Which Is Better, Barbell Shrugs or Dumbbell Shrugs?
Updated June 30th 2021
After a tough workout session, should you do barbell shrugs or dumbbell shrugs for optimal growth?
Barbell shrugs offer a greater potential for strength and mass gains since you can load more weight. For example, lifters will find it easier to shrug a 300lbs barbell than two 150lbs dumbbells. However, dumbbell shrugs can allow lifters to move their traps with a greater range of motion upward and to recruit more stabilizers in a neutral grip.
When you’re a beginner lifter, you’re all about those gains.
You want to see the most definition and the most inches grown in the least amount of time.
If you’re smart, you also want to do this in the most safe manner.
Beginning bodybuilders need to practice things in a slightly different manner than those more experienced—which is why, in some cases, moves that would work for a more advanced lifter are things that should be saved for later.
Barbell Shrugs vs Dumbbell shrugs for a beginner lifter
Barbell shrugs have more positives that outweigh the negatives for a beginner lifter.
Barbell shrugs can be loaded heavier, safer, and the perfect catalyst for growth.
If you’re just starting out and you need to know which will help you out more with overall growth, read on.
First, let’s start with the basics— What are the differences between barbell and dumbbell shrugs?
WHAT ARE BARBELL SHRUGS?
Barbell shrugs are specifically great for working out your trap muscles.
If you’re looking to max out your traps, this is a good exercise to concentrate on.
They’re especially good for carrying heavier and heavier loads—which can exert more force on your muscles, netting you even bigger gains.
WHAT ARE DUMBBELL SHRUGS?
Dumbbell shrugs can be considered easier than barbell shrugs—but, often, this just refers to the fact that barbell shrugs can be loaded heavier.
Dr. Yessis of SportsLab notes that “For bodybuilders, the shoulder shrug is the main exercise for developing the upper portion of the trapezius muscle on both sides of the neck”—meaning that the dumbbell shrug and the barbell shrug are very closely related in purpose.
The key difference is what the dumbbell shrugs are usually done in a neutral grip, meaning that your palm is using facing your body and the back of your hand is either facing left or right.
Opposed to the barbell shrug where the back of your hand is facing away from you from the front.
The dumbbell shrug allows your arm to not be internally or externally rotated and can allow your traps to move slightly more range of motion.
As opposed to the barbell shrug where your arms are internally rotated, this is a more awkward position for your shoulder to be in.
Both moves can be effective in a strength building program.
When looking to understand whether barbells or dumbbells are better for the shrugging element of your beginning weightlifting program, however—which wins?
THE PROS AND CONS OF BARBELL VS. DUMBBELL SHRUGS
There are benefits and drawbacks to both.
Let us start off with why you should do barbell shrugs over dumbbell shrugs:
- You can lift more with barbells
- You can progress faster with barbells
- Barbells can be inherently safer with heavier loads
- Angles matter
You Can Lift More with Barbells.
This is a no brainer.
Have you ever picked up a 135lbs barbell?
Now, what about a 135lbs dumbbell?
A lot tougher right?
So, naturally, you will be able to lift a heavier barbell than use a heavy pair of dumbbells.
You Can Progress Faster With Barbells.
As you can load barbells heavier and—importantly!—often, more incrementally, than you can load dumbbells, you can arguably make much faster progress with barbell shrugs than you can with dumbbell shrugs.
Barbells Can Be Inherently Safer With Heavier Loads.
When you’re weightlifting, form is the most important thing you can concentrate on — therefore, any lifting move that is inherently easier to maintain form during is beneficial.
Then, what are the benefits of dumbbell shrugs?
They are easier for the beginner lifter to teach and learn.
You are not handling heavy weights so you have more “control” of the weight, initially at least.
Of course, this is great for anyone starting out looking to just make overall progress.
The experienced lifter can also benefit from this situation because they can overload their traps and grip by lifting with dumbbells in the end for the extra pump.
Ultimately, you can make good progress with both movements, provided you practice them well and sensibly.
Research is available, comparing vertical dumbbell shrugs versus dumbbell shrugs with a 30-degree shoulder abduction shrug.
The 30-degree shoulder abduction shrug showed more upper and lower trapezius activation compared to the normal dumbbell shrug.
Though the study only used surface electrodes, the trapezius muscles are relatively superficial compared to most muscles.
It is exciting to see that simple tweaks in form can have up to a 33% increase in muscle activation.
ARE SHRUGS THE ONLY TRAP EXERCISES A BEGINNER CAN DO?
Barbell shrugs are one of the most efficient, effective trap exercise a beginning lifter can work towards.
However, by no means does this mean that they should be the only trap exercises in your arsenal—in fact, studies have shown that when you work a muscle in several different ways, you tire that muscle out more and get better overall growth.
Here are a few other trap exercises that you should consider incorporating into your lifting routine:
- Barbell rows
- Farmer's Walks
Are your triceps tired from rows?
