How to Get Big Shoulders – 3 Challenging Shoulder Workouts
Round cannonball-sized shoulders are cornerstones of the aesthetic X-frame physique. This coveted physique requires big and broad shoulders, sweeping latissimus dorsi muscles, and a narrow waist. While the bench press may be the most commonly used exercise to test upper body strength, excessive emphasis on this movement will lead to poor posture, shoulder pain, and muscle development imbalances – overdeveloped front deltoid muscles paired with underdeveloped lateral and rear deltoid muscles.
The shoulder muscles respond well to not only heavy compound free-weight exercises but also isolation movements, high repetitions, drop sets, time under tension, and a strong mind-muscle connection. The shoulder is comprised of three muscles – anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoid.
The anterior deltoid, commonly referred to as the front delt, is comprised of one muscle head that originates from the clavicle and inserts in to the humerus, the long bone running the length of the upper arm. This muscle plays crucial roles in shoulder abduction (lateral movement away from the body’s midline) and external rotation as well as a minor role in strict transverse flexion (medial movement towards the midline of the body). 
The anterior deltoid muscles are heavily engaged during both horizontal and vertical pressing movements. The lateral deltoid or side delt is also comprised of one muscle head that originates from the scapula and inserts in to the humerus. This muscle engages to a major degree during shoulder abduction, internal rotation, flexion, and transverse abduction (medial movement away from the midline of the body) as well as a minor degree during strict transverse extension. 
Developed lateral deltoid muscles significantly contribute to fuller looking capped shoulders and the appearance of a narrower waist. The posterior or rear delt is a muscle with one head that originates from the scapula and inserts in to the humerus. It plays a critical role in shoulder transverse extension, transverse abduction, and external rotation. 
The posterior deltoid is typically the most underdeveloped shoulder muscle because it’s typically trained last on shoulder day, upper body day, or pull day for those following a body part split, upper/lower split, or push/pull/legs split respectively. Physiques with sufficiently developed posterior deltoids typically have the healthiest shoulders, strongest upper backs, and jacked upper bodies.
You must perform exercises engaging all three shoulder muscles, focusing on exercises to build the lateral and posterior deltoid muscles, if you want to build a balanced, healthy, and injury-resilient physique.
The three workouts presented below target, strengthen, build, and shape the shoulders based on your training experience. Start with the beginning routine if you’re new to weightlifting. Intermediate lifters new to direct shoulder training should also start with the beginner workout.
Although you may want to immediately skip to the intermediate routine it’s worth starting with the most basic movements to reinforce proper motor patterns and shoulder muscle activation. Those with 5+ years of lifting experience and/or 6-12 months of direct shoulder training can start with the intermediate or advanced specialization workout.
Perform the beginner, intermediate, or advanced workout at least twice per week on non-consecutive days. Maximize routine effectiveness by performing the workout at the beginning of an upper body workout, end of a lower body workout, before cardiovascular activity, or on a separate training day from your other workouts.
Beginner Shoulder Specialization Workout
- Band Pull Apart – 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps
The band pull apart is an easy-to-load exercise that’s great for engaging the rear delts, reinforcing scapular retraction, and stretching the often tight and overdeveloped front delt muscles. If it’s your first time performing a band pull apart then choose the thinnest band available at your gym.
Take a hip-width stance and grasp band with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) slightly wider than shoulder width. Keep your arms straight, but not hyperextended, and raise them so that they’re in-line with your shoulders and parallel with floor. At this point there may be a little bit of slack in the band but for the most part it’s not sagging. Keeping your chest up and torso upright initiate the movement by simultaneously squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling your hands apart and away from each other.
At the top of the movement there should be significantly more tension in the band, your arms are now in-line with your shoulders, and your upper back is squeezed together. Hold for one to three seconds before returning to the starting position.
Forms of progressive overload include using a thicker band with more initial tension, a narrower starting grip, and performing more repetitions per set. You can also incorporate the band pull-apart between pressing movements to stabilize and keep the shoulder girdle healthy.
- Seated Dumbbell Lateral Raise with Hold at the Top – 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps
The lateral raise is an excellent movement for buildering the lateral delts but is often botched when trainees attempt to use too much weight and form breaks down. By performing the movement seated and with a hold at the top of each repetition you’re forced to use a lower working weight but are also less likely to use momentum and the upper trapezius muscles to complete the rep.
Start with a working weight about 80% of what you perform for standing lateral raises without a hold. Grasp the dumbbells with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and arms by your sides. Sit down on the bench so that your torso is upright and shoulders are down and back.
