In this post we’re gonna talk about how to build big shoulders. I’ll give you a quick bit of anatomy on the shoulders and then we’ll get into the best shoulder exercises and the ultimate shoulder workout.
Here’s a question a reader emailed me recently…
Question: Jason, I have a question about shoulder training.
First, of all should I even train shoulders directly? Some people say they get enough work from other upper body exercises.
And secondly, if you recommend training them, what are the best exercises?
Answer: First of all, yes, if you want to maximize muscle hypertrophy of the shoulders you should train them directly. And, as is the case with every other muscle group you are trying to build you want to train heavy.
You don’t need to do 25 sets of lateral raises in every direction, though. Stick with a few of the big, basic pressing exercises as the meat and potatoes of your shoulder training. That’s what’s gonna cause the most muscle growth.
Overhead pressing will also help increase your bench press strength as well.
Remember, the key to building any muscle group is progressive overload. You have to get stronger on big compound movements. That is the “secret” to building muscle, and it works every time, without fail.
The shoulder are muscles are technically known as the deltoids (or delts, for short). They consist of three heads- the anterior, lateral and posterior; or in simpler terms- the front, side and rear delts.
The front delts get a lot of work from all of your standard chest pressing movements like the bench press or dips. Because of this people make the argument that you don’t need to overhead press. And while technically that may be true, I’ve seen very few people with huge shoulders who don’t overhead press.
Plus, it’s just a manly, badass exercise.
As for the lateral or side delts, you may want to include some lateral raises in your program to fully train them. I’d only recommend this to non-beginners who have trained properly for a few years and increased their overhead press pretty significantly.
The rear delts can be trained with low incline lateral raises by setting the bench to 15-35 degrees.
On all forms of lateral raises you want the elbows to be nearly straight. When you see someone doing lateral raises with the arms bent almost to 90 degrees please ignore this no matter how big the person may be. It’s technically incorrect.
The rear delts can also be trained with any type of rowing movement that has your elbows out to your side and has you pulling them behind your body.
Below is a list of my favorite shoulder building exercises.
BEST SHOULDER EXERCISES
Hang Clean & Press
The first is the barbell hang clean and push press. Perform this exercise by bending over with a barbell in your hands and a shoulder width grip. Start with the barbell just above your knees and be sure to maintain perfect posture with your head in line with your spine, chest up and back arched.
Initiate by driving your hips forward and shrugging your shoulders. Pull the bar to your upper chest then quickly flip it over and catch it there by dipping at the knees slightly.
Stand up all the way by powerfully exploding up out of the 1/4 squat position that you caught the bar in and simultaneously press the bar straight up overhead to lockout, using the momentum generated by your legs.
This exercise can be done with a standard straight barbell (though, I highly recommend you use a good Olympic bar or your elbows may be screaming after a few weeks), angled or neutral grip bar or a strongman log (my personal favorite).
Another variation of this exercise can be done with dumbbells. This allows for more natural motion since your arms aren’t locked into a fixed range with the barbell. You can do these with two dumbbells at once or do them one arm at a time.
This exercise will not only build big delts but also pack size on the traps and upper back while simultaneously developing explosive power.
Beginners should focus on sets of 5-8 reps on the hang clean and press. Advanced lifters can bump up the reps; especially if using the log as a strongman type event. In that case you might do as many as 10-12, or even 15-20 reps. But those higher end rep ranges should only be used by guys who are already very strong and pretty advanced in their training.
High rep clean and presses are grueling, but awesome.
The standing military press is one of the best, most basic, old school, badass exercises you can do. Stand up and press a bar or dumbbells overhead. It’s the essence of weight training. And if you work up to some big weights you’ll also have some big shoulders.
If you are already performing deadlifts and direct trap work in your program doing clean and presses may prove to be too much to recover from. In that case you can simply stick with regular overhead presses, minus the clean.
When pressing overhead with a bar I recommend trying a false or thumbless (keeping your thumbs on the same side as your fingers).
You will find it less stressful on the elbows and shoulders and the bar path will feel more natural. I thank my buddy Smitty from Diesel Strength for introducing me to that concept. Pressing with a thumbs around the bar grip now feels awkward and pretty much terrible after doing it the other way.
