What Do Dumbbell Shrugs Work – Discover 4 Exercise Benefits

What Do Dumbbell Shrugs Work

In this article we’re going to look at what do dumbbell shrugs work, how to execute them along with some other variations of this highly effective exercise.

If you’re looking to build strong traps and increase muscle mass, then the dumbbell shrug is a great exercise to incorporate into your training program. 

As dumbbell shrugs are an isolation exercise, emphasis is mainly on the upper trapezius muscles .

Aside from improving the strength of your traps, shrugs also help people with shoulder pain and neck pain and while helping to improve posture.

Recommended Reading – 7 Best Lower Trap Exercises For Posture And Improved Body Positioning

What Are Dumbbell Shrugs?

Dumbbell shrugs, sometimes called shoulder shrugs, are a kinetic-chain isolation exercise that activates the trapezius muscles.

They are performed as small movements that involve elevating then lowering your shoulders repeatedly.  

Due to their ease and simplicity, dumbbell shrugs are a safe exercise for anyone with good shoulder health. 

If you’re a beginner, start with a lighter weight so you can work on good form before progressing to heavier dumbbells or alternative shrug exercises that are more challenging. 

dumbbell shrug

What Are Shrugs Good For

There are many shoulder shrug exercise benefits when you perform them regularly and with good form.

Here are a few:

Shrugs Can Improve Your Posture

Regularly performing dumbbell shrugs can help to improve your posture.  

This is because increasing strength to the muscles of the neck and upper back provide better stability to your spine.

This helps to improve your posture.  

Regular Shrugs Can Improve Your Mobility

Shrugs can contribute to overall shoulder health and function. When shrugging you recruit your levator scapulae.

These are muscles that run down the sides of your neck and they help to raise and rotate the shoulder blades.

When they become stronger they better stabilize the shoulders and improve mobility of the shoulder joints.  

Shrugs Can Reduce Low Back Pain

Lower back pain is a common ailment amongst many people but by improving strength to the traps can improve the alignment of your spine which in turn helps to alleviate back pain symptoms.  

You Can Increase Grip Strength With Shrugs

Over time you’ll notice your grip strength improve when performing dumbbell shrugs.

Grip strength is important, not only for overall muscular strength and endurance, but it’s also been linked with reducing the likelihood of strokes and heart attacks.  

What’s more this exercise allows for good carry over to other pressing style movements such as the bench press or shoulder press.  

What Do Dumbbell Shrugs Work

The main muscle worked during dumbbell shoulder shrugs is the trapezius, a muscle that covers the upper back, neck and shoulders.  

Secondary muscles include the medial deltoids.

The upper and lower arm muscles come in to play helping to provide stability as you hold the weights.  

Additionally, some neck muscles and upper back muscles are engaged including the supraspinatus, rhomboids, and the levator scapulae. 


Role of Trapezius Muscles

The trapezius muscle is a large, flat muscle that is often broken down into upper traps, middle traps and lower traps.  

The muscle starts at the base of the skull, moving down and across the shoulders and then finishing at the mid back.  

The traps help with neck, arm, torso, shoulder, and head mobility.

These muscles also stabilize your spine, ensuring a better body posture. Any muscle strain in this region can lead to decreased mobility and pain.

The upper trapezius is the smallest section of the traps and is responsible for the following:

  • Lifting the arms
  • Shrugging shoulders
  • Rotating and tilting the neck and head
  • Extending the neck
  • Turning the head and neck

How to Perform Dumbbell Shrugs

If you want bigger traps, one of the best ways to accomplish this is through dumbbell shrugs. Below we look at how to do shrugs.

How To Perform The Dumbbell Shrug:

  1. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold your dumbbells down by your sides with a neutral grip (palms facing inwards).  This is your starting position. 
  3. Keep your chest up and face forward. 
  4. Brace your core and elevate your shoulders up towards your ears.  
  5. Pause for 2 seconds. 
  6. Maintaining core stability, return the dumbbells back to the starting position for a count of 2 to 4 seconds.  This keeps tension on the traps.
  7. Perform 4 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions. 

As with all exercises, maintaining proper form is important to ensure you get the benefits of the exercise.

