If you had to pick one muscle that you believe impacts your physical appearance the most, what muscle would you pick?
Your back? Arms? Maybe your quads?
My first pick would always be the shoulders. When they are well developed they make your whole physique look better. Your waist looks smaller, you appear more muscular and stronger, your body adopts a V-taper.
They make your frame look more proportional and makes your whole appearance be more aesthetically pleasing.
Let’s be real, wide shoulders just look cool.
Not to mention that having bigger and stronger shoulders helps improve your lifting performance of other exercises such as the bench press, dips and even deadlifts.
So, how do you build bigger shoulders then?
To answer that question we first need to take a look at the anatomy of the shoulder muscle.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to be too sciency with you. It’s always good to understand how a muscle works.
The deltoid is composed of three sets of distinct fibers:
1) The anterior deltoid (front deltoid)
Originates on the clavicle (collar bone) and inserts in the humerus of the upper arm.
2) Lateral deltoid (side deltoid)
Originates the top of the scapular (the shoulder blade) and inserts in the humerus.
3) Posterior deltoid (rear delt)
Originates further back of the scapular, but still inserts in the humerus.
All of the shoulder fibers can perform a number of different functions (primary joint actions).
The anterior delt is responsible for shoulder flexion – raising your arm up like in a front raise.
The lateral deltoid mainly performs abduction – lifting your arm to the side, like in a lateral raise.
And the rear delt performs mainly horizontal shoulder abduction – moving your arms apart horizontally like in a reverse fly.
Phew, now that we have all of that out of the way, what does that mean for us?
What it shows you is that in order to build bigger shoulders you need to consider all three heads of the deltoid- the front, lateral and rear. Adopting exercises that best target the functionality of your shoulders.
Exercises for bigger shoulders
Now that we understand how the shoulder muscle works, we can start thinking about which exercises we should add to our workout program.
Below you will find a few exercises that best target the main functionality of each head of the shoulder muscle and thus lead to the best results.
1) Anterior Deltoid
The front delt is one of the most exercised muscles for those who work out regularly.
According to Michael Gundel those who exercise have 5 times the front delt development compared to normal or untrained people. The same states that they have 3 times the side delts and only 10-15% larger rear delts.
What this shows us is that there is a lot more room for improvement with lateral and rear shoulder muscles.
The reason for this is because the front delt is activated through pressing movements. So exercises such as the bench press and the incline bench press exercise the front shoulder enough as it is.
This study shows that more anterior shoulder activation is achieved with an incline press. With the flat bench having some, but the least front shoulder activation.
This falls in-line with previous research by Barnet et al., showing the same results.
Based on research we can conclude that inclines between 28 and 90 degrees all lead to better anterior shoulder activation.
So if so many pressing exercises are already targeting the anterior deltoid, is it worth it isolating them?
Well, it’s honestly up to personal choice.
I myself for example do not do any isolation exercises for the anterior delt. Purely because I believe I’m already targeting it enough as it is.
Adding a front shoulder exercise to my push days would only make it harder for me to progress with the rest of my workout. Not to mention that I would have exhausted my front shoulder to such an extent that my performance is going to be below par.
Dr. Mike Israetel states:
Most intermediates can make great front delt gains with NO direct front delt work, as both horizontal and incline pushing, as well as overhead pressing and triceps work is going to be very simulative of the front delts.
However, I do believe that if you want to develop stronger shoulders that will help you improve your pressing, then perhaps some focus on training the front delt may prove beneficial.
So what is the best exercise for the front delt?…
Exercise 1: Dumbbell Shoulder Press
This should come to you as no surprise.
With all of this talk about how the front delt is mainly activated through pressing movement, should have given it away that the best exercise to target the anterior shoulder is the should press.
The dumbbell variation of the shoulder press is especially good as it was shown to elicit higher muscle activation when compared to barbell shoulder presses.
Talk about how the front delt is trained with almost every other pressing exercise.
1) Set up the back rest of an adjustable bench to 90°. If a military bench is available, use it instead. Sit on the bench with a pair of dumbbells that are resting upright on top of your thighs.
