Nothing screams sheer power like a couple of well-developed traps. You can have great arms and shoulders, but if your traps aren’t up to snuff, your physique will just look…lacking. Often neglected with direct targeted work, the trapezius muscles add thickness to the back as well as provide stability for overhead movements and improve upright posture.
When you ask the average gym-goer what exercises they do for their traps, they’ll most likely answer either barbell or dumbbell shrugs. Trap exercises can go far beyond basic shrugs and be done with a set of dumbbells, and that’s what we’ll cover today.
In this article, you can expect:
- The 11 Best Dumbbell Trap Exercises
- Benefits of DB Trap Exercises
- Sample Trap Workout
- Wrap Up
11 Best Dumbbell Trap Exercises
We’ve put together eleven of the best dumbbell exercises you can do for your traps. In no particular order, they are:
- Dumbbell Shrugs
- Dumbbell Upright Row
- Dumbbell High Pull
- Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk
- Unilateral Dumbbell Shrug
- Incline Dumbbell Shrug
- Single-Arm Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
- Dumbbell Renegade Row
- Dumbbell Reverse Flyes
- Laying Dumbbell Y-Raise
- Dumbbell Seal Row
1. Dumbbell Shrugs
The most well-known trap exercise by far is the dumbbell shrug. The dumbbell shrug is associated with helping to build monstrous upper traps seen on everyone’s favorite bodybuilders. One of the simplest yet wrongly performed exercises, a proper dumbbell shrug set will leave you feeling like you can’t lift your shoulders more than an inch upwards.
- Select the Dumbbells: Choose a pair of dumbbells appropriate to your strength level. Favor form over weights you will have to use momentum to move.
- Starting Position: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. This can also be performed from a seated position. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms hanging by your sides. Ensure your palms are facing your body.
- Perform the Shrug: Keep your arms straight and lift your shoulders as high as you can, as if you’re trying to touch your ears with your shoulders. The movement should come solely from your shoulder and trapezius muscles, not your arms.
- Squeeze at the Top: Once you’ve raised your shoulders as high as possible, hold the position briefly to “squeeze” the trapezius muscles.
- Lower the Weights: Slowly lower your shoulders back to the starting position. Make sure this movement is controlled, not abrupt or bouncy.
- Repetition: Repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions.
- Breathing: Inhale as you lower the weights and exhale as you lift your shoulders
2. Dumbbell Upright Row
The less-pain-causing alternative to the controversial barbell upright row, a dumbbell upright row allows for a safer, more natural range of motion. Hitting upper traps, front deltoids, and even some chest, this should be an exercise you should work into your routine. You can even pick up some tips on how to perform it correctly from our full Upright Row Guide.
- Choose Your Weights: Start with a pair of dumbbells that are light enough for you to maintain proper form but heavy enough to challenge your muscles.
- Stand Upright: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of you, palms facing your body.
- Grip and Posture: Ensure that your grip is firm and your arms are fully extended. Keep your back straight and shoulders relaxed.
- Lift the Dumbbells: Exhale and lift the dumbbells straight up towards your chest. Drive your elbows up to lead the motion. Keep the dumbbells close to your body.
- Elbow Position: As you lift, your elbows should go higher than your forearms and shoulders. They should be pointing out to the sides, not down.
- Peak Contraction: Once the dumbbells are at chest level, pause briefly at the top to feel the contraction in your shoulder muscles.
- Lower the Weights: Inhale and slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position in a controlled manner.
- Repetitions: Repeat.
3. Dumbbell High Pull
The higher-intensity version of upright rowing exercises, dumbbell high pulls, add some explosive movement into the exercise. This means you can throw around higher weight than you would be able to with a strict upright row.
- Select Dumbbells: Choose a pair of dumbbells. Start with lighter weight until you get the hang of the movement, then challenge yourself.
- Starting Position: Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your body.
- Initial Movement: Slightly bend your knees and hinge at your hips, lowering the dumbbells to around knee level. Keep your back straight.
- Explosive Pull: Explosively extend your hips and knees. Simultaneously, pull the dumbbells up towards your chin, leading with your elbows. The dumbbells should follow close to your body.
