If you want to know how to build some serious shoulder muscle and strength, then you want to read this article.
The shoulders are the calves of the upper body.
They’re small, stubborn muscles that, when underdeveloped, drag everything around them down.
I can use myself as an example.
Check out this picture of me taken several years ago, before I knew what I was doing in the kitchen and gym:
This was taken after about 7 years of consistent weightlifting, so as you can imagine, I wasn’t too thrilled.
Let’s zero in on my shoulders, though.
What do you see?
In my opinion, they were dwarfed by my chest and arms.
Well, I’ve learned quite a bit since then and here’s where I’m at today:
Half-natty lighting, I know, but as you can clearly see, my shoulders are no longer a glaring weakness in my physique.
And in this article, I want to share with you how I got here, and how you too can dramatically increase your shoulder size and strength.
Let’s start with a brief discussion of shoulder anatomy.
- The Anatomy of the Shoulder Muscles
- The Simple Science of Effective Shoulder Workouts
- The Best Shoulder Exercises
- The Best Shoulder Workout for Men & Women
- What About Supplements?
- The Bottom Line on Shoulder Workouts
- Want More Workouts?
- What's your take on shoulder workouts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Table of Contents
The shoulders are comprised of several muscles.
The three most prominent are the “deltoids,” and here’s how they look:
There are smaller muscles as well that enable the ball-shaped head of the arm bone to spin and roll in the socket of the shoulder blade.
Now, when people talk about gaining shoulder muscle, they’re talking about increasing the size of their deltoids.
These are the big, visible muscles, and are what we will be focusing on in this article.
(Exercises done specifically for the rotator cuffs are supportive but don’t contribute to the overall size and look of the shoulders. If you want to learn more about training these muscles, check out this article.)
Now, when it comes to training your shoulders, it’s very important that you work specifically to develop each of the three deltoids.
This makes for some very underwhelming shoulders that lack the “capped” look that requires well-developed medial (side) and posterior (rear) deltoids.
(This was my problem in the first picture I shared above.)
So, then, what’s the best way to build full, round, proportionate shoulders?
Let’s find out.
There are two mistakes you can make in your shoulder workouts that will hobble your progress.
1. Doing the wrong exercises.
I used to be just as guilty of this as anyone.
I mostly did machines and isolation movements, which aren’t useless, but can’t alone get you to your goal.
2. Doing a lot of high-rep training.
This was a rather “shocking” lesson to learn because I had always believed that heavy lifting was for building strength, not size.
As a natural weightlifter, one of your primary goals is to gain strength, because with it will come size.
And that means you have to do a lot of heavy weightlifting.
These two mistakes apply to every major muscle group, of course–not just the shoulders.
If you want to maximize muscle growth in any area of your body, you want to focus on heavy, compound weightlifting.
With shoulders, that means a major emphasis on heavy barbell and dumbbell pressing with some supplementary work for the side and rear delts.
“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does a billion reps in his shoulder workouts and has 3D cannonballs… What gives?”
If only you had his #dedication. All 2 grams of it that he injects every week.
That probably sounds cynical, but it’s true. Steroid use is rampant in this space and it changes everything.
With the right drugs, someone can basically sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing set after set, exercise after exercise, and his muscles will just get bigger and bigger.
(A bit of reductive, I know, but more accurate than inaccurate.)
You’ve probably also noticed that (open or obvious) steroid users have abnormally large shoulders, traps, and pecs (and upper chests in particular).
Thus, when large amounts of anabolic steroids are introduced into the body, the shoulders, traps, and pecs grow very quickly and can reach freaky levels of size.
Don’t be discouraged, though.
You can build a great shoulders drug-free with a bit of know-how, hard work, and patience.
Two Rules for Building Great Shoulders
Here’s what it boils down to:
Focus on lifting heavy weights in your shoulder workouts.
And by “heavy,” I mean working primarily in the 4 to 6/5 to 7 rep range if you’re a guy and the 8 to 10 rep range if you’re girl (and, as you get more experienced, including some heavier work as well).
Focus on the shoulder exercises that safely allow for progressive overload.
Here’s a simple maxim of natural weightlifting:
If you stop getting stronger, you’ll stop getting bigger.
