Few things have as much of an impact on how you look – with a shirt on or shirt off – the way that your shoulders will.
There’s nothing worse than having an otherwise well-developed physique and shoulders that look flimsy and weak. They cripple your frame, make you look much smaller than you might be otherwise, and generally just detract from your overall aesthetic.
Well developed shoulders, on the other hand, are something else entirely!
Having even just halfway decent shoulders can add a lot of width and a lot of thickness to your body, helping you get that V taper so many are after, while providing a big boost to your overall functional strength as well.
At the end of the day, though, putting together a program that helps you really build your shoulders effectively can feel like a bit of an uphill battle.
But that’s why we’ve put together this detailed guide.
Below we share with you exactly what you need to know to build bigger, thicker, stronger shoulders without risking injury – shoulders that are going to help set you apart from the rest of the pack while allowing you to put on pound after pound of lean muscle mass faster than you would have been able to otherwise.
Before getting into the actual nuts and bolts of building bigger and stronger shoulders, it’s important to understand at least a little bit about the anatomy of this core muscle group.
Our shoulders are made up of a handful of individual muscles working together. It’s critical that you target each of these muscle groups if you want well-rounded, strong, and flexible muscles going forward.
The anterior deltoid (sometimes called the “front” deltoid head) is a muscle that starts near your collarbone and attaches to the humerus in your body. This muscle group is mainly responsible for pressing style movements and is one of the biggest muscles in the shoulder to focus on.
The medial deltoid (sometimes called the lateral deltoid) also originates in the collarbone and inserts into the humerus, but it’s really responsible for abducting your arm out to the side and away from the core of your body.
Develop this part of your shoulder and you’ll be able to add a lot of width to your upper body, with that you would have had an almost impossible time developing any other way.
Posterior deltoids (rear deltoids) move the arm up and back from your core. This specific muscle group makes of a big part of your shoulder, but you’ll probably want to leave training this area specifically to the days that you train your back. Pulls and rows the kinds of movements where this muscle really shines.
The trapezius is a very long, almost trapezoid shaped muscle (wonder where it got its name) that runs across the upper section of your spinal cord. It begins at the base of your skull, attaches to the middle of your lower back, and gives your shoulders the ability to shrug up, shrug your shoulder blades together, and also pulls your shoulder blades down.
As we mentioned a moment ago, the real secret sauce to building bigger, stronger, wider shoulders is to target all of these muscle groups individually and in concert with one another.
The only muscles that you might not want to blast on shoulder day are the posterior deltoids – though plenty of people like to combine shoulder and back day to really hammer these delts and the traps on the same schedule.
No matter what kind of movements you’re using to develop your shoulders, there are a couple of simple strategies that you should use and apply in every one of your workouts to guarantee the best possible results.
Focus on these core fundamentals and you’ll be able to grow your shoulders a whole lot quicker than you would have thought possible, transforming your upper body into a lean, mean, super-wide jacked machine!
Unlike some of our other “beach muscles” – like our biceps, for example – are shoulders are responsible for handling some pretty heavy lifting throughout the day, even when we don’t realize it.
Because we use our shoulders anytime we move our arms (and anytime we lift something, including ourselves) we need to make sure that we keep this muscle group as flexible and as supple as possible.
Full range of motion on every shoulder exercise goes a long way towards keeping our shoulder muscles lean and youthful. On top of that, you’ll be able to recruit a lot more of your shoulder muscle fibers than partial or “cheap reps” would have, helping you to max out your workouts and your effort while growing bigger, stronger shoulders at the same time.
Always – ALWAYS – push your shoulder movements through a full range of motion (whenever possible, of course).
Another piece of the puzzle to building better shoulders is making sure that your tempo is really dialed in.
Tempo is something that you want to instill in your body when you first start working your shoulders, especially when you are moving less weight than you will later down the line.
It’s important to build those tempo fundamentals straight out of the gate and then cement them in place – because it’s going to be a whole lot harder to keep your tempo when you are throwing heavier weights around.
Taking two seconds to lower the weight, one second as a pause at the bottom of the movement, two seconds to move the weight, and then another second at the top before rinsing and repeating is generally enough to really work your shoulder group.
