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In this article, I will guide you through performing dumbbell shrugs one step at a time. This way you can maximize the involvement of the upper traps without other muscles becoming overly involved.
Under the applicable steps, there will be modifications you can make to accentuate the middle traps and rhomboids instead.
In the end, you’ll see what the exercise looks like when all of these steps are combined to perform fluid shrugging motions for multiple reps.
Table of Contents
1. Hold Dumbbells With Your Palms Facing Each Other
Grab a pair of dumbbells so that your arms are resting at the sides of your body just as they would be if you standing naturally. Make sure your palms are facing each other and keep your biceps relaxed.
This puts the shoulders in a neutral position, making the upward motion of the shoulder blades more trap-dominant. Don’t use super heavy weight otherwise, your grip may fatigue too quickly.
A common mistake is holding the dumbbells with your hands in front of your thighs. This increases the likelihood of scapular protraction since the center of gravity while holding the dumbbells is more forward than neutral.
If the shoulders round forward, you won’t be able to shrug as high, limiting the traps from working through a full-range motion. This reduces the stimulus they’ll receive.
To modify your arm and hand position for targeting the middle traps and rhomboids, you’ll hold the dumbbells below your chest with your arms relaxed toward the floor.
Your upper body will also be angled horizontally, which I’ll discuss more in Step 2.
2. Stand Upright With Your Core and Glutes Braced
Standing completely upright with your chest up makes keeping your shoulders neutral easier. Squeezing your glutes also keeps the hips and lumbar spine aligned to prevent gravity from pulling you forward. Take a deep breath into your stomach to brace your core as well.
Also, make sure you are facing forward so that your head is neutral to avoid pain caused by tilting your neck too high or too low.
Spread your feet roughly hip-width apart as going wider may cause your outer legs to rub against the dumbbells.
A common mistake is leaning too far forward, specifically with the dumbbell shrug variation. For some variations such as with the barbell, it’s often recommended to lean forward by 10 degrees so the bar doesn’t hit your crotch during the movement.
However, since dumbbells are held individually, you don’t need to lean forward as doing so makes it harder to stabilize your spine.
When targeting the middle traps and rhomboids, your upper body should be leaned forward by about 45 degrees. Rest your lower chest on an incline bench to add stability and prevent your lower back from rounding.
3. Position Your Arms 15-30 Degrees From Your Waist
Once you have a solid stance, lift your arms out between 15-30 degrees from the sides of your waist. This abducted position aligns the arms and upper traps for optimal muscle fiber engagement when the shoulder blades shrug.
Conversely, holding your arms neutrally next to the sides of your waist restricts the range of motion. Don’t confuse the neutral arm position with the neutral shoulder position I mentioned in Step 1.
The shoulders should still be in line with the sides of your waist, so don’t move your hands in front of or behind your body.
A common mistake is flexing the biceps or engaging the side delts too much when the arms are held away from the body. This is typically caused by using too heavy of weights, which can be hard to hold in the abducted position without these muscles becoming more involved.
If that’s the case, drop to a lighter weight or decrease the angle between your waist and arms.
The arms don’t need to be abducted for the modified version since the main movement of the scapula will be retraction rather than elevation. Hang your arms below your chest at shoulder width apart with your biceps disengaged.
4. Lift Your Shoulder Blades Straight Up and In
The upper traps are heavily involved in lifting the shoulder blades up and in, otherwise known as scapular elevation and upward rotation. Don’t worry too much about the “in” motion, because once you raise them, they’ll naturally move in toward your ears at a certain point.
If you’re curious, read about why I don’t believe shrugs are necessary for developing the traps.
Raise them as high as possible, using your traps to move the weight. Exhale at the same time for greater power and to relieve some pressure from your stomach.
A common mistake is not fully lifting both shoulder blades. To avoid muscle imbalance in your upper traps, shrug them evenly. If you’re unable to do this, try performing unilateral shrugs, starting with your weaker side first.
For the middle trap-focused version, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Essentially, you’re pulling them above your upper back rather than toward your ears.
Don’t actively bend your elbows or flex your biceps in either version, any bending at the elbows will happen naturally.
5. Pause for Half a Second at the Top
Once your shoulder blades are raised as high as possible and your traps are fully flexed, squeeze for a half-second to a second. This is a good tempo for maintaining proper form and learning how to feel the right muscles working.
Check out my complete guide about when to use a fast or slow tempo for performing shrugs.
After the isometric pause, a common mistake is letting the shoulder blades fall to the start uncontrollably. To maintain tension on the traps, exit this phase under control.
The same tempo principles apply to the middle trap version as well.
6. Lower Your Shoulder Blades and Actively Resist the Weight
As you exit the pause at the top, use your traps to control the lowering phase of your shoulder blades. This part of the shrug is arguably more important than the lifting for stimulating the muscle fibers. Make sure your arms are still abducted as well.
