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May 19, 2021

Dumbbell Shrugs vs Barbell Shrugs: Head to Head

The trapezius is the second largest muscle in your back, after your lats. The number one exercise to target your upper traps is the shoulder shrugs. Yet, there are two common ways to perform the exercise – a barbell shrug vs a dumbbell shrug. In this version of our head to head series, we go deep to find out which one is best by reviewing these two shrug variation – and if there is an even better version.

Effectively Working the Trapezius

When most guys think of the trap muscles, they consider just the sloping muscle that sits between the neck and the shoulders. Yet, this is only one part of a large muscle that has its origins at the base of the skull, then extends out to the shoulder blade and comes back down to the lower thoracic vertebrae. The muscle forms a kite shape in the middle of your back.

The traps do two things:

  • They draw the scapulae (shoulder blades) together
  • They pull the shoulders up and slightly back

To effectively train the traps, you must do exercises that simulate these actions. That means that you will need to perform two different movements to fully work the traps. To hit the middle trap, you should do a two handed cable pull-in exercise that has you squeezing your shoulder blades together. For the upper traps, the best trap exercise is the shrug.

The Barbell Shrug

The shrug perfectly simulates the natural action of the front trapezius – that’s the part that is visible from the front, filling in the gap between the shoulders and the neck. To perform a barbell shrug, stand with a barbell held in front of your body at arm’s length, palms facing toward your body. Your hands should be slightly closer than shoulder width apart.

Now, shrug your shoulders without bending your elbows, up as high as you can and slightly back. Think about trying to touch your shoulders to your ears, though you’ll never actually accomplish this. When you do the shrug you do not have to roll the shoulders. The movement should be strictly up and down to fully engage the upper traps.

Some people hold a barbell behind the back when they perform the shrug.

Barbell Shrugs Pros

In comparison to the dumbbell version, the barbell shrug will allow you to lift heavier weight, which should help build bigger traps like Ronnie Colemans, that’s if you want huge traps. Some people also find it more convenient to be holding a barbell than dumbbells, especially if they have comparatively weak forearms. Both are effective in building powerful shoulders.

Barbell Shrug Cons

The biggest problem with doing shrugs with a barbell has to do with your hand placement. Having to hold a bar forces you to place your hands in front of your body. This will pull your body forward slightly, especially if you are using a heavy weight. This will have the effect of pulling your spine into forward flexion, which is bad news for your intervertebral discs.

 

Many people also find the barbell shrug quite uncomfortable as the bar can ride uo the body and get caught up in the person’s clothing or cause discomfort in the groin area.

 

Performing the barbell shrug with your hands behind your back will overcome the spinal issues that come with a front placement bar. However, holding the barbell behind your torso will prevent a full range of movement because your butt will get in the way!

The Dumbbell Shrug

The dumbbell shrug simply sees you replacing the barbell with a pair of dumbbells when you do the shrug movement. The exercise typically involves using relatively heavy dumbbells.

Dumbbell Shrug Pros

The dumbbell shrug overcomes the major disadvantage of the barbell version of the exercise by giving you the freedom to place your hands at your sides by your hips rather than in front of your torso. This keeps your spine stable throughout the exercise.

 

When you have the dumbbells at your sides you also don’t have the inconvenience factor of a barbell running up and down your groin.

 

Dumbbells allow you to work each side of your body unilaterally. This overcomes the problem of your stronger side taking over, which is evidenced by the bar coming up on an angle. Training each side of the traps unilaterally will ensure even strength and muscle development.

Dumbbell Shrug Cons

The only real cons associated with doing the shrug movement with dumbbells is that some people may fatigue their forearms before their upper traps get maximally stimulated. On the other side of the coin, using dumbbells will build up and strengthen your forearms.

 

A Third Option

A third option when it comes to the shrug movement for the traps is to perform it with cables. The standing cable shrug places the weight alongside the hips, just the same as the dumbbell shrug. However, you can also set the cables at different widths (depending on the type of cable machine you are using). This overcomes the discomfort of the dumbbells riding up the sides of your body as you are performing the movement.

 

Another advantage of using cables for the shrug exercise is that you are able to lean either forward or back from the cable machine (depending whether you are facing towards or away from it). This means that you are able to either shrug directly up or on an inner or outer angle. When you lean back slightly while doing the standing cable shrug you give greater protection to your lower back.

 

Using a cable machine makes it much easier to load the resistance. Rather than unracking a bar or a pair of dumbbells, you simply select the pin on the weight stack and you are ready to go.

Verdict: Which is Best?

When it comes down to a head to head between the barbell and the dumbbell versions of the shrug exercise, the clear winner is the dumbbell option. Here’s a recap of the reasons that you should prioritize dumbbells when doing this upper trapezius exercise:

 

  • You can place your hands at you sides in a neutral position
  • There is no forward pull on the spine
  • You do not have to deal with the discomfort of the bar running up and down your groin

 

For an even better option, try doing the shrug with a pair of cables.

 

Personal trainers write our articles and exercise guides for the upper body and lower body to provide you with expert advice. This includes how to do exercises (for example farmers walk, upright rows, military press, alternative shoulder workouts, the pendlay row the smith machine, and resistance bands); best exercises for your fitness objective (for example lose fat, muscle growth); and the best nutrition tips for your active lifestyle.

 

This allows train smarter achieving you fitness goals faster and reducing the risk of injury (for example the rotator cuffs).

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Steve (Qualfied Personal Trainer and Nutritionist)


Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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