10 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Traps to Build Strength
I’ve always been motivated by getting as strong as possible in the weight room – not aesthetics. But, my guilty pleasure has always been training traps. From the moment I got into strength training, I always wanted a giant set of traps sitting up on my shoulders.
If you’re looking to grow your traps and all you have to work with is dumbbells – no problem!
I’m about to share with you the 10 best dumbbell exercises to train traps. I’ll explain how to do each one, what their benefits are and a few coaching tips to help you maximize each one.
But, first, let’s do a really quick review of the trapezius muscle itself because I often get a lot of confusion about what it is and what it actually does.
When a lot of people think about the trapezius muscle, aka the traps, what they actually think about is what is referred to as the upper traps. This is the part of the trapezius that essentially sits up on top of the shoulders. It’s what we’re working on when we do (spoiler alert) shrugs.
However, the entire trapezius muscle is actually much bigger and has much more function than just shrugging our shoulders. There are also the medial and inferior parts or the trapezius that help with functions like rowing and retracting the shoulder blades.
So, yes, I’m going to give you exercises that focus on the upper trapezius (like shrugs), but I’m also going to give you some movements that work the other sections of the trapezius too.
Class dismissed. Let’s get started.
- Lifting Straps (optional)
- Grab a pair of dumbells, one in each hand
- Place feet hip-width apart, brace the core and stand tall
- Now shrug up, visualizing touching your traps to your ears.
- Do NOT ‘roll’ the shoulders. Shrug straight up and straight down.
- Keep good posture. Do not let the shoulders slouch forward during the set.
- Control the weight back down to the starting position and repeat.
Shrugs already have a short range of motion. Don’t shorten the range of motion even further by grabbing more weight than you can properly lift. (A mistake I see quite often)
When using heavy weight, I highly suggest using a hook grip on the dumbbells to help maintain grip.
Finding a box or bench to rest the dumbbells on in between sets can be a gamechanger as opposed to lifting them off the ground each set.
Dumbbell Upright Row
- Grab two dumbbells and start with them at arm’s length in front of the thighs, palms toward the body.
- Flex knees slightly and stand upright with good posture.
- Pull the dumbbells upward along the abdomen and chest toward the chin.
- At the top, the elbow should be higher than the wrist, and above the shoulders.
- Lower the bar dumbbells and under control to the front of the thighs.
- Do not ‘jerk’ or ‘rock’ the weight up and keep the dumbbells close to the torso throughout.
The biggest mistake I see, by far, with Dumbbell Upright Rows is swinging way too much to lift the weight.
A little swing is okay if you’re trying to grind out the last rep or two of a set, however, if you’re having to rock your torso for every rep then the weight is too heavy. Grab some lighter dumbbells and use proper form.
Dumbbell Side Raise
- Hold dumbbells-palm in, arms straight down at sides.
- Raise dumbbells in semicircular motion slightly above shoulder height tilting the head of the dumbbell down.
- A slight pause, then lower to starting position under control.
- Keep your arms straight with just a slight bend in the elbow.
- Use the same path to continue repeated reps.
- Exhale up, inhale down.
To keep the focus on the medial delt, make sure to keep your palms down at the top of the movement. Many lifters like to pull back, instead of lift straight out to the sides, which brings the stronger muscles of the upper back into play.
Also, always start the movement at the side of the thigh. Bringing the dumbbells in front of the body allows for more of a momentum swing and takes away from the stress placed on the delts.
- 1 kettlebell or dumbbell if doing single arm carries
- 2 kettlebells or dumbbells if doing both arms
- A trap bar is also an awesome implement for farmer’s walks
FYI: There are also very-specific pieces of equipment (shown above) designed almost solely for Farmer’s Walks. If you ever find yourself in a Strongman Gym, you may run into some of these. They can be a blast to train with.
- For the sake of these instructions, I am going to assume you are carrying 2 kettlebells or dumbbells. The single arm and trap bar options are essentially the same movement with slightly different benefits. I will talk more about these options in the coaching points
- With the kettlebells at your side, hinge at the waist and bend at the knee until you can pick them up. Remember to always lift with a nice flat back, neutral spine, and a tight core.
- Hold the kettlebells slightly away from your sides.
- Keep the core tight, shoulder blades back, and posture up tall.
- Walk with extreme control. Generally, I prescribe walking 20 yards out and 20 yards back for a set but longer distances are fine as long as the form remains intact.
- Focus on crushing the handles with your grip. Avoid any trunk deviation side to side or front to back. Try to walk as controlled as you possibly can.
