Dumbbell Shrugs: The Classic and Effective Exercise to Build Your Traps and Shoulders

A simple exercise for spicy results.

Dumbbell shrugs are an excellent exercise to develop strong shoulders and upper trapezius muscles.

There are many ways to target your trap muscles – which are the muscles that protrude up around your shoulders and neck – with back exercises, but the dumbbell shrug is straightforward and effective.

Especially for people who spend a lot of time hunched over, strengthening your neck and shoulder muscles with the dumbbell shrug can be incredibly beneficial. What’s more, shrugs are not very technical so can be done regardless of your fitness and experience level.

You can make the exercise easier or harder by choosing a different dumbbell weight.

What is a dumbbell shrug

Dumbbell shrugs are a pulling isolation exercise used to develop the upper trapezius. As the name suggests, they are a basic movement which requires you to bring your shoulders up to your ears while holding a pair of dumbbells to your sides.

As an isolation exercise, dumbbell shrugs are a classic weight training and bodybuilding movement that focuses on the hypertrophy of one specific area of the body, your upper trapezius muscles. They are a great exercise to add size to your back, neck and shoulders.

dumbbell shrug for strong traps and shoulders

What muscles do dumbbell shrugs work

The dumbbell shrug primarily works your Upper Trapezius muscles. These extend from the sides of your neck to the start of your shoulders, and help control movement of your shoulder blades, upper back and neck.

Secondarily, other muscles assisting the movement are your Middle Trapezius, which sits in your upper back, and your Levator Scapulae, which sits between your upper shoulder and rear neck.

The Erector Spinae, the muscle that runs all down your spine, also contracts without significant movement to help stabilise the dumbbell shrug.

Are big traps necessary?

Muscular traps bring little benefit to day-to-day life, but it’s definitely worth strengthening this area of your body as shoulder movements and many upper body exercises rely primarily and secondarily on these muscles.

Additionally, strong traps can help you maintain proper posture and stabilise your neck and upper back.

You don’t necessarily need to spend countless hours at the gym performing dumbbell shrugs if you want to strengthen your upper traps; there are many compound movements such as deadlifts, cleans, rows and presses which also target this area.

If your goal prioritises aesthetics and you want to build big traps however, dumbbell shrugs are a great straightforward hypertrophy exercise.

dumbbell shoulder exercises

How to do a dumbbell shrug properly

Learn how to perform a dumbbell shrug properly:

  1. Start by standing tall, with a neutral spine, holding a pair of dumbbells on each side, palms facing each other.  
  2. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart and the weight of the dumbbells should allow you to lift your shoulders without arching your spine.
  3. Brace your core and elevate your shoulders as high as possible, keeping your arms straight. The force should come from your traps, so make sure you perform the shrug slow enough for you to feel the resistance.
  4. Hold your shoulders high for a second and then lower them in a controlled manner to come back to a neutral standing position.
  5. Repeat the movement.

Common dumbbell shrugs faults

It is easy to perform a dumbbell shrug incorrectly by failing to contract your muscles fully or using too much weight. Make sure your movement is controlled and that you are contracting your trap muscles throughout the exercise to provide your traps with the appropriate stimuli to grow.

Never roll your shoulder when you’re doing a dumbbell shrug; the movement is always vertical on a single plane of motion upward and downward.

Another common dumbbell shrug fault is to try and perform the exercise too fast. This will lead to other muscles in your upper back being activated and, besides increasing your injury risk, won’t lead to the results you’re looking for.

For the best hypertrophy results hold the shrug at the top of the movement for a second or two. Make sure there’s no momentum throughout any part of the exercise.

What benefits do dumbbell shrugs have

Besides developing and strengthening your shoulders and trapezius muscles, dumbbell shrugs are a great exercise to stabilise your neck and aid with other upper body exercises.  

Because you hold a dumbbell in each hand, dumbbell shrugs can also help you address shoulder imbalances.  

Shrugs also partially improve your grip and forearm strength, especially as you gravitate towards heavier weights.

In contrast to barbell shrugs, which allow you to lift heavier weight, dumbbell shrugs allow for a greater upwards range of motion of your traps.

How many repetitions of dumbbell shrugs should I do?

The number of reps you perform will depend completely on your goals.

Generally, because you don’t spend a lot of time under tension during this exercise, it is safe to aim for sets of 10 to 20 reps.

Start on the lower end of this range and build up towards the 20 reps if your goal is hypertrophy. For strength, stay between 8 and 12 reps at heavier weights.

If you’re performing dumbbell shrugs to ease neck pain – only do this if it’s safe for you to do so – keep the weights as light as possible.

Other exercises to build strong traps and shoulders

Other exercises to develop your shoulders and traps include:

Have fun with your training!

Improve your body and skills with the DB Lateral Raise, Incline DB Press and DB Pullover.

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