How to Get Big Shoulders: The Intermediate’s Guide

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Who doesn’t want bigger, rounder, wider shoulders? Your deltoids are a major part of that coveted V-taper everyone dreams of. You can possess a broad chest, small waist and even wide upper lats, but without well-built shoulders your V-taper will look more like an H-taper. Not good.

Plus, well-developed shoulders are an important factor in the function and performance of other key exercises. So it becomes a no-brainer on whether or not you should pay more attention to those two mounds of muscle bookending your head.

The argument for bigger shoulders

As I touched on earlier, shoulders not only serve an aesthetic purpose of better proportion and the fact that gone underdeveloped you may resemble a pear, they also hold better overall performance in high regard.

In general frail shoulders could possibly be the weak link in your chain for many important lifts. Think about it; they play crucial roles in bench presses, pull-ups and even deadlifts. They not only assist with the actual lifts, they also provide stability. Take the overhead shoulder press, for example. Developing overhead pressing power and strength directly translates to increased balance and stability for bench presses, incline presses and rows among many more.

So, now you may have a general idea of the importance of proper shoulder training and development. Better function, more strength and improved proportion is the short list. Let’s come up with a game plan and a shift in our mindset so you can finally get some width on that frame.

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The real story behind bigger shoulders

Does your normal shoulder routine resemble something like this: Dumbbell or barbell press, dumbbell side lateral raise, machine rear deltoid fly, barbell or dumbbell shrug? How long have you been performing that routine? Has it yielded the kind of results you are after?

There’s nothing wrong with that routine. It hits all of the appropriate deltoid heads, traps and utilizes both multi-joint and isolation moves for what appears to be a well-rounded workout plan. But where do you go from here? More sets, reps and weight? You may have tried those tips with little success.

You may need a new approach to hitting those delts the right way. Some body parts don’t respond well to how you train others. In other words, if you train your chest with heavy weights, low reps and longer than normal rest periods the same rules may not apply to optimally train your shoulders.

You may need other, more specific parameters in order to pack on some much-needed beef. You’ll have to get over your ego and big weight mentality in order to hone in on what will work for your delts.

Before we go on, the first step is to clean up your form. I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve seen gym-goers mutilate their form on presses, lateral raises and upright rows. They resemble slowly dying moths desperately gasping for their last breath of air. If you’re guilty of bad form and technique (be honest) then reduce the amounts of weight and start practicing the best form possible. Without proper form (especially with shoulder training) no program will prove effective.

Now let’s go over a few categories of shoulder exercises. It’s important to muster a list of tools at your disposal before working on the problem.

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Your Shoulder Exercise Arsenal

The following is a short list of categories of the different types of shoulder exercises. Although this isn’t an exhaustive list it does break down the types and their subsequent movement variations.

Shoulder presses: Overhead presses normally spearhead shoulder programs. Most gym-goers will start with dumbbell or barbell presses either standing or seated and will perform Military style or push presses. Other forms include reverse-grip barbell presses and neutral-grip dumbbell presses for those who suffer from shoulder strain.

Here’s the part where you need to check your form. Be sure to lower the weight all the way down to your deltoids and then all the way up just short of lockout. If you have healthy shoulders then lighten your load and do it right. You don’t do half reps on the bench press do you?

Lateral raises: Side, front and rear lateral raises performed with dumbbells are the go-to exercises for isolating each deltoid head. These directly stimulate the medial, anterior and posterior heads respectively.

Although not considered big, multi-joint moves that traditionally allow the most weight lifted and work many deltoid heads at once, lateral raises are still viable tools in stressing specific areas to further development. Again, form is of utmost importance. Remember the dying moth analogy? Yes, it applies here.

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Upright rows: Upright rows are the unsung heroes of deltoid development. As another multi-joint exercises they allow for greater weight lifted and work mainly the side delts for that wider look. Taking a wider grip will allow more stress goes to your delts versus your traps.

It’s also important to remember to lead the lift with your elbows instead of your hands. Lift your elbows higher than your hands and level or just above your shoulders. Avoid swinging, swaying and throwing the weight up.

