Category Archives: shoulders

My Favorite Exercises: Muscle by Muscle

by Ben Bruno – 9/12/2012

Several years back, T Nation contributor Chad Waterbury wrote a cool article about what he believed to be the best exercises for each major muscle group. I really liked the idea because I’m always interested in how different coaches think, so I thought I’d take a stab at it myself.
However, a small catch – I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ubiquitous “best” exercise, so instead I’ll simply share my favorites for each group.
Narrowing it down to one exercise though is like trying to pick the hottest girl out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. There are just so many good choices. In the end it boils down to basically my opinion, but I’ll also share the why behind my choices to give you a look into my rationale.
I’ve also shared a couple runner-ups in case you can’t do one due to injury, equipment limitations, etc.


When it comes to back development, I could’ve picked any heavy deadlift variation and felt good about my choice – but since I had to narrow it down to one, I chose the snatch grip rack pull from mid-shin height.

The wider grip puts significantly more stress on the upper back, traps, and rear delts, while pulling from the pins with the bar elevated a few inches off the floor allows for heavier loading.
I’m generally a huge proponent of full range of motion lifting and usually advocate increasing the range of motion before increasing the load; however, I’ll make an exception in this case for two reasons:

To that end, a snatch grip deadlift from the floor is really more like a conventional deadlift from a deficit, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, most people just don’t have the requisite hip mobility to do it safely without rounding their lower back something awful.
If you can, more power to you, but if I’m making a general recommendation for the majority, then elevating the bar a couple inches is a much better and safer option.

Deadlift variations aside, my runner-ups for back are chin-ups and inverted rows.


My Favorite Exercises: Muscle by Muscle

The overwhelming majority of my chest work comes from heavy pressing and push-ups, but if I had to single out the best exercise for chest development, it’d be ring flyes.
I thought long and hard about a good rationale. Sure, I could talk about how the scapulae is free to move, compared to where it’s pinned down during bench press variations, or the fact that it doubles as a hell of a core exercise, but we’re talking more about chest development here.
To that, I’d just ask that you try them for yourself – because I think after just one shot you’ll realize exactly where I’m coming from. These will fry your pecs like no other.
It’s a very advanced exercise though, so don’t just jump right into it without proper preparation or you’ll end up hurting and/or embarrassing yourself. Before you even attempt ring flyes, you should be able to do at least 25 ring push-ups first.
From there, begin with bent-arm flyes with your arms bent to approximately 90 degrees. That may seem easy, but it’s actually a big jump, so you may want to start on your knees. Don’t laugh; I’m dead serious.
Once you can manage those, progress to full flyes, making sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows to protect the shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
The video below shows all three variations in reverse order: full flyes, bent-arm flyes, and push-ups. Each of these exercises is great in its own right, so take your time and don’t rush the progression. Once you can knock out full flyes though, this makes for one hell of a mechanical drop-set.

If you don’t have access to rings, you can do something similar using Valslides or furniture sliders. These may be even harder due to the increased friction.

My runner-ups for chest are low incline dumbbell presses (both single and double arm) and weighted push-ups.


Let me preface this one by saying that I don’t do a whole lot of curls, and I have the results – or lack thereof – to show for it. Let’s just say that if I started selling tickets to the gun show, my water pistols would draw a smaller crowd than a WNBA game.
It’s not that I’m anti-curls by any means, it’s just that I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with chin-ups and find that when I try to add curls into the mix on top of all the chin-ups I do, my elbows quickly start to hate me.
That brings up an interesting point, though. Many people will tout chin-ups as the best biceps exercise going and tell you curls are a waste of time. To that I’d respectfully disagree. About two and a half years ago I ditched curls altogether and went on a steady diet consisting of approximately a shitload of chin-ups each week.
My lats grew a ton, as did my forearms, but my biceps stayed about the same size.
I’d even argue that if you’re feeling chin-ups a ton in your biceps, you probably aren’t doing them right. My goal is to feel them almost entirely in my upper back and lats – of course the biceps will be working, but I wouldn’t consider it to be a superior biceps exercise when done correctly.
Moral of the story:  The majority of your workout should obviously be based around heavy compound movements (such as chin-ups, for example), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with tacking on a few sets of curls afterwards.
What type of curls you choose is up to you. In my mind, they’re all basically the same. I like barbell curls, incline dumbbell curls, and hammer curls.


As mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of doing tons of direct arm work. It’s not that I’m opposed to it or think it’s detrimental by any means, I just don’t enjoy doing it very much so I look for any excuse I can to skip it. Just being honest.
With that in mind, I generally let all the heavy pressing I’m doing for chest and shoulders take care of the triceps as well, but if I’m looking to really smoke the triceps, my number one go-to exercise is bodyweight triceps extensions using suspension straps.

I like this exercise because it also serves as a great anti-extension core exercise, and since I’m also not a big fan of doing tons of core work either, it allows me to kill two birds with one stone.
If you don’t have suspension straps, it’s not the end of the world and you can get a similar training effect using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine. However, the straps add a nice dimension to the exercise if you’ve got them.
When using a bar, the range of motion is limited because you’re forced to bring your forehead to the bar, much like traditional skullcrushers. With the straps though, you can extend your arms out further away from your body, which increases the demand on the core while also enhancing the stretch on the long head of the triceps and taking stress off the elbows.
It also allows you to rotate your hands as you move through the rep, which I find feels better on the elbows and increases the contraction in the triceps.
Be sure to keep your body straight and avoid piking at the hips. While this is ostensibly a triceps exercise, from a core standpoint, it should feel similar to an ab wheel rollout.
This one also lends itself very well to burnout sets at the end of the workout. Start with the straps adjusted lower and step forward as you start to fatigue. You’ll probably be cursing my name after that.
My runner-ups for triceps are close-grip bench presses and chain bench presses.


I love the overhead press and think it’s the best exercise going for building big shoulders, but it can be tricky for folks with shoulder and/or lower back issues.
If the overhead press doesn’t bother you, definitely do that.
If it does, the staggered stance landmine press can be a great joint-friendly alternative since it allows you to press on an angle and use a neutral grip.

I also really like this band pullapart variation that I picked up from Joe Defranco. It’s much harder than it looks, so don’t knock it until you try it.


This one was a toss-up between Bulgarian split squats and front squats, but in the end, Bulgarian split squats get the nod.
I know this won’t sit well with some of you – and I myself would’ve considered it blasphemy a few years ago before I really tried them – but the more I do them and use them with my athletes, the more I’m convinced that it’s a better way to load the legs for most people.
We’re consistently seeing athletes do Bulgarian split squats with 70-90% of the loads they can front squat, and sometimes more. Here’s a video of a college hockey player doing Bulgarian split squats with 235 pounds for 5 reps like it’s an empty bar.

As a point of reference, he back squats 300 for 5. I think it’s clear the legs are getting more loading in the Bulgarian split squat.
Furthermore, with the front squat, the limiting factor is usually the upper back, whereas with Bulgarian split squats you’re able to hone in more directly on the legs. What’s more, since you aren’t loading the spine as heavily, it doesn’t take as long to recover, meaning you can do them more frequently, which could potentially lead to greater gains.
The big caveat is that you have to take the time up front to get good at Bulgarian split squats before they’re a viable size and strength builder, but that’s true of any exercise. Truth be told, most people get good at Bulgarian split squats much faster than they become good squatters.
If you have a good build for squatting and can squat well, it’s an absolutely phenomenal quad exercise, but if you aren’t built for it, well, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle. It’s easier to target the quads in a Bulgarian split squat regardless of your anthropometry, making it a good choice when I have to choose one exercise to fit everyone.
I’m often asked if I think you could build absolutely massive quads using Bulgarian split squats; the kind of size you see from elite bodybuilders and Olympic lifters. I’m honestly not sure because I’ve never known anyone to do it, so at this point it’s mere conjecture.
My hunch though is that huge guys may not do as well with it – at least initially – because they tend to struggle more with balance and coordination, so the transition may take longer and it may not end up being the best choice. Again, I’m not sure though because I don’t know many huge guys that use them.
As for Olympic lifters, I think their massive legs are more a result of their loading parameters than their exercise selection. If they did Bulgarian split squats extremely heavy on a daily basis like they do their squats, I bet their legs would be just as big, if not bigger.
For the average-sized guy reading this article though, I think Bulgarian split squats are an awesome choice for building up the quads. Even if you think I’m completely off base, at least give them an honest try before calling for my head. I think you might be singing a different tune once you do.
My runner-ups are front squats and reverse sled drags.


