If you want to understand and master the best shoulder workouts for bigger, stronger shoulders, you're going to want to read this article...
Let’s face it…
No great physique is complete without muscular, defined shoulders. Unfortunately, when it comes to shoulder workouts, most people have no idea what they’re doing.
If you could magically snap your fingers on say, Tuesday, and make all 25 people in your gym decide to do shoulders, you’d likely see about 25 different shoulder exercises being performed by 25 different people, each one of them convinced that they’re well on their way to building bigger, stronger shoulders.
The truth is most of them aren’t going to get anywhere, though.
There may be 50 different shoulder workouts, but doing each and every one of them is useless at the very least, and potentially counter-productive.
That’s right, you may actually be sabotaging your gains without even realizing!
Most people make at least one of these critical errors when it comes to training shoulders:
- Not actually working out their shoulders.
- Working out their shoulders WAY TOO MUCH!
- Doing inferior shoulder exercises.
So think of this article as my way of setting the record straight about shoulders.
Before we get into shoulder anatomy, the best shoulder exercises, and how to develop the ultimate shoulder workout routine, here’s a little cautionary tale…
Why You Don’t Want To End Up Like me
I’ve been lifting for about 10 years and have suffered immensely from shoulder-related issues.
When I reflect on the most common issues with the average person’s shoulder workout, I’ve actually experienced them all.
Seriously, over the years, I’ve gone through periods where I:
- Didn’t train my shoulders at all for months at a time.
- Went way too hard and over-trained my shoulders.
- Trained incorrectly, focusing on the wrong exercises
Like most people, I hate missing Chest day, so during that time I made sure I still did Chest once a week even though I wasn’t training my other muscle groups on a regular basis.
I sustained possibly the most severe, prolonged shoulder injury of my lifting career. Just as Momentum Nutrition was gaining traction too!
Worst timing ever.
That, combined with a typical North East winter (shoveling massive amounts of snow on a bad shoulder), was enough to keep me almost entirely out of the gym for 4-5 months.
During that time, I lost A LOT of what I had gained in the past year.
At the time of writing this article, I’m about 205 pounds. It’s mostly lean muscle and very little fat, but that’s down about 15 pounds of super solid muscle from last summer.
Here’s another one with a better shoulder angle…
As you can see, I had some well-developed shoulders which it took me several years to build
Not being able to do any upper body workouts was devastating both mentally and for my physique.
I still trained legs (thank God), so that sort of kept me in the game, but man did I lose A LOT of muscle!
Take it from me…
If you have some issues with your shoulders, take them seriously and fix them the right way.
- taking it easy when you do lift
In fact, if you have a shoulder injury, I suggest you stop reading right now because you really should not even be THINKING about lifting heavy.
If, however, you’re in fine shape (not injured) but want to know how to build big shoulders that actually support and benefit your other lifts, you’ll want to keep reading…
Understand the information I’m about to share and you’ll be well on your way to the physique you always wanted.
Anatomy Of The Shoulder
Your shoulder muscles, though collectively referred to as Deltoids or “Delts”, are actually comprised of three individual muscles:
- Anterior Deltoid (Front Delts)
- Posterior Deltoid (Rear Delts)
- Lateral Deltoid (Side Delts)
This is what they look like and where they’re located:
While there are plenty of shoulder workouts that incorporate all three muscles, it’s important to target them equally when your doing any sort of isolation movement.
That’s where most people go wrong.
An imbalance in the strength of your Deltoids can cause far more problems than simply looking strange. That’s really the least of your concern…
Neglect one part of your Deltoids too much while training the others and you’ll eventually wind up with at least one of the following:
- Poor posture
- A shoulder injury
- Inability to progress on other lifts
- All of the above
I don’t know about you, but those all sound horrible to me. In fact, I’ve experienced all of them. It sucks…
There’s one more part of the shoulder that most people neglect almost entirely when they workout…
Your traps are the muscles that connects your shoulders to your neck and your back.
They look like this…
As you can see, your traps are an extremely important connective muscle group which connect your:
When it comes to building nice, solid traps, most people suffer from one of two things:
- They don’t workout their traps enough
- They workout their traps way too much (in the wrong ways)
Because the traps are so inter-connected, your working them out any time you do compound lifts such as:
- Military Press
- Bench Press
So, you don’t need to add too many trap exercises on top of those to develop solid traps.