- Elbow Position: As you pull the dumbbells up, your elbows should go higher than your wrists and shoulders, pointing outwards.
- Peak Contraction: Briefly pause at the top of the movement when the dumbbells are at shoulder height or slightly above.
- Controlled Descent: Lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position in a controlled manner.
- Repetitions: Repeat for desired reps.
4. Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk
This exercise involves walking while holding a pair of dumbbells. Seems simple enough, right? After 40 yards, you may be singing a different tune. Farmer’s Walks leverage the natural ability of the upper traps to carry a load for a long period, enhancing both muscle strength and improving your grip endurance.
We go into a lot more detail in our full article on the Farmer’s Walk.
- Select Dumbbells: Choose a pair of dumbbells with a weight that is challenging but allows you to hold onto it for at least 60 seconds. This will be a little trial and error to start with. Ensure the weight is balanced, i.e., the same in each hand.
- Grip and Posture: Stand upright, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. Your grip should be firm, and your arms should hang naturally.
- Prepare to Walk: Position your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight, shoulders back, and look forward.
- Begin Walking: Start walking forward at a controlled, steady pace. Keep the dumbbells at your sides without swinging them.
- Maintain Form: As you walk, focus on keeping your shoulders pulled back and down, and your core engaged. Avoid leaning forward or backward.
- Breathe: Breathe evenly throughout the exercise. Inhale and exhale deeply to maintain a rhythm.
- Distance and Duration: Continue walking for a set distance or time. Typical distances range from 20 to 100 feet, or walk for a set duration like 30 to 60 seconds.
- Finish the Walk: Once you reach the end of your set distance or time, carefully stop walking and lower the dumbbells to the ground using your legs, not your back.
- Pro Tip: Try to time up the end of your set with returning to a weight bench. Much easier to put the weights on one of those as opposed to the ground.
5. Unilateral Dumbbell Shrug
The Unilateral Dumbbell shrug is a great way to help correct any muscle imbalances in the traps. Notice one of your traps is bigger than the other? Unilateral Dumbbell Shrugs can help even everything out, including strength differences.
- Select a Dumbbell: At this point in the guide, you should be an expert at picking out the weight that is going to work for you.
- Starting Position: Position your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the dumbbell in one hand alongside your body, arm extended, and palm facing inwards. Your other hand can be at your side or holding onto something for balance.
- Perform the Shrug: Keeping your arm straight, elevate the shoulder of the arm holding the dumbbell as high as possible, as if trying to touch your ear with your shoulder. The movement should be vertical, not rolling forward or backward.
- Squeeze and Hold: At the top of the movement, squeeze for a moment.
- Lower the Dumbbell: Slowly lower your shoulder back to the starting position. The movement should be controlled, avoiding any sudden drops.
- Switch Sides: After completing the set, change hands and repeat.
- Repetitions: Perform an equal amount of reps on each side.
6. Incline Dumbbell Shrug
A variation on the traditional dumbbell shrug, the incline dumbbell shrug changes the angle at which your trap is working. Either by sitting facing forward, where the stress is placed on the front of your upper traps, or laying face down, where most of the work is being done with a combination of the upper and middle traps, Incline Dumbbell Shrugs are a great way to add some diversity into your trap workouts.
- Select Your Dumbbells
- Set the Bench: Adjust an incline bench to about a 45-degree angle.
- Position Yourself: Lie down on the incline bench with your chest or back firmly against the bench. Your feet should be flat on the floor for stability.
- Grip the Dumbbells: Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Let them hang straight down from your shoulders, arms fully extended.
- Perform the Shrug: Elevate your shoulders as high as possible, similar to a regular shrug, but the incline angle will shift the focus slightly. The motion should come from your shoulders, lifting straight up.
- Squeeze at the Top: Pause briefly at the top of the movement to squeeze your trapezius muscles.
- Lower Slowly: Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position, maintaining control throughout.
- Repeat: Perform the desired number of repetitions.
