How to Dumbbell Shrug

Dumbbell Shrugs For Dummies A Full Guide, December 2021

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If you are looking for shrug exercises then chances are you want to get bigger stronger traps, am I right?

Traps or Trapezius more scientifically speaking is named for its trapezoidal shape. It is a flat, broad, very large, and powerful muscle. It covers the top area of your back similar to how a cape would drape your back. Large traps are a symbol of strength and power.

Animators often intentionally overwork areas like the traps and shoulders in powerful animated characters because they just provide the presence of a strong imposing figure filled with enormous reserves of strength.

Today I will cover how to do the dumbbell shrug, your most basic and best asset for building large traps.

The dumbbell shrug is the best bet for building up some size and strength in the Trapezius muscles because it is simple, effective, and provides a lot more freedom of movement and range of motion when performing the shrug in comparison to a machine or even a barbell.

That’s not to say other exercises aren’t important or effective, it is my belief though that better freedom of movement and maintaining a lower weight but more focused lift provides a much better result. So let’s jump right in and cover the standard dumbbell shrug.

How To Do a Dumbbell Shrug


Rack of circular dumbells with orange lables

So firstly get yourself a set of dumbbells that are fairly light at first to get a good feeling for the range of motion of the exercise and what you can feel comfortable with.

When learning new exercises especially with using strong muscle groups and heavier weights I like to learn using 10lb dumbbells to get a feel of where the weight will be and how my body moves through the motion.

As you progress, you can use heavier dumbbells. A good intermediate piece of equipment is the Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbell (review in link), because as the name suggests, the user can choose their weight. This is helpful for making progress without having to swap out weights often.

5lb or smaller dumbbells would work great too, just as long as the weight isn’t too much to distract you from the movement of the exercise.

Once you develop your form and strength then wrist straps might be useful for when the weight becomes too much for your grip. 


Man with dumbell weights in both hands standing up doing shoulder lifts

Traditionally Trap exercises are done while standing but I’ve found it beneficial when learning that a seated dumbbell row will help prevent learners from cheating.

Even if you are experienced it’s worth a shot to try it seated to feel if there is any difference between your movements. 

  1. 1
    Grab a dumbbell in both hands and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. The dumbbells should rest at your sides palms facing inwards. Or if you are seated slide towards the front of the bench or chair.
  2. 2
    Now bend your knees slightly so they are not locked and stiff, straighten your back, tighten your core, and hinge your body forward slightly at the waist. Do the same if you are seated with you feet planted on the ground in front of you.
  3. 3
    Contract your Traps “shrugging” your shoulders and lifting the weights up as high as your can. 
  4. 4
     Hold at the top for 2 seconds. Holding at your highest contraction can be really difficult but it is a very effective way to add results. You should feel something akin to a squeeze at the top of your contraction. 
  5. 5
     Allow your shoulders to drop down all the way, slowly. Working against gravity is the other half of the exercise and is very important to building mass and strength.
  6. 6
     That’s it! Repeat for as many reps as you like. I prefer to stick with a weight on the heavier side and go for 10-12 reps.

What Not to Do:

  1. 1
    Do not quickly drop your weights from maximum contraction - Not only is it a quick sharp movement that can harm you, it's a waste of energy. You heard me right, you are not saving energy by cheating on your way down. You lifted those weights up, now they have potential energy, if you just drop your weights to your side it gets wasted. Fighting against the pull of gravity is the other half of the exercise and don’t underestimate it, it will make a difference to your results. 
  2. 2
    Do not use too much weight - Do not overload yourself thinking more weight will build more muscles. A more controlled, focused effort will always produce a better result rather than raw weight. The risk of injury and time out of the gym and not lifting will cause you more pain and anger than just taking your time to progress.
  3. 3
    Do not use momentum in your lifts - If the weight is too heavy to lift from zero movement then don’t lift it. We LIFT weights and control them, not swing them around. 

There we have it, that all there is to the Dumbbell Shrug. The traps are often forgotten or overlooked and they are significantly sized muscle group and can be targeted quite often.

Don’t overlook this muscle group as the traps are activated in nearly all major lifts. So it stands to reason then that if the traps are activated in most major compound movements then by increasing the strength of my traps I can also increase my overall strength and ability. 

When training traps be aware that they tend to respond quickly to training and can grow quite quickly in size. If you over-train them and neglect surrounding body parts such as the shoulders it might cause a disproportional look making you look narrower.

The opposite applies though, if the traps are underdeveloped then the whole physique looks a bit spindly. Building up your trap strength through dumbbell shrugs is a great way to help start building your upper body mass.

final Thoughts

As mentioned before the Trap is a very easily and often overlooked muscle that adds an incredible amount to overall upper body strength and general physique. Large powerful traps are a symbol of strength and the best way to get there is with the dumbbell shrug.

Take your time learning with lower weights and once you feel comfortable you can crank up the weight a little bit, remember about controlling your weight and your traps will drastically improve. 

Denver Matheson

I spend a lot of time at the gym and even more time in the kitchen giving my body what it needs to repair itself and grow stronger. The third most important place for any athlete is their research zone. That's exactly why this site exists, to help me share all of the information I've learned throughout the years just like people did for me in the first place!

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