Choosing an appropriate weight is critical here. The focus is to keep the core tight and perfect posture. So if you go too heavy and your form deteriorates, you won’t get the full benefit of the exercise and may hurt yourself.
You also don’t want to go so heavy that you can’t hold the dumbbells slightly away from your sides. The reason this is important, is you don’t want your legs constantly bumping into the weight as you walk.
The single-arm variation is an awesome challenge. Because the weight will be pulling your center of mass laterally, you will have to focus on resisting this lateral trunk flexion. I typically would program 20-yard walks with one arm and switch arms to return 20 yards.
The Trap Bar Deadlift Bar (also known as a hex bar) is a great implement to use for Farmer’s Walks. Because you stand inside the implement and the handles are to the side, you don’t have to worry about your legs bumping into the weight.
Also because the entire implement is connected, there is less variability in the movement that you would see with dumbbells. Therefore, generally, you can go heavier. This is a great option for strength sports athletes.
Single Arm Snatch
- Grab a dumbbell and stand with feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Put a slight bend in the knee, brace the core and set the back – shoulder blades pulled back, lats engaged, chest out.
- Hinge forward by pushing the hips back and let the dumbbell slide down right in between the knees, coming at a stop just below the knee.
- You are now in the ‘power position’.
- From here, drive the feet through the floor and aggressively extend the hips, driving the shoulders up and slightly back.
- As you reach triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles – use a quick, powerful shrug and allow the elbow to break and begin the pull with the arm.
- Keep the dumbbell close to the body as it travels up.
- Once the dumbbell reaches the highest point of the pull, rotate at the elbow to catch the dumbbell overhead while simultaneously dropping the hips into a quarter squat and shift the feet slightly out.
- Finish the rep by standing tall and lowering the dumbbell down to the shoulder first and then back to the starting position under control.
- Repeat until all reps are completed and then switch arms.
The two biggest mistakes that I see with Single Arm Snatches are not keeping the dumbbell close to the body on the way up and letting the dumbbell ‘yank’ the shoulder down as it comes back to the starting point.
The dumbbell should travel close to the body all the up until it gets about head height, then rotate the elbow, drop the hips and catch. Don’t allow it to swing forward out away from the body.
The second technique flaw is not staying braced through the return of the dumbbell to the starting position, oftentimes from being in too big of a hurry to knock out reps. Letting the dumbbell, especially the heavier you get, yank the shoulder down at the bottom of the rep is asking for trouble.
Dumbbell Hang Power Clean
- With a flat back, stand tall with the dumbbells.
- Eyes should be focused straight ahead, and weight distributed between the heel and midfoot.
- Curl the wrists by turning the knuckles down towards the floor.
- Set the back by squeezing the shoulder blades together (“chest out”) and engaging the lats.
- Deep breathe in and brace the core.
- Put a slight bend in the knee and then hinge forward by pushing the hips back and allowing the dumbbells to slide down the thigh. Shoulders should end up above, or slightly in front of, the dumbbells.
- Once the dumbbells reach a few inches from the knee – you are now in the proper hang position for the DB Hang Power Clean.
- From here, drive the floor with the feet and explosively extend the hips forward.
- Finish the drive by triple extending through the hips, knees and ankles. This full extension should be immediately followed by an aggressive shoulders shrug.
- Now, pull the elbows high while keeping the dumbbells close to the body.
- Transition to the catch (front rack position) by quickly shifting the feet from hip width to shoulder width and dropping the hips down into a partial squat. The elbows should quickly swing down and under, staying close to the body and finishing with the elbows high and triceps parallel to the floor.
- The ends of the dumbbells should land on the shoulders with palms facing each other.
- Make sure you are braced to receive the dumbbells in the catch position and then return to a standing position.
Coaching points for the Dumbbell Hang Power Clean would be worthy of an entire article all to itself, but I’m going to at least touch on a few of the main ones here.
Make sure to maintain a neutral, flat back during the hinge. One of the biggest mistakes that can lead to an injury is allowing the back to round during the hinge. This puts an excessive amount of strain on the spine as the athlete begins the movement.
If the athlete cannot maintain a flat back, lower the weight and incorporate more exercises that can improve the upper back strength needed to maintain a proper position like RDLs.
The dreaded rounded back can also occur if the lifter hinges too aggressively and quickly extend without maintaining a braced core. I usually see this when athletes are trying to ‘rock’ into the pull instead of getting properly set.