2) Use your legs to “kick up” the dumbbells and raise them at shoulder height. Rotate your hands so that your palms are facing forward and your shoulders are at your sides and are facing away from your body. Don’t flair your shoulders all the way, keep them at a slightly bent angle. Your elbows should be roughly at a 90° angle.
3) Exhale and push the dumbbells upwards until they almost touch at the top. Once at the top of the movement do not fully extend or lock your elbows.
Briefly pause once at the top.
4) Inhale and slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Lastly, I just wanted to go over the front raises.
Don’t do them. They’re basically a waste of time and effort.
They do not lead to as good of a muscle activation of the front delt as the shoulder press does and there’s a lot more room for cheat reps compared to pressing movements.
2) Lateral Deltoid
Unlike the front shoulder, the side delt is activated far less in pressing movements. Which would explain why it’s less developed for most people who exercise.
The lateral delt exhibits only 20% muscle activity during the smith machine shoulder press, compared to the 70% activation of the front delt (study).
That being said, while there is some activation isolating the lateral delts will lead to better muscle activation and development.
The side delts are also the bread and butter to a wider shoulder appearance. So if your goal is to build a wider frame, you MUST pay focus on isolating and more efficiently targeting the lateral deltoids.
Exercises that focus on shoulder abduction (which is the main functionality of the lateral deltoid) are needed.
The three best exercises that train the side delts are:
Exercise 1: Dumbbell Neutral Lateral Raises
The lateral raise is probably one of the best known isolating exercises for the medial deltoid.
As shown in this study, a neutral grip when doing lateral raises has been shown to activate both the side (at 55%) and rear dealt (at 52%) almost evenly.
The same study also shows that internal lateral raises (where your pinky finger points upward) has been shown to lead to greater lateral shoulder activation, while an external one (where your index finger points upward) is beneficial for the rear delt.
That being said, many experts say that internal lateral raises increase shoulder impingement and injury risk (study). So, if you want to play it safe or have a history of shoulder problems the slight benefit from the “pinky-up” method may not be worth the potential risk.
1) Grip the dumbbells with your index finger up against the head of the dumbbell, with your pinky close to the middle of the handle. This is going to force the side delts to work harder by increasing the internal rotation moment at the top of the movement.
2) Keep your feet at shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Retract (pull back) your shoulder blades back by pulling in your lats in. Keep the dumbbells rested on your side.
3) Exhale and lift the dumbbells to shoulder height leading with your elbows.
4) Don’t lift the elbow straight up to the side, you should lift the dumbbells at about a 30 degree angle when viewed from the top (imagine you’re using a wider grip for a bench press).
5) Focus on flexing the lateral delt while lifting the weight. Imagine that the rest of your arm is like an anchor. And imagine that you’re sweeping the weight up (in an arc), rather than just lifting it up. All of this will help you target the lateral delt more.
6) Inhale and slowly lower the dumbbells down to your starting position.
Exercise 2: Lean Away Cable Lateral Raise
One main advantage of using cables over dumbbells is the more constant resistance.
Dumbbells reach peak torque at the top of the movement and there is barely any tension on the delt at the bottom (starting point).
Cables mitigate this by ensuring resistance throughout the entire range of motion.
Also, there is some research showing that leaning away places more tension on the side delt.
1) Stand next to a cable pulley machine with a handle attachment. Make sure the pulley is positioned at the lowest setting down to your feet.
2) Grab the handle with your working arm with the cable either going in front or between your legs. Keep your feet close to the pulley machine.
3) With your other hand, grip the machine for support.
4) Lean away from the machine.
5) While maintaining a slight bent in your working elbow raise your arm to shoulder height. Again, focus on using your shoulder to sweep the weight up.
6) Slowly return the weight back.
7) Repeat for both sides.
Exercise 3: Cable Rope Upright Rows
Another effective and often overlooked exercise for wider shoulders is the upright row.
This study shows that grip width is responsible for lateral shoulder activation during the upright row. Wider grip lead to greater side delt activation compared to narrow and shoulder width grip.
Unfortunately, improper technique can lead to shoulder impingement.
The authors of the study recommend keeping the shoulder slightly below shoulder height to minimize injury risk.
The use of a cable rope allows for constant tension throughout the range of motion of this exercise and adds by pulling the role apart as you row activates the lateral head even more.