The reason for this is out of the several ways you can stimulate muscle growth, progressive overload is the most important.
This refers to progressively increasing tension levels in the muscle over time, and the most effective way to do it is to increase the weight on the bar (or dumbbell).
Another element of your shoulder workouts that you have to get right is weekly volume (the total amount of reps you do each week).
If you do too few reps each week, you’ll gain less muscle than you should or could. If you do too many, you won’t be able to fully recover from your workouts and you’ll gain less muscle than you should or could.
Finding the “sweet spot” can be tricky because when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the heavier the reps, the fewer you can do each week.
The reason for this is obvious: heavier weights necessitate more recovery time, and this is particularly true with shoulder training because the shoulders are also heavily involved in your chest workouts.
For example, if you tried to do a heavy shoulder workout the day after a heavy chest workout, you’re going to struggle more than if you put a couple of days in between them. (Check this article out to learn more about programming workouts.)
When you’re primarily training with heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of your 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This applies to every major muscle group in the body, not just the shoulders.
Poke around on the Internet for shoulder workouts and you’ll quickly be overwhelmed.
You’ll find at least a hundred different exercises suggested for a hundred different reasons.
The good news, though, is only a small handful are really necessary.
The following exercises are what I’ve used to dramatically improve my shoulders.
They’ll do the same for you.
Seated or Standing Military Press
Barbell and dumbbell pressing form the foundation of effective shoulder training.
These movements emphasize the anterior deltoid but heavily involve the other two heads, as well as the rotator cuff muscles.
They’re are also safest for overloading your shoulders with heavy weights.
Some people say that barbell pressing is better than dumbbell, or vice versa, and EMG studies have shown that dumbbell pressing may be slightly superior in terms of muscle activation, but the effects were small and EMG isn’t without its flaws.
Based on my experience, I wouldn’t say either the dumbbell or barbell press is fundamentally “better.”
Both require a large amount of upper body strength and stability, and I’ve found them complementary and have done both for years now.
Specifically, what I’ve done is repeat cycles of 6 to 8 weeks of starting my shoulder workouts with barbell pressing followed by the same period of starting with dumbbell pressing.
Now, there are two types of presses you can do:
- Seated pressing
- Standing pressing (also known as overhead pressing)
Similar to barbell vs. dumbbell pressing, EMG research indicates that standing pressing may be more effective, but, again, I don’t put much stock in this.
What’s most definitely true is standing pressing is significantly harder than seated.
I was comfortably repping 205 pounds on the seated barbell press and when I first switched to the standing press, I struggled with 165 pounds.
In weightlifting, harder generally means better, but standing pressing is more challenging mainly because of the core and lower back strength and stability and technical skill it requires, not because it’s training your shoulder muscles more intensively.
That makes the standing (overhead) press a better whole-body exercise, but not necessarily a better shoulder exercise.
In fact, I would argue that the seated press may be better for long-term shoulder gains because it allows you to progress into heavier weights faster (because it doesn’t involve the core and lower back as much and doesn’t require as much balance and coordination).
In a sense, seated pressing allows you to “target” your shoulders more with the weights you’re handling.
The bottom line, though, is you can’t really go wrong with standing or seated so long as you’re doing some form of heavy pressing every week.
If you’re more comfortable with or just like standing barbell pressing more, you can leave seated out of your routine.
If it’s the other way around–if you’re more comfortable with or enjoy seated barbell pressing more–that’s fine, too.
I like to alternate between both standing and seated, similar to how I alternate between barbell and dumbbell presses.
It’s also worth mentioning that I don’t do standing dumbbell presses because they don’t allow for heavy enough weights.
So, here’s how to properly do the seated barbell military press:
And here’s the dumbbell press:
Here’s how to do the standing barbell military press correctly:
And the standing dumbbell press:
The Arnold press is a variation of the traditional dumbbell press that increases the range of motion.
It’s quite hard and effective.
Here’s how to do it:
Dumbbell Front Raise
The dumbbell front raise is a good exercise for isolating the anterior deltoids.
It can be useful for supplementing your pressing., but it’s not a good replacement for it because it just can’t deliver anywhere near the same results.