You see a lot of big guys in the gym doing shrugs with as much weight as they can grip, but when it comes down to it, your traps just don’t need the level of attention that other shoulder muscles do.
When it comes to shoulder workouts, save the traps for last.
Just about every shoulder workout you could possibly do also works the traps.
Don’t take my word for it though…
Ask the guys over at T-Nation. They know a thing or two about training heavy and they agree that:
- Shrugs are not the best way to build traps
- You probably don’t need to directly train your traps much
It’s definitely true that strong traps will help the majority of your other lifts (especially your bench press) but, if anything, you should be focusing on your lower traps instead of your upper traps.
So, next time your friend tells you to do some shrugs with them, shrug it off and do some compound exercises instead!
Okay, now let’s get back to the topic at hand…
Your Shoulder Workouts Should FOllow These Simple Principles
First of all, it’s important that we take a minute to discuss the fundamental lifting principle known as…
FOCUS ON Progressive Overload
Progressive Overload simply refers to adding more and more weight to your workouts over time. It’s not just a shoulder workout thing.
It applies to every workout and without increasing the amount of weight you lift over time, you won’t make any progress.
This is fairly intuitive and easy to grasp when you think about it…
Working out any muscle places stress on that muscle which eventually tears the muscle tissue. Assuming you’re taking your post-workout recovery seriously, those torn muscles will then repair themselves, becoming bigger and stronger.
While the principle of Progressive Overload applies to all muscle groups, it’s especially important when it comes to working out your shoulders.
A lot of people’s shoulder workouts consist of light weight, high repetition exercises.
The problem with doing twenty reps of a light weight (say 50% of your 1 rep max) is that it doesn’t place enough stress on the shoulder muscle to cause them to tear and subsequently grow.
You’re not sufficiently overloading the muscle enough.
You can’t spell Progressive Overload without Progress!
If you’re doing more and more weight week over week, month over month, you’ll become stronger and more strength equals bigger muscles.
Train All The Shoulder Muscles Proportionately
This is probably the single most over-looked principle of shoulder workouts. Just know that the term “proportionately” doesn’t necessarily mean “equally”.
For example, your anterior (front) delts and traps are most likely already taking a beating from chest day, back day, and even leg day.
So, training your front delts as heavy and intensely as your train your lateral and rear delts will almost certainly cause some problems after a while.
People who train chest super hard every week are the most likely to end up with disproportionate rear delts, both in terms of size and strength.
If you’re one of those people who does train chest on Monday, fresh off the weekend, you need to particularly careful when you train your shoulders.
Don’t train shoulders the day after chest.
Leave a couple days in between to allow for adequate recovery. During your shoulder workouts, focus mainly on your Lateral and Posterior Delts.
They need it the most!
Switch It Up (Every Now And Then, NOT CONSTANTLY)
The notion that “muscle confusion” is necessary to build strength and size has been horribly exaggerated by just about every fitness publication there is, but switching up your workouts every now and then isn’t a bad idea.
This is one of those universal lifting principles that seem to apply especially to shoulder workouts.
The idea behind muscle confusion is that when you do a particular exercise over and over again, your muscles “get used to it” and stop responding.
But varying your exercises doesn’t trump the principle of progressive overload.
If you’re adding weight to all your lifts, week after week, month after month, you’ll stronger. If you get stronger, your muscles will grow.
It doesn’t matter if you switch it up or not.
The truth is that exercise variation has been shown to improve certain training adaptations (such as fatigue resistance), but when it comes to building strength and size, it’s not necessarily any better than consistent exercises.
You don’t need to switch up your workout every week to build strength and size, but if you want that angular, defined look that so many of as are after, it’s not a bad idea to throw some variation in there.
The Best Shoulder Exercises That Are Actually worth doing
Before we talk about which shoulder exercises you should be using to craft the ultimate shoulder workout, and why, I’d just like to make a couple things clear.
When it comes to building big, strong shoulders, you should emphasize heavy, compound exercises.
Compound exercises are exercises that incorporate multiple muscle groups and joints. Performing these types of exercises will allow you to lift more weight and allow you to grow stronger.
