What are the best shoulder building and shaping exercises?
Colin: For the shoulders there is nothing better to me than the standing barbell overhead press. This is something I had thought without any scientific data to back it up but it was great to have Matt’s Standing Vs Seated Overhead Press comparison to pretty well back up what I already suspected. If you want an exercise for thick shoulders as well as a great complimentary movement to help improve your bench, the standing barbell press is it. I’m also a big fan of Arnold Presses for the seated variety of presses. From there either dumbbell or cable lateral raises compliment well to round them out.
I will commonly do barbell or dumbbell shrugs but I’m not convinced you need to do a lot of specific trap work. I feel like presses hit them well and I also think of all the muscle groups along with calves, traps are the biggest “genetic factor” muscle. If you have great traps naturally you won’t have to do much, but if you aren’t blessed in that area you’ll need to hit them and hit them often. Once again like last week I think it’s best to hit shoulders twice per week, once heavy and once light, for maximum growth. I try to separate shoulder work from chest now a days because I feel like chest work drains my shoulders too much and I don’t have enough to hit them hard, or vice versa.
Dara: The key to building the delts is to lift heavy, but in order to be able to lift heavy you first need to be sure that the shoulder joint is stable. So a beginner would need to focus on scapular stabilization exercises for quite a few weeks before they can even begin trying to build mass. This would include internal and external rotation done with bands, as well as wide rows focusing on the rear delts. Depending on the level to which the rotator cuff is dysfunctional it may also be necessary to do more physio type rehab exercises like scapular punches and wall angels.
As the strength and stability of the joint increases you can start to increase the weight. At that point it is important to hit all three heads of the deltoid to ensure equal development. I like Arnold presses, lateral raises, and front raises laying face down on an incline bench. I also find that drop sets work very well to really exhaust the delts. It’s also beneficial to work with both dumbbells and barbells, switching it up regularly.
For traps, I don’t train them directly. I find that most people don’t need to and often it is a detriment when they do. Our traps tend to be very strong and tight and working them directly only exacerbates the problem. Unless you are a bodybuilder who specifically needs to improve trap development you likely don’t need to target them directly
Matt: I’m in agreement with everything I’ve read from Colin and Dara. I personally like a lot of overhead pressing movements, mainly the standing barbell press, the push press and the power clean and press. All three of those movements, if executed properly meaning the bar is pushed up and shrugged back at the top so the bar finishes over the crown of your head, will provide you with all the trap work you need as well as obviously the compound pressing that your shoulders need.
I like a lot of laterals as well, both rear and side. I feel the front delt gets more than enough work with chest pressing movements and it takes the majority of the load with the overhead pressing movements as well so no direct anterior deltoid work is necessary.
I’ve seen EMG studies that show that anterior delt activation is equal to pectoral activation on all chest pressing movements and the shoulders get a load of work with back and arms as well and with deadlifts too. My point being that to me the shoulders are almost like your upper body equivalent to your calves. They aren’t going to grow unless you force them to due to the fact that they’ve adapted to the heavy stress that is placed on them almost daily. This does mean heavy weights are necessary at times but it also means really working the delts. I mean training them to complete and utter failure with lots of drop sets and pause rest reps.
This movement I’m going to ‘prescribe’ has been shown in EMG tests to activate the posterior deltoid better than rear laterals and the shoulder in general as well as the difficult to build middle traps as well. It’s the face pull. You’ve all heard of it but how often do you use it? In the case of the studies I’ve seen the palms face each other the entire time meaning thumbs up. You’ll immediately notice the difference doing it this way than the standard ‘face row’ (palms facing down, thumbs to the side) I see most performing.
Dara: Two more good points there Matt. I have also found that adding the power moves like the clean and press is a great way to increase the intensity of a shoulder workout, which is as important as just lifting heavy, as you say. I may not always feel the “burn” with dumbbell presses or lateral raises, but I always do with barbell power moves. And I also agree about the face pull move, it’s great for the middle traps, which play an important role in overall scapular stabilization.
Matt: It’s a unique movement in that sense as the face pull and the overhead shrug are two of the only exercises that target this area effectively. Middle trap weakness is almost as prominent as glute weakness in many gym goers as I’m sure you can attest to Dara.
Dara: Yes I definitely agree. The exercises that work the middle and lower traps just aren’t hard-core enough for the average gym goer, who would rather lift dumbbells so heavy that he just has to grunt so that we can all see how strong he is. In all seriousness though, if you don’t work your supporting musculature then you aren’t following a well-rounded program and as such will be prone to injury and uneven development.
Round 1: The best fat loss method
Round 2: Fasted vs fed cardio for fat loss
Round 5: The best 3 exercises
Round 6: The ideal training program
Round 7: How much protein for fat loss
Round 8: The last 10 pounds
Round 9: The ultimate training split
Round 10: Do carbs or fats make you fat?
Round 15: Are cheat meals good or bad?
Round 16: The fastest way to get six pack abs?
Round 17: The most effective exercise sequence
Round 18: Is cardio necessary?
Round 19: IIFYM vs clean eating
Round 20: Newbie mistakes and advice
Round 21: The most important muscle
Round 22: Is core training necessary?
Round 24: Good and bad fitness trends
Round 25: The best arm building exercises
Round 26: The best chest building exercises
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