Unlike most muscle groups in the body; the deltoids, or shoulders, have multiple different muscle heads that need to be developed. These three heads; anterior (front), lateral (side), and posterior (rear), all need to be improved to build boulder shoulders!
Most people that train have overdeveloped anterior delts from all the pressing movements they do. Bench Presses especially build the anterior deltoids very well. The lateral and posterior heads are usually underdeveloped and these are actually the muscle groups that contribute the most to big shoulders.
The exercises that help build the shoulders up better than any others are:
- Barbell Press
- Dumbbell Press
- Overhead Plate Raises
- Lateral Raises
- Face Pulls
- Dumbbell High Rows
- Band Pull Aparts
Now that you know the list, let’s head into the top 7 exercises that build the most muscle for shoulders. Here we go!
The Barbell Press is one of the Core 4 Barbell Exercises I went over in my top 10 Exercises to get stronger for life. When it comes to building total-body strength/muscle, it’s hard to beat the Barbell Press. From the shoulders, traps, upper back and lower back, abs and legs; the entire body needs to be strong to build the Barbell Press.
It’s an amazing movement for overloading the shoulders with the most weight possible and this makes it a staple in proper barbell training to train the deltoids directly. Because the shoulders are comprised mostly of slow-twitch muscle fibers, sets of less than 8 reps are largely ineffective at growing the shoulders.
A solid goal to hit on this movement is bodyweight for 8-12 reps. If you weigh 200 lbs you want to aim for at least 8 reps, doing this you can ensure your shoulders are strong, stable and of course bigger!
For the Barbell Press, I’ve had the most success going for even higher reps per set, however! When I’ve tried training my clients with lower sets of 8-12, a lot of them plateau pretty quickly. My method for fixing this is giving them a rep range and lowering the weight substantially. Their goal is to push for an all-out PR set where they cap the set at 20 reps with 1 rep in the tank.
Doing this allows them to work in the 12-20 range where I’ve seen the most muscle and strength gains. Over time, we just add 5 lbs and build up slowly. Eventually, their reps drop down to around 8-12 and that’s totally okay. As soon as they get to 8 reps we back the weight off about 10-20% and build back up. Doing this allows them to get the most benefits possible without pushing into the lower rep ranges where most of the benefits are lost.
Also with the form, I’ve found using a neutral grip works the best. This allows you to track the barbell overhead much easier than a standard grip. Don’t worry, of all my year’s training like this, I’ve never lost my grip and neither have my clients.
The other thing you should practice doing is keeping the grip around shoulder-width apart with your elbows out in front of you. As soon as the barbell gets past your head, push your upper body through to finish the movement. This allows you to press in a straight line and use the upper back to help finish the exercise as well.
Who else has used the Overhead Press to build big shoulders and a stronger body? Let me know in the comments below!
The dumbbell press is a fantastic assistance movement to build the shoulders up with a huge range of motion. There are a couple of ways you can do this movement and they all build the shoulders in different ways.
The first way is using a neutral grip with your elbows out in front, this allows you to press back and incorporate the triceps and anterior delts more. The second way is with the dumbbells out to the sides like a standard bodybuilding movement. This hits the lateral deltoids much harder and forces you to control the negative more to keep shearing forces on the shoulder down.
I would not recommend going heavier than sets of 10 on this exercise, so sets of 10-20 is perfect. The major benefit to using the dumbbells is the increased range of motion as well as utilizing the other shoulder stabilizers that need to be worked to prevent injury.
Overhead Plate Raises
Plate Raises are an amazing exercise that I only learned about a couple of years ago. Instead of using dumbbells and raising to the front like the typical movement, we raise this all the way over your head. This brings in every head of the shoulder, including the upper back and traps.
As far as training economy goes, this is a much better exercise than front raises that only work the anterior delts.
The best way I’ve found to train using this exercise is by setting a rep goal and trying to beat it every week. Start with just a 10 lb plate and aim for 100 total plate raises. If you get sets of 20 or higher you’re good to start adding weight. Your end goal on these is the 45 lb plate for 100 total reps.
Here is a video of Scott Herman demonstrating how to do the Overhead Plate Raises in great detail. Definitely try it out and see how you like it! If you’re like me, you’ll notice the benefits almost immediately!
Lateral raises are one of the best exercises you can do for, you guessed it, lateral delts!
When performing this exercise, you need to think about your form first above all else. It’s super easy to swing and cheat to execute this and you don’t want to do that. Because the shoulders are already pretty bad at getting a solid stretch and contraction, cheating the movement really does take the shoulders out of it.
Instead, try to do your Lateral Raises as Dr. Mike Israetel performs them here. He doesn’t use any momentum and doesn’t allow his ego to drive his weight increases. He started at 15 lbs when he started training and slowly worked up to 55 lbs for 13 reps over a ten year period.
