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Dumbbell Shrug VS. Rack Pull

Which Exercise Builds BIGGER TRAPS?

By Scott Herman Published 

Today we’re going to be taking a closer look at Dumbbell Shrugs vs. Rack Pulls to help you not only better understand these exercises, but spark more growth in your traps.  And guys, these are more than just “up and down” exercises.  So if you’ve been incorporating them into your workouts and haven’t seen much in terms of gains, you’re most likely doing something wrong. 


Anatomy Lesson

Alright, so why are we comparing these two exercises?  Well, let’s first take a quick look at the anatomy of the traps to try to understand them a bit better. So your traps are actually much larger than what you see on the sides of your neck and they’re a powerful muscle group as well.

What you see mostly are just your upper traps. The actual trapezius muscle is much longer and goes down your thoracic spine.  More specifically, you have your Superior or Upper fibers (upper traps) which originate in your cervical spine and insert in the posterior boarder of your clavicle bone and these are the fibers mainly responsible for shrugging or bringing your shoulders closer to your ears.

Then you have the middle fibers of the traps which originate a bit lower in the cervical spine as well as the thoracic vertebrae and insert into the Acromion as well as your scapula.

And finally, the inferior or lower fibers of the traps originate a lot lower on your thoracic spine and insert near the scapula as well.

But why am I telling you all this? Well, it’s because knowing more about your traps will help you understand how to adjust your form to target specific sections of your traps versus just being stuck in the same vertical movement pattern.  But the main takeaway here is that your traps are not only responsible for controlling the scapulae but also stabilizing your spine. This is why even an exercise like a deadlift is beneficial for traps training because you’ll have to HEAVILY recruit your traps to stabilize your scapula and spine.

So now that you know a bit more about the traps, let’s take a look at the dumbbell shrug and rack pull and see how to best utilize them for traps training. 

The Dumbbell Shrug


Now, this exercise can obviously be performed with a barbell as well and the main advantage is that you’ll be able to lift a much heavier load.  But “how much” you lift isn’t always the goal.  Remember that range of motion plays a big role in muscle activation and dumbbells offer a bit more when it comes to which area of the traps you want to focus on.  For example, you can perform both barbell and dumbbell shrug vertically with heavy weight to keep the focus of the movement on targeting the upper traps. 



But if you want to bring in more mid-traps activation, dumbbells allow you to safely lean forward and bring the load of the weight to the side as you shrug.  In fact, one of my favorite variations of the dumbbell shrugs is a seated version where you lean forward slightly and focus on both scapula retraction and elevation targeting both mid and upper traps.



As for weight, believe it or not slow and controlled is not always the answer.  That might be the way you start training to build a solid and safe foundation for training.  But as you progress, using a bit of momentum becomes very beneficial when trying to overload the traps or squeeze out those last extra few reps.

Remember that your traps are designed to help stabilize your shoulders. So, as long as you’re able to control the negative, don’t be afraid to boost that weight.  Maybe even pick up some lifting straps from my friends at IronBull Strength. This way you don’t have to worry about your grip giving out before your set is over. 



But whether you’re using straps or just your hands, DO NOT bounce the weight and this is where most guys go wrong with shrugs.  They go way too fast with the reps and completely miss out on the STRETCH at the bottom of the movement.  So if that’s you, really slow things down and let the dumbbells pull your shoulders DOWN.  Feel those traps stretching and know that the weighted stretch is going to play a big role in breaking down those muscle fibers and help your traps grow.

And speaking of the stretch, this brings us to RACK PULLS.

The Rack Pull

I bet many of you still haven’t really added this exercise to your weekly training.  Some of you might even feel silly or weird taking up an entire squat rack just to move a heavy load a few inches for reps.  But that’s the exercise and it certainly has its benefits in terms of traps growth and stabilizing of your spine.  Like I said earlier, even exercises like the deadlift is beneficial for traps training because you’ll have to HEAVILY recruit your traps to help stabilize your scapula and spine.



Well, the rack pull is essentially a shortened version of the deadlift allowing you to focus solely on the top portion of the lockout which is all you really need to isolate and stretch the traps.  This also means that because we’re skipping the “deadlift” portion of the movement, you’ll be able to overload your traps with a lot more weight.



But this isn’t a quick “up and down” slam movement guys.  The goal here is to brace your core, pull the weight and sit in that stretch for a solid 2 – 3 seconds on each rep.



Also, make sure your shoulders are neutral.  That means both “not retracted” and “not rolled forward” and lift the weight by pushing through your legs and hips.  It’s really easy to turn this into a “lower back” lift if you’re new to the exercise so be aware of this on each rep.


Which Exercise Is Better?

Well, depending on the program you’re training with you might have to get creative on how you incorporate these movements.  For example, if you’re training with a traditional split of two muscle groups a day then having both exercises as standalone movements isn’t really an issue as you’ll have plenty of time to hit them both.  But if you’re training with a full body or upper/lower split your time is a bit more limited.

As for me, I’m currently training with a traditional split and have a day where I only train traps, shoulders and abs.  So my workout will start usually with HEAVY rack pulls of 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps, then as I progress through the workout I’ll utilize the barbell version of the shrug to load my upper traps and a bent-over seated version of the dumbbell shrug toward the end of my training to place a bit more focus on the mid-traps and I usually do around 3 – 4 sets of 6 – 8 reps of each exercise

But if time is more limited, like when training with a full body program, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to again overload my traps with heavy rack pulls and then superset the rack pulls with bent-over seated dumbbell shrugs.  However, this time around I would go a bit higher on the volume for the shrugs. An example would be 4 sets of 6 – 8 reps on rack pulls and 10 – 12 reps on the bent-over dumbbell shrugs.

At the end of the day there are many, many ways to train and if you guys have more question about how to incorporate these exercises into your training, drop a comment below.

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