If you’re reading this article, we assume that you don’t have to be convinced that big, strong shoulders are one of the trademarks of a great physique. You already know that. You just need to find out how to get there in the shortest time possible.
It’s also safe to assume that you’ve already poured countless hours and gallons of sweat into shoulder workouts that promised to give you unbelievable results, but to no avail. The truth is that building massive shoulders is no easy task and there are simply no shortcuts to be taken here. But on the other hand, it can be definitely done, and it can be done a lot faster if you have the right exercises.
But why do some exercises provide amazing gains for some people but they’re pretty much useless for others? First of all, the anatomy of your shoulders is determined by genetics, so guys with more favorable shoulder genetics will reap better results faster than guys who have, for example, narrower shoulders, unfavorable limb length and “worse” muscle attachments (which define how efficient the muscles are, biomechanically speaking). This doesn’t mean that those who are ‘cursed’ by genetics can’t build great bodies – they just need to put some extra effort into concealing their disadvantages and fixing weaknesses. By training smart, most obstacles can be overcome.
Second, the efficiency of a certain exercise also depends on the rest of your program, the frequency of training and whether there is adequate recovery in between sessions. If you train too often, over-train certain muscles or don’t allow your body to rest properly after a hard workout, growth might stall. You could be performing the best exercises there is, but if you don’t provide the right supporting context, they can’t do wonders on their own. Creating the perfect training program requires knowledge and experience, but don’t worry if you’re not already there – this article was created for guys like you by guys who’ve already been there.
So let’s cut to the chase. In this article we’ll help you design a highly efficient shoulder training program by providing you the best shoulder exercises that you can use for building both size and strength. You simply cannot go wrong with these mighty moves, so read carefully and get ready to pound some heavy iron.
#1. Cable Reverse Fly
Intro: The reverse fly is an isolation exercise that targets the upper back and shoulders and promotes substantial growth in a number of muscles found in these two areas. It can be performed when sitting, standing or even lying face down on a weight bench. The main perk of this exercise is that it efficiently hits the rear delts, which usually don’t get much love in standard shoulder workouts, even though they’re a crucial part of achieving that thick, 3D look. So if your goal is to develop well-balanced shoulders, your rear delts size will have to match the one of your front and middle delts, so it’d be wise to emphasize reverse flies in your routine. Also, the great thing about cable-based movements it that they provide continual tension on the targeted muscles, so they never really get a break, which translates to more growth. Since the shoulders and back are one of the most injury-prone body parts, always use correct form when performing this exercise.
Targeted muscles: Posterior deltoids, rhomboids and middle trapezius muscles.
How to: Attach D-handles to the upper pulley of a cable machine. The pulleys should be above your head. Grab the left-side handle with your right hand and the right-side handle with your left hand, crossing them in front of you and step to the center. Your palms should be in a neutral grip, and your elbows should be straight but not locked out. Keeping your arms elevated at shoulder level, open your arms out to the sides and engage your rear delts as you pull each handle across to the other side. Keep your arms perfectly straight as you execute the movement. Once your arms are entirely outstretched, reverse the motion and bring the handles back to the start position.
#2. Bent-Оver Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Intro: No matter how many times you’ve heard that the on-arm bent-over lateral raise is superior to its bilateral counterpart because it lets you place more stress on each side, that isn’t true. The unilateral version of this exercise increases the opportunity to cheat by allowing you to rotate more at the waist, and that easily beats all of its advantages. Performing the movement with both arms at the same time will eliminate that kind of momentum and allow you to put more pressure on your rear delts, enabling you to create a more balanced overall physique. It can be done either standing or seated at the end of a flat bench.
Targeted muscles: The rear delts and upper back muscles.
How to: Take a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing each other and slightly bend the knees while maintaining a flat back and upright chest. Fix your gaze on a point on the floor in front of you and bend at the hips until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor, elbows fixed in a slightly bent position. Raise the dumbbells up and out to the sides in an arc until both of your upper arms become parallel to the floor. After a one-second squeeze at the top, then reverse the motion to lower back the dumbbells.
#3. One-Аrm Cable Lateral Raise
Intro: If you’re looking to carve out a set of broad, strong shoulders, lateral raises should be a staple in your routine. A properly executed one-arm cable lateral raise can be a crucial isolation exercise in your training arsenal because it helps target the side delts, i.e. the lateral heads of the shoulders, which can be often hard to hit with other exercises but are necessary if you want to maximize your delts thickness. For example, overhead presses greatly emphasize the anterior delts, but fail to adequately stimulate the side and rear heads. For developing complete shoulders, each head must be exhausted on its own – and this movement is the perfect fix for your neglected middle delts.
Targeted muscles: Middle deltoids.
