Dumbbell Shrugs (Here Are 7 Better Exercises for Your Traps)

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A man performing dumbbell shrugs with an X on his lower and middle traps.

Dumbbell shrugs are a sought-after trap-building exercise. However, they can be awkward to do with proper form, especially when using heavier weights.

Trap bar shrugs are better than dumbbell shrugs for targeting the upper traps. The wide handles allow your arms to be further apart while shrugging to work the traps through a full range of motion more comfortably.

If you’re struggling to grow your traps with dumbbell shrugs, don’t worry. Below I’ll share 7 shrug variations and alternatives to hit those muscle fibers properly.

1. Do Trap Bar Shrugs for a Natural Hand Position

Shrugs primarily target the upper traps. These fibers are located at a horizontal angle from the neck to the collarbones. EMG tests have recorded greater activation in these fibers when the arms are abducted, or away from the body.

The trap bar shrug is the best type for your traps as it places the hands in a natural position with the arms slightly away from the body. This allows you to move your shoulder blades up and down, in line with the upper trap muscle fibers.

Using a trap bar instead of dumbbells allows you to maintain the abducted position even after fatigue sets in. Conversely, holding your arms away from the body with dumbbells when exhausted is rather difficult. This would force surrounding muscles to engage since there’s no cross-bar support.

Frederic Delavier has an example in his book, Strength Training Anatomy about the upper trap muscle insertions. Like angled cables holding up a suspension bridge, the traps are inserted horizontally and diagonally to suspend the collarbones beneath the neck.

To do shrugs with a trap bar:

  1. Grab the handles in the center to avoid the bar from tipping.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms relaxed toward the floor.
  3. Lean your upper body forward by about 10 degrees.
  4. Breathe in and lift your shoulder blades up and in towards your ears.
  5. Exhale and reverse the motion, allowing the weight to stretch your shoulders downward under control.
  6. Repeat for 4 sets of 6-12 reps.

2. Hit Barbell Shrugs Using a Wider Grip

Trainees tend to utilize barbell or dumbbell shrugs. Once they choose one they exclude the other altogether. However, both variations have a place when it comes to developing the traps.

As a general rule, barbell shrugs are better for using heavy weights without sacrificing range of motion. Dumbbell shrugs are well-suited for lightweight, high-repetition sets to burn out the traps at the end of a workout.

A barbell is easier to progressively overload without form errors occurring as the weight increases from session to session. However, dumbbells are less restrictive as you can pull with each arm individually for unilateral isolation.

You could do a heavy back day and incorporate light dumbbell shrugs at the end. Then perform a light shoulder day with heavy barbell shrugs. The light day would allow you to maximize shrug strength without being pre-fatigued from heavy back exercises.

Curious about training your traps multiple times a week? Check out my article that touches on how to incorporate shrugs into push and pull day.

To hit barbell shrugs:

  1. Set the bar in a rack at knee height.
  2. With a similar logic to the trap bar, pick up the barbell using an overhand grip with your hands spread wider than shoulder width.
  3. Take three steps back and lean your upper body forward slightly.
  4. Raise your shoulder blades toward your ears.
  5. Reverse under control and repeat for 3 sets of 6-10 reps.

3. Try Cable Shrug-Ins To Enhance Isolation

During shrug-ins, the cable puts outward pulling tension on the traps, mimicking the bridge-like fibers. This helps develop a mind-muscle connection with your traps before moving onto compound movements like deadlifts or even trap bar shrugs. Utilize high reps (12-20) for 3-4 sets.

Try cable shrug-ins by:

  1. Setting the cables to the lowest position.
  2. Attach d-handles and grab them with your palms facing each other.
  3. Stand in the center of the cables with a staggered stance.
  4. Lean your upper body slightly forward.
  5. Initiate the shrug by pulling your shoulder blades up and in, squeezing at the top.
  6. Lower your shoulder blades, allowing the tension to stretch your traps apart.

Just as a bridge is suspended by cables, the clavicles and shoulder blades are suspended by the trapezius.

Frederic Delavier
(Strength Training Anatomy, pg. 154)

Although I prefer the cable variation, I covered why shrugs aren’t necessary for developing the traps in another article.

So now let’s look at some alternatives.

4. Utilize Rope Upright Rows for Constant Tension

Rope upright rows also provide constant pulling tension for the traps. As you pull the rope toward you, your arms will automatically abduct as well. These isolate the traps through a deep range of motion.

To do rope upright rows:

  1. Position the cable to the lowest setting and attach a rope.
  2. Grab the handles with your thumbs facing each other.
  3. Pull the rope toward your chin while spreading the handles apart.
    • Use your elbows to guide the movement.
  4. Shrug your shoulders at the top.
  5. Lower and repeat for 3 sets of 15 reps.

5. Use the Farmer’s Walk for Isometric Lengthening

Contrary to the previous exercises, farmer’s walks work the traps isometrically in their lengthened position. Wearing wrist straps can help you perform long holds without your forearms fatiguing and limiting trap involvement.

They can be performed with a trap bar, kettlebells, or dumbbells. The trap bar is the most suitable for hitting the upper trapezius fibers.

For the farmer’s walk:

  1. Bend down and grab the handles with your palms facing each other.
  2. Stand with your chest tall, core tight, and arms extended toward the floor while holding the weight.
    • Keep your biceps relaxed.
  3. Walk in a straight line for 30 meters, allowing the weight to pull your shoulder blades down.
  4. Alternatively, perform 30-60 second holds without walking.

6. Do Snatch Grip High Pulls for Power

High pulls use similar shoulder mechanics to the upright row. However, they’re focused on pulling power rather than isolation, which will enhance the mass of your traps.

To do high pulls:

  1. Hold the bar with your hands 2x wider than shoulder width.
  2. Hinge and thrust through your hips to drive upwards against your waist.
  3. Pull the bar toward your chin, leading with your elbows.
  4. Lower the bar and repeat for 3 sets of 5 reps.

7. Do Heavy Pulls Below the Knee in a Squat Rack

Although above-the-knee rack pulls are more common, setting the barbell at ankle height is key to maximizing middle and lower trap activation while still hitting the uppers. If you notice your legs are a limiting factor, then switch to above-the-knee pulls.

To do rack pulls:

  1. Adjust your rack pins to ankle height.
  2. Grab the barbell with your hands wider than your shoulders.
  3. Initiate the pull by squeezing your armpits and thrusting your hips forward to stand upright.
  4. Hinge through your hips to lower the barbell back onto the pins.
  5. Perform 4-5 sets of 4-10 using heavy weight.
Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at edecremer@wildnswole.com!