As for the ‘heavy’ part…
Research shows that, when it comes to gaining strength and building muscle, performing exercises at roughly 85% of your 1 Rep Max is ideal.
That means, for the majority of the shoulder exercises we’ll discuss, you’ll be doing just 4-6 reps per set.
This may not seem like a lot, but you’ll quickly find that when you do 12-15 sets per workout at that level of intensity, your muscles WILL respond.
With that said, let’s talk about the shoulder exercises that ultimately make for the best shoulder workouts.
#1: Shoulder Press (Military Press)
The Shoulder Press, also known as Military Press, is performed by gripping a barbell (or dumbells) a little wider than shoulder width and pushing the bar (or dumbells) from just above your upper chest to an over-head position.
Here’s the thing…
No shoulder workout comes with as many variations as the overhead press.
If you want to throw some variation in the mix and really target those rear delts and traps, consider bringing the bar down behind your neck like this:
This simple variation allows you to put most of the stress on your Posterior (Rear) Delts as opposed to the original version where most of the stress is placed on your Anterior (Front) Delts.
If you’re working on your Rear Delts in particular (which you most likely should be), you’ll want to toss this exercise in your shoulder workouts.
Consider switching back and forth each week to maintain an even balance and proportionate delts.
Of course, the variation doesn’t end there…
There’s also the matter of whether to use dumbells…
Here’s a video, if you prefer…
This means you won’t be able to do as much total weight, but Dumbells have their advantages.
A 2013 study from the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research sought to determine whether shoulder pressing with dumbells or barbells activated more muscle.
It’s worth mentioning that the researchers in this study used electromyogram activity (EMG) as the metric for measuring total muscle engagement.
EMG really measures the electrical activity produced in muscles when they contract. This method is fairly accurate for measuring total muscle engagement, but it’s not dead on.
Some variation should be expected…
The researchers concluded that, while muscle recruitment was similar between these two exercises, the Dumbbell Press was shown to activate the muscles in the shoulder more than the Barbell Press.
I personally incorporate both of these variations into my shoulder workouts.
One week I’ll do Barbell Presses, the next week I’ll do Dumbbell Presses.
I wouldn’t recommend you do these exercises in the same workout though. Take it from some one who’s suffered from severe shoulder injuries on and off for about 10 years…
You don’t want to over-train your shoulder by doing every variation of an overhead press all in the same day.
If you do that, you’re just asking for a shoulder injury…
Seated Shoulder Press Vs. Standing Shoulder Press
Here’s the standing Barbell Press:
Which one is better?
Well, fortunately for us, that very question was answered in the same study I referenced above. Not only did the researchers in this study investigate Barbells Vs Dumbbells, they also investigated Sitting Vs Standing for each.
Standing Dumbbell Press resulted in the most complete shoulder muscle activation.
Because standing requires more stabilization than sitting and Dumbbells require more stabilization than the Barbell.
The results of this study are depicted in the charts below:
Technically, out of all the variations of shoulder workouts performed in this study, the Standing Dumbbell Press was the winner in terms of total muscle activation except as shown in Figure B where seated Barbell Presses resulted in slightly more Lateral Delt activation.
Does this mean Standing Dumbbells are superior to every other variation? No!
First of all, as you can see by the charts, all variations activated each muscle group to nearly the same degree.
The increase in muscle activation seen with seated vs standing and dumbbells vs barbell was pretty small.
Secondly, there’s no denying that you can push more weight with the barbell, so switching to only dumbbells would mean sacrificing strength.
If getting bigger, stronger shoulders is your goal, you should incorporate both standing and sitting, barbells and dumbbells into your shoulder workouts.
Arnold Press (Yet Another Variation Of The Shoulder Press)
The Arnold Press (named after the most famous Bodybuilder of all time, of course), is a slight variation of the regular Dumbbell Shoulder Press that places very little tension on your joints and allows for a more complete range of motion than it’s traditional counterpart.
It looks like this:
Again, you don’t need to do the Arnold Press every shoulder workout.
Just toss it in every other week or even every other other week. It’s one of the few variations of shoulder press that actually make sense to incorporate in your shoulder workouts.
#2: Upright Barbell Row
The upright row is perhaps the most over-looked shoulder exercise there is.
