Nothing creates a wide, powerful look quite like a pair of cannon ball shoulders.
Besides their importance in creating an aesthetically pleasing physique, your shoulders are also used in the majority of upper body exercises.
So if you’re at all interested in building a better body, improving athletic performance, or maintaining long-term joint health, full development of this muscle group cannot be overlooked.
And yet, they’re a trouble spot for many, myself included.
My shoulder building experience
I’m genetically blessed with shoulder musculature of a 12-year old girl. Even as an adult, I didn’t have anything that could be identified as a deltoid until I had several years of lifting under my belt.
After a few years of lifting, and despite adding about 10 to 15 lbs. of meat to my frame while losing a great deal of body fat, my arm and delt progress was still laughable (see below).
But after years of playing catch-up, I finally have the shoulder development to match the rest of my body.
How did I get to where I am today?
Well, the standard routines didn’t work for me. I’ve given basically every established training method its fair shake. On one program I’d increase my pressing weight a little, but gain nothing in the way of size.
On another program I would get a good pump and increase size a little, but nothing extraordinary.
Soon, I realized that I had to develop my own principles to get the results I wanted. To get there I’d take an idea from a website, a tip or two from a magazine, and a technique learned from a training partner.
Below I’ve laid out the strategies that helped me the most in my pursuit for boulder shoulders.
NOTE: This photo is from December 2012. Even after several years of training, my left deltoid actually appears to be indented. I literally had negative shoulders, haha.
(1) Strive for progress on chest and back exercises
If you were to ignore shoulder specific exercises altogether (not that you should) and place all of your energy into building a brutally strong chest and back, your shoulders would grow from that alone.
The size of your shoulders is going to be largely dependent on how strong you get.
Sure, isolation exercises will help improve weak points and will make sure that you’re stimulating as many muscle fibers as possible, but isolation exercises alone won’t build giant shoulders.
The sorest my shoulders have ever been was not after the time I decided to do 10 sets of upright rows alternated with 10 sets of lateral raises (excessive, but I had to try it).
No, this monumental soreness was actually the result of an extremely brutal back workout.
Even though I didn’t do anything specific for my delts, I thoroughly fatigued my back and my shoulders had no choice but to step up to the plate.
The same holds true for chest workouts. If you’re doing enough volume and poundage, there’s nothing like a good bench press session to light the front delts on fire the next 5 days.
Bottom Line: You should still do shoulder-specific exercises, but make sure to focus on increasing your strength on exercises such as bench press, pull-ups, and rows.
(2) Reverse exercise order
If I had to guess your shoulder routine, I’d say it looks something like this:
- 3 to 5 sets of overhead presses, lifting as much weight as possible.
- Then 3 sets of lateral raises with fairly loose form.
- Finally, you tack on 3 half-hearted sets of rear laterals.
The only reason I say this is because, like almost everyone else, I used this routine for years and had the lackluster shoulders to prove it.
There’s nothing really wrong with that routine if it works for you.
But if you find that your side and rear delts leave something to be desired, it’s time to give your weak points some needed attention.
It wasn’t until I flipped the typical routine upside-down that I saw significant improvement in the shoulder region.
As a “side effect,” I found that my shoulders get a much better warm-up from doing the lighter exercises first. Too many guys get injured from jumping straight into extremely heavy overhead work.
Keep in mind that switching things around will temporarily hurt your pressing poundage (and your pride), but your reflection will thank you.
Bottom Line: For best results (bodybuilding wise), start with your rear delts, then do a couple variations for the mid-delts, and finally choose a pressing movement to polish them off.
(3) Focus on mid and rear delts
Want to know a little secret?
I’ve been lifting weights since Clinton was in office and I can count the number of times I’ve performed any form of front raise on a single hand.
And while I’m in the confessing mood, I’d like to add that I don’t always include a pressing movement in my shoulder workouts.
My front delts must be seriously lagging right? Nope. Like everyone else, they’re still the most developed head.
My reasoning for trying this different approach is that I realized the front delts get thrashed during any pressing movement, including flat and incline.
So, if I’m working them so hard on chest day and they’re growing just fine, why am I spending the better part of my shoulder workout developing my strong points?
I decided to put my best effort into focusing on the areas that needed the most improvement.
Now, I’m not advocating that you give up the overhead press (it’s actually one of my favorite exercises). But if it isn’t building the round shoulders you desire, try putting that exercise on cruise control for a while.
Focusing your efforts on the side and rear heads can help with developing full, capped shoulders.
Bottom Line: On shoulder days, put the majority of your effort into training the side and rear heads and only do one exercise for front delts. Let flat bench and incline presses do the majority of the work on chest days.
(4) Switch exercises often
Keeping your core lifts constant is important for gauging progress, since you should be striving for small improvements every workout (i.e. lifting 5 more pounds for the same number of reps or lifting the same weight for an extra rep or two).
For that reason, I normally don’t recommend changing exercises too often because it becomes difficult to measure progress.
For example, how many reps of bench press and with how much weight do you have to do to equal 20 dips with bodyweight?
See what I mean?
As mentioned in the first tip, it’s best to keep chasing personal records on your pressing and rowing movements, but for shoulders, I like to switch exercises frequently.
Try to alternate between machines, cables, and dumbbells every workout and feel free to mix up your grip and rep speed.
As far as shoulder isolation exercises are concerned, there really isn’t a whole lot of need to stick with a consistent routine as is the case with heavy barbell lifts.
It’s not like you’re going to add 5 lbs per week until you’re performing lateral raises with 50 lb dumbbells.
With isolation exercises, you should mainly be focused on feeling the muscle work and chasing a skin-tearing pump.
Bottom Line: Keep your major lifts constant, but switch isolation exercises often.
(Bonus) Get as strong as possible on the overhead press and ignore everything else
This seems to contradict everything I just said, but hear me out.
The methods above are great for increasing the size and balance of your deltoids, but they aren’t the best approach for maximum strength.
Absolute strength is going to determine how much weight you can use for your higher rep exercises.
The stronger you become, the more weight you can use on hypertrophy exercises, the bigger your muscles will get.
While lower rep training may not be the ultimate short-term size solution, it’s an essential part of long-term progress.
So, if at any time you feel that your strength isn’t up to snuff or you’re getting bored with high reps and multiple exercise workouts, switch to a 5×5 routine, for overhead press and push your poundage as far as possible.
If you aren’t familiar with this routine, check out Stronglifts 5×5. You don’t have to do the whole program, just use the basic approach for overhead press.
Bottom Line: After a couple months of focusing on gaining size, it’s a good idea to do a strength specific cycle for a month or two.
Example shoulder routine
- Face pulls or rear laterals – 3 sets, 20 reps
- Single-arm upright row – 4 sets, 8-12 reps
- Lateral raises – 3 sets, 12-15 reps
- Seated DB press – 3 sets, 6-8 reps
Try these tips for at least one workout and if you enjoy it, keep it up for a month.
Then you can assess your progress and tell me if my techniques worked for you.
Let me know in the comments below!