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Shrug (Dumbbell) – How to Instructions, Proper Exercise Form and Tips

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Benefits of the Dumbbell Shrug

Dumbbell shrugs are an effective accessory exercise you can perform to overload your trapezius muscle, causing it to grow and strengthen. The movement is simple to learn because all you have to do is elevate and lower your shoulders in a controlled way. In doing so, you develop the entire upper back, shoulders, and forearms.

Performing the shrug is beneficial for two reasons. First, you develop your upper back, contributing to a muscular and impressive physique. Strengthening these muscles also makes you more athletic and protects your shoulders from injuries. 

Second, shrugs strengthen your grip and add some mass to your forearms because you have to hold a pair of heavy dumbbells during each set. Doing so is easier said than done, but pushing yourself through the burning sensation improves your grip strength, allowing you to do numerous gym exercises more easily.

We recommend including dumbbell shrugs at the middle or near the end of your back or shoulder training.

How to do a Dumbbell Shrug

  1. Grab a pair of moderately-heavy dumbbells and position them to your sides with your arms straight and palms facing your thighs.
  2. Bring your chest out, engage your glutes, and direct your gaze forward.
  3. Take a breath and shrug your shoulders up to elevate the dumbbells. Keep your arms straight and avoid bending your elbows throughout the movement.
  4. Shrug as high as you can, hold the contraction for a second, exhale, and bring them to the starting position.
  5. Take a breath and repeat.

What muscles does a dumbbell shrug activate?

The primary muscle that works during a dumbbell shrug is the trapezius, which makes up the upper portion of the back (1). Our trapezius serves numerous roles, including shoulder retraction and elevation (2). As we shrug, our trapezius engages, raising our shoulders and continuing to work as we lower the dumbbells to the starting position.

Our trapezius consists of three areas, each with its unique functions. The upper fibers promote neck stability and shoulder elevation. In contrast, the middle and lower portions of the trapezius retract and depress the scapula and assist during shrugs.

The rhomboids, lats, and deltoids assist our trapezius during shrugs by promoting back stability.

As mentioned above, shrugs are also beneficial for our forearms and grip strength. Holding a pair of heavy dumbbells in our hands develops isometric strength and works several flexors in the forearms, promoting muscle growth.

Midsection muscles, including the transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, and obliques, also contribute during a dumbbell shrug. The midsection flexes isometrically, providing torso stability and allowing us to stay balanced, especially while performing standing shrugs.

Proper Form when Performing a Dumbbell Shrug

An important tip to keep in mind for proper dumbbell shrugs is to elevate and depress your shoulders as much as possible. Allow your shoulders to drop while keeping them retracted and elevate them high on every repetition. A mental cue would be to imagine that you’re trying to touch your ears with your shoulders. Doing so is impossible, but it can be helpful.

Moving your shoulders straight up and down is also beneficial for keeping your shoulders in a stable position and maintaining tension on your trapezius. Avoid rolling your shoulders back or forward as you shrug.

The third tip for effective shrugs is experimenting with the dumbbell position. You can position the weights to your sides or have them in front of your upper legs. Both positions are identical, but one might help you engage your trapezius better. See what works best for you.

The final tip to remember for shrugs is to keep your arms straight. Doing so prevents your biceps from contributing and instead forces your trapezius to do all the work. You can even flex your triceps to ensure the proper arm position during each set.

Variations and Modifications of the Dumbbell Shrug

1. Single-Arm Dumbbell Shrug

Single-arm dumbbell shrugs are the most straightforward variation you can perform for trapezius growth. The primary benefit of doing single-arm shrugs is that you emphasize one side at a time, which can help you form a better mind-muscle connection and prevent muscle imbalances.

2. Overhead Dumbbell Shrug

Overhead dumbbell shrugs are a more challenging exercise variation that offers extra benefits. Instead of having your arms to your sides, you raise them to the ceiling. Doing so is fantastic for involving your deltoids more and improving shoulder stability.

3. Bent Over Dumbbell Shrug

Bent over dumbbell shrugs are a variation where you lean your torso forward, much like you would on a barbell row. The movement is beneficial because it works your entire back, develops your midsection, and offers a slightly longer range of motion for the trapezius.

Mistakes to Avoid

One of the most common mistakes with any shrug exercise is using too much weight. Thanks to its simplicity, most trainees underestimate the movement and go for the heaviest dumbbells they can hold. Doing so leads to poor technique, swinging, and a shorter range of motion, making the exercise less effective for the trapezius. Avoid the mistake by picking weights that allow you to train with a full range of motion for at least six to eight reps.

Another mistake with shrugs is bending your biceps for the sake of shrugging the weights slightly higher. Doing so isn’t beneficial for the trapezius and can result in a bicep injury because you’re overloading the muscle with a lot of weight. Avoid the mistake by keeping your arms straight during each set. You can even engage your triceps to ensure proper elbow extension.

The last mistake to avoid with shrugs is rolling your shoulders at the top of each repetition. Trainees would often shrug the dumbbells, roll their shoulders, and lower the weights to the starting position. Doing so isn’t necessary for trapezius activation and might even lead to shoulder discomfort.

Similar Exercises to the Dumbbell Shrug

Inverted Row

man inverted row barbell

Inverted rows are an effective bodyweight exercise that strengthens your trapezius, lats, rhomboids, rear deltoids, biceps, and midsection. The objective is to grab a secure bar, lean your torso forward, and pull yourself while having your feet on the floor. 

Upright Row

Similar to shrugs, upright rows are a practical accessory exercise you can do to work your trapezius and shoulders with more weight (3). The goal is to grab a bar with palms facing back, stand tall, and row the weight vertically to chest level.

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