My Favorite Exercises: Muscle by Muscle

While quads were my toughest choice, hamstrings may be my easiest. It’s hard to argue against RDLs.
The biggest drawback of RDLs is that they can be tough on the lower back. If that’s the case, try doing them with a trap bar, or if that’s not possible, from a dead stop in the power rack.

You can also try doing them for higher reps at the end of your workout so you don’t need as much weight, which even with lighter loads serves as one hell of a brutal finishing exercise.

If back issues prevent you from doing them in any capacity, my runner-ups are single-leg RDLs, glute-ham raises, and sliding leg curls.


I make no bones about it; glutes are my favorite body part. As such, I feel they warrant their own section.
You may feel the glutes get more than enough work from your quad and hamstring exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but I believe that if you aren’t doing specific glute exercises like bridges and hip thrusts, you’re leaving a lot on the table as far as glute development is concerned.
My personal favorite is single-leg barbell hip thrusts.

I like the single-leg version because even though the loads pale in comparison to what you can handle in the bilateral version, I feel an even bigger contraction in my glutes when I do them, all without feeling any stress in the lower back.
Moreover, because the loads are lighter, it’s more comfortable on the hips and you don’t have to bother with loading and unloading such a heavy bar.
The bodyweight-only version is a great exercise in its own right, so start there and add weight slowly as you improve.
My runner-up is the single-leg shoulder and foot elevated hip lift. It can be tricky to add weight to these, so if you’re looking for a way to make them tougher, try using “1.5” reps, like this:

If these two exercises don’t have your booty begging for mercy, I don’t know what to tell you.


I’ve never been able to crack the code to get my calves to grow much. I’ve tried a slew of different exercises and techniques, but to no avail.
I think the next thing I’ll try is getting some new parents.
(Don’t worry mom, I’m totally kidding.)
Seriously though, don’t go to a guy with puny calves for advice on how to get huge calves.
That rules me out.

And I’m Done

These are some of my favorites. Give some of them a try if you aren’t already and see how you like them.
I believe in rotating exercises from time to time though, so I’m always on the market for new choices to keep in the ol’ toolbox. So I now turn it over to you. What are some of your favorites?

Unconventional Workout: Shoulders

Readers often ask how I come up with some of my creative (crazy?) exercise variations. The answer is, it really boils down to necessity — I see a need for something, so I find a way to fill the need; if there’s not something currently available, I design something that works. It’s that simple!
That said, I don’t wake up in the morning and ask myself, “How can I reinvent the wheel today?” But if the usual stuff stops working or just gets boring, it’s my job to find some not-so-usual stuff that will get things moving again. Doing this makes training much more interesting, fun, and much more productive.
Which brings me to one of my favorite body parts to train: shoulders. Use some of these Unconventional Shoulder Training exercises to add variety to your training and spark some new growth!

You’re Training Shoulders Too Often!           

