Training shoulders has always been a favourite workout of mine. So, naturally building bigger, stronger shoulders has always been a goal of mine. Over the years I’ve tried and learned a lot in my pursuit of better shoulder size and definition.
For example, did you know that the shoulder is comprised of 3 muscles and lagging developed in any of them will compromise your aesthetics and performance?
You see, aside from my personal enjoyment of training them, having strong well-developed shoulders widens your frame making you looker bigger and stronger whilst also contributing to the sought-after v-shaped look.
Not only this but having bigger shoulders also brings a new level of definition and size to your arms taking them from good to great. Strong shoulders also have the additional benefit of;
In this post we’re going to dive deep into shoulders, so you know exactly what you need to do to get yours to grow.
The shoulder is made up of 3 deltoid muscles that cover the joint on 3 sides; anterior (front), lateral (side) and posterior (back).
It’s these deltoid muscles that create the distinctive rounded, triangular shape that the shoulder is known for and it’s an even focus on all 3 heads of the shoulder that create the look you’re after.
For this reason, it’s worth noting that the front head (anterior) of the shoulder receives a fair bit of direct work from benching press movements. When programming shoulders this is something to be aware as you don’t want to overdevelop the front head of the shoulder and throw your physique off.
The deltoid has three main functions that are brought about by each of the 3 heads of the muscle.
By knowing the functions of the shoulder, we can begin to see which exercises will work the different heads of the deltoid optimally.
If you want full even development that results in that rounded ‘capped’, ‘3D’ look then you need to work each head of the shoulder. Below are some of the best exercises for doing this.
The shoulder press, also known as the military press is an old-school staple of shoulder building exercises and should make up the foundation of your training plan.
It can be performed in either a standing or seated position with either a barbell or dumbbells and is the best exercise to build size and strength.
It’s a compound movement that recruits the shoulders, triceps and even the upper chest to help you lift a lot of weight. This means you can apply progressive overload more frequently which results in more weight lifted, more strength gained, and more muscle built.
Named after the big man of bodybuilding (yes, that Arnold [LINK – ARNOLD]) the Arnold press is a compound shoulder exercise performed with dumbbells.
It places more focus on a rotating motion of the hands (see the video below) which places more emphasis on the front of the shoulder but reduces the amount of weight you can lift.
The front raise is an isolation exercise that as the name suggests trains the front head of the shoulder.
Most people never need to use it as the front of the shoulder is a muscle that already gets a lot of indirect work from exercises like the shoulder press, bench press and dips.
Doing additional front shoulder work can lead to an imbalance in strength and aesthetics.
Lateral raises are also an isolation exercise that solely works the side head of the deltoid and is hands down the most effective way to build mass in this area.
They should be a staple in any shoulder routine. Lateral raises or lat raises for short can be performed standing, seated or single arm.
Commonly the most stubborn part of the shoulder to grow, this area needs special attention to take your shoulder development from good to great. The lateral side raise allows you to isolate the problem area and work it directly.
The focus here is not on strength as much as it is good form and muscle overload, it will take time to build strength here so take it slow and keep your form strict. The gains will come.
Related: 5 Ways To Correct A Muscle Imbalance
Reverse flyes are another isolation exercise that focuses on the rear head of the deltoids to help to create a balanced look and prevent the rear head from lagging behind.
It can be performed from a standing or seated position, with dumbbells, cables or the use of a fly machine. Like with the lateral raise the seated position will force you to use stricter reps by limiting the amount of momentum that can be produced.
Working the rear deltoid, the face pull is a fantastic exercise to isolate the rear of the shoulder and can be used to great effect to bring up this often-lagging muscle.
Remember, well-developed shoulders consist of even developed amongst each of the 3 heads of the shoulder. Unlike the reverse fly the face pull must be performed using a cable machine and cannot be performed with dumbbells.
This gets a mention because otherwise, people would wonder where it is. However, it is not here as a ‘best’ exercise but more as a friendly warning. The upright row has somewhat of a mixed reputation in the fitness world.
Some people swear by it for shoulder development, others (like myself) steer clear of the exercise. The reason for all the controversy is the likelihood of injury if you don’t perform the exercise correctly; poor grip placement, excessive internal rotation, raising the bar too high and using a weight that’s too heavy can all lead to a shoulder injury.