With dumbbells, try pressing with a neutral grip and palms facing you for variety.
On overhead presses we work up to 1-3 heavy, top end sets in the 5-8 range if you’re a newbie or as high as 10-12 for strong, advanced guys.
As always, heavy lifting is a better choice than light high rep training when it comes to building muscle.
And lower rep sets target the Type IIB fibers, which grow faster than the slow twitch fibers.
No discussion about how to build big shoulders would be complete without mentioning the handstand pushup. This is as difficult as it sounds but can be modified for novice or intermediate lifters.
The easiest way to work up to a handstand pushup is to start by simply holding the position for time while you keep your feet up against the wall.
When you can easily hold your bodyweight for sixty seconds start working eccentric only reps. Do five singles and take five seconds to lower yourself. Work up to doing five sets of three, lowering in 6-8 seconds. After doing that for a few weeks you will be able to get your first rep on your own.
Once that’s possible you should do one or two sets of one rep and a couple more eccentric only reps. When you get to the point where you can do three reps try doing ten singles with about 45-60 seconds between them.
When can do six reps you’d want to do sets of three. So about half of what you are capable of doing in one set.
Progression on these will take time so be patient and keep practicing.
Once you can do 8-10 reps usually (in about 4-6 months) it will be time to start increasing the range of motion. To do this place your hands on boxes and lower your head between them.
Ideally you would want to start with thin rubber mats and add one every couple of weeks. If you don’t have that ability, stack some magazines or something in between the boxes to increase the range gradually.
Once you can do a set of 6-8 reps with your head all the way down between the boxes you should have some pretty massive shoulder development, not to mention some overall full body strength and athleticism.
These are normally done standing but if you have trouble targeting your side delts with standard lateral raises try doing them on an incline bench set between 45 and 75 degrees. A slight forward lean puts you in a position to hit the side delts more effectively.
When training the lateral raise you want to be sure you maintain constant tension and continuous movement throughout the set.
Low Incline Lateral Raise
By lowering the bench to an angle of 15-35 degrees you will put more stress on the rear delts. These muscles tend to be more slow twitch and respond best to slightly higher reps.
This is a great exercise for building up all of the muscles across your upper back and the back of your shoulders. Attach a rope handle to a cable stack at about face height. Now row the handles towards your face with your elbows up high and flared out to the side. Squeeze your shoulder blades together for a second at the top.
I recommend sets of 8-15 reps on the face pull.
These can be also be done with a hammer grip, which also involves the external rotator muscles to a greater extent. Use both variations for balanced development.
The Ultimate Shoulder Workout
The majority of Renegade training programs have you training three days per week and I generally recommend training a muscle group every 5-7 days. When you’re a beginner you can use more frequency than this for you first year.
I use a few different training splits such as:
- Rotating Upper/Lower where you train upper twice one week, then lower twice the next week
- Chest+Shoulders+Tris+Abs/ Back+Legs+Bis
- Vertical pushing & pulling/Quad dominant/ Horizontal pushing & pulling/ Hip dominant (training 3 days per week and rotating the 4th day over to the following week)
One thing I don’t do, however, is prescribe a typical pro bodybuilder style workout where one particular muscle group gets blasted with 12-20 sets of 12-15 reps. That only works for genetic freaks who are on steroids.
The natural lifter with average genetics needs far less volume. And their main focus needs to be on getting strong.
Depending on the split above that you choose the program might be slightly different. But the general theme is that you press heavy weights overhead once every 5-7 days for low reps. Then you hit some volume work on lateral raises and face pulls.
Sample Shoulder Workout:
Standing DB Press- 3 x 8, 6, 10 x 120
Lateral Raise- 4 x 10-12 x 30
This would be done on an upper body day, a push day or a vertical push day if you follow a movement pattern split
Rack deadlift or high pull (to work the traps) – 3 x 5-8 x 120
Face Pull- 4 x 10-12 x 30
What About Nutrition?
No muscle group will grow without proper fuel. So be sure to eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day and 1.5-3 grams of carbs. Keep fats low to moderate at around .4 grams per pound of bodyweight.
You can read more HERE.
Now you know how to build big shoulders. Don’t get caught up on doing more work. Just focus on the basics and keep getting strong. That’s the only proven plan that works.