Question: Jason, I have a question about how to build big shoulders.
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, you should train the shoulders directly.
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.
It will also help increase your bench press as well.
I have a few favorite exercises for building big shoulders which are listed below:
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 and catch it there by dipping at the knees slightly.
Stand up all the way by powerfully exploding up out of the slight 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 an Olympic bar (make sure you have a good one or your elbows will be screaming), 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 perform 4-6 sets of 3-5 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 12-20 reps. Then run straight to the nearest toilet to hang your head over.
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 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 snatches, 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 press the bar or dumbbells overhead.
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 the Diesel Crew 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 barbell presses we work up to one top end set in the 5-8 range if you’re a newbie or as high as 10-12 for stronger, more advanced guys. On dumbbell presses 2-3 sets of 6-12 reps is the norm.
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. Do these twice per week and 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.
Now you know how to build big shoulders.
All you need is an awesome program. The place to find one is in The Renegade Inner Circle.