Shrugs are an exercise used to build the upper traps and are popular in the bodybuilding community. Shrugs can be performed with different equipment, but they are most commonly performed with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells.
But what are the differences between barbell shrugs and dumbbell shrugs? Barbell shrugs and dumbbell shrugs both target the traps. But barbell shrugs are done with a barbell, activate the spinal extensor muscles more (the back muscles that help you stand up straight), and can be done with more weight. Dumbbell shrugs are done with dumbbells and allow for more range of motion and symmetry.
In this article, I’ll go into more detail regarding the differences between barbell and dumbbell shrugs, how to best execute the exercises, and the pros and cons of each so you can decide which is best for you.
The Differences Between Dumbbell Shrugs Vs Barbell Shrugs
There are 5 main differences between the dumbbell shrug and the barbell shrug:
- Equipment needed for performance
- How to execute the exercises
- Muscle groups that are targeted
- Exercise range of motion
- Amount of weight used
1. Equipment Needed for Performance
Dumbbell shrugs rely on using a pair of dumbbells, whereas barbell shrugs rely on using a barbell.
If you are using a heavy load, you may also need access to a power cage so you can set the barbell up on the safety pins. A squat rack can be used instead of a power cage as well.
2. How to Execute the Exercises
The execution of the barbell shrug and dumbbell shrug are largely similar. The only difference is the range of motion and the direction your shoulders are shrugging in.
With the barbell shrugs, you are pulling your shoulders upwards and backward to an extent. But with the dumbbell shrugs, you are pulling your shoulders vertically upwards with your arms directly by your side.
3. Muscle Groups That Are Targeted
Both the dumbbell shrugs and barbell shrugs activate your trapezius muscles, particularly the upper traps (the triangular-shaped muscle along the back of the neck and shoulders).
But the barbell shrugs will slightly activate the rhomboids (the muscles in the upper back whose primary role is to lift and rotate the shoulder blades) and spinal extensors more due to the fact that the barbell is pulling you forward.
As well, dumbbell shrugs are more taxing on your forearms and grip because they recruit more of the smaller stabilizer muscles in the hands and forearms.
An excellent way to improve your grip strength while doing dumbbell shrugs is to use fat grips. Check out my 6 favorite fat grips.
4. Exercise Range of Motion
As the dumbbell gives your arms more freedom of movement, dumbbell shrugs allow for a larger range of motion. This can be more beneficial for training for muscle hypertrophy.
5. Amount of Weight Used
You can do shrugs with a heavier weight when using a barbell compared to using dumbbells. Most dumbbells that you’d find in a commercial gym only go up to 100-120lbs, but you can load a barbell with much more than that.
With a barbell, you’ll likely also find that your dominant side will make up for your weaker side, whereas you may have to use a lower weight with dumbbells to accommodate your weaker side.
Furthermore, when doing dumbbell shrugs, a lack of grip strength can limit how much weight you’re able to use.
Dumbbell Shrug: How To, Tips, Common Mistakes, Muscles Used, Pros And Cons
How To Do A Dumbbell Shrug (5 Steps)
Here is a 5-step guide to doing a dumbbell shrug:
Step One: Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand up straight with your palms facing you
Hold onto a pair of dumbbells and stand upright with your palms facing your body. Keep your head stacked over your body with your eyes looking forward.
Step Two: Inhale, then exhale as you shrug your shoulders
Take a deep breath in, then exhale as you shrug your shoulders up towards your ears.
Step Three: Pause at the top and keep your head stationary
Hold the shoulders up momentarily while keeping your head as stationary as possible.
Step Four: Take a deep breath in as you lower your shoulders
Inhale as you slowly lower your shoulders all the way back down to the start position.
Step Five: Repeat until you’ve completed all of your reps
Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Pro Tips for Performing the Dumbbell Shrug
Here are 2 pro tips to make the most out of the dumbbell shrugs:
- Use wrist straps if your grip is a limiting factor
- Perform the dumbbell shrug in a seated position
Use Lifting Straps if Your Grip is a Limiting Factor
If you are training to increase muscle mass around your upper traps, you do not want anything else like your grip strength to be a limiting factor. If your grip is weak, you may find yourself slowly opening your hands during the set and end up with less range of motion in each rep.