If you’re an aspiring bodybuilder or weekend warrior, you’re likely following a traditional bodybuilding split that looks similar to this:

First things first: This kind of programming absolutely sucks, from both a shoulder health and long-term training perspective.
Think of it this way: Anytime your arms move in an exercise, you’re stressing the muscles of the shoulder. So, chest day is actually chest and shoulders (and triceps) day; back day is really back and shoulders (and biceps) day. Then, after your shoulders have been pounded with heavy, repetitive loads for two days in a row, you go and perform a shoulder-focused training day.
That’s three days out of four in which the shoulders are being loaded. With that lack of recovery, it only makes sense that your shoulders will eventually become overworked, break down, get weaker, and possibly become injured.
But here’s the rub: If your goal is to increase the size of your shoulders, especially if they’re a physique weak-point, you actually do need to train them more often, to a point. Later in this article I’ll provide some sample shoulder training splits that are smart, safe, and effective at building bigger, stronger shoulders, without the risk of injury and potential overuse issues.

Overhead Pressing — Performance U Style

My first training priority, before getting folks bigger, stronger, and leaner, is NOT to injury anyone during the workout. In order to ensure safety and prevent injury, we compare the risk versus the reward of every exercise.
With that in mind, we predominantly use a neutral shoulder position (palms facing each other) when performing overhead pressing exercises, as opposed to the traditional pronated (internally rotated, palms facing the mirror) hand position.
That’s not to say we never use the parallel grip when pressing; it’s simply that we feel the neutral grip is safer on the shoulder because it allows you to maintain the most sub-acromial space, which places the least amount of impingement stress on the shoulder.
Using exercises that are easy on the joints but still place maximal stress on muscle is the premise behind all the exercises and techniques in my Joint Friendly Strength Training DVD.
Here are my three favorite ways of incorporating the neutral grip into the overhead press:
 Parallel Shoulder Press (see right)
 Reverse Arnold Press (see right)
 Kettlebell Press or Push Press (see right)

The Unconventional Shoulder Exercises

Here’s a list of some of what I consider to be the best shoulder-training exercises that most people aren’t doing:

The Shoulder-to-Shoulder Press

The idea for developing this exercise came to me about 10 years ago while sitting on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland. I watched a few surfers carrying their boards by holding it up on one shoulder, and as one shoulder got tired, they switched to the other side. Seeing this, I thought, “Now that’s a great functional shoulder exercise.” Since then, it’s been one of my favorite shoulder pressing movements.
The added benefits to the shoulder-to-shoulder press are:
 It allows you to maintain a neutral shoulder position.
 It trains the lateral aspects of the core due to the offset load.
As the video on the right demonstrates, the shoulder-to-shoulder press can be done using a dumbbell, kettlebell, or heavy sand-filled medicine ball.

Angled Barbell Press and Catch

This movement, as shown in the video on the right, is simply a faster, more explosive version of the angled barbell press featured in my Apex Predator Workout.
This exercise is fun to do and a favorite of my football players and MMA fighters.

Kettlebell Bottoms Up Press

If you’re looking for a great combination shoulder strength / shoulder stabilization exercise, the kettlebell bottom up press, as shown in the video on the right, is just what the physique doctor ordered!

Dumbbell Upper Cuts

This is one of my all time favorite hybrid overhead-pressing variations. I got this move from my long time friend and mentor, Coach JC Santana.
Check out the video on the right for a demonstration.

Push Back Push Ups

This is a series of progressions I developed after reading Martin Rooney’s book,Warrior Workouts.
The Push Back Push Up series forces the shoulders to work hard to drive your body back using a natural arc/push angle.
Check out the videos on the right for a demonstration.

Reverse Burpee

I developed the reverse burpee as an explosive variation of the push back push up, and it’s much tougher than it looks. It’s also very popular among my grappling athletes because it gives them the power they need to create space (push their opponent) in the top position from the ground.
Check out the video on the right for a demonstration.

Iso/Dynamic Shoulder Raises

Here’s a version of shoulder raises that I developed based on some shoulder rehab techniques that I learned from renowned physical therapist Kevin Wilk.
This simple modification makes the exercise significantly more effective for several reasons:
 The isometric performed on one side eliminates any swinging and/or cheating.
 Because one side is moving while the other isn’t, you create more core muscle activation to maintain posture and control due to the offset load.
 It allows you to incorporate and reap the benefits of both isometric and dynamic training into one comprehensive exercise.