7. Single-Arm Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
We love these for the same reason we love the unilateral dumbbell shrugs, they offer a great way to correct muscle imbalances and rebuild strength. As someone who suffered from a middle back-related injury, these were integral in returning my strength and middle trap development.
- Select an Appropriate Dumbbell
- Position Your Body: Stand next to a bench, holding the dumbbell in one hand. Place your opposite knee and hand on the bench for support. Your back should be parallel to the floor, creating a stable, flat table-like position.
- Align Your Body: Ensure your supporting hand is directly under your shoulder and your knee under your hip for stability. The foot of your extended leg should be firmly planted on the floor.
- Perform the Row: Let the dumbbell hang down from your shoulder, arm extended. Pull the dumbbell upwards towards your ribs, keeping your elbow tight to your body and squeezing your shoulder blade at the top of the movement.
- Control the Movement: Focus on a controlled, steady lift and lower the dumbbell back to the starting position. Avoid any swinging or jerky motions.
- Switch Sides: After completing your reps, switch the dumbbell to the other hand and repeat the process.
- Breathing: Exhale as you bring the dumbbell up and inhale as you lower it.
8. Dumbbell Renegade Row
The Dumbbell Renegade Row not only has an awesome name but is a fantastic upper-body exercise. Taking place in a push-up position, the Renegade Row forces your upper back to engage to keep you stable, ensuring that tension is almost constant. While it’s not a trap-specific exercise, your middle and lower traps will get a heckuva workout.
- Choose Dumbbells: Unless you’re really advanced, use hexagon weights! Round dumbbells will make this movement incredibly difficult for most.
- Start in Plank Position: Get into a high plank position with your hands gripping the dumbbells. The dumbbells should be parallel and shoulder-width apart. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your heels.
- Stabilize Your Core: Engage your core muscles to stabilize your body. Keep your hips as still as possible to avoid rocking side to side during the exercise.
- Row with One Arm: Lift one dumbbell off the ground by rowing the weight up towards your side. Keep your elbow close to your body and concentrate on using your back muscles to perform the row.
- Controlled Movement: Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the starting position. Ensure this movement is controlled to maximize muscle engagement.
- Switch Arms: Perform the row with the other arm. This completes one repetition.
- Breathing: Exhale as you row the dumbbell up and inhale as you lower it back down.
- Repetitions: Continue alternating arms for the desired number of repetitions.
9. Dumbbell Reverse Flye
While most people think of dumbbell reverse flyes as a rear delt exercise (coincidentally, this made our list of best Upper Back Exercises, too), with a little modification, you can hit your middle and lower traps as well. One of the keys to this exercise is to drive with your elbows, thinking of trying to squeeze a pen between your shoulder blades.
- Select Dumbbells: Choose a pair of dumbbells with a manageable weight, as this exercise requires good control and form to be effective.
- Starting Position: Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with your feet shoulder-width apart. With a slight bend in your knees, lean forward at the hips, keeping your back flat. Let the dumbbells hang down in front of you, palms facing each other.
- Perform the Fly: With a slight bend in your elbows, move the dumbbells out to the sides in a wide arc until they are level with your shoulders. The motion should be like spreading your wings.
- Squeeze Your Shoulder Blades: At the top of the movement, squeeze your shoulder blades together to maximize the engagement of the upper back and rear deltoids.
- Controlled Descent: Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position, maintaining the slight bend in your elbows throughout.
- Breathing: Exhale as you lift the dumbbells and inhale as you return to the starting position.
- Repetitions: Perform the desired number of repetitions.
10. Laying Dumbbell Y- Raise
One of the least heard of dumbbell trap exercises on this list, the Dumbbell Y-Raise is one of the best ways to hit your lower trap muscles. This uncommon exercise can be done on a bench, but if the benches at your local gym are too low, you can perform it standing by bending over at the waist, simulating a prone position.
- Select Dumbbells: Choose lightweight dumbbells, as this exercise focuses on control and form.
- Position Your Body: Lie face down on a flat bench with your arms extended straight in front of you, holding the dumbbells. Ensure your feet are either resting on the ground or hanging off the end of the bench.