Lower the weight with a one-second count if you’re using heavier weights or when fatigued. For lighter weight sets, aim for 2-3 second negatives. Breathe more air into your stomach on the way down.
There are two common mistakes when executing this step.
The first one is rolling the shoulder blades forward or backward while lowering. Too much backward movement (retraction) causes more rhomboid and middle trap activation, reducing eccentric tension in the upper traps.
On the other end, rolling the shoulder blades forward not only reduces tension but puts the rotator cuff muscles in a compromised position. Focus on maintaining that neutral shoulder position while lowering.
The second mistake is allowing your shoulder blades to drop without actively resisting the force of gravity and the weight of the dumbbells. I touched on this in the previous step, however, it’s important to restate.
A lot of growth potential is being missed out on if you rush through this step.
The middle trap version is more straightforward due to the bent-over position. You want your traps to protract toward the floor to fully stretch the muscles.
7. Allow Your Traps To Stretch Under the Load
Use the force of gravity along with the pulling tension of the dumbbells to stretch your trap muscles toward the floor. A bigger stretch means a deeper range of motion, stimulating a significant amount of muscle fibers.
Just like the squeeze at the top, hold this stretched position for a half to a full second. Allow your shoulder blades to sink as low as possible without rounding forward.
This step enables the traps to shrug more powerfully on the next rep. That’s because the muscle fibers are like a bungee cord, meaning the more they’re stretched, the harder they’ll contract.
Don’t make the mistake of stopping before the traps are fully stretched as this won’t stimulate as much muscle damage. Only initiate the next rep after reaching this point.
With the middle trap version, release your shoulder blades toward the ground as much as possible.
8. Repeat the Sequence for 3 Sets of 15–20 Reps
Once your shoulder blades are as low as they are capable of going and you feel a deep stretch, powerfully raise them up and in again. Remember to use the trap muscles while raising, rather than just flexing your elbows and biceps to move the dumbbells up.
But first, rebrace your core and glutes as they may have lost some solidity from the previous rep. On top of that, make sure your arms are still positioned away from the sides of your waist.
I prefer doing the dumbbell shrug for high rep ranges of 15-20 toward the end of a back workout so it’s easier to isolate the traps after they’re pre-exhausted.
If you find engaging your traps difficult with this exercise, check out these 7 alternatives that I believe to be better.
Keeping the weights light also prevents the side delts from becoming overly involved while holding the abducted arm position.
A common mistake, especially once fatigue sets in, is using leg drive and momentum to raise your shoulder blades to your ears. Take your time between reps and make sure to keep your breathing on point. If you’re no longer able to use your traps to perform the full range of motion, end the set.
When performed lying on a bench, you’ll typically find sets of 10-15 better suited for targeting the middle traps and rhomboids. This is because you’re pulling with two primary mover muscles instead of one.
Here’s How the Dumbbell Shrug Should Look for Reps
Okay, so you’ve hopefully got a good understanding of each of the steps that go into performing a dumbbell shrug properly. Now let’s tie them together to perform one fluid shrugging motion from start to finish.
Here’s a recap of the steps:
- Grab a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other.
- Relax your arms by the sides of your waist so the shoulders are in a neutral position.
- Stand with your entire body in a vertical straight line and your chest slightly puffed.
- Breathe into your stomach and brace your core and glutes to stabilize your hips and lower back.
- If targeting the middle traps, lay on an incline bench with your upper body angled at 45 degrees, making sure your lower back is flat.
- Move your arms outward so they’re at a 15-30 degree angle with the sides of your waist.
- If you’re getting a lot of side delt engagement, lighten the weight or reposition your arms closer to your waist.
- Just remember that the closer they are to a 30-degree angle, the better aligned the traps and line of pull will be.
- If you’re getting a lot of side delt engagement, lighten the weight or reposition your arms closer to your waist.
- Lift your shoulder blades straight up toward the ceiling and your ears.
- Remember to exhale for greater power output.
- Raise your shoulder blades as high as possible to recruit a larger amount of trap muscle fibers.
- Briefly pause once the shoulder blades are fully elevated.
- Hold for a count of 0.5 to 1 second.
- Actively resist the force of the dumbbells and gravity on the way down.
- This phase should take 1-3 seconds depending on how heavy you’re going.
- Fully stretch your traps at the bottom.
- Pause for 0.5 to 1 second.
- Perform 3 sets of 15-20 reps using weights that are light enough to avoid losing control, yet heavy enough to challenge your trap muscles.
The dumbbell shrug is a worthy exercise for isolating the upper traps. Just perform each rep in a controlled manner, avoiding momentum or jerking.
Otherwise, the traps won’t receive adequate stimulation as muscles in the neck and arms will take over.
For a deeper look at what not to do during shrugs, check out my guide on the common mistakes and fixes.