A useful fix to deal with this is to use some form of lifting strap so you can focus less on grip strength and more on getting a good range of motion and control with the shoulder movement.
If you’re not sure which straps are best for you, check out my list of the best lifting straps on the market.
Perform the Dumbbell Shrug in a Seated Position
Shrugs are meant to be an isolation movement at the shoulders to isolate the upper traps. If you find that you are going so heavy that you’re using your legs to cheat, then sit down to help isolate the traps more.
By staying seated you will not be able to cheat by bending your legs.
3 Common Mistakes With Dumbbell Shrug
Here are 3 common mistakes with performing the dumbbell shrug:
- Bending the elbows to recruit the biceps
- Going too heavy
- Not going through a full range of motion
Bending the Elbows to Recruit the Biceps
If you are going heavy or if you are getting fatigued during a set, you may find yourself bending at the elbows to try and gain more range of motion of the dumbbells. This often occurs when you are focusing too much on the movement of the dumbbell as opposed to the movement at the shoulders.
Focus on relaxing your arms as much as possible and use the cue of “bringing your collar bones to your ears.”
Going Too Heavy
It is easy to be overzealous when choosing a weight for dumbbell shrugs. To make the most out of them, you should choose a weight that allows you to get as much range of motion as possible across all of your prescribed sets and reps.
Not Going Through a Full Range of Motion
As the dumbbell shrug is inherently an exercise with a small range of motion, it is easy to go really fast with your reps, not realizing you’re not shrugging as much as possible. But moving through a full range of motion will maximize the stimulus for muscle mass.
Focus on having a short pause at the bottom and at the top when you shrug to really ensure you are going as far up as possible when you shrug.
Muscles Used During Dumbbell Shrugs
Here are the main muscle groups that are used during the dumbbell shrugs:
- Upper traps – These are the most superficial muscles that you can visually see on someone’s neck and shoulder area. They are the prime movers of bringing the shoulders up and back.
- Rhomboids – These are smaller back muscles that help bring the shoulders back and up as well.
- Levator Scapulae – These are small and hidden muscles that bring the shoulder blades upwards and rotate them forward.
All shoulder shrug variations will activate these muscle groups in a very similar way, but some will recruit more of certain muscle groups than others.
3 Benefits Of A Dumbbell Shrug
There are 3 benefits to doing a dumbbell shrug:
- More range of motion
- Increase muscle mass around the upper traps
- Increase shoulder and neck strength for sports
More Range of Motion
As there is more freedom for your arms to move about, it means that there is more range of motion with the dumbbell variant of the shrug exercise. This also means you will not need to use as much overall load to be able to get as much of a stimulus for muscle mass with each rep.
Increase Muscle Mass Around the Upper Traps
This exercise is very good at isolating the upper traps and is a really good addition to your back or shoulder workout if you want to focus on increasing size in your upper traps.
Increase Shoulder and Neck Strength for Sports
Having a strong upper back and neck area is going to be important for a lot of different types of athletes. Good examples are athletes in sports such as mixed martial arts and strongman competitions.
As such, dumbbell shrugs are beneficial for athletes who participate in sports where strong neck muscles can help keep the head stable and prevent severe damage or injuires to the head area.
2 Cons of a Dumbbell Shrug
There are 2 cons with doing a dumbbell shrug:
- One shoulder may come up higher than the other
- Forearm grip strength may be limiting factor
One Shoulder May Come Up Higher Than the Other
If you have slight shoulder imbalances, you may find that when you execute the dumbbell shrug, one shoulder is actually higher than the other.
The dumbbell variation may potentially exacerbate this. But with the barbell variation, you can pay a bit more attention to how level the barbell is to level the shoulders a bit better.
Forearm Grip Strength May Be Limiting Factor
Forearm grip may be a limiting factor as heavier dumbbells do have a tendency to have a thicker handle. This may make it harder to progress in weight for some people as it becomes harder to grip.
Barbell Shrug: How To, Tips, Common Mistakes, Muscles Used, Pros And Cons
How To Do A Barbell Shrug (6 Steps)
Here is a 6-step guide to doing a dumbbell shrug:
Step One: Adjust the safety pins of a power cage and load a barbell with your desired weight
Load a barbell onto the pins of a power cage or squat rack to the desired load. Make sure the pins are set high enough that you only need to squat down 2 inches with relaxed arms to reach the barbell.
