4 Unconventional Tips to Reinvent Your Shoulder Routine

boulder shoulder

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.

shoulder workout tips

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

shoulder workout

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!

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  • Reply
    Damian @ Dareandconquer
    June 8, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Hey nate,

    I think you are spot on that progressing in overhead presses is the key to developing great shoulders. Personally I do only OP and lateral raises but I liek to add weighted dips because they work really great your delts while simultaneously working chest and triceps.

    In my experience OP and dips are the only exercises needed for massive shoulders.

    Anyway, great advice as always.

  • Reply
    Dave Zero
    June 8, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    Great post, Nate! I Like your holistic approach, as the name of your site says “Iron and Tweed”, you put attention on every aspect involving feeling and looking great from the inside out. Keep up the awesome work. Greetings from Italy

  • Reply
    June 8, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Nice analysis! I would even put shoulders before chest, more functional for other activities IMHO. Also, people mention ohp fire shoulder injuries, but flay bench was what cause me shoulder pain, while pressing overhead was relief.

    • Reply
      June 8, 2015 at 11:01 pm

      Shoulders are extremely functional. Flat bench does cause a lot of people pain, but it’s hard to knock your favorite exercise, haha. It’s good to hear that overhead press helps you.

  • Reply
    June 8, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    Personally I train shoulders on the same day as chest, because both work the rotator cuff and since I want to hit every body part 2-3 times a week I have a 2 day split, workout A is chest, shoulders and tri’s and workout B is Back, Legs and Bi’s. So I do bench press and lateral raise or light/moderate OH press.

    One thing you should really try (if not already) is the Snatch Grip High Pull (as seen here: seriously it makes your shoulders grow a lot, especially the rear delts.

    • Reply
      June 8, 2015 at 11:04 pm

      That’s a solid routine. I’m a huge fan of high frequency training. I have tried Snatch Grip High Pull, but haven’t actually programed them into my routine. I really did enjoy them so I probably need to give them a fair try.

      Thanks for the tips, PM!

  • Reply
    June 11, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    Good stuff. I have the same issues when it comes to side and rear delt. What I’ve found works best for side delts is lateral raises, except the trick is to try to push up your elbows, and rob your front delts of any kind of work. Hope that makes sense. For rear delts, hop on one of those pec machines backwards, and isolate your rear delts by gripping the handles wtih your palms facing down.

    Agreed on strength development BTW. Developing strength has a lot of benefits you might not think of. For one, you develop your neural pathways to the point that you can completely activate your muscle even with a light weight.

    • Reply
      June 12, 2015 at 1:48 am

      You’re right, it’s best to think about raising the elbows rather than the dumbbells. I like to do lateral raises with elbows bent at a 90 degree angle to help keep me from externally rotating.

  • Reply
    Oskar Faarkrog
    June 14, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    Great post here. I used to have about the same delt development as you several years into training and could never figure out why they didn’t grow.

    This changed in 2014 where I’ve added 4-5 inches on my shoulder circumference (5th year of training) which is more than I ever did in the previous 4 years of lifting…

    You’re absolutely right that hitting rear and mid delts first is much better than starting off with the presses since everyone has overdeveloped front delts.

    Besides that, I find that training them at least 3 days a week and doing high volume with lighter weights (about 25 sets for mid and rear delts) worked very well for me. I find that trashing weak muscle groups with high volume and often is key to growth (along with a ton of calories).

    BTW, I was in Chicago for 80 days and loved the city…

    Keep up the good work :)

    • Reply
      June 14, 2015 at 3:50 pm

      Oskar, your transformation is nothing short of amazing! I read your article a couple of years ago on how to create wide shoulders. If I remember correctly, you have narrow clavicles and used tons of shoulder and back training to overcome this, right? I have really wide clavicles (wide chest and back), but had absolutely no meat on my arms or shoulders whatsoever, haha.

      I agree with you on high frequency training. I like to train weak body parts directly and indirectly multiple times per week using “clever overlap”. For example, I train back one day, chest on another, then have a separate high volume day specifically for shoulders.

      When you do high volume, do you go to failure or near on every set? I like to pick a weight and rep range that is fairly easy to begin with, but makes me struggle and cheat a little to get all of the reps on the later sets. I’ll stick with the same weight for something like 10 sets of 10.

      It seems like I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t use a pyramid rep scheme. I guess I just prefer a warm-up and then anywhere from 3-10 sets at my max weight.

      • Reply
        June 14, 2015 at 6:25 pm

        ”It seems like I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t use a pyramid rep scheme.”

        You’re not the only one, what I like is using low rep and high volume with short rest periods, it’s good for strength, mass and conditioning. example: 15×1, all sets with your 3rm (90% of 1rm), 10×3 with your 5rm (86%) or 12×2. When you can do those in less then 10-15 minutes you take heavier weights. That’s from Jamie Lewis and Victor Pride use a variation of that in BOAS. It’s great for short and intense training sessions.

        • Reply
          June 15, 2015 at 12:59 am

          I love rep schemes like that!

          I use it on exercises like overhead press where my strength isn’t where it should be. I’ll do maybe 20×1 with about 1 minute in-between. It’s definitely good to have a break from the usual 3×10 or 5×5. I haven’t read BOAS, but got the idea from Victor’s article “How to work your legs without getting extremely sore.”

          I’ll give 10×3 and 12×2 a shot soon. Thanks!

  • Reply
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