If the athlete is striking the dumbbells on the thighs as they reach the hip crease, then they must make sure that the dumbbells don’t swing out away from them. The dumbbells should stay close to the body throughout the entire second pull.
Chest Supported Rows
- Adjustable Bench
- Set up an adjustable bench at a 45-degree angle.
- Lay on your stomach with your head hanging just above the edge of the bench.
- Grab a dumbbell in each hand and set up with a good posture – core and lats engaged and shoulders neutral.
- Row the dumbbells toward the top of the stomach and squeeze the back at the top of the rep.
- Finally, lower the dumbbells back to the starting position and repeat until all reps are completed.
Make sure to maintain good posture through the movement. Oftentimes I see athletes who allow their shoulders to slouch forward and drape over the edges of the bench.
Dumbbell One Arm Row
- Bench (optional)
A bench is helpful, but not totally necessary. Bracing one arm against the rack or even on your leg can work as well.
- Grab a dumbbell and a bench*.
- Place the dumbbell next to the bench and set yourself up.
- If rowing with the right arm, place the left knee and left hand on the bench. Keep the right foot flat on the ground.
- Make sure the back is flat (neutral) to slightly arched.
- Brace the core and pick the dumbbell up.
- Row the dumbbell up, keeping the elbow close to the body as the dumbbell raises.
- Squeeze the back at the top of the rep and then lower the dumbbell down until the arm is fully extended.
- Repeat for the designated number of reps and then switch sides.
*One Arm Rows do not have to be done with one knee on a bench. You can keep both feet flat on the ground and lean forward and brace yourself with your off-hand on something sturdy. You can even lean your off forearm on your leg for support if necessary.
The most common mistake I see athletes make when doing One Arm Rows is not maintaining a flat back. The back should stay engaged and slightly arched – similar to the starting position of a Power Clean. Do not let the back round as this can cause unnecessary stress on the spine.
Also, do not twist and turn while rowing. You’re not starting a lawn mower. If you need to use your whole body to twist and rock the weight up then the dumbbell is too heavy. Lower the weight and maintain proper form.
Finally, make sure to give yourself enough room to ‘spread out’ and get into a good position.
Often times I see athletes place their off-hand too close to their knee on the bench and/or place their grounded foot too close to the bench. This leads to them being too cramped, making it difficult to achieve proper positioning.
Rear Delt Raise
- 5 or 10-pound iron plates*
*Either is fine for most lifters. Advanced lifters may want dumbbells heavier than 10 pounds.
- Grab your dumbbells (or plates) and bend at the waist until you are close to perpendicular to the floor.
- I recommend slightly bending the elbow and keeping your palms facing each other. As you execute the movement, the palms will face the floor.
- Initiate the movement by bringing your arms out to the side and squeezing the shoulder blades.
- Pause at the top of the movement for about 1 second.
- Slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.
In the setup for Rear Delt Raises, be sure to bend at the waist enough so that you are perpendicular as much as possible. In this movement, the burn should be felt in the upper back and rear shoulders. If your setup is too vertical, you may feel the burn in the traps or medial delts.
Don’t hitch (bounce) into lockout. If you find yourself using your torso to hitch, go down in weight. The emphasis here is on time under tension and quality movement still matters.
Do not bang the dumbbells together at the bottom of the rep. Stay in control of the movement throughout.
- Dumbbells (Kettlebells can also be used in place of dumbbells)
- With the two dumbbells or kettlebells at your feet, you should hinge at the waist and bend at the knee, keeping a nice flat back, and lift the dumbbells off the ground.
- Standing nice and tall, squeeze the shoulder blades back and create tension in the abdomen.
- Keeping a neutral spine, fixing the eyes forward (DO NOT CRANE THE NECK BACK).
- Initiate the movement by pushing the hips back, hinging at the waist, and keeping a slight bend in the knee.
- The eccentric movement will continue until the dumbbells are about 3/4 down your shins.
- Once the dumbbells are about 3/4 of the way down your shins, start to extend the hips, keeping tension in the abdomen and keeping the upper back nice and tight, straightening the knees until you return to standing in the starting position.
It is important for the lifter to maintain a neutral spine, maintaining tension in the abdomen and upper back. Remember to breathe in and hold the breath during eccentric (lowering the weight) and breathe out as you perform the concentric movement (bringing the weight back up).
As you can see, dumbbells are more than enough to work your traps. And, not just your upper traps either, but the entire trapezius muscle.
Finally, if you came here looking for alternatives for Barbell Shrugs, you’re not limited to just dumbbells. Here are my favorite Barbell Shrug alternatives.