It’s performed by gripping a barbell a little wider than shoulder width and raising it up to around your upper chest area.
Here’s a video of the correct way to perform the Upright Row:
It incorporates the:
- Deltoids (all of them)
As well as two joints:
Unfortunately, this is one compound exercise that often gets left out of shoulder workouts.
Or worse, it gets executed with terrible form because people forget about it until they’ve run out of shoulder exercises and are already tired.
I’ve actually hurt my shoulder a few times trying to do Upright Rows (with improper form) at the end of my workout when I was too tired to maintain proper form. I wouldn’t recommend that!
Make it one of your first couple exercises. You’ll push more weight and get a better pump.
While it certainly doesn’t take the place of the Military Press, the Upright Row is perfect for activating all three Deltoid muscles as well as the Traps.
Plus, when done correctly, there is little risk of injury.
If you’re not incorporating Upright Rows in your shoulder workouts, you’re missing out, period.
#3: Front Delt Raise
The Front Delt Raise is performed by holding a barbell (or dumbbells) about shoulder width apart, then raising each arm to about 90 degrees without the elbows bending only slightly to avoid placing too much tension on your shoulder joint.
As with the exercises above, you can use either dumbbells or a barbell.
Assuming these exercises are done with proper form and minimal swinging, their both pretty close in terms of total muscle activation. It’s really just a matter of preference.
Here’s an example of the Front Delt Raise using Dumbbells.
In addition to targeting the Front Delts, doing each arm in isolation will work your core as well since it forces you to compensate for the uneven distribution of weight.
Just make sure to do both arms the same!
You can also switch it up by using a cable machine instead of free weights. That would look like this:
Cables aren’t better than free weights, but they do place a constant amount of tension on the muscle while guiding the movement ever so slightly.
You’ll get more muscle activation with free weights, but cable exercises aren’t entirely guided either, so there’s still some stabilization occurring, not to mention an unlimited number of different angles to experiment with.
Use these as a refreshing change when the Dumbbells are being used or you just don’t feel like lifting free weights. Just don’t make them a replacement for dumbbells.
#4: Dumbell LATERAL (Side Delt) Raises
The lateral raise is performed by holding two dumbbells and lifting them out and to the side, until your arms are at about 90 degrees, like this…
Needless to say, you can’t perform these with a barbell, but cables are an option.
Dumbbells are definitely the best, but cables can be useful as well.
Here’s the Lateral Raise using cables:
You’ll notice that, while dumbbell Lateral Raises are definitely more challenging, cables allow you to hit strange angles that you might not otherwise be able to hit.
#5: Bent Over lateral Raises
Bent over Lateral Raises are possibly the single best shoulder exercise there is for targeting your Rear Delts.
They’re basically the same as the Lateral Raises we talked about above, but in a bent over position.
This places the majority of the tension on the back-facing shoulder muscles, traps, and rhomboids.
If you’re not doing these, you’re missing out on some serious gains, and your Rear Delts are paying the price!
Seated Vs Standing
The Seated Dumbbell Lateral Raise is a variation of the Bent Over Lateral Raise which requires less whole-body stabilization and allows for more isolation of the shoulder muscles.
It looks like this:
To focus on the Rear Delts, simply adjust so that your arms move back instead of directly out.
This will place less tension on your Lateral Delts and more on your Rear Delts.
This a super versatile exercise in the sense that there are virtually an unlimited amount of different angles to choose from, each targeting a slightly different section of the shoulder.
Play around a little. Find what feels good!
#6: Face Pulls
Face Pulls are definitely one of the most commonly over-looked shoulder exercises of them all. Most people don’t regularly include them in their shoulder workouts at all!
It goes a little something like this:
As with many shoulder workouts, the trajectory of this particular movement can be easily modified to target different parts of the shoulder.
Here’s another example of Face Pulls which is more targeted toward the Rear Delts and Traps:
Remember, this is a highly targeted shoulder workout which will help you develop your rear delts and traps, but the exact position may change
What About TRAPS?
The thing most people don’t realize about their traps is that they’re already quite involved with just about every other compound lift you do, especially Shoulder Presses.
So, you don’t need to destroy your traps each and every workout for them to grow with the rest of you.
