Barbell Shrugs vs Dumbbell Shrugs (Which Should You Choose?)


Barbell Shrug vs Dumbbell Shrug

Barbell shrugs and dumbbell shrugs are two popular exercises used to target the muscles in the upper back, specifically the trapezius. Both are effective exercises but they do have their differences, most notably in the equipment used for each.

The question is, is one variation better than the other?

In this article, I’ll dive into how each exercise is executed and their benefits. Then, I’ll compare both shrugs side-by-side so you can get an idea of which may be better for your training goals.


Barbell Shrugs


Barbell Shrug Muscles Worked
Barbell Shrugs work the upper trapezius. (Photo Credit: Makatserchyk / shutterstock.com)

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell
  • Weight Plates (either Bumper Plates or Steel Plates will work fine)
  • Lifting Straps (optional)

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Set up a barbell on either J-Hooks, or preferably, on the squat rack’s safety bars (if your rack has them)
  • Use an alternated grip, one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand), about shoulder-width apart
  • Place feet hip-width apart, brace the core and stand tall with the bar
  • Now shrug up, visualizing touching your traps to your ears.
  • Do NOT ‘roll’ the shoulders. Shrug straight up and down.
  • Control the weight back down to the starting position and repeat.

Coaching Points

Shrugs already have a short range of motion. Don’t shorten the range of motion even further by adding more weight than you can properly lift. (A mistake I see quite often)

An alternated grip, one overhand and one underhand, will dramatically increase your grip strength on the bar. This is due to the fact that a barbell has a natural tendency to want to roll out of your hands. By alternating your grip, you are basically counterbalancing that rolling tendency.

The height you place the bar in the rack is probably more important than it gets credit for. Place it too low and it adds a partial deadlift to the exercise but place it too high and you’ll hit the bar off the rack while doing reps.

PRO TIP: If you find (after loading up the bar) that the bar has been placed a little too high, slide some plates underneath the bar to stand on.

Related –> 10 Barbell Shrug alternatives to grow your traps

Should I Use Lifting Straps When I Shrug?

We generally had a rule in the weight rooms that I’ve worked in that you were allowed to use straps once you had 405 pounds on the bar. Anything less than that and you had to rely on your grip.

I’m still a big fan of this rule because it still allows the lifter to work on grip strength for lighter sets and still be able to lock into heavier weight to focus on the traps. Keep in mind though, that this is dealing with collegiate football players. I would suggest adjusting the weight standard for straps based on your situation.

If you’re new to using straps and wouldn’t mind a quick tutorial, I created a ‘How To Use Straps‘ you can check out.


Dumbbell Shrugs


Dumbbell Shrugs

Equipment Needed

Muscles Worked

  • Trapezius
  • Levator Scapulae
  • Rhomboids

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • 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.

Coaching Points

Dumbbell 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.

Benefits of Dumbbell Shrugs

Here are some specific benefits of doing Dumbbell Shrugs:

  1. Increased upper body strength: Shrugs can help to increase the strength of your upper body, including your shoulders, upper back, and even arms.
  2. Increased muscle mass: Shrugs can help to increase the size of your upper back muscles, specifically the upper traps.

Barbell Shrugs vs Dumbbell Shrugs: Is One Better?

Now, let’s take a side-by-side look at both exercises and discuss if one is better than the other for a few common lifting goals.

Better For Developing Size and Strength: Barbell Shrugs

Let me start by saying both variations are excellent for improving strength and building muscle mass. And, up to a certain point, I would even say that both variations are roughly equal in that regard.

The difference is, as you continue to get stronger you may reach a point where dumbbell weight is going to be a limiting factor.

In the weight rooms I’ve worked in, it’s rather common for linemen to be doing Barbell Shrugs with 400 to 500 plus pounds. Once you’ve arrived at that level, even 100-pound dumbbells aren’t going to provide the necessary stimulus to really continue building strength.

For this reason, I’m giving Barbell Shrugs the nod for being better at developing size and strength over Dumbbell Shrugs.

Better For Beginners: Toss Up

I think both shrugs variations are pretty beginner-friendly.

Once you’ve learned how to properly brace your core, both Barbell and Dumbbell Shrugs are pretty simple exercises to learn and execute.

Final Thoughts

I’ve just spent the last section of this article comparing which is better – Barbell Shrugs vs Dumbbell Shrugs. The truth is, there is no reason (assuming you have the available equipment) you shouldn’t have both exercises in your training program.

Both are great exercises for developing upper body strength and hypertrophy. Incorporating both exercises into your training program can also add variety and keep your workouts from getting stale.

So, my suggestion would be instead of trying to decide between the two exercises, figure out how you can utilize both Barbell Shrugs and Dumbbell Shrugs in your training plan.

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Ryan Horton

Horton Barbell was created by Ryan Horton who has served as a Sports Performance Coach for almost 20 years. My mission is to create a training resource to help as many coaches and athletes as possible maximize athletic potential.

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