Step Two: Grab the barbell with an overhand grip
Hold onto the barbell and stand upright with an overhand grip. Keep your head stacked over your body with your eyes looking forward.
Step Three: Inhale and exhale as you shrug your shoulders
Take a deep breath in and exhale as you shrug your shoulders upward and backwards.
Step Four: Pause at the top of the movement
Hold the shoulders up momentarily while keeping your eyes facing forward.
Step Five: Inhale again as you lower your shoulders
Inhale as you slowly lower your shoulders all the way back down to the start position.
Step Six: Repeat until you’ve completed all repetitions
Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Pro Tips for Performing the Barbell Shrug
Here are 2 pro tips to make the most out of the barbell shrugs:
- Hold onto the barbell with a wider grip
- Perform the barbell shrug with higher reps
Hold Onto the Barbell with a Wider Grip
If you’re able to watch yourself as you shrug, you’ll notice that the shoulders do not just want to go upwards. They also want to go inwards towards the midline of the head and neck. Therefore, holding the barbell with a wider grip can help keep the elbows straight and resist bending.
This will also allow the shoulders to come up, back, and inwards too, which can encourage more range of motion.
As well, research has shown that holding onto the barbell with your arms about 30 degrees away from your torso is superior at activating the upper and lower traps when compared to keeping your arms by your side.
Perform the Barbell Shrug With Higher Reps
As the barbell shrug may have slightly less range of motion compared to the dumbbell shrugs, the time under tension for each rep may be less. So it makes sense for you to use higher reps to increase the overall time under tension for the traps.
3 Common Mistakes With Barbell Shrug
Here are 3 mistakes with performing the barbell shrug:
- Bending your legs and pushing with your legs
- Going too fast in your repetition tempo
- Leaning backward too much
Bending Your Legs and Pushing With Your Legs
When your traps get tired or if you are dealing with a very heavy load, you may get the tendency to recruit other body parts to help assist movement of the barbell. People commonly end up using the legs to get upward momentum of the barbell to complete their desired number of repetitions.
Keep your knees straight and clench your glutes and abs when you do barbell shrugs so as to avoid cheating the repetitions.
Going Too Fast in Your Repetition Tempo
As the range of motion for this exercise is generally very small, it is very easy to go too fast with your repetitions to get the exercise over and done with. This is also true if you’re doing high reps.
But moving too fast will reduce the time under tension for your traps, so it is important that you are patient with executing this exercise and add a momentary hold at the top and bottom of each rep.
Leaning Backward Too Much
If your traps start to fatigue, you may have a tendency to lean back ever so slightly to rest the barbell on the legs. It is important to stay fully vertical throughout the execution of the set.
Muscles Used During Barbell Shrug
Here are the main muscle groups that are used during the barbell shrugs:
- Upper traps– These are the most superficial muscles that are easily seen on someone’s neck and shoulder area. Their primary role is to bring the shoulders up and back.
- Rhomboids – These are smaller back muscles that also help bring the shoulders back and up.
- Levator Scapulae – These are small muscles that you can’t see aid in moving the shoulder blades upward and forward.
- Spinal Extensors – These muscles run along your spine and help keep your back straight or extended. As the barbell is positioned in front of you, it has leverage to pull you forward.
3 Benefits of a Barbell Shrug
There are 3 benefits with doing a barbell shrug:
- Improve posture and shoulder mobility
- Improve general back strength
- Increase muscle mass in the upper traps
Improve Posture and Shoulder Mobility
As I mentioned earlier, research has shown that performing the barbell shrugs specifically with a wider grip with your arms 30 degrees out from your torso is effective at improving mobility and posture around your shoulders.
It has also been shown to improve drooping shoulders and poor rotation in the shoulder blades.
If you’re looking for additional ways to improve your shoulder mobility, check out my favorite mobility drills for front squats. Many of these exercises can help you release tight muscles in the upper back and shoulder area.