1) Stand next to a cable pulley machine with a rope attachment. Again, make sure the pulley is positioned at the lowest setting down to your feet.
2) Stand with a stable staggered stance with your knees slightly bent.
3) Lean back slightly.
4) Exhale and row the rope up towards your chin. Focus on moving the weight with your shoulder by lifting with your elbows.
5) As you row the weight, focus on the cue to pull the rope apart to activate the side delt more.
6) Once you reach the point where your elbows are at shoulder height, slowly return back to your starting position.
3) Posterior Deltoid
The often neglected rear delts are not only important for a balance physique but also for postural and shoulder health.
If you want to build bigger shoulders you cannot neglect the rear delts!
The posterior shoulder is nearly silent in most pressing movements – shoulder presses, bench presses, push-up, etc.
The incline lat pulldown, seated rows and wide grip rows have been shown to be good exercises for the rear delt. However, with these exercises it’s easy for larger muscles to take over and lessen the involvement of the rear shoulder.
Isolation exercises are a MUST for the rear delt.
Exercise 1: Reverse Peck Deck
If you had to choose one exercise that will help you target your rear delt the best, then that would have to be the reverse peck deck.
1) Sit on a peck deck machine with your stomach against the pad. Adjust the seat comfortably so that when you grab on to the neutral handles of the machine (where your palms are facing down) your elbows are just about shoulder height.
Remember, your goal here is to move your arms apart and back horizontally.
2) Position your feet so that you’re at a slightly wider than shoulder width stance. Keep your back straight with a slight arch in your lower back. Move your shoulder blades back and down.
3) Push the handles back together and focus on mainly contracting your shoulders to perform the movement. It can be easy for your traps and back to take over the movement.
4) Slowly return back to your starting position.
Optimize your shoulder workout
Research suggests that the deltoid is an almost perfect 50/50 split of Type 1 (slow twitch) and Type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibers. This implies that using a combination of high reps and low reps is the best way to maximize muscle growth. High reps being 10-15 and low reps about 6-9 repetitions.
What this means is that progressive overload sets – where you start light and gradually increase the weight throughout your sets is ideal for shoulder development.
Remember that the number of sets is determined by how many reps you can carry out with proper form and not just a number.
Here’s an example:
For your first set you aim to do 12-15 repetitions with lateral raises. Instead of going for a weight where you can pump out 20-25 repetitions with good form, you should go for a weight where you can only do 15-16 reps.
You’re not doing 12-15 reps just because you have to do that many, you’re doing that many because that’s how much you can do with the weight you’ve selected.
Don’t go to full failure, but rather 80% failure.
I hope that makes sense.
The same holds true for your low repetition (6 to 9) sets.
To start off – pick one or more exercises which targets all heads of the shoulder, based on what is your goal.
For example: a good combination is lateral raises, rope upright rows, and reverse peck deck. With more emphasis being placed on the lateral head.
Stick with those exercises for about 4-5 weeks and then switch it up. Target the same heads, just with different exercises.
Become a master at one exercise before introducing new ones to your workout. This ensures muscle development.
Pay attention to your shoulders during your workout!
Don’t just do 3 sets of lateral raises and expect to build wider shoulders.
Weekly volume is just as important to facilitate muscle growth as intensity is.
For minimum progress aim for 8 weekly sets for each head of the shoulder (front, side and rear). With 16-22 weekly sets being optimal for maximum progress.
Remember that there are some exercises which target more than one head at the same time. Take those exercises into consideration when constructing your shoulder building workout program.
How often should you workout your shoulders?
There is no direct answer.
If you train your shoulders only once per week, you are essentially missing out on a lot of potential muscle growth.
So, as a rule of thumb exercising your delts twice a week should be your goal.
A good workout split is push/pull/legs. Here is an example of a 6 week workout program which uses such a split.
You can also decide to use an upperbody/lowerbody split if you cannot afford working out 5-6 times a week.
All it takes to build bigger and wider shoulders is to understand how the shoulder muscle works. What are its 3 different components and what are the exercises that do the best job at targeting them.
Apply all of the necessary workout improvements to make sure that you are fully benefiting from protein synthesis and correct workout volume and you’ll be on the correct path to bigger shoulders.
You have all you need, now it’s just time for you to put in the work!