Still, if you’re specifically trying to build bigger traps, there are some exercises that can target them. You’ve probably seen people doing them…
When most people think “traps”, they think shrugs. Especially Dumbbell Shrugs. Well, as it turns out, shrugs are not the most effective way to build traps…
But they’re worth incorporating in your routine, provided you’re doing them correctly.
You don’t need to use dumbbells that are so heavy your grip gives out before you can finish your set. Just choose a weight that you can actually handle for the full range of motion.
Perform slow, complete reps until you REALLY fell it in your traps.
If you’re really trying to grow your traps, one of the best shoulder workouts is Leverage Shrugs. You know, that plate loaded machine in your gym that nobody ever really touches? Well, that’s actually a lot better for building traps than ordinary Dumbbell Shrugs.
Here’s Lee Priest showing us how it’s done:
You’ll be able to load a lot more weight on this guided machine than you could possible hold in your hand for dumbbell shrugs.
Overhead Lateral Raises
Overhead Lateral Raises are one of the lesser known shoulder workouts discussed here, but when it comes to targeting the Traps, they’re one of the best.
You can think of them as the second half of a full-range-of-motion Lateral Raise.
Minding Your Tendons And Ligaments
The single biggest mistake people make with shoulder workouts, is not paying attention to the amount of stress and tension they’re placing on their tendons and ligaments.
You don’t need to sit there and study the picture above to understand one simple fact…
Your shoulders are VERY delicate. They are the most inter-connected joint in your entire body, with all kinds of Tendons and Ligaments that you should be aware of.
You see, continuously increasing the weight every workout will cause your muscles to tear and grow more, but that doesn’t mean your Tendons and Ligaments can handle it. If you don’t pay special attention to them, you’re asking for an injury…
And the universe will surely grant your request!
The best ways to avoid a shoulder injury are:
- Stretch (before, after, in the morning, at work, whenever!)
- Use proper form on each exercise in your shoulder workouts
The importance of that last one should NOT be over-looked.
Everyone loves to claim that they “lift every day no matter what”, but the truth is you need some time off to actually repair and grow your muscles.
While this is true of any muscle group, it’s particularly important to keep in mind for shoulder workouts.
Structuring Your Shoulder Workouts For Maximum Gains (Without Getting Injured)
When it comes to shoulder workouts, a lot of people make one critical mistake…
They do TOO MUCH!
That’s right, with shoulders, you’ll find that less is more most of the time.
The truth is that if you go hard on the majority of your other workouts, you don’t need to smash shoulders until you can’t move your arms.
In fact, that’s a great way to get injured really fast.
Generally speaking, you should structure your shoulder workouts so that you do maybe one or two heavy compound lifts followed by a few more targeted, isolation-type exercises.
Try These Awesome Shoulder Workouts
Below are two ultra-complete shoulder workouts that hit all the criteria of the ultimate shoulder workout!
You’ll notice that, for most of the exercises, you’re doing 3 sets of 4-6 reps per set at roughly 85% of your 1 Rep Max (1RM).
You don’t need to find your 1 Rep Max though to determine what weight to use. Whatever weight you can get for 4-6 reps is going to be around 85% of your 1RM.
Just keep in mind the principle of progressive overload, and continually attempt to lift more weight. That’s really the key.
So, find a weight that you can lift for 4 reps. Work with it until you can get 6 reps. Then add more weight so that you can only do 4 reps again. Repeat until jacked.
Shoulder Workout 1
Standing Military Press
3-5 sets, 4-6 reps (at around 85% of 1RM)
Barbell Upright Row
3 sets, 6-8 reps (at around 85% of 1RM)
Dumbbell Lateral Raises
3 sets, 4-6 reps (at around 85% of 1RM)
Bent Over Rear Delt Raises
3 sets, 4-6 reps (at around 85% of 1RM)
3 sets, 6-8 reps (at around 75-80% of 1RM)
Shoulder Workout 2
Seated Dumbbell Press
3 sets, 4-6 reps (at around 85% of 1RM)
Bent Over Rear Delt Raises
3 sets, 4-6 reps (at around 85% of 1RM)
Front Deltoid Raises (Dumbbells or Cables)
3 sets, 4-6 reps (at around 85% of 1RM)
Reverse Flies (Machine)
3 sets, 6-8 reps (at around 75-80% of 1RM)
Supplements That can Help
While supplements certainly aren’t a replacement for well-designed workouts, proper nutrition, and hard work, there are some that can actually help you build muscle.