Just like with other isolation movements, sets of 10-20 are the rep range you want to focus on for Lateral Raises. Doing this gives you a massive pump and builds up the slow-twitch muscle fibers in the lateral delts like crazy. Try these out without any momentum and prepare to be humbled!
Face Pulls are a solid exercise choice to focus on the upper back, scapula, and rear delts. When the goal is building these up Face Pulls work great for it. Higher reps for sets of 15-30 work amazingly for this. Any heavier and it becomes really hard to pause the reps.
Pull back to your face just like the exercise name suggests, hold for a pause and then return to the starting position. Your goal is to do this under control with no momentum at all. Face Pulls are great for keeping the shoulders healthy as well.
The main way I use these is with total reps as well, aiming for 100 total reps in a session just like the Plate Raises. From here you can slowly add weight or increase the duration of the pauses.
Dumbbell High Rows
Dumbbell High Rows is a much better exercise variation compared to the overused bent over raises. The main issue with bent over raises is that the amount of weight you can add to them doesn’t allow you to overload much at all. Plus, getting a solid contraction that actually works the posterior delts without your back taking over is exceedingly difficult.
When doing Dumbbell High Rows, focus on pulling the elbow up in a straight line from your torso. You don’t want your elbow to flare at all otherwise it’s just a basic Dumbbell Row. Paul Carter shows us how to do these correctly below!
As you can see from his form, he pulls it back with no swinging of the torso or hips. Everything stays in proper alignment and the upper back/rear delts get hammered. This is a big squeeze and retract movement so sets of 15-30 should be where you work this movement in. Get a huge pump, stay in control, and watch your rear delts FINALLY grow!
Band Pull Aparts
The amount of people whose shoulders I have fixed is in the dozens. Every single one of them was fixed within a month and it was due to one basic exercise, Band Pull Aparts.
When first starting out with new trainees, we do Band Pull Aparts for 100 total reps every session. This does two things, balances out their bad posture extremely fast, AND builds the upper back/rear delts as well. Most people that have shoulder pain and bad posture is due to their imbalances between the anterior and posterior delts.
By doing 100 total reps for 2-3 sessions a week, they all have built muscle and support extremely quickly. When doing this, start out with the lightest band you have. Keep building up the total reps every workout until you hit 3 sets of 30 reps. As soon as this is done, increase the band tension and work up again.
We did this 3 total times with all of my recent clients and their shoulder pain was fixed in a months time. It’s hard to say if an exercise is magic but in my experience, Band Pull Aparts are a magic exercise. Here’s how we do them!
You need to think about keeping the wrists and elbows locked out as shown in the demo below. My client Brianna does this with great form after only learning how to a week prior. You want to pull the band apart until it hits your chest and then return to the starting position.
Here is a demo of Brianna doing Band Pull Aparts as part of our warmup which all of my clients do. A set of 10-20 reps is all you need for this but you can definitely go higher if you choose to.
The other exercise you can do that is more advanced is called a 3D Band Pull-Apart. These are explained and demoed by Joe Defranco, somebody that’s been in the strength and conditioning business for decades. Definitely pay attention to his explanation and execution. Essentially what you’re doing is performing a Band Pull Apart with constant tension on your shoulders and traps as well. This is a great shoulder builder and works all of the shoulder heads simultaneously.
BOTTOM LINE: if you have shoulder issues, you need to be doing high rep Band Pull Aparts. If you do this, you’ll most likely get relief for your shoulders quickly. On top of that; your posture will get better and your shoulders will get bigger.
When building the shoulders you should be using multiple movements for the lateral and rear delts. The anterior delts get so much work already that you only need one or two movements to build them up optimally.
Try to keep all of your shoulder work in the 8-30 rep range based on the exercises you’re doing. Big movements like Barbell Press work great in the 8-15 rep range. Dumbbell Movements like Dumbbell Press work awesome for 12-20 reps. And banded movements such as Pull Aparts, you can go as high as 30 reps.
You need to train the shoulders with more reps to build up the slow-twitch muscle fibers that are so prominent in the shoulder musculature. Also, because shoulders are so resistant to fatigue, you can train them up to 5 times a week. Definitely worth it if your goal is big shoulders!
Try using 1 big movement for anterior delts, balance out the lateral and posterior delts with 2 movements each and see what happens! I guarantee you won’t only build bigger shoulders, but you’ll do it much faster than only a single shoulder day per week.
Let me know how these exercises worked for you and of course, tell me what your top 7 shoulder exercises are that worked for you!
I hope you had a wonderful day and get after it in the gym!
Until next time,