Front Shoulder Raises
Lateral Shoulder Raises
Rear Delt Flys (aka Ts)
Corrective work like Ys and Ls
Check out the video on the right for a demonstration.

Dumbbell & Band Shoulder Raises

Here’s another great way to instantly make your shoulder raises (both front and side) more efficient and effective: Simply hold a light load resistance band handle and a dumbbell at the same time.
The band allows you to begin the exercise with tension, as opposed to just holding the dumbbells where you’d have almost zero tension when the dumbbells were by your sides.
As you raise your arms away from your body, the mechanical advantage of the bands increases while it decreases on the dumbbell. This creates a sort of “accommodating resistance” effect which causes your shoulders to work harder through the entire range of motion, not just at the top of the movement (when your arms are at 90-degrees with your torso).
All that technical talk aside, it’s a shoulder blaster!

Putting It All Together: The Unconventional Shoulder Workouts

Having a bunch of exercises is pretty useless if you don’t know how to structure them together into an effective workout. Here are three great shoulder workouts using these unconventional shoulder exercises.
Each workout is designed to de done on an upper-body training day, along with more traditional lifts. I’ll provide sample training splits in the next section.

Workout 1 — Shoulder Power

Here’s a sample dynamic effort (power) emphasis shoulder workout for someone looking to increase motor unit recruitment, power, and explosiveness of their shoulders. This routine is great for combat athletes (boxers, MMA, wrestling, etc.).

Workout 2 — Shoulder Complexes

This shoulder workout consists of two shoulder dominant complexes, each composed of medium loads performed at a high volume. That means they’ll give you a serious pump and leave you breathing hard!
If you’re looking to increase muscle endurance or add a metabolic component to your shoulder workout, this routine is right on!

 Upright Rows x 10-12
 Overhead Shoulder Press x 10-12
 Upper-Body Dominant Snatch x 5-6
Rest 1-2 minutes between complexes

 Perform 6-8 Overhead Shoulder Presses
 Walk 25-40 yards holding the dumbbells overhead
 Perform 4-6 Push Presses
 Walk 25-40 yards holding the dumbbells overhead

 When performing upright rows, use a wider grip and pull the bar into your chest, similar to a row. Doing this instead of using a close grip and driving your elbows toward the sky, as in the traditional upright row, is much safer on your shoulders.
 When using a barbell to perform overhead presses, you’re unable to use the neutral shoulder/hand grip I mentioned earlier. With that in mind, it’s recommended you only use this workout if you have no history of shoulder problems and posses optimal shoulder and thoracic spine mobility.
 When performing the upper-body dominant snatch, minimize hip drive and the use of your lower body. To all you Olympic lifting purists, this is NOT an Olympic lift — it’s simply a hybrid of an Oly lift, used to help you crank out a few extra reps to continuously overload the shoulders.
 If you’re unable to maintain holding the dumbbells overhead due to fatigue on the DB Press with Framers Walk complex, I recommend you carry the ‘bells in the racked position instead. This will allow you to still finish the set and still get some good quality work done without stopping the set entirely.

Workout 3 —Shoulder Hypertrophy

This is more of a bodybuilding, hypertrophy-emphasis workout using unconventional methods.

Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.

On both iso/dynamic exercises (front & lateral raises), perform two cycles of 10 reps each side.

Right side: 10 x dynamic reps while left holds
Left side: 10 x dynamic reps while right side holds
Right side: 10 x dynamic reps while left holds
Left side: 10 x dynamic reps while right side holds

Training Splits

As mentioned earlier, it’s critical not to overwork your shoulders by giving them their own training day within your split. I always recommend simply combining your shoulder training into your existing upper-body push and/or pulling workouts.
If your primary goal is bigger, stronger shoulders, simply spend more time training your shoulders both during the week and within each workout while spending a little less time on the other lifts. Use any of the three shoulder workouts provided after performing compound lifts like bench presses and chin ups, etc.

