Want to know the best exercises to build power and strength in your shoulders and traps? We’ve got seven for you right here!
RELATED: Power Building: Chest And Back
The Benefit of Isolating Muscles
There are many benefits to mixing up training—the avoidance of boredom/stagnation in the gym, pushing your body to develop in different capacities, and learning new techniques.
I generally utilize a full body or dual body-part split, but I believe that sessions devoted to a single body part or muscle group certainly have their place in any routine, and I like to incorporate these sessions from time to time.
I think the biggest benefit of isolating a single muscle is the ability to focus on and improve techniques pertaining to that group and gaining a deeper sense of mind-muscle connection. In addition, you always get an awesome “pump” from really killing a particular muscle group in one session.
When training with this style, it is best to train each muscle group only once a week.
Why Isolate the Shoulders?
One of my favorite muscle groups to isolate is the shoulders.
Shoulders are one of the most important muscles to develop for any athlete, as they are utilized in every upper body movement—think a baseball player swinging a bat, a football player imposing a stiff arm on an opponent, or a boxer throwing a left hook.
They offer support to any weight-bearing activity in one’s day-to-day life and in the gym. Strong shoulders and trapezius muscles are vital in bearing the weight of heavy barbell squats.
In addition, building a thick, strong base around the neck is ideal for football players looking to decrease the impact of tackles and stiff-arms, or likewise, a martial artist or wrestler looking to avoid the displeasure of being head-snapped all the time. It is pretty damn hard to guillotine choke a guy with no neck!
One of the reasons this particular shoulder workout is one of my favorites is the speed and intensity in which I am able to execute the session—after warming up, I usually complete this entire series within 45 minutes.
If you are pressed for time or simply looking to get a very intense workout, this is an excellent choice for you.
The workout follows the template of my Power Building theory on training, so reference my first article if you need help on any of the specifics of the general outline.
Shoulders and Traps Workout
1. Barbell Power Press for Power Movement
The power press is a great exercise for developing raw power and total body strength while also forcing the shoulders into growth.
Follow the steps below to strengthen your shoulders and traps:
- To execute the movement, rack a barbell at about chest level.
- When you are ready to perform your set, place your hands in a medium width grip—about the same positioning utilized for bench-pressing, or slightly closer.
- Remove the barbell from the rack and hold it at chest level.
- While holding the barbell in place, lower your hips about 80 degrees—not quite as deep as a full squat but enough to generate serious force and leverage.
- Explosively ascend from this crouched position, and use the momentum to shoot the barbell overhead momentarily, holding the barbell in this position with both arms fully extended.
- You have now completed one repetition. Repeat for desired repetitions, and rack the barbell.
- For this set, you should do 3–5 reps per set, for a total of five sets. Rest for 1–3 minutes between each set.
Like any compound exercise, safety and the proper execution of technique should be central.
The shoulders, in particular, can be easily damaged, and it is important to remember it is the quality of sets not the quantity of weight or repetitions that matters in the end—do not use a weight you cannot safely or properly throw around—it will not aid your progress!
2. Barbell Military Press for Strength Movement
The military press is one of the most bad-ass lifts everybody should be doing. While often negated in favor of the bench press, the military-press is an underutilized compound movement that engages the front and middle deltoids, the trapezius, upper back, and entire core, especially when executed standing up.
Follow the steps below to strengthen your middle traps and upper back:
- To execute the military press, simply lower the weight you already have racked at chest level.
- When you are ready to begin a set, remove the barbell from the rack, and again, begin the movement at chest level.
- From chest level, raise the barbell up without the assistance of your lower body, while keeping your core tight and posture upright—this prevents injury and develops your abdominal muscles.
- Once you raise the bar to a full overhead position with both arms fully extended, lower the bar to chest level, and repeat for desired repetitions.
- This exercise for the upper traps should have 8–12 repetitions for a total of three sets. Rest for 1–2 minutes between sets.
3. Upright Rows Super Set with Barbell Shrugs
The Upright Row
This is an excellent movement for front deltoid and trapezius development.
Here’s how you perform this movement to develop massive traps:
- To perform the upright row, lower a barbell to waist level and utilize a close grip—about three inches separating each hand.
- In a slow, concentrated motion, raise the barbell until it reaches chest level. At this point, your elbows should be pointing outward to make a V shape.
- Lower the bar.
Again, safety is of central importance during this exercise, and it is not advisable to load the bar with excessive weight.
You risk injuring your rotator cuff if you insist on lifting a heavier weight than what you can handle.
Tip: If you are unfamiliar with super-setting, reference my first power-building article for an in-depth breakdown and overview.
