
  4. Squeeze your traps for a moment at the top
  5. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps

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Dumbbell Shrugs Form

The description and video above should give you a good idea of how to do dumbbell shrugs correctly. But here are a few more tips to help you isolate your traps and get even better results.

1. Do Not Bounce or Use Momentum

First, it’s vital not to bounce the weight or use momentum when performing this exercise because it results in less activation of the trap muscles.

Also, be sure you’re working through the full range of motion. Let the dumbbells get low enough at the bottom to feel a stretch through your traps and neck. And lift them high enough to get a good muscle contraction.

2. Do Not Pull With Your Arms

Next, try to keep your arms relatively straight throughout the shrug movement. And do not bend your elbows or pull with your arms as you lift the dumbbells.

In the image below, you can see how the angle of my arms is almost identical at the bottom and the top of the range of motion. Only my shoulders move from the stretched to the contracted position.

3. Maintain a Neutral Neck

Finally, keeping your neck and spine in a neutral position is critical. In other words, look straight ahead and avoid excessive tilting or straining.

Dumbbell Shrugs Form

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Dumbbell Shrug Variations

You should also know there are multiple variations of dumbbell shrugs you can do with different body positions and arm angles. Each variation feels a little different and works the traps from various angles.

Seated Dumbbell Shrug

Seated dumbbell shrugs are an excellent way to reduce body momentum because the seated position takes your lower body out of the exercise.

Therefore, you might consider this variation if you find yourself wanting to use your legs to generate momentum at the start of standing shrugs.

Incline Dumbbell Shrug

Another dumbbell shrug variation involves leaning forward with your chest supported on the back pad of an incline bench. This change in body position works the upper traps and the mid-traps.

Incline Dumbbell Shrugs

Alternate Incline Dumbbell Shrug

You could also do incline dumbbell shrugs by leaning back against the angled bench. With this body position, you shift the loading to the front of the upper trap.

In addition, the leaned-back version of incline dumbbell shrugs helps activate the muscles in your neck.

Incline Dumbbell Shrugs Variation

Dumbbell Shrug Alternatives

Of course, you don’t need to use dumbbells to do the shrug exercise. So I will show you how to do shrugs with whatever equipment you have.

Barbell Shrugs

Traditional barbell shrugs are probably the most popular way to perform this exercise. One reason is that the bar locks your arms together and makes pulling heavy weights easier.

In addition, weight plates allow you to add more resistance than you would probably have with dumbbells. So it’s a great option for advanced lifters or stronger individuals.

However, that extra weight also makes it more tempting to cheat on barbell shrugs! So make sure you’re still using proper form as demonstrated in the video below.

Smith Machine Shrugs

Another way to do barbell shrugs is with a Smith machine. This equipment is essentially a bar on vertical guide rails that creates a fixed range of motion, like a machine.

One reason I like Smith machine shrugs is that you don’t have to worry about balancing the bar. So you can concentrate on pulling straight up with your shoulders and really squeezing your traps.

Trap Bar Shrugs

A trap bar is a hexagonal-shaped barbell with parallel handles designed specifically for exercises like shrugs. One benefit of the trap bar is that you can use a neutral grip like dumbbells, placing your arms in a more natural position.

In addition, the hex bar allows you to use heavier weights like a traditional bar. However, the handle width is sometimes too wide for shorter individuals or people with narrower shoulders.

Hex Bar Deadlift Form Finish

More Trap & Shoulder Exercises

Now you know how to do dumbbell shrugs with proper form for maximum trap engagement. And you’ve seen several variations and alternatives you can use to keep your workouts fresh.

But of course, you must include other movements in your shoulder training. So here are some additional articles you can use to build your complete shoulder workout program.

Complete List of Pull Day Exercises

13 Upright Row Variations for Shoulders & Traps

Best Landmine Shoulder Exercises

Cable Shoulder Exercises for Chiseled Delts

12 Dumbbell Trap Exercises for a Thick Upper Back & Neck

With this information, you’re well on your way to building bigger traps. So if you found this article useful, I hope you’ll check out some of my other informative content below!

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