Day 1 — Pulling + Shoulders (workout #2)
Day 2 — Legs/Hips
Day 3 — Pushing + Shoulders (workout #3)
Rest and Repeat

Day 1 — Pulling + Shoulders (workout #1)
Day 2 — Legs/Hips
Day 3 — Pushing + Shoulders (workout #2)
Day 4 — Legs/Hips

Shoulders to Boulders

Necessity is the mother of change, and I wouldn’t spend the time developing and testing these methods if they didn’t deliver results, fast. Put these unconventional shoulder exercises and workouts to work for you and I’m sure you’ll see the same great results as we do here at Performance U.
As always, I love to hear your comments in the discussion forum — just don’t let me catch you asking why I didn’t cover any “traditional” shoulder exercises that you likely already know. Let’s not forget the title of this article series!
Take a break from the usual routine and get growing again!
parallel Shoulder Press Start/Finish

Reverse Arnold Press Start/Finish

Reverse Arnold Press Start/Finish

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Inside the Muscles: Best Shoulders and Trap Exercises

Before we get started, I want to say I’m not going to make any judgments regarding the safety of any exercise in this article. I realize that certain exercises pose greater risks to the joints than others, but every guy has the right to train however the hell he chooses. As lifters, we can choose to assume a lot of risk or little risk since we’re the owners of our bodies. So keep that in mind before you type me nasty letters.
Now, are you ready to learn the best exercises to build boulder shoulders and monster traps?
I’ll clear up a few science-y things first and then hit you with the results! (If you skip down to view the exercises first, I don’t blame you. But make sure to come back up here to read how it works!)

What The Heck Is EMG Anyway?

EMG measures the electrical activity of muscles during exercise. While EMG doesn’t directly measure muscular tension, the two should be very similar (although slightly off-set), as the electrical activity that EMG measures is simply a measurement of the nervous system’s signal to the muscles. Increased EMG activity is indicative of the nervous system’s attempt to produce more muscular force. (That’s a good thing, by the way.) I used a Myotrace 400 from Noraxon to measure the EMG of every exercise.

What’s MVC?

MVC stands for Maximum Voluntary Contraction. It’s a measurement of how hard a muscle can contract isometrically. When you record MVC, you simply position your body in an advantageous position and squeeze your muscle as hard as possible. You can also push against an immovable object.
Each muscle has its own position that will yield the highest electrical value. The first step in measuring EMG activity is recording MVC. Following this recording, every subsequent exercise performed will be compared to MVC as a percentage.

What Are Mean And Peak Activation?

For each exercise I tested, I received data that showed both the mean activation and the peak activation.
Researchers typically use mean MVC for their data. I used to think that mean activation was more important as it measured the average activation throughout the entire repetition. However, muscles are not always active throughout the entire range of motion of an exercise, especially during compound lifts.
For example, one muscle might be very active down low in the stretched position, while another muscle becomes more active up top in the contracted position of the same exercise.
For this reason I believe that peak MVC is a more important figure. Peak activation is a measurement of the highest point of activation during the repetition.
Still, I believe that mean activation might be more important for bodybuilding purposes in providing constant tension, occlusion, and “the pump,” while peak activation might be more important for sport-specific purposes in providing maximum tension at a certain moment for peak force production.
Got it so far? Good.

How Is It Possible To Exceed 100% of MVC?

I would hope that a guy like myself with 18 years of lifting experience could exceed MVC (which is an isometric contraction) through dynamic barbell, dumbbell, band, or bodyweight exercises. If we couldn’t exceed MVC through lifting, then we’d build a strong case for isometric bodyweight training (a la Charles Atlas) for bodybuilding purposes.
The reality is that strength training exercises will typically cause peak activation to far exceed MVC. If the exercise is really good, mean activation can exceed MVC as well. When this happens, it simply means that the average activation throughout the repetition is higher than the average activation recorded from a maximum isometric voluntary contraction.

People Are Different, But Not That Different.