The Barbell Shrug
The barbell shrug is an excellent exercise for building the trapezius muscles and upper back and for developing grip strength and muscular endurance.
Here are the steps to do it correctly:
- To perform a shrug, utilize a grip just slightly wider than recommended for the upright rows and lower the bar to just below waist level.
- Utilizing your trapezius muscles, raise the barbell about two inches up, while also bringing your elbows into your waist.
- Lower and repeat for desired repetitions.
Tip: Do 10-12 reps of upright rows followed immediately by 10-12 reps of shoulder shrugs. Repeat for 3 sets, and rest for a minute between sets.
The shrug has an extremely low range of motion, but when performed correctly, you feel an immediate burn in your traps and upper back.
RELATED: Power Building: The Barbell Squat
4. Front Deltoid Dumbbell Raise Super Set with Rear Deltoid Dumbbell Raise
These exercises with dumbbells help you improve your arms’ range of motion.
Front Deltoid Dumbbell Raise
The front deltoid raise is a great supplementary movement that targets the front head of the deltoid.
When performing a front deltoid raise, grab dumbbells you can use in the 10–12 repetition range with proper technique. It is not recommended to go overly heavy with this movement.
Do this range of motion exercise by following the steps below:
- To execute the movement, you start with both dumbbells resting at hip level.
- Begin the movement by raising one arm until it is fully extended, pointing straight ahead at chest level.
- Lower the weight and repeat the same process on the opposite arm.
Rear Deltoid Dumbbell Raise
The rear deltoid raise is an excellent supplementary movement for developing the rear deltoids—a trouble spot for many athletes to build. You will use even lighter weights than what you use with the front deltoid raises, as this movement is very taxing on a small, isolated muscle.
Here’s what you have to do for this shoulder and trap exercise:
- To perform these movements, start with the dumbbells resting at waist level.
- Start the movement by raising both of your arms out and away from your body, and continue to raise them in a slow, concentrated motion until they have extended all the way to a parallel T shape.
- Lower the weight.
Tip: This killer shoulder and trap workout needs 10–12 reps of front deltoid raises followed immediately by 10–12 repetitions of rear deltoid raises. Repeat for three sets. Rest for one minute between sets.
5. Barbell Plate Burnout
This is a technique I picked up from my old coach Nick Agallar, and it works great at the end of a tough shoulder workout—prompting a serious “pump” and pushing you to the limits of your muscular endurance.
Grab a barbell plate bearing a weight you can manage for five continuous minutes, and set an interval timer or simply look at a clock on the wall as I do.
Every 30 seconds, execute a different movement for the full five-minute duration.
You can mix up any of the exercises outlined above with full body movement such as squats.
I usually also incorporate core movements such as standing, weighted oblique crunches, and leg raises, performed while locking the plate out overhead—an excellent exercise for simultaneously burning the shoulders and abdominal muscles.
Whatever you do, do not drop that plate until your five minutes are up!
6. Seated Side Lateral Dumbbell Raise
Another one of the shoulders and traps exercises I like to do on an interval weekly basis is this move. Aside from working out the traps and shoulders, you can also build mass in your side delts.
To do this shoulder and traps workout, follow the steps below:
- Rest your arms holding the dumbbells at your sides as the starting position, keeping your feet firmly on the ground.
- Keep your back straight as you raise your right arm towards the side to make a 90-degree angle with your body. Your elbow should be slightly bent as if your arm was pouring a drink.
- Lower your arm to the starting position as slowly as you can.
- Do three sets of this exercise with 10-12 repetitions for each set.
7. Low Cable Pulley Upright Row
The upright row helps tie in together your traps to your front and side delts. If you’re only starting to build mass in your shoulders and traps, this movement is great for you.
To do this exercise, you need to use a low cable pulley or a barbell. Follow the steps below for this workout:
- Set the pulley to the cable closest to the middle of your thigh.
- For the starting position, lift the bar up while keeping your back straight and your arms extended. Keep in mind that your elbows should bend slightly.
- Exhale slowly as you lift the bar using your shoulder muscles. Lift the bar up until it reaches your chin while making sure it stays close to your body.
- Inhale as you lower the bar back to its starting position.
- You should also do 10-12 reps for three sets.
Important tip: Keep your elbows higher than your forearms as you lift the bar, letting your elbows drive the motion. Also, when the bar reaches your chin, pause for a second while keeping your torso straight.
These exercises are quick and intense ways to promote growth in your shoulders and develop great physical conditioning. Now, get off your computer, and start building those cannonballs!
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Which one of these shoulders and traps exercises have you tried? Share your experience in the comments section below!
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 7, 2013, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.