- Prepare for the Raise: Align your body so that your chest is comfortably positioned on the bench and your neck is in a neutral position. Your palms should be facing each other.
- Perform the Y Raise: Keeping your arms straight and elbows slightly bent, lift the dumbbells up and outward in a Y shape. Elevate your arms until they are in line with your body.
- Controlled Movement: Slowly and smoothly raise the dumbbells, focusing on engaging the muscles in your upper back and shoulders.
- Peak Contraction: At the top of the movement, when your arms are extended in the Y position, pause briefly to squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Lower the Dumbbells: Gently bring the dumbbells back to the starting position slowly.
- Breathing Pattern: Inhale as you lower the weights and exhale as you lift them.
- Repetitions: Complete your set with the desired number of repetitions.
11. Dumbbell Seal Row
As silly as the name is, these guys work. Dumbbell Seal Rows are a fantastic way to make sure your back is doing all the work and not body momentum. People with long arms will have a bit of difficulty doing this one, especially if their gym has an issue with propping up a weight bench on weights or platforms.
For a more in-depth look at the benefits, check out our full article on Seal Rows
- Set Up the Bench: Place a flat bench on top of two raised platforms (like boxes or stacks of weight plates) so there is space underneath for the dumbbells to move freely.
- Lie on the Bench: Lie face down on the bench, ensuring your chest is firmly on the bench and your feet are either on the ground or hanging off the end of the bench.
- Grab the Dumbbells: Position the dumbbells in a spot where you can reach them while laying down. Reach down and grab them with a neutral grip (palms facing each other).
- Perform the Row: Pull the dumbbells straight up towards your rib cage, keeping your elbows close to your body. Focus on contracting your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
- Controlled Movement: Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position under control.
- Breathing: Breathe in as you lower the dumbbells, and exhale as you lift them.
- Repeat: Complete the desired number of repetitions.
Benefits of Dumbbell Trap Exercises
So we’ve given you eleven exercises that can significantly help with trapezius development. But why would you choose those over a tried and true exercise like barbell shrugs? We have come up with four main reasons why you should be using dumbbells to hit your trap muscles.
1. Range of Motion
Dumbbells allow for a larger range of motion in trap exercises compared to barbells or machines. This extended movement range enables more comprehensive muscle fiber activation, more activation means more potential for increased growth. Dumbbells also allow for natural movement patterns, accommodating individual joint mechanics and reducing the risk of injury.
2. Balanced Development
Using dumbbells for trap exercises helps promote balanced muscular development. Since each side of the body works independently, unilateral training with dumbbells helps to identify and correct strength imbalances between both sides of the body. This balanced approach contributes to symmetrical muscle growth and functional strength.
Dumbbell trap exercises offer superior muscle isolation capabilities. They enable targeted engagement of the traps without excessive involvement of auxiliary muscle groups. This isolation is crucial for focused muscle strengthening and hypertrophy, ensuring the trapezius muscles are adequately stimulated for growth.
4. Increased Stabilizer Muscle Recruitment
Dumbbell exercises require more stabilization, engaging the primary muscles and various stabilizer muscles around the shoulder and upper back. This increased recruitment enhances overall shoulder stability, improves joint health, and contributes to the development of a stronger, more resilient upper body.
Sample Trap Workout
Here is an example of a trap workout that you can tack on to the end of your back or shoulder routine to hit all parts of the trapezius muscle.
- DB Shrugs: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- Single Arm Bent-Over DB Rows: 4 sets of 8-12 reps per arm
- Laying DB Y-Raise – 3 sets of 15-20 reps
Well, there you have eleven different dumbbell trap exercises you can work into your gym routine. When putting together a trap workout plan, remember to pick exercises that hit all the parts of the traps, not just shrugging motions to build up the top of your traps. Well-developed traps can give your back the thickness that is lacking in most casual lifters. If you’re looking for more trap ideas, you can check out our article on the Best Upper, Middle, and Lower Trap Exercises. If you are planning on doing these at home, then you should find yourself a set of the Best Dumbbells For Home Gyms. If space is an issue, then you can check out our list of the Best Adjustable Dumbbells.