It’s important to realize that supplements alone will not help you accomplish your fitness goals. They’re simply serve as an addition to your arsenal, but without proper diet and exercise, they won’t be of much assistance.
Creatine is by far the most extensively-researched, reliable, safe performance enhancing substance there is. It has been investigated in literally hundreds of studies, particularly with regards to exercise performance and they all unanimously indicate that it’s worth using.
Creatine has been shown to
- Increase Strength (Total Weight You Can Push)
- Enhance Muscular Endurance (Reps You Can Do At A Constant Weight)
- Improve Aspects Of Exercise Recovery
- Expand Muscle Volume (Size Of Your Muscles)
There is also strong evidence in support of it’s use as a general health supplement, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on performance enhancement and muscle growth.
Creatine is naturally occurring in our bodies and is present in meats such as Fish and Beef. Unfortunately, you would have to ingest around 2-3 pounds of RAW fish or beef to get a clinically effective 5g dose of Creatine. Practically speaking, this isn’t doable for most people.
Leucine is commonly found in Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) supplements along with the amino acids Isoleucine and Valine. Unlike the other BCAAs though, Leucine has a profound impact on muscle protein synthesis.
In fact, it’s the most potent amino acid with regards to stimulating muscle protein synthesis. It accomplishes this by activating mTOR, a signaling protein which essentially tells the body to make protein.
Of course, you still need to consume all the other amino acids which are used to actually build the muscle, but Leucine is king when it comes to telling the body to build muscle.
The most common argument against Leucine supplementation is:
“If you already get enough protein, you don’t need it…”
To be clear, this is true…But are you actually getting enough Leucine? If you workout several times a week and eat like most people, the answer is probably not!
How much protein you should be consuming depends largely on two things:
- How physically active you are
- What are your goals as far as body composition
Research indicates that your protein requirements can double based on physical activity alone. If you workout everyday (or almost everyday) and still eat like you did before, you’re probably not getting enough protein.
Furthermore, if you currently workout everyday and you want to actually GAIN MUSCLE, you should be taking in AT LEAST .8g-1g of protein per pound of body weight.
So, if you really get plenty of protein from your diet, you definitely don’t need to supplement with Leucine or BCAAs. However, if you’re like me–busy with not a lot of time to sit there and eat elaborate feasts–Leucine can be quite useful as far as maximizing protein synthesis, especially in times of under-eating.
A Solid (Clinically Dosed) Pre-Workout
The right pre-workout can make a profound difference when it comes to
- Motivation To Train
- Maximizing Muscle Growth Over Time
- Building Muscle Over Time
In reality though, most pre-workouts are just stimulant cocktails which are designed to jack you up and make you feel really great…for about an hour. Then they bring you down hard and ruin the rest of your day.
This has given rise to the notion that
“pre-workout supplements are a waste of money. They’re just a bunch of Caffeine!”
To be clear, this is false! Maybe YOUR pre-workout sucks, but ours contains several scientifically proven, safe performance enhancing ingredients at clinically effective doses.
In other words, Catalyst WILL
- Increase The Amount Of Weight You Can Push
- Increase The Amount Of Reps You Can Do (At A Given Weight)
- Improve Energy, Focus, Mood
THE Bottom line on shoulder workouts
If you want big, strong shoulders, you need to directly train your shoulders.
That’s just a fact…
It’s true that your shoulders get worked even when you’re working other muscle groups, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require any attention.
Most people just lift shoulders all wrong, focusing on high repetitions with light weight.
You’re not going to get very far doing this and you actually might be doing more harm than good.
So, next time it’s shoulder day, make sure you do the following:
- Low reps, heavy weight (85% of 1RM)
- Emphasize compound exercises
- Continually add more weight (progressive overload)
If you do those things consistently over time, you WILL build bigger, stronger shoulders. No doubt about it…
Want More Workouts? Check These Out…
Got anything to add about shoulder workouts? comment below!
I'm Matt, Founder of Momentum Nutrition and SuppWithThat.com. I've spent the better part of the last decade researching and experimenting in the areas of fitness, nutrition, and supplementation, and this is where I write it all down.