Machines and other pulls: of course there are many other exercises to choose from such as machine presses, machine lateral raises, reverse pec deck flys for posterior delts, and face pulls. These all should be used as finishers to your shoulder program. Leave the bigger, multi-joint lifts at the front of the pack and these machines closer to the end.

A word on face pulls: Be sure as you pull the handles toward your face to split the rope handles and guide your elbows back and above shoulder height. This will allow more deltoid heads to get involved versus only the posterior head.

Shrugs: To round-out your shoulder program add in some trapezius exercises. Barbell, dumbbell, Smith machine and trap bar shrugs are some of the more traditional exercises to choose from. There are other machines, contraptions and cable moves available as well, but for simplicity’s sake just stick with the basics.

Word of caution: Don’t just throw the weight up and bounce up and down. That’s mostly lower back, and arm action. On any shrug execute the movement slowly and deliberately. At the top hold for a count and squeeze before lowering slowly.

Shoulders Angles of Attack

With the decision to adopt a new perspective let’s now look at a few different way you can attack your shoulders. Let’s shore-up your form, decrease the amounts of weight lifted and see your shoulders from three different points of view.

Traditional mass builders: Normally you will start most shoulder routines with the big, multi-joint exercises such as barbell and dumbbell overhead presses, machine presses and other power moves like push presses and clean and presses. Performed seated or standing, these moves involve the most muscle.

Stretch angles: Stretch exercises for the deltoids are tough to come by and require exact form and technique but are highly effective and will give your shoulders a very unique stimulus. Exercises such as cable side laterals and incline bench dumbbell laterals are your best choices.

Contraction angles: You may think that all muscles contract through motion but here I am talking about optimal contraction –the type of contraction that gives you that intense squeeze at the point of maximum stress. Go with side and bent-over dumbbell laterals with a pause at the top, side and bent-over cable laterals and upright rows.

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Shoulder Training Tips

Go high rep

One of the most common practices when it comes to strengthening and improving weak points is increasing load at the expense of reps and form. Loading up the weight alone may not be the answer. For some shoulders are more of endurance-type muscles. Think about swimmers and the amount of pounding their shoulders take day-in and day-out.

Experiment with higher rep ranges and shorter rest periods – those two factors could be the key to more shoulder mass. Be sure to keep a keen eye on rest times between sets. Wear a watch or use the gym clock to keep track but try not to use your phone – it will tempt you too much with distractions. Regarding high reps, shoot for the 10, 15 and even 20 rep ranges. You’ll have to lighten your load but the intensity will be insane.

Pre-exhaustion

Another technique to take advantage of is pre-exhaustion. This is another practice that will force you to leave your ego at home. This involves performing an isolation exercise before moving on to a multi-joint move to force more growth into that isolated muscle.

For example, if your goal is to get wider shoulders by increasing medial delt work you would perform a side lateral exercise and then move on to a pressing movement. At first, you won’t be as strong in the press as you once were but over time you will have adapted and increased strength.

3 Shoulder Workouts

Below are three uniquely different shoulder routines built for any training situation. One for the traditional gym-goer, one for the home trainer and the last is for bodyweight only enthusiasts. Use one, two or all three for each shoulder session and get ready for new growth in your delts.
Perform three to four sets of 10 to 20 reps of each exercise. Rest 30 to 60 seconds between sets.

Gym shoulder workout

  • Single-arm cable side lateral raise
  • Hammer Strength or machine press
  • Reverse pec deck rear lateral or rope face pull
  • Trap bar or barbell shrug

Home gym shoulder workout

  • Incline bench side lateral raise
  • Seated or standing dumbbell press
  • Dumbbell upright row
  • Bent-over dumbbell lateral raise
  • Dumbbell shrug

Bodyweight shoulder workout

  • Floor bodyweight lateral raise
  • Pike press or handstand push-up
  • Suspension trainer reverse fly
  • Inverted scapula contraction
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Name: Brad Borland

Bio: Starting out as a scrawny 125 pound kid at 6’ 2” I took up weight training at the tender age of 14 and ended up a 220 pound competitive drug-free, natural bodybuilder several years later. Now armed with both knowledge and muscle I have helped countless individuals domestically and abroad.