Keeping your arms straight but not hyperextended, initiate the movement by engaging your lateral deltoid muscles to pull your arms upward until they’re in-line with your shoulders and parallel to the floor. Hold at the top for one to five seconds before lowering to the starting position. Increase intensity by using heavier dumbbells, holding the weight at the top for a longer period of time, or increasing the number of reps per set.
- Seated Dumbbell Arnold Press – 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
The Arnold press is an all-around excellent compound movement for building the front, lateral, and rear deltoid muscles. Unlike the traditional dumbbell overhead press the Arnold press requires that the dumbbells start in front of you at the beginning of each rep. This not also increases the exercise’s range-of-motion (ROM), but also increases the stimulus on the front delts and overall time-under-tension (TUT).
Start with a working weight about 80% of what you perform for seated traditional dumbbell overhead press. Grasp the dumbbells with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and arms by your sides. Sit down on the bench so that your torso is upright and shoulders are down and back. In a smooth yet relatively quick motion, bring the dumbbells up so that they’re in-line with but not resting on your front delts, your forearms are perpendicular with the floor, and both palms of your hand are facing you. Initiate the movement by pushing up with your front delts.
As the dumbbells reach eye-level simultaneously continue pushing upward while rotating your palms so at the top of the movement, when the dumbbells are completely overhead, your palms are facing away from you, arms are fully extended and in-line with your shoulders. Hold at the top for one or two seconds before returning to the starting position.
It’s important to control the lowering of the dumbbells and ensure you don’t bounce or use excess momentum to initiate the push for subsequent reps. Increase intensity by adding weight, reps, or slowing down the speed of each rep.
- Inverted Row with Flared Elbows – 3 sets of bodyweight until failure
Rounding out this shoulder workout is a bodyweight movement designed to target your rear delts, improve your posture, and strengthen your overall upper back. Set up for this movement by securing a barbell on the pins of a barbell rack or in a Smith machine so that it’s in between hip and belly button height.
Position yourself underneath the bar so that your chest is facing towards the ceiling and legs are straight in a hip-width stance, and feet are in-contact with the floor. Grasp the barbell with a pronated grip about 1.5 times wider than shoulder width. At this point your entire body except your feet should be slightly off the floor. While keeping your elbows flared and in-line with your shoulders initiate the movement by pulling your chest towards the bar and shoulder blades together.
Continue pulling yourself upward until your chest is as close to the bar as possible without touching. Hold this position for one to five seconds before slowly lowering yourself to the starting position, ensuring you don’t let your shoulders roll inwards at the bottom of the movement. Increase intensity by slowing repetition speed, performing more repetitions per set, or increasing the hold at the top of the movement.
Intermediate Shoulder Specialization Workout
- Rear Delt/Reverse Pec Deck Machine – 3 sets of 20 to 30
The rear delt machine is one of my personal favorite movements for maintaining shoulder health and pumping my rear delts with blood before a brutal shoulder day. Adjust the seat height so that your hands, elbows, and shoulders are in-line with each other when grasping the machine handles. Depending on the machine available to you there may be the option to take a pronated or neutral grip; experiment with both to see which feels most comfortable and engages the rear delts best for you.
The rep range for this exercise is high so start with a conservative weight and if at any point you feel yourself using momentum to complete the set then terminate the set and take a rest. While keeping your chest in-contact with the pad and shoulders down and back, initiate the movement by using your rear delts to pull your hands away from each other.
At the top of the movement your shoulder blades should be squeezed together hard and arms should be in-line with your shoulders. Hold the top position for zero to three seconds before lowering to the starting position. Increase intensity by employing drop sets, increasing the working weight and/or reps per set, as well as increasing the duration of the hold at the top of each rep.
- Standing Swing Dumbbell Laterals with a Partial Range-of-Motion (ROM) – 3 sets of 25 to 30
Swing dumbbell lateral raises using a partial range of motion were popularized by the professional bodybuilder John Meadows. John found that when he performed high-rep sets with a moderate weight and partial ROM the burn and growth in the lateral deltoid was unmatched.
Use the same working weight as for sets of strict lateral raises in the 10 to 12 rep range. Straps are helpful during this movement as the emphasis is overloading the lateral delts rather than training your grip.