How to: Set the pulleys to the low setting and select the weight you want to work with. Stand sideways to the machine with feet at shoulder width apart, grasp the right handle with your left hand and place your non-working hand on your hips. Stand straight up, keeping your abs tight and shoulders back and raise the cable out and to your side in a wide arc by moving your elbow and hand together in the same plane. Once your arm passes the shoulder level, pause for a second and squeeze the delts, then reverse the motion to lower it down. Repeat for the desired amount of reps, then repeat the exercise with your right arm by grasping the left handle with your right hand. Remember, form is more important than weight so keep your elbows high all throughout the movement and don’t flare your hands up as you move the weight to ensure maximum middle delt activation.
#4. Cable Front Raise
Intro: The cable front raise is a brutally effective shoulder movement which allows you to isolate the anterior deltoid head while requiring minimal dynamic assistance from other muscles. While both dumbbells and cables offer the benefit of working the shoulders in a unilateral way that ensures equal resistance and reverses any muscle imbalances, the use of cables for the front raise brings another benefit to the table – continuous resistance throughout the movement. Besides working the anterior delts, the exercise also requires the activation of a number of stabilizing muscles such as the trapezius, erector spinae, biceps, rotator cuff and serratus anterior.
Targeted muscles: Anterior and medial deltoids.
How to: Select the weight you would like to use on a low pulley machine and grab the single hand cable attachment with your left hand. Stand in a shoulder-width stance and place the non-working hand on your hip for better balance. Your torso should be stationary all throughout the movement, while the knees should be bent slightly. With the hand cable attachment in front of you at arm length, powerfully raise the cable up and out in front of you until your upper arm becomes parallel with the working shoulder, maintaining a flat back. To ensure maximum safety and avoid injuries such as shoulder impingement, slightly turn your thumbs in the air as you approach the high point of the movement, instead of keeping your palms facing down. Exhale as you execute this portion of the movement and pause for a second at the top to squeeze the working muscles. As you inhale, lower the arm back down to the starting position and repeat for the number of desired repetitions, then switch arms and perform the exercise with the right arm.
#5. Push Press
Intro: The push press has made a slow but mighty comeback in recent years and thank god for that because it’s one of the finest shoulder moves ever invented by man – it allows you to handle more weight than the strict shoulder press, combining a heavy overhead action with an adequate amount of momentum, but at the same time it’s not as difficult to master as the push-jerk. Unlike most other overhead upper body exercises, this move requires the exercise to be initiated by the legs, thereby allowing you to utilize bigger, more challenging loads. Besides helping you develop tremendous amounts of upper body strength, the push press will condition your rotator cuff and strengthen your abs and it has a strong direct carryover to the shoulder press and the bench press. Performing movements like this one will ensure that your muscles are exactly as strong as they look. Pretty neat, right?
Targeted muscles: Deltoids, traps, triceps.
How to: Stand with feet at shoulder width apart, grab a barbell and hold it with an overhand grip that is a little narrower than shoulder width apart, palms up and elbows pointed forward. Your upper arms should be almost parallel to the floor. Pull the barbell just above your shoulders with elbows close to your body, then lower your hips and bend your knees in a half-squat position. Explosively drive your legs and hips upward and extend your arms to press the weight over your head with a full elbow extension. Make sure you don’t hyperextend the lower back at the lockout position and maintain a neutral arch in your spine throughout the move. Hold for a moment at the top, then lower the bar back to its resting position on your upper chest area.
#6. Wide-Grip Smith Machine Upright Row
Intro: For starters, we’ll agree with most Smith-haters that free weight barbell moves are generally superior to machine exercises. But, when used smartly, the smith machine can help you beat sticking points and crush plateaus, practice proper form in a safer context and even improve the biomechanics of certain lifting exercises, resulting with a more efficient performance. In the case of upright rows, performing them on a Smith machine is almost like using a bar except that it won’t let you cheat, which is a major plus. Therefore, you won’t be able to use the same amount of weight with the Smith machine as you would with the regular upright rows, but that’s alright because the lack of cheating will ensure adequate overloading of the targeted muscles. Additionally, using a Smith machine provides a single plane of vertical motion and constant pressure on the shoulders, which will emphasize your shoulder gains even further.
Targeted muscles: Anterior, middle and rear deltoids and trapezius muscles.
How to: Set the bar on the Smith machine to a height that’s approximately the middle of your thighs. With feet at shoulder width apart, position yourself in the middle of the smith machine and grasp the bar with a pronated grip that is a few inches wider than shoulder width apart. Flex your shoulders and lift the bar straight up toward your chin, nearly touching it, while keeping it as close to your body as possible. There should be a slight bend at the elbows, which should be higher than the wrists at all times, and the back should remain straight. However, if you want to emphasize the side delts, pull the bar up until your elbows and forearms are almost parallel to the floor. Hold the top position for a second, then slowly lower the bar down to the starting position. Always use proper form, avoid jerking and swinging and be careful with how much weight you use – using too heavy weight will harm your form and increase the risk of shoulder injury.