Improve General Back Strength
The barbell shrug can be a useful exercise for targeting general back strength as it can activate the upper and lower traps as well as the spinal extensors. This can be useful for people who want to improve their back strength for sports including powerlifting.
A strong back can be especially beneficial for helping you improve your bench press. Learn more in Does a Strong Back Help Bench Press?
Increase Muscle Mass in the Upper Traps
Barbell shrugs can be a good tool for people who simply want to increase muscle mass around their upper traps. It is useful to finish off the upper trap muscles at the end of a back focused workout.
2 Cons Of A Barbell Shrug
There are 2 cons with doing a barbell shrug:
- There are better exercises that have more range of motion for traps
- Can cause discomfort around the back of the neck
There Are Better Exercises That Have More Range of Motion for Traps
Barbell shrugs are not that great of an exercise for fully targeting the entire trapezius muscles. There are plenty of other exercises such as barbell rows or seated rows that encourage the traps to stretch as much as possible, which ultimately means more range of motion.
Can Cause Discomfort Around the Back of the Neck
It is common for people to push their head forward when executing the barbell shrugs, and it can be difficult for them to tell that they are doing this even when looking in the mirror.
This can cause people to have a really tight neck at the back and encourages forward head posture, which can cause discomfort or even pain for some people.
Alternatives to Barbell Shrugs and Dumbbell Shrugs
If you don’t like doing barbell and dumbbell shrugs or are just looking for more variety, consider adding one of these alternatives to your routine.
Behind the Back Shrugs
A behind the back barbell shrug is a weight training exercise that targets the trapezius muscles. It is similar to a traditional shrug, but the weight is held behind the back instead of in front of the body. This variation places greater emphasis on the middle portion of the trapezius muscles.
To perform a behind the back barbell shrug, start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and holding a barbell behind you with an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body).
Bend your knees slightly and pull your shoulders down and back. Keep your chest up and hips, shoulders, and feet aligned. Keeping your elbows straight, lift the barbell up as you raise your shoulders toward yours ears.
Smith Machine Shrugs
A Smith machine shrug is a good alternative to a barbell shrug. It would make a good regression as you do not need to worry too much about balance.
You also may be able to load a bit more weight on a Smith machine when compared to on a barbell.
You’ll perform them the same way you would a barbell shrug, except you’ll load your weight in the Smith machine instead of loading a barbell.
Trap Bar Shrugs
The trap bar shrug is another good alternative to barbell and dumbbell shrugs. It provides a bilateral load in the sense that both arms hold onto a singular weight like a barbell. However, it provides more range of motion than a barbell.
In terms of balance, it works the spinal extensors less and can activate the upper traps more because a trap bar can be positioned slightly more centered like holding onto dumbbells.
Trap bar shrugs are performed the same way as barbell shrugs except you’ll stand inside a trap bar to lift the weight. And unlike holding a barbell behind you or in front of you, your palms will be facing each other.
Not sure what a trap bar is and what it’s used for? I talk more about it in 5 Different Types of Deadlift Bars & Their Uses.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Better To Shrug With Dumbbells or a Barbell?
It is better to shrug with dumbbells if you want to isolate the upper traps more and get more range of motion with each rep. It is better to shrug with a barbell if you are looking for more general strength around the mid to upper back region.
Should You Use a Mixed Grip for Barbell Shrugs?
You should try to use a double overhand grip for barbell shrugs because it provides a more symmetrical stimulus on both sides of your upper traps. If you cannot use a regular double overhand grip, you can either use wrist straps or a double overhand hook grip.
Other Upper Body Exercise Comparisons
- Dips vs Decline Bench Press: Pros, Cons, Which Is Better?
- Bench Press vs Overhead Press: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Floor Press vs Bench Press: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Dips vs Push Ups: Pros, Cons, Which Is Better?
- Close vs Wide Grip Lat Pulldown: Which Is Better?
- Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row: Differences, Pros, Cons
- T-Bar Row vs Barbell Row: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Upright Row vs Lateral Raise: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Lat Pulldown vs Pull-Up: Differences, Pros, Cons
Barbell shrugs and dumbbell shrugs can offer different advantages depending on what your overall aims are. If you cannot decide which one is best for you, there is no harm in involving both variations in your training as they are both very small exercises that do not cause a ton of fatigue.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com