Here’s how to do it:
Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
This is an extremely important and often neglected shoulder exercise.
It targets the side deltoids, which accounts for a lot of the shoulder roundness and “pop” that we want, and which need special attention.
(Heavy pressing alone isn’t enough to fully develop the side delts.)
Here’s how to do it:
As your shoulders get stronger, you’ll find it harder to maintain proper form on your side raises.
(Trying to lift two heavy dumbbells simultaneously can be very awkward.)
An effective way around this is a hanging one-arm raise, like this:
Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise
The posterior (rear) deltoid is the smallest and weakest of the shoulder muscles, but it contributes significantly to the overall look (especially from the side and back).
The dumbbell rear lateral raise is a great exercise for targeting the rear delts:
You can also do this standing:
Barbell Rear Delt Row
The barbell rear delt row is another one of my favorite rear delt exercises.
Here’s how to do it:
The face pull is good for strengthening both the rear delts and rotator cuffs.
Here’s how it works:
The best type of shoulder workout is one that involves several exercises to properly train each of the three deltoids (and, as a byproduct, the rotator cuff muscles as well).
It ideally involves at least one compound movement, like a barbell or dumbbell press, and emphasizes heavy lifting.
The following workout is a great introduction to this style of training and it’s equally applicable to both men and women.
That said, you’ll see that I recommend different rep ranges for men and women.
This is mainly because most women haven’t done any heavy compound weightlifting before and can’t comfortably work with weights in the higher ranges of their one-rep max.
As they get stronger, though, they can and should start including heavier work in their training. (And no, this won’t make them “bulky!”)
If, however, you’re a woman that’s well-acquainted with heavy weightlifting, then I recommend that you follow the heavier recommendations for men.
So, do the following workout once every 5 to 7 days for the next 8 weeks, and I think you’ll be very happy with the results.
Seated or Standing Military Press
Warm up and 3 sets of…
Men/Experienced Women: 4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)
Inexperienced Women: 8 to 10 reps (70 to 75% of 1RM)
Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
3 sets of…
Men/Experienced Women: 4 to 6 reps (if this is very awkward for you, move up to 6 to 8 rep range)
Inexperienced Women: 8 to 10 reps
Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise
3 sets of…
Men/Experienced Women: 6 to 8 reps (~75% of 1RM)
Inexperienced Women: 8 to 10 reps
3 sets of 8 to 10 reps (both men and women)
That’s it. And trust me–it’s harder than it looks.
A few odds and ends:
Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.
For instance, if you get 6 reps with, let’s say, 135 pounds on your military press, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.
If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can press it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.
If you get 3 or fewer reps, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) and see how the next set goes.
If you still get 3 or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase.
Rest 3 minutes in between each 4-to-6-rep set, 2 minutes in between 6-to-8-rep sets, and 1 minute in between 8-to-10-rep sets.
Yes, this is going to feel like a lot of standing around, but resting properly is a hugely important part of heavy weightlifting.
This is the time where your muscles recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
Make sure you’re eating enough food.
You probably know that you’re supposed to eat a fair amount of protein to build muscle, but total caloric intake also plays a major role.
Read this article to learn more.
If you give this workout a go and get good results with it, I highly recommend you check out BLS/TLS because you’re going to love it.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your shoulder (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
- 5 grams of creatine monohydrate
- 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
- 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
- Caffeine. Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
- Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
- Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
- Betaine. Betaine is a compound found in plants like beets that improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
- Ornithine. Ornithine is an amino acid found in high amounts in dairy and meat that reduces fatigue in prolonged exercise and promotes lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen).
- Theanine. Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea that reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
- No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
- No artificial food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.
If you’ve read this far, I don’t think I have to do much more to convince you to build bigger, stronger shoulders.
You’re sold. You just need to know how (and I hope this article fills that need).
I bet you’ve tried too.
You’ve poured who knows many hours of time and gallons of sweat into your delts only to be disappointed.
I know how that goes.
The reality is anyone that says building impressive shoulders is easy is lying.
I takes a lot of work and patience. It can be done though. Just follow the advice in this article and you’ll be on your way.