#7. Face Pull
Intro: This baddass move might be the single most underutilized lifting exercise of all times. Although powerlifters swear by it, it’s pretty rare to see the average lifter regularly performing face pulls as a part of a shoulder workout. And even then, they are rarely performed properly. Anyhow, the face pull is an incredibly multifunctional lift that can serve both as a highly efficient muscle building exercise and as a movement for restoring and improving shoulder health. It can help crush lifting plateaus while powerfully conditioning the delts, rhombs and external rotators, and best of all, it can help prevent internal rotation of the shoulder joint, which is a problem many dedicated lifters face. That being said, the face pull has a very unique ability to sculpt your rear delts like no other exercise while simultaneously activating the middle traps to support the movement. Finally, the fact that it allows you to handle more weight overall directly leads to maximum gains.
Targeted muscles: Rear deltoids, middle trapezius muscles.
How to: Set a rope attachment up around head-height on a pull-down station and select a relatively heavy weight. Facing the pulley, grasp each end of the rope with an overhand grip and lift your elbows up to shoulder level to both sides. Place one foot on the kneepad to better anchor yourself and lean back slightly. Keeping your elbows elevated, retract your scapula and pull the rope directly towards your face, separating your hands as you do so, until your hands are alongside your ears. Keep your chin tucked and don’t allow your neck to reach forward, and remember that your elbows must be elevated and in-line with your shoulders throughout the entire movement. Pause for a second and squeeze hard, then reverse the motion to lower the weight down without letting it touch down. It’s crucial to keep your elbows elevated throughout the entire movement.
#8. Seated Barbell Shoulder Press
Intro: The barbell shoulder press is a highly effective upper body exercise that can be used to increase strength and size in the shoulder area, and when performed in the seated position it isolates the shoulders even better by limiting the involvement of other muscles. When it comes to proper deltoid development, the shoulder press is an absolute must – it’s challenging, intense and has an insane carryover to other lifts. Also, being a multi-joint exercise, the barbell shoulder press allows you go really heavy and overload your muscles without risking your safety, which means more muscle built in the long term. And since it activates all three heads of the delts, the shoulder press has a superior ability to help you pack on maximum mass and strength in the entire shoulder area, while also working the traps and upper chest to a certain degree.
Targeted muscles: Anterior, middle and rear deltoids.
How to: Find a barbell press station or a low-back bench inside a power rack and position the barbell at a height that is just above your head. Sit straight with your feet flat on the floor, maintaining a slight arch in your lower back, and grasp the barbell firmly outside of shoulder width with a pronated grip, elbows pointing down and outward. Unrack the bar and bring it at about shoulder level. This will be your starting position. Using a slow, controlled motion, press the bar straight up to just short of elbow lockout as you inhale and squeeze the working muscles hard. Lower the bar under control back to the starting position as you exhale and repeat. Avoid flaring the elbows and keep your back straight throughout the movement. Also, make sure to use a full range of motion.
Extra tip: You can also perform this movement with a pair of dumbbells. In fact, it’s advisable to rotate them regularly over the course of a few months. The dumbbell press lets the arms to flare out a little more to your sides, thereby allowing a greater activation of the middle delts, while the barbell press places a stronger emphasis on the front delts. The second main difference between the two variations is that you can’t handle the same heavy loads when using dumbbells. But on the other hand, the dumbbell variation works better when it comes to preventing muscular imbalances.
#9. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Intro: Lateral raises work great for building your shoulders and increasing shoulder mobility, while also strengthening the muscles that support and stabilize the shoulders. And if you make sure to brace your core correctly while you lift, you can reap some decent core stability gains as well. The main reason why the dumbbell lateral raise is so powerful at sculpting great shoulders is that it helps make your shoulders appear wider, thereby creating favorable size contrasts between your shoulders, waist and hips. However, it’s a fact that his exercises is one of the most abused ones at the gym, with too many guys relying solely on dumbbell lateral raises to build their shoulders. It’s also a fact that this exercise makes cheating via momentum a bit too easy. That being said, the lateral raise is still a crucial movement for building wide, massive shoulders that enables you to place a great amount of tension on the middle delts, so if you want to score optimal growth, make sure to do it right and tight.
Targeted muscles: Middle deltoids
How to: Stand with your feet at shoulder width apart, keeping your abs tight and shoulders back and holding a pair of dumbbells with a neutral grip. If you adjust your grip so that your thumb side is a little lower than your pinkie side, you can engage the middle head even more. While maintaining the torso in a stationary position (to avoid using momentum), raise the dumbbells out to your side in an arc with a slight bend in the elbows and hands slightly tilted forward. The elbows and the hands should be moving together in the same plane. Raise the dumbbells just above shoulder level and pause for a second at the top portion, then reverse the motion and slowly lower the weight down.