Experiment with tempo a little bit, though, to find something that really works for you.
Just be sure that you aren’t rushing things. The second you start to swing your weight around you let momentum handle the bulk of the heavy lifting for you, and that’s as much a cheat rep as it gets!
You might be able to move more weight with this method, but you won’t be working your muscles half as hard as you would with real tempo.
Fatiguing your shoulders (and then pushing through that fatigue) is a great way to accelerate growth when you have developed a baseline of shoulder strength.
Four or five weeks into your shoulder program you’re going to want to ramp up your intensity a little bit. Shorten your rest time dramatically (10 seconds between the first and second move in a routine) with 90 seconds between new exercises.
Your be able to recruit more muscle fibers, do more “damage”, and generate a lot more muscle growth by cutting back on your rest and recovery time during your actual workouts.
That being said, it is hugely important that you do absolutely everything you can to protect your shoulders from injury.
Few things are going to set you back the way that a shoulder injury will.
Just one little tear can quickly turn into a huge compromise of your shoulder group, and that means that you’re not just going to have to shut down working on your shoulders (crippling your progress and wasting away all the muscle you’ve already built) – but it means you have to shut down any other lifts that use your shoulders, too.
That’s basically everything and anything that has to do with your upper body.
As you can see, getting a shoulder injury can really sideline you and cause significant atrophy. Nobody wants to lose all the hard-won gains they’ve generated through their efforts, especially not because of a minor shoulder injury that turns into something nasty.
To avoid injuries it’s important that you stretch as much as you can before you start to lift.
Even just 15 to 20 minutes of dedicated stretching (really warming up your shoulder muscles and joints) can go a long way towards protecting you from serious injury. Mobilize your joints, activate your rotator cuff, and move through the full range of shoulder motion to warm up all of the major groups you’re going to be attacking.
A great way to get things cooking is to start with really lightweight, high rep sets (we are talking about 15 pounds or so) to get your muscles in the mood for working out.
Just don’t ever “start cold” – especially with heavy weights.
That’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to your shoulder.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of what you need to know about building massive shoulders it’s time to get into the meat and potatoes of it all – the workouts you’ll want to use to start packing on muscle faster than you ever thought possible.
Let’s get to it!
It’s hard to imagine there being a better foundational work out for your shoulders than either barbell or dumbbell shoulder presses.
This movement is going to heavily target both the interior as well as the medial head of your shoulders, allowing you to supersize your shoulders with a lot of meaty mass almost straightaway.
On top of that, you’re going to be able to boost your strength through the roof at the same time – which is only going to allow you to push even more intensely to build bigger, stronger shoulders!
You’ll be able to generate a cool little self-perpetuating cycle of building stronger shoulders, lifting heavier weights, and putting on more mass all with this really simple movement.
Building out the medial heads of your shoulder is going to add a lot of that depth, that wide look that so many people are after – helping your shoulders to look a lot bigger than they might otherwise be almost instantly.
Side lateral raises (whether you are doing them with dumbbells or a cable machine, it makes no difference) hammer the medial heads of your shoulders like nothing else.
Try to start off with as much weight as you can manage without breaking good form, building from there. A lot of high intensity, heavyweight, low rep work straight away will develop some pretty mean medial shoulder heads quicker than you would have thought possible before.
Our posterior deltoids get ignored far too often, but those that want to build perfectly rounded out shoulders that are strong, wide, and well-developed are going to want to make sure that there’s no deficiency on the backside.
Bent dumbbell lateral raises and reverse pec deck rear laterals are both purpose built exercises that specifically laser in on your rear deltoids.
The odds are pretty good that you’ll need to start with lightweights when kicking things off (just because so many people have significantly underdeveloped rear deltoids), but you’ll find things catch up pretty quickly.
Need another movement to add some serious mass to the medial head of your shoulders?
Upright rows will help you get where you are looking to go!
This movement absolutely blasts the medial head in your shoulders, recruiting a lot of extra muscle fibre from the smaller support muscles at the same time to give you a bit of extra intensity – particularly when you are lifting heavy.
A lot of people like to use front raises (with dumbbells or with barbells) as a bit of a “finishing move” to really push their shoulders beyond their initial breaking point, helping to carve up even more definition and escalate gains a little more, too.