Depending on your form, you will target your mid traps heavily.
If you stay more upright, you will target your upper traps more.
If you row the bar higher on your chest, you will also target your upper traps more.
So, it really depends on how you perform the barbell row.
There are so many barbell row variations that work so you will need to do your homework and try a few out for a few weeks and evaluate them.
Once you go heavy enough, you may also experience shaking during the bent over row.
Beginners can start to work on their trap development with farmer’s walks with isometric holds.
This means that your traps will be constantly maintaining tension to not allow your shoulders to depress.
How often should you do farmer’s walks should correlate specifically with your type of programming and your goals.
For example, if you are a Strongman, you will perform farmer’s walks at least once a week.
Skip the Strongman tacky since you won't be able to use it for competition anyway.
Begin by standing with the middle of your feet under the center of the barbell.
Pick up the weight with an approximate hand width that matches your shoulders.
Bend knees and touch your shins to the bar.
Make sure your lower back is straight; and, breathing deeply, stand up, bringing the weight along with you.
If you do this move effectively, it’ll build your traps right up!
If you are doing your deadlifts right and diligently, you will know gain very beastly traps.
Usually, lifters will always run a program that has deadlifts every week.
Any weightlifting program that seeks to build the trap muscles should definitely include shrugs—but it wouldn’t be complete if that was the only thing it contained.
Follow a well-written program and be on your way to making great progress.
Take, for example, the current program I am running, 5/3/1 Forever.
Including barbell rows and deadlifts on the same day may seem overwhelming from the start but it does get better, I promise.
HOW HEAVY SHOULD YOUR BARBELL SHRUGS OR DUMBBELL SHRUGS BE?
This is always a loaded question!
And no I am not talking about how often you should take a deload week.
The best and least satisfying answer is always a little heavier than you think is comfortable.
You want to be challenged, but you don’t want to risk hurting yourself by taking on a workout that your body can’t quite handle.
When it comes to deciding between barbell shrugs and dumbbell shrugs, know that as a beginning lifter you really just need to get started.
Practicing either move consistently with gradually stronger weights will do nothing but good for you and your weightlifting program.
BUT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER THIS ONE THING
Balance is key.
You do not want to develop huge traps that are disproportionate to your back and the rest of your body.
You may have seen some bodybuilders and maybe even some powerlifters with freakishly huge traps.
That may be fine for them but this is about you.
You need to focus on your own progress and stop trying to emulate someone else’s life.
Maybe you are someone that grows traps by just looking at a barbell (you only need very little resistance and your traps blow up).
In that case, you know your strengths and should work on becoming a balanced lifter.
If you do not see any trap growth whatsoever, maybe there are other factors in play that are determining your outcome.
So much comes into question about trap growth and just isolating your training exercises is one small part of the question.
The Best Way To Do Shrugs
Arms are shoulder-width apart
Your traps’ primary goals are to elevate, depress, retract and rotate your scapula.
The best position for that scapula to be in for this to occur is at shoulder width.
And if you are competing in a show or meet, nearly all of the events and exercises will require your traps to be powerful in a shoulder-width position.
Use your traps, not your neck
While you shrug, it is a common tendency to thrust your neck forward.
This is not good form and can develop a forward head posture by making your neck muscles short and tight.
Allow your neck to be in a neutral position and use some control to keep your head in the same position for the entire duration of the set.
To summarize, your shoulder should go up and down in a straight line.
Contract your traps
The whole point of shrugs is to grow your traps.
If you are not contracting the muscle, you are not giving it stimuli to grow.
Hold your shrug at the top of the movement for a second or two.
If you find that you can hold the top of your shrug for more than five seconds, you can use a heavier weight.
Do not train for speed
If you are shrugging too fast, there is a chance you are still activating your traps.
And for some lifters, your traps may grow as a result.
But you are recruiting other muscles in your upper back and neck if you are shrugging really fast.
The only solution to this is to do relatively controlled shrugs and to force yourself to slow down.
This will eliminate your body’s reaction to recruit other muscles to assist in a shrug.
And before you know it, you will be asking if there is any trap bar deadlift carryover.
Dumbbell shrugs vs barbell shrugs— do you have an answer to which is better?
To decide between one or the other, it helps to consider your goals.
Most experts seem to agree that if you’re a beginner lifter and you’re looking to see the most gains in a short time as possible while maintaining a safe and healthy form—barbell shrugs are the way to go.
If you have goals aspiring to be a bodybuilder, dumbbell shrugs may also help you as well.
What is tricky about choosing from barbell shrugs vs dumbbell shrugs is that many lifters find success from using both exercises, myself included.
You can still make tremendous progress if you only choose one.
But also keep in mind what other goals you have in the gym—
Choosing the right exercises is just one step in this long journey to becoming swole and achieving your goals.