How to Build Big Shoulders

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Training

How to Build Big ShouldersQuestion: 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.

Military Press

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.

Handstand Pushups

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.

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18 Responses to How to Build Big Shoulders

  1. Billy May 14, 2008 at 4:20 pm #

    Wicked articles…love the knowledge and info you/your team put out there.
    If you can answer a quick question: With the hang clean and press, once you bring the bar to your chest and “catch’ it are you then using momemtum in your legs to push the weight up or should it be strictly from the shoulders?
    Keep it hardcore.

  2. admin May 15, 2008 at 6:09 am #

    There are two ways of doing it. One way is to do more of a traditional clean and then use momentum from your legs to drive it up. The other is more of a strict upper body lift in which you do a stricter clean without so much hip pop and momentum and then do a strict overhead press. Either option is good it just depends on your goals. For most non athletes just aiming for size gains I prefer the stricter version.

  3. Travis August 24, 2008 at 7:22 pm #

    My congratulation with first place in overall count on Olympic Games. Volleyball team was the best!

  4. Syntex September 2, 2008 at 8:35 am #

    I dont understand why u start with the barbell in the hang position, cant u use more weight by cleaning it from the floor and yes even thou lower body drive gets the weight up more than the muscle clean, on the negative u can overload the delts with more weight..

  5. Jonny June 10, 2011 at 3:50 am #

    Awesome post Jason, completely agree with all of it. I do the full olympic barbell clean, as I like the technicality of it, and the overall strength and felxability that comes with it. Only recently started adding handstand push-ups back in again since one of your previous posts on them.
    One question, how can I build up to doing handstands by my own balance, leading to doing freestanding handstand push-ups?

    • Jason Ferruggia June 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

      @Jonny: That takes a lot of time. Start with the wall and then as you get more comfortable move your feet off just a bit. You will need to practice a lot.

      @Rajat- I’d stick with MGS as it is to be honest. We can specialize afterwards. After the program check out something from the Renegade Inner Circle or Triple Threat.

  6. Marcos Torres June 10, 2011 at 7:11 am #

    ^^^ Good question I can bang out some wall handstand pushups but balancing is the next step would like to be able to walk on hands.

  7. Rajat June 15, 2011 at 11:26 pm #

    Hi Jason
    Awesome info. I am currently following the MGS intermediate phase 1 plan. I feel that I need a bit more direct work on my shoulders. How do I go about doing it? Also after I am done with the whole MGS giant cycle including advanced workout, do I start from intermediate again? Or do I go on to another program like Triple Threat Muscle?

  8. Sam- Look Like An Athlete June 16, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    I agree that you should work on shoulders and dedicate a workout to this muscle group. In fact, I do believe that neglecting this area will lead to possible shoulder injuries in the future.
    I like to work on shoulders from each angle by doing overhead presses, lateral raises, rear delt raises, upright rows and shrugs.

  9. Jason July 3, 2011 at 7:38 am #

    I love cleans and shoulder presses. It is rare I do them together but the clean and press is a great movement.

    I have yet to do the handstand push up because it looks so awkward but I do love bodyweight exercises and will look at adding those into my workout.

  10. K.Gopal Rao July 17, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    When a single dumbbell is mentioned as an alternative to the barbell exercise described above, will that be used as in a standing shoulder press (since all the tips on technique for the barbell can’t very well be applied to the same exercise with a dumbbell)? Sounds the same as a standing shoulder press with a dumbbell to me, or am I mistaken?

  11. Dilan November 10, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    I’d like to jump in mention the Olympic Press. It’s barbell pressing with hip drive and layback. Builds huge Olympian old school muscle and amazing strength.

  12. Robert Wynne December 14, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    How do you get clients from 1-2 handstand pushup repetitions to 10? Simply “adding” one extra rep per session (trying to force adaptation in a linear fashion) seems to be a lot tougher than it sounds. Personally I’ve been “greasing the groove” every other day for a week now, and it’s hardly any easier than when I started. Thanks, in advanced, Jason!

  13. Niel Rishoi June 27, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    One thing I learned from you Jason REALLY made a difference: I now do military presses on those slanted squat racks – lifting while standing, not sitting. You get a better start when you come up under the weight and hoist it up, and you’re not stuck down in the seat. And you can negotiate more weight.

  14. Ryan June 27, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    Awesome idea for the handstand push ups, I’ve recently lost my training partner and have been trying to find a substitute for seated dumbbell shouder press (need a spotter as im doing 2-4 rep range so cant lift the weights into position). Excellent idea as i already really wanted to try these, thanks jason!

  15. Adrian June 27, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Will you cut a deal for your Inner Circle membership like you did 4-5 months ago??? That would be sweet. Not that it isn’t cheap enough, but I’m going to use the “I’m in college” excuse while I still can. Also, thank you for the UNCAGED program. Personally I think it is the best one you have ever written.

  16. Yori March 31, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

    Hi, great article Jason, i think that doing exercises standing will put lot of stress on lower back especially when using heavy weights, i think that seated versions will do the job .
    Thank you