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The Best Workout To Build Bigger, Stronger Shoulders

trainingTheo Brenner-RoachComment

I think you’ll agree that there is something primal and intensely manly about having big strong shoulders, it widens your frame and contributes to the coveted v-shaped look that is so desirable for male aesthetics. Not to mention it adds a new level of definition to your arms.

Strength wise strong shoulders will give you unrivalled pushing power, whilst contributing to other upper body pushing movements and helping to injury proof the shoulder joint.

But you already know this, don’t you? That’s why you’re here but maybe what you don’t know yet is how to achieve this look. What exercises to do, what sets and reps to use and how often to train.

Today’s post will look to answer these questions and provide you with actionable strategies to begin building bigger, stronger shoulders right away.

The muscles of the shoulder

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.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

The functions of the deltoid muscles

The deltoid has three main functions that are brought about by each of the 3 heads of the muscle.

  • The anterior head flexes and medially rotates the arm – think reaching forward or throwing something underhand
  • The lateral head abducts the arm – think reaching out to the side
  • The posterior head extends and laterally rotates the arm – think reaching backwards or drawing the arm backwards when bowling a ball

By knowing the functions of the shoulder, we can begin to see which exercises will work the different heads of the deltoid optimally.

How do you build muscle?

How do you really get your delts to ‘pop’?

The answer is actually quite simple, you need to build muscle.

How do you do this? Well, research shows 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:

  1. Higher mechanical stress placed on muscles
  2. Greater activation of muscle fibres

Research 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.

What does this mean?

  1. Work primarily with heavy compound lifts using 70 - 90% 1RM
  2. Train in the 4 – 8 rep range with some additional work in the 8 – 12 range
  3. Rest 3 mins between sets for full recovery
  4. Train the shoulders directly twice a week

The mistakes people make when trying to build bigger shoulders

Time and time again I find people making the same mistakes when trying to build an impressive set of shoulders.

With the deltoid consisting of 3 distinct heads that produce different movements, you need to work each head individually to build balanced and even shoulders. By neglecting either the lateral or posterior heads of the muscle you’ll never be able to achieve that ‘3D’ look you’re after.

On the same path, if you focus too much on just the front head of the muscle you’ll only emphasise this imbalance and ultimately become frustrated with how your shoulders look. Remember the anterior head gets used when performing any pressing movement so whilst you do need to work it directly it doesn’t need an excessive amount of work.

Finally, as with any body part training too often will bring you worse results as your body does not have time to repair and recovery before being worked again. If you think that smashing your delts every day or even every other day with supersets, dropsets and rep after rep will bring you the gains you’re after, think again.

The best shoulder exercises you can do

If you want full even development that results in that rounded ‘capped’ look then you need to work each head of the shoulder.

Barbell shoulder press

The barbell shoulder press, also known as the Military Press is an outstanding compound movement to build mass and unbelievable strength. The key to really getting the most out of this movement is to get as strong as possible within the strength building rep range. This will allow you to build rock hard and dense muscle that doesn’t disappear as soon as you step out the weights room. This movement should be your primary focus for your shoulders and you should prioritise this above any other shoulder exercises.

The shoulder press can be performed both standing and seated. It can also be performed with dumbbells instead of barbells. Any of these variations can be used interchangeably and should be performed at the beginning of your shoulder workouts when you are freshest.

Whichever variation you choose, this lift should form the foundation of your shoulder workouts. My recommendation would be to use a combination of shoulder press variations by focussing on one for 6 – 8 weeks at a time before switching it out for another. This method can be particularly useful if you find your strength plateauing on either the barbell or dumbbell lift as it will provide enough of a change in stimulus to jump-start your strength gains again without taking you too far off course.

Lateral raises

Lateral raises are an isolation exercise that solely works the side head of the deltoid and are 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. Standing is a great place to start if you’re new to the exercise, whilst seated forces you to use stricter form as it minimises the momentum you can produce and single arm raises allow you to use heavier weights than you could doing both arms at the same time.

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 isolates 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.


Reverse flyes

Reverse flyes are another isolation exercise that focus 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 the seated position again forcing stricter reps by limiting the amount of momentum that can be produced.

Reverse flyes really allow you to isolate the muscle and squeeze the most out of it. As with the lateral raises, it will take time to build strength through this range of motion so focus on good form and slow and steady progression.


Set, reps and rest times

When it comes to sets, it will largely depend on who you ask and what your goals are.

Finding definitive research can be tricky because of the number of variables but one study conducted by Goteborg University researchers found that an average overall volume of 40 – 60 reps per session appeared to show the best results.

Even knowing this, it can be tricky to give you a solid answer as it begins to become subjective based on the individual you are talking too.

However, based on my experience, the experience of my clients and the research available, I recommended generally working with sets of 3 in the 4 – 8 rep range for your compound lifts and sets of 3 – 4 in the 8 – 15 rep range for your isolation work.

As for rest times the general consensus for rest times looks something like this:

  • 1 min – muscular endurance training
  • 2 min – muscular hypertrophy training
  • 3 – 5 mins – muscular strength training

This is sound advice and something that in my experience works well.

If you are performing moderate to heavy training with low to mid-range reps, then research shows that you definitely want to resting for at least 3 minutes between sets.

Sample workout routine – putting it all together

A well-structured shoulder workout hits each head of the deltoid and should be perform 1 to 2 times every 7 days.

Warm Up

1 set x 8 reps with the bar

1 min rest

1 set x 5 reps with 50% starting weight

1 min rest

1 set x 3 reps with 70% starting weight

1 min rest

1 set x 1 rep with 90% starting weight

3 min rest

Barbell Shoulder Press

3 sets x 6 - 8 reps

3 mins rest between sets

Lateral Raises

3 sets x 10 - 12 reps

1 mins rest between sets

Seated Reverse Flyes

3 sets x 10 - 12 reps

1 mins rest between sets

That’s all there is to it, ensure you are working towards progressive overload each session and eating enough and you’ll make gains.

The importance of using correct form

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:

  • Decreased risk of injury
  • Faster progression
  • Ability to lift more weight

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 and therefore progress quicker but it will also decrease your risk of injury and allow you to lift more weight.

How to apply progressive overload

Progressive overload is the one tool you need to use to make consistent gains.

This means you cannot mindlessly use the same weight, sets and reps week in and week out. 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 workout.

Applying progressive overload simply means doing more; it could be one more rep, one more set or using more weight.

My preferred method of progressive overload is to increase the weight lifted within a rep range. For example, if you’re aiming for 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps and you hit 8 on each set then the next time you increase the weight a little bit. 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.

If you want to grow you need to eat

To build muscle you need to be eating in a calorie surplus and to build muscle with 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 lbs 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 put on as much muscle as possible whilst keeping fat gain to a minimum.

The quickest way to calculate this is to take your bodyweight 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:

  • Protein – 0.8 – 1g per lb of bodyweight
  • Fat – 30% of daily calorie intake
  • Carbs – remainder of daily calorie intake

Summing Up

Sure, there will always be the temptation to add more sets, more reps and a slew of different exercises but the truth is if you focus on doing the basics properly you can leave all the fancy exercises behind.

Eat correctly and apply yourself and you’ll see great gains using this shoulder workout.

How do you train your shoulders? Will you be giving this workout a try?

Let me know in the comments below.