Having measured the EMG of several individuals, I’ve realized that everyone is different, but not that different. The two most influential factors in muscle activation differences are anthropometry and form.
For example, taller individuals tend to exhibit more glute activity during squats than shorter individuals. This makes sense when you think about it, since they have farther to travel. As another example, a powerlifting-style bench press will yield much less pec activity than a bodybuilding-style bench press since the elbows are kept tucked.
Although the length of one’s body segments and the manner in which one performs an exercise can impact muscle activation, it’s surprising how similar most individuals’ activations are when it comes to strength training.

More Research Is Needed.

The data used in this article was obtained from one individual (me) during a week-long series of experiments. I’d hook up the electrodes to the muscle parts I wanted to measure and then perform all the exercises in one session to allow for the greatest level of accuracy.
The only exception was for the glutes, quads, adductors, and hamstrings, which required three different tests: one for strength exercises, one for explosive exercises, and one special test for the different areas of the glutes. (Shut up. I’m the Glute Guy after all!)
By no means am I trying to suggest that this article should be the definitive Bible on muscular development. Each time I embark on a new series of EMG experiments I learn a tremendous amount of information. I will continue to experiment and share my findings as I acquire new bits of knowledge.
Althought it’s clear more EMG research and experimentation is needed to confirm the results of my studies, this article is (I hope) very telling in terms of exercise efficiency.

Can An Exercise Target a Specific Portion of a Muscle?

My EMG research indicates that the bodybuilders were right: various exercises can stress different parts of muscles.
For years we’ve known the different heads of certain muscles such as the deltoids and pectoralis major function differently from one another. However, my research indicates that muscle fibers within a muscle can function differently from one another even if they don’t have separate heads. For example, during my research I noted that the upper rectus abdominis and lower rectus abdominis function differently.
I suspect that this is true of all muscles, as muscles often have varying fiber angles and attachment points, numerous motor units, and sometimes varying nerve suppliers.
This might explain why lifters tend to see better results when they incorporate variety into their routines rather than sticking to just one exercise per muscle or movement pattern.

The Second Rep

Another significant finding that I encountered is that during a heavy set, the second rep nearly always produced higher EMG readings than the first rep. Perhaps the nervous system “figures out” how to better recruit the muscles following the first repetition. This might explain why Olympic lifters and powerlifters see better results when they perform multiple (albeit low) repetitions rather than just heavy singles, or just why the I, Bodybuilder program seems to be so effective.

What You’ve Been Waiting For! The Exercises.

Since this is a bodybuilding experiment, I never used a weight that was too heavy to perform at least five repetitions. The mean number is on top and the peak number is on bottom. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, make sure to read “What Are Mean And Peak Activation?” above.)

Exercise Upper Trap Anterior Delt Lateral Delt Posterior Delt
45 lb Standing Military Press 60.1
135 lb Standing Military Press 56.1
155 lb Standing Military Press 47.4
175 lb Standing Military Press 53.4
155 lb Standing Behind Neck Press 66.5
70 lb DB Standing Military Press 51.6
135 lb Seated Shoulder Press 65.6
185 lb Seated Shoulder Press 67.2
165 lb Seated Behind Neck Press 72.1
80 lb Seated DB Shoulder Press 60.5
50 lb DB Upright Row 58.4
60 lb DB Upright Row 38.2
75 lb Cable Upright Row 60.7
135 lb BB Upright Row 53.7
95 lb BB Upright Row 64.3
30 lb Lateral Raise 49.2
40 lb Lateral Raise 41.7
50 lb Lateral Raise 44.9
40 lb Cable Lateral Raise 75.5
30 lb DB Front Raise 66.4
55 lb BB Front Raise 64.4
30 lb DB Bent Over Rear Delt Raise 31.2
50 lb DB Bent Over Rear Delt Raise 40.3
25 lb DB Prone Rear Delt Raise 43.9
30 lb Cable Scarecrow 50.9
BW Push Up 11.6
225 lb Bench Press 4.8
BW Dip 3.3
225 lb Incline Press 40.5
BW Pull Up 17.8
BW Chin Up 12.7
BW Hanging Row 12.9
100 lb DB Shrug 29.2
50 DB Shrug 39.5
120 lb Face Pull 69.7
Band Face Pull 60.1
225 lb BB Shrug 76.1
225 lb Behind Back Shrug 39.5
315 lb BB Shrug 81.9