Grasp the dumbbells with a neutral grip and arms by your sides. While keeping your chest upright and shoulders down and back initiate the movement by using your lateral delts to pull your arms upward, ensuring they remain in-line with your shoulders. For the first 10 to 12 repetitions you may find yourself able to bring your arms all the way to shoulder height but as the set progresses you may only able to move the dumbbells half or a third of the way up; that’s expected.
Although some swinging and momentum is required towards the middle and end of the set it’s important that the movement doesn’t turn in to a flailing display by which you attempt to move the weight with your entire body. Increase intensity with drop sets as well as adding more weight or reps per set.
- Standing Overhead Press to Push Press – 3 sets of 5 to 8 overhead press reps followed immediately by push press for as many reps as possible (AMRAP)
This movement targets your entire shoulder girdle, jacks up your heart rate, and allows you to extend the TUT by moving from a more to less mechanically advantaged movement. Set up for this movement by taking a pronated grip slightly outside shoulder wide and unracking the barbell from the pins or power cleaning the bar from the floor. In the starting position the barbell should be shoulder-height and forearms should be perpendicular to the floor.
While taking a hip width stance initiate the movement by pushing the barbell upwards and getting your head underneath the bar. At the top of the movement the barbell, your hands, shoulders, and feet should be in-line with each other. Lower the barbell back to the starting position.
When you are unable to perform any more overhead press reps with good form then incorporate a slight dip, no more than quarter squat depth. Ensure you squat back on your heels rather than your toes and quickly change directions at the bottom of the dip. This leg drive will provide additional momentum needed to get the barbell off the shoulders and past the forehead, a common sticking point during most overhead movement.
Terminate the set when you feel the push press reps are going to degrade in form quality. Strive to add reps or weight every time you perform this movement.
- Seated Bent Reverse Flies with Hold at the Top – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
By now your rear, lateral, and front delts are pumped but we’re not done yet. This movement engages and further engorges your rear delts with blood without requiring a lot of weight. Set up for the movement by grabbing the 10 to 20 pound dumbbells with a neutral grip and arms resting at your sides.
Sit on the end of a flat bench and lean your torso forward so that it’s roughly 45 degrees with the ground. While keeping your arms straight initiate the movement by using your rear delts to pull your hands towards the ceiling. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and continue pulling your arms upward until they’re in-line with your shoulder. Hold this position for three to five seconds before lowering the weight back to the starting position.
When you are unable to hold the top position or find yourself using momentum to complete the rep then terminate the set. You can also experiment with taking a pronated grip and performing this movement. Increase intensity by increasing the working weight, reps per set, or duration of the hold at the top of the movement.
- Upright Rows – 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Rounding out this shoulder working is the upright row, a movement designed to build the lateral and rear delts as well as the trapezius muscles in the upper back. Unfortunately, this movement gets a bad rap because it’s often incorrectly performed. Most trainees take an excessively narrow grip which put the shoulder joint in an uncomfortable and compromised position; this variation will not.
Set up for the movement by loaded a barbell and taking a pronated snatch width grip. For those not accustomed to Olympic lifts you should grip the bar so that the barbell is in-line with your hips when you’re standing upright with your arms fully extended. Initiate the movement by pulling your elbows towards the ceiling while keeping your torso upright. Ensure the barbell stays as close as possible to your body without touching.
Pull the barbell upward until your elbows are in-line with your shoulders. Hold for one or two seconds before slowly lowering the weight to the starting position. You can also perform this movement using dumbbells, cable machine, or Smith machine. Terminate the set immediately if you feel any pain or discomfort in the shoulder or upper back region.
Advanced Shoulder Specialization Workout
- Cable Facepull with External Rotation – 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps
This exercise not only builds size and strength in the rear delts but also trains small stabilizer muscles in the upper back during the external rotation portion of the movement. Set up for the movement by setting the cable pulley weight between shoulder and forehead height and attached the double-ended rope attachment.
Grasp each side of the rope with a neutral grip and take a few steps away from the pulley so that the weight plates aren’t at rest when your arms are fully extending. In the starting position your arms should roughly be in-line with your shoulders. Initiate the movement by pulling your elbows backwards, pulling each end of the rope attachment away from each other, and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
Halfway through the movement begin externally rotate your shoulders. At the top of the movement your upper arm and elbow should be in-line with your shoulder and each end of the rope should be at or slightly above forehead height. Hold for one to three seconds before lowering to the starting position.
These are more difficult than traditional facepull so start with a conservative weight and focus on proper form. Increase intensity by adding weight, reps, or increasing the duration of the hold at the top of the movement.