The idea here is to shift gears and use lighter weights, though (especially since you’ll be knocking this out at the end of your shoulder routine). Make sure that your form is really dialed in, though, as you’re looking to exhaust your shoulders.
Sloppy form leads to injuries more often than not.
Shrugs are far and away one of the most misunderstood, misapplied, and almost abused exercises in the world of fitness – not just when it comes to shoulders, but when targeting any muscle group for that matter.
A lot of that has to do with the “around the surface” simplicity of a shrug. There just doesn’t look like there’s all that much going on.
Don’t get sucked into that misconception, though.
The second you get sloppy with your shoulder shrug form (rolling or rotating your shoulders) you’re going to start bouncing your weight, and that’s going to start bringing a lot of potential for significant injury into the mix.
Form is absolutely everything when you are knocking out shrugs.
Because our shoulders look like such a relatively small muscle group there’s a temptation to want to hit them at least a couple of times a week – maybe two or three times, if we have the time – but that’s a temptation you’ll want to avoid.
No, it’s a good idea to try and train your shoulders only every 5 to 7 days with plenty of rest in between.
The idea here is to really ramp up the intensity during your shoulder exercises, targeting all of the major shoulder groups but also recruiting supporting muscle fibers into the mix as well. Because you go so intensely you’ll want to have plenty of down time to recuperate and recover, though.
Stick to at least a five day gap between your shoulder workouts and you’ll be good to go!
Shoulder mobility plays such a big part in building bigger, stronger muscles that you absolutely have to make it a cornerstone element of your time in the gym.
The best way to improve your overall shoulder mobility is to stretch, stretch, stretch – not just before you start working on your shoulders (which should always be done as a warm-up), but almost every day if you’re able to.
Stretch your shoulders for 2 to 3 minutes in the morning, stretch them for 2 to 3 minutes in the afternoon, and if you have the chance stretch for another 2 to 3 minutes right before bed at least four or five times a week.
Move your shoulders through a full range of motion (up, down, side to side) during these stretching sessions, too. That’ll help limber you up, improve your flexibility, and send your mobility levels straight to the moon.
It’s incredibly important that you do your best to “listen to your body”, learning to know the difference between when you are just recovering from an intense shoulder workout and feeling sort and actually dealing with an injured shoulder.
If you’re putting yourself through the paces with the movements we described above the odds are pretty good that you’re going to feel wiped out, at least for the first couple of weeks.
You should start to recover some strength and some energy a couple of days after your shoulder workout, though – and should be at least 90% back in action by the time you’re next shoulder day comes around.
If, on the other hand, you’re dealing with shooting pain, a complete lack of shoulder mobility, or are nervous that you have actually injured yourself it’s not a bad idea to skip that next shoulder day just to see how you feel later down the line.
If things are still painful it’s a good idea to reach out to a medical professional to get a proper diagnosis. They’ll let you know what you are
Shoulder strains and sprains almost always feel 100% inside of 4 to 6 weeks, though it might take a little bit longer than that to get you back up to speed. Sometimes it can take anywhere between three and six months of light work and rehabilitation just to get you back into the swing of things.
Full shoulder tears, on the other hand, are going to sideline you for at least three months (if not even more). Then there’s a bit of a climb during the rehab process just to get you back to square one.
Like we mentioned earlier, it’s critically important that you work out smart and that you listen to your body to avoid injury. Stretch, warm up, cool down, and give yourself plenty of rest when hammering your shoulders.
Even a relatively minor injury to your shoulder can prove to be a huge setback.
It’s possible to build bigger, stronger shoulders without using any weights at all (push-ups, dips, pull-ups, etc. can all help to develop bigger shoulders) – but it’s a lot harder and it takes a lot more time.
Try to get in the gym to hammer on your shoulders. That’s the faster road to success!
As a general rule of thumb it’s not a bad idea to try and target your shoulders separately, but if you are going to combine shoulder day with another major muscle group you’ll want to do either your arms or your back – ideally your back.
Experiment a little bit, though. You might find that your body really responds differently than expected. It’s all about finding a shoulder system that works for you specifically!