The Best Muscle Building Shoulder Exercises (Plus 3 Shoulder Building Workouts)

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 learnt 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;

  • Increased pushing power

  • Greater triceps strength and size

  • Injury proofing the shoulder joint

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 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).

  • Anterior (front) deltoid

  • Lateral (side) deltoid

  • Posterior (rear) deltoid

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.

Three Heads of the Shoulder Muscle.jpg


Functions of the Shoulder

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

  • The anterior (front) shoulder head: the anterior (front) head flexes and medially rotates the arm – think reaching forward or throwing something underhand

  • The lateral (side) shoulder head: the lateral (side) head abducts the arm – think reaching out to the side

  • The posterior (rear) shoulder head: the posterior head (back) 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.


The Best Shoulder Exercises for Size & Strength

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.


Shoulder Press

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.

Arnold Press

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.


Front Raises

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

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.

  • Standing is a great place to start if you’re new to the exercise

  • Seated forces you to use stricter form as it minimises the momentum you can produce

  • 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 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.


Reverse Flyes

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.


Face Pulls

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.


Upright Row

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 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;

  1. Healthy shoulders

  2. Perfect posture

  3. Perfect technique

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.


The Best Workout Routines for Bigger, Wider Shoulders

Compound movements - work in the 4 - 8 rep range

Isolation movement - work in the 8 - 15 rep range

Rest 2 to 4 minutes in between sets and exercises

Add weight once you hit your set and rep goals

- - - - -

5 Day Split - Shoulder

Shoulder Press

Lateral Raises

Reverse Flyes or Face Pulls


Compound movements - work in the 4 - 8 rep range

Isolation movement - work in the 8 - 15 rep range

Rest 2 to 4 minutes in between sets and exercises

Add weight once you hit your set and rep goals

- - - - -

Push, Pull, Legs - Push Day (Shoulder Focus)

Shoulder Press

Flat Bench Press

Weighted Dips

Tricep Extensions

Lateral Raises


Compound movements - work in the 4 - 8 rep range

Isolation movement - work in the 8 - 15 rep range

Rest 2 to 4 minutes in between sets and exercises

Add weight once you hit your set and rep goals

- - - - -

A, B Split - Shoulders & Legs


Shoulder Press

Romanian Deadlifts or Hip Thrusts

Lateral Raises

Reverse Flyes or Face Pulls

Calf Raises


A Quick Primer on Building Muscle

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:

  1. Higher mechanical stress placed on muscles

  2. Greater activation of muscle fibres

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.

What does this mean?

  • Work primarily with heavy compound lifts using 70 - 90% 1RM

  • Train in the 4 – 8 rep range with some additional work in the 8 – 12 range

  • Rest 3 - 5 mins between sets for full recovery

  • Train the shoulders directly 1 -2 times a week


How To Make Progress

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 one more rep

  • One more set

  • Using more weight

  • Decreasing rest time

My preferred method of progressive overload is to increase the weight lifted within a rep range.

For example, if you’re doing the 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.

1 3 8,8,8 30kg
2 3 7,6,6 32.5kg
3 3 8,7,7 32.5kg
4 3 8,8,8 32.5kg
5 3 6,6,6 35kg


Eat to Build Muscle

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 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:

  • Protein – 0.8 – 1g per lb of body weight

  • Fat – 30% of daily calorie intake

  • Carbs – remainder of daily calorie intake


Training Mistakes To Avoid

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.


Mistake #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:

  • 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, but it will also decrease your risk of injury and allow you to lift more weight.


Mistake #2

Using The Smith Machine

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The smith machine reduces the work of the smaller stabilizers muscles

  • The smith machine uses a fixed bar path which doesn’t allow for natural movement

  • Research (3) shows that the smith machine is inferior to a barbell for both bench pressing and squatting. It’s only reasonable to assume the same of the shoulder press.

The bottom line is; avoid the smith machine where possible for better strength, muscle development and a decreased risk of injury.


Mistake #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.


Takeaway Point

Training your shoulders properly is the difference between wide, ‘3D’ looking shoulder development that compliments your body or small, weak shoulders that throw of your physique.

Having a strong shoulders also gives you unrivalled pushing power, builds your triceps and completes a set of well defined arms. When training your shoulders, you need to focus on even development of all 3 heads of the deltoid as it’s this that will give you the look you want.

Three of the best exercises for doing this are;

  • Shoulder Press

  • Lateral Raises

  • Face Pulls

The Flab to Fit Transformation Plan..png