Dr John Rusin, strength coach and physical therapist says the problem comes from the fact that in order to perform the exercise correctly people need;
However, very few average gym goers have all 3, not to mention the fact the exercise targets a part of the shoulder (the front delt) that is typically overdeveloped.
To put the final nail in the upright rows coffin, there are various other exercises (lat raises, reverse flyes, front raises) that are better at targeting each head of the shoulder that there’s really is no reason to use it. If however you still have your mind set on it, here’s how to do it properly.
Research shows (1) that high-intensity resistance training (moderate reps, heavy load) is superior for building both muscle and strength than moderate-intensity resistance training (high reps, moderate load). Researchers identified two reasons for this:
Research (2) also shows that progressive overload and the increase in muscle tension is the main driver for quality muscle growth. Not only this but using moderate rep intensity (4 – 11 reps) and high load whilst specifically applying progressive overload is even better.
This means to get stronger and build muscle you need to continually challenge yourself, you must strive to do a little better each and every time you work out. The best way to do this is to apply progressive overload. Applying progressive overload simply means doing more. It could be doing one more rep, one more set, add weight to the bar or resting for less time.
My preferred method of progressive overload is to increase the weight lifted within a rep range. For example, if you’re doing the standing barbell shoulder press and aiming for 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps and you hit 8 on each set then the next time you’ll increase the weight.
The increase in weight will probably bring you down to the 3 sets of 6 reps, but that’s ok, build your way back up to 3 sets of 8 with the new weight before increasing it again. Continue like this to make consistent strength and muscle gains over time.
5 Day Split – Shoulder
Shoulder Press – 3 x 6
Weighted Dips – 3 x 8
Lateral Raises – 4 x 10-12
Reverse Flyes or Face Pulls – 4 x 10-12
Push, Pull, Legs – Push Day (Shoulder Focus)
Shoulder Press – 3 x 8
Flat Bench Press – 3 x 8
Weighted Dips – 3 x 10
Tricep Extensions – 3 x 10-12
Lateral Raises – 3 x 10-12
A, B Split – Shoulders & Legs
Squats – 3 x 6
Shoulder Press – 3 x 8
Romanian Deadlifts or Hip Thrusts – 3 x 10
Lateral Raises – 3 x 10-12
Reverse Flyes or Face Pulls – 3 x 10-12
Calf Raises – 3 x 12-15
To build muscle you need to be eating in a calorie surplus and to build muscle with the minimal possible fat gain you need to balance eating too much and not eating enough.
I recommend a calorie surplus of 10 – 15% as a good starting point with the aim being to gain 0.5 – 1 lb of weight per week.
I know this may not sound like much but think 2 – 4 lbs of solid muscle a month adds up to 6 – 12 lbs every 3 months and this can make an outstanding difference to your physique.
Trying to gain muscle any faster than this and you will gain more fat in the process, which will ruin your look.
The key to successful weight gain is to put on as much muscle as possible whilst keeping fat gain to a minimum.
The quickest way to calculate this is to take your body weight in lbs and multiply it by 16.
This will give you a good starting point. You can then adjust as you go based on your rate of weight gain and how much exercise you are performing. As for macros my preferred set up is:
If you really want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your workouts then there are few common training mistakes you need to be aware of.
#1: Not Using A Full Range of Motion
Just doing these exercises with no thought for form or progress is pointless, you need to fully understand how to perform each move with proper technique to effectively apply progressive overload. Using good form has several benefits that you can’t afford to miss out on:
Always take the time to thoroughly learn the movement with an unweighted bar or a little weight before lifting heavy. This will not only allow you to learn the movement pattern faster, but it will also decrease your risk of injury and allow you to lift more weight.
#2: Using The Smith Machine
There are a number of reasons for this:
The bottom line is; avoid the smith machine where possible for better strength, muscle development and a decreased risk of injury.
#3: Not Prioritising Rest & Recovery
Too many people underestimate the importance of rest and recovery, mistakenly thinking that more time in the gym = more progress. When the reality is that a lot of your progress happens when you rest and allow your body to complete several important processes;
Allowing your body to do this means it will begin to adapt to the stresses of exercise which in turn means you will get bigger and stronger. The best way to help your body complete these actions is to stay hydrated, get adequate sleep and eat appropriately for your goal.
Neglecting to give your body the time it needs to adapt and repair itself after training will result in a noticeable deterioration in your energy levels, performance and results.