The Winners

Based on this experiment, here are the top three exercises in terms of mean and peak activity for each muscle part:

Front Delt

 Seated Behind Neck Press, Seated Military Press, Incline Press
 Seated Behind Neck Press, Standing DB Military Press, Incline Press

Mid Delt

 Band Face Pull, Lateral Raise, Seated Behind Neck Press
 Band Face Pull, Lateral Raise, Cable Lateral Raise

Rear Delt

Band Face Pull, Bent Over Rear Delt Raise, Prone Rear Delt Raise
 Band Face Pull, Bent Over Rear Delt Raise, Hanging Row

Upper Trap

 BB Shrug, Cable Lateral Raise, Standing Military Press
 Cable Lateral Raise, BB Shrug, Seated Behind Neck Press


It’s no surprise that variations of military presses and incline presses appear to be the best front delt exercises. It’s also no surprise that variations of lateral raises and presses top the charts for mean and peak mid delt exercises.
Naturally we’d expect to see variations of rear delt raises and rows topping the charts in mean and peak rear delt activity. Finally, it’s not shocking to see the barbell shrug at the top of the list in mean upper trap activity.
Now let’s move into the stuff that shocked the hell out of me.


I always figured the front military press worked more anterior deltoid than the behind-the-neck press, but I was definitely wrong.
And while I knew band face pulls worked the delts, I always assumed they were targeting the rear delts. I was very surprised to find that the band face pull worked more mean and peak lateral delt than any other exercise!
(It’s important to know that I perform the band face pull in a special manner, making it a mixture between a face pull and a pull-apart. I grab hold of the bands with my hands about three inches apart, and as I perform the face pull motion, I pull the band apart vigorously.)
I was also very shocked to find the band face pull worked more mean and peak rear delt muscles than any other exercise, as I assumed a rear delt raise or row variation would have outperformed them.
Finally, although I was aware the upper traps got worked through a variety of shoulder exercises, I had no idea as to the magnitude of upper trap activity that was involved in typical shoulder exercises like military presses and lateral raises. 

What If…?

During experiments like this, one is often left with much curiosity. What if I would have performed a close-grip bench press or close-grip incline press? Would they have elicited a lot of front delt activity?
What if I would have experimented with different types of grips on dumbbell military presses or different form alterations of lateral raises? How would that have impacted mid delt activity?
What if I would have done different rowing exercises or different form alterations of rear delt raises? Would they have elicited a lot of rear delt activity?
What if I would have performed push presses with a controlled eccentric? What if I had placed the electrodes in a different spot on the upper traps? How would machine exercises faired? Just who the hell is John Galt?
Clearly more research is needed, as it’s impossible to anticipate everything prior to an experiment no matter how prepared and organized you seem.

The Best Damn Shoulder and Trap Workout

Based on the results of this experiment, I bet the following would be one kick-ass workout that’d target the front, mid, and rear delts as well as the upper traps. Enjoy!

 Would you like to see more articles like this? Let us know in the comments and we may just run one for every body part!

While flexing didn’t make the list of top exercises,
we’re sure it doesn’t hurt.

The best shoulder exercise? Maybe.(But you have to maintain better form.)

The barbell shrug is one of the best exercises
you can do for your traps. (Duh.)

The exercise that surprised us, the cable lateral raise elicits more muscle activity in the upper traps than shrugs!

About Bret Contreras

Inside the Muscles: Best Shoulders and Trap Exercises

Bret Contreras received his master’s degree from Arizona State University and his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Bret invites you to follow or join him on his blog. You can download his e-book here.

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