- Bulldozer Laterals – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps with each hand
Bulldozer laterals are a unilaterally dumbbell exercises popularized by Steve Shaw, Editorial Director at Tiger Fitness, that’s designed to overload and build beefy lateral delts using high reps and heavy weight. Set up for the movement by selecting one dumbbell that’s approximately 120 to 150% heavier than the working weight used for strict lateral raises.
You may also want to incorporate straps during this movement so that you can focus on training the lateral delt rather than be limited by grip strength. Grasp the dumbbell with a neutral grip and take a shoulder width stance.
Lean your torso slightly forward and bring the dumbbell in front of you so that it’s approximately hip height and-line with the opposing leg. The hand not holding the dumbbell can support and stabilize the dumbbell at the bottom of the movement.
Initiate the exercise by explosively moving the dumbbell past the front of your body and upwards so that the dumbbell reaches shoulder height or slightly above at the top of the movement. Don’t worry about holding the top of the repetition; this exercise is designed to be performed with a heavy weight and explosively.
Perform all repetitions for one hand before switching but ensure you perform the same number of repetitions for each. Get ready for some serious lateral delt and trap growth.
- Seated Barbell Behind the Neck Press – 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps
Similar to the upright row the behind the neck press gets a lot of bad press because it’s often perform incorrectly or a trainee has a preexisting shoulder injury that this movement further highlights but did not cause. The behind the neck press was a staple of the Golden Era bodybuilders as it’s more evenly stimulated the front, lateral, and rear delts.
To prevent form breakdown and excessive momentum this movement is performed seated. Take a pronated grip approximately 1.5 time wider than shoulder width. An excessively narrow grip may cause shoulder discomfort. Unrack the barbell and while keeping the chest up and shoulders down and back slowly lower the barbell behind the head.
Go as low as feel comfortable but strive for the barbell to be in-line with the ears at the bottom of the movement with the forearms perpendicular to the ground. You may have to move your head slightly forward to allow the barbell to clear your head. Once you hit the desired depth press the barbell upwards and move your head back underneath the bar.
At the top of the rep your hands, shoulders, and head should be in-line with each other. Add weight or reps to increase intensity but be wary of intensity techniques like drop sets as the risk of injury dramatically increases.
- Chest-Supported Swing Dumbbell Reverse Flies with a Partial ROM – 3 sets of 20 to 30 reps
Similar to the swing lateral raises the swing dumbbell reverse flies with a partial ROM were popularized by the professional Bodybuilder John Meadows. One look at his shoulders and you’ll see why I recommend these movements. Set an adjustable bench to approximately a 45-degree angle.
Pick a weight you can typically perform 10 to 12 strict reps with for dumbbell reverse flies. Grasp the dumbbells with a neutral grip and lay on the bench so that your chest is resting on the incline and arms are extended and in-line with your shoulders. This is a high-rep movement that benefits from using straps to ensure your rear delts receive the proper stimulus in case your grip fatigues.
Initiate the movement by pulling your elbows towards the ceiling and squeezing your shoulder blades together. For the first 10 to 12 repetitions you may find yourself able to bring your arms all the way to shoulder height but as the set progresses you may only able to move the dumbbells half or a third of the way up; that’s expected.
Although some swinging and momentum is required towards the middle and end of the set it’s important that the movement your chest does not leave the bench at any time during the set and you should remain in-control of the dumbbells. Add weight, reps, or drop sets to increase intensity.
- Plate Raise – 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
The traditional plate raise movement is designed to build and stimulate growth in the front delts, an often overdeveloped muscle group. This variation, popularized by Jim Wendler and Paul Carter requires you to bring the plate completely overhead so that it’s in-line with your head and shoulders.
This increased ROM increases lateral and rear delt stimulation as well as engages the small stabilizer muscles in your upper back. As with traditional plate raises grab opposing sides of the plate with a neutral grip; if your plate has handles then use those, otherwise select a grip in which your hands are in-line with each other.
With the weight plate resting on your thighs initiate the movement by engaging your front delts to raise the plate while keeping your arms straight. Instead of stopping the movement when your arms are parallel with the ground and in-line with your shoulders, continue raising the weight plate upwards until it’s vertically in-line with your shoulders.
Hold this position for one or two seconds, emphasizing scapular depression, before slowly lowering the weight back to the starting position. Over time strive to add reps or increase the working weight.
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2) “Shoulder Articulations.” ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Internet. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2016.
3) “Deltoid (Lateral).” ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Internet. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2016.
4) “Deltoid (Posterior).” ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Internet. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2016.