Proper form also reduces the risk of injury and helps you build enough stamina to exercise with heavier weights over time.

When doing dumbbell shrugs, your neck and head must be in a neutral position.

This means that your neck and head should be in the same natural line as the rest of your body.

Common Shrug Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The most common mistake with shrugs is not raising the shoulders high enough.

This means you’re not executing the movement with a full range of motion so won’t maximize the benefits.   

Recommended Reading – 4 Best Shoulder Roller Exercises To Combat Muscle Ache

Secondly, avoid rolling your shoulders.  

The movement should simply be up and down and by rolling the shoulders may lead to injury.

Additionally, don’t bend your elbows as by doing so will activate your biceps and remove tension away from your traps.  

Variations and Modifications for Different Fitness Levels

There are several variations of the standard dumbbell shrug.  Below we’ve listed some alternative options.  

Banded Upright Row

This is a great alternative if you don’t have access to any dumbbells but do have a set of resistance bands.  

A benefit of this exercise over dumbbell shrugs is that it can be easier on the neck muscles so could be a good option for beginners. 

How To Do A Banded Upright Row:

  1. Take a looped resistance band and place it under both feet.  Position your feet around shoulder width apart. 
  2. Hold the band just out in front of you using both hands with a pronated grip. 
  3. Brace your abdominals and bend your elbows bringing the band up your body and towards your chin.  
  4. Aim to keep your elbows higher than your wrists though to prevent putting stress on the wrist joints.   
  5. Pause briefly before extending your arms back to the starting position. 
  6. Repeat the desired number of reps.

Cable Upright Row

This is a good option for the gym and allows you to maintain tension on the shoulders throughout the exercise.  

You’ll need access to a cable machine and a straight bar attachment. 

How To Do A Cable Upright Row: 

  1. Start by setting the pulley to its lowest setting on the machine and attach the straight bar. 
  2. Stand just in front of the machine and take hold of the attachment with both hands in a pronated grip (palms facing towards you).
  3. Maintain a slight bend to the knees and engage your core.
  4. Flex your elbows outwards and bring the straight bar up and towards your chin.
  5. Hold at the top of the movement for 2 seconds. 
  6. Lower the bar back down to the starting position and then repeat.

Cable Trap Shrug

For this exercise you will need to have access to a dual adjustable pulley machine and two stirrup handle attachments.  

This is a particularly good way of activating the upper traps due to the line of resistance formed by the cables.  

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How To Do A Cable Trap Shrug: 

  1. Position both pulleys at their lowest setting and attach the stirrup handles.
  2. Stand in the middle of the machine so that the handles are either side of you.  Maintain a shoulder width stance.
  3. Engage your core and elevate your shoulders up and towards your ears.
  4. Avoid rolling the shoulders either forwards or backwards to maintain the correct form.  
  5. Pause for 2 seconds before lowering the handles slowly back to the start position.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Dumbbell Shrugs Effective?

Shoulder shrugs are one of the most effective exercises to develop your upper trapezius muscles and build strong shoulders. Although there are other exercises to target the traps, shrugs are among the most straightforward ones to execute with variations allowing for dumbbells, cables or machines. 

Should Dumbbell Shrugs Be Heavy or Light?

By lifting a weight that’s too heavy for the traps you’ll find you cannot execute the movement with a full range of motion. You’ll then likely find that other, more dominant muscles take over removing emphasis away from the traps. Start with a lighter weight and increase the reps before you increase the weight. 

Which Exercises Can Replace Shrugs?

If you’re not a huge fan of shrugs but want to target the same muscle groups, you can look to perform cable face pulls, the farmer’s walk, or a barbell upright row.  

Can Dumbbell Shrugs Give You a Thicker Neck?

Dumbbell shrugs do not thicken your neck or make it bigger. Although they hit the levator scapular and other muscles near the neck, they do not make your neck more muscular.


Dumbbell shrugs, also abbreviated to db shrugs, are one of the best exercises to build larger traps and improve neck and head mobility and strength.

It’s easy to make them a part of your workout routine because of the many variations and simplicity of the exercise.  

Whilst most people can incorporate them into their shoulder workout, if you do have pre-existing issues to the shoulder joints then it’s worth consulting a personal trainer before performing any type of shrugs exercise.

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