The Best Shoulder Exercises To Build Big Shoulders
Conditioning

The Best Shoulder Exercises To Build Big Shoulders

clock-circular-outlinePosted 5 Jun 2024

We might obsess over building bulging biceps or glutes that pop, but turn your attention to shoulder exercises, and you’ve suddenly got a workout that makes you look athletic, built, and strong AF. Gains aside, broadening out up top will boost strength for your other lifts, help with stability, and lessen the chance of injury.

But getting the shoulders of dreams takes hard work. And if you’re fed up with not seeing progress after a few rows and raises, maybe it’s time to mix up your shoulder workout…

In fact, to really build sculpted shoulders, you need to hit all the major muscles in the shoulder joint (yes, there are multiple) — and from different angles, too.

So, if you’re committed to growing big shoulders, then listen up: we’re going to give you every detail you need to know to build delts to die for. A quick anatomy lesson, some fast-fire facts about why you should be training, and all the details on shoulder workout warm-ups and cool-downs. Oh, and of course, the best shoulder exercises to build big shoulders.

So get ready: Things are about to get heavy.

Contents:

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Why Should You Do Shoulder Workouts?

They may not be the strongest muscle group in the body, but dedicating time to shoulder exercises will massively benefit your lifting, improve your posture, and keep your shoulder health in tip-top shape. Not only are the shoulder muscles involved during overhead movements, such as the overhead shoulder press but they play a key role in aiding stability in pushing and pulling exercises. Not to mention the aesthetic benefits – do we need to mention how good shapely shoulders look in a tank top or halterneck bra? If it’s the v-shape torso you’re after, you’ll want to start putting more graft into your shoulder workouts. And if you’re stepping on stage anytime soon, big shoulders are guaranteed to win you points.

What Muscles Are In the Shoulders?

Feeling convinced? Before we delve into our shoulder workout, we need to understand exactly what the shoulder muscles are.

The shoulder is a complicated joint containing multiple layers of superficial and deep muscle tissue.

The major muscles in the shoulder joint include:

  • Rotator Cuff

  • Deltoid

  • Rhomboids

  • Trapezius

Rotator Cuff

You might be surprised to know that the rotator cuff is the most important muscle of the shoulder. It refers to a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joints.

These are:

  • Subscapularis

  • Infraspinatus

  • Teres minor

  • Supraspinatus

From arm abduction to lateral and external rotation, the rotator cuff allows the shoulder joint's ball and socket to move freely in various directions.

With many shoulder injuries relating to the rotator cuff, it's important to include shoulder exercises that target these smaller muscles to reduce the risk of injury.

The best rotator cuff exercises include:

  • Cable External Rotation

  • Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press

  • Reverse Dumbbell Fly

Try: The Best Should Prehab Exercises For Bulletproof Shoulders

Deltoids

When you think of shoulder exercises, it’s usually the delts that come to mind. The deltoid is the largest muscle of the shoulder located on the outside of the shoulder. It is made up of three heads:

  • Anterior Deltoid / Front Delts:

    (located at the front of the shoulder. Promotes shoulder flexion – raising your arm in front of your body.)

  • Lateral Deltoid / Medial Delts:

    (located behind the anterior delt. This is the primary muscle responsible for shoulder abduction – when the arms are moved laterally away from the midline.)

  • Posterior Deltoid / Rear Delts:

    (located at the back of the shoulder. Contributes to shoulder extension – moving your arms behind your body)

Together, these heads of the deltoid are responsible for the arm’s movement in multiple directions, playing a key role in pushing and pulling movements.

The best deltoid exercises include:

  • Overhead Press

  • Lateral Raises

  • Rear Delt Flies

  • Dumbbell front raise

  • Landmine Press

Try: The 6 Best Rear Delt Exercises To Build Strong Shoulders

Rhomboids

Made up of the Rhomboid Major and Rhomboid Minor, the Rhomboids stretch from the top of the spine in our upper back down between the shoulder blades. They help us in contracting (pulling together) our shoulder blades, and strength in them in is essential for overhead exercises and throwing motions.

The best rhomboid exercises include:

  • Face Pulls

  • Bent Over Barbell Row

  • Meadows Row

Try: The Best Back Exercises

Trapezius

You’ll likely recognize the traps as being that triangle-shaped muscle on your upper back. Separated into three key areas, it’s the middle trapezius that runs directly across the top of the shoulders.

The traps play a key role in maintaining good posture and help to both stabilize and move, aiding movements such as shrugging, tilting, and moving the neck.

The best Trap exercises include:

  • Shrugs

  • Rack Pulls

  • Upright rows.

Try: The best trap exercises to build big traps

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The Best Shoulder Exercises To Build Big Shoulders

So now you know what muscles you need to train to build your shoulders, it’s time to move on to the best shoulder exercises. This is where careful planning comes in: It’s very easy to slip into the habit of doing the same shoulder exercises again and again, but shoulder workouts take careful planning to ensure each and every muscle gets the attention it needs. Focus too much on one and neglect another, and you’re unlikely to get those well-rounded shoulders you crave (and risk injury and imbalances!).

So to ensure we are developing well-rounded shoulders, we’ll guide you through a variety of shoulder exercises, hitting different muscles from different angles.

The Best Shoulder Exercises For A Shoulder Workout:

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1. Overhead Shoulder Press

Primary Muscles Worked: Anterior delts

Secondary Muscles Worked: Medial & Lateral Delts, Traps, Triceps, Pecs

The overhead press (also known as the shoulder press, strict press, or military press) is one of the best shoulder exercises. It can be performed seated using a pair of dumbbells or standing using dumbbells or a barbell. If you experience any muscular imbalances, opt for the dumbbells to iron out weaknesses.

As a compound exercise, the shoulder press recruits multiple muscles, including the shoulder muscles, triceps, traps, and lats, as well as the core and glutes, to help with stability when standing. This makes it a great exercise to add to your shoulder workouts for building strength and size in the shoulder muscles, and the whole upper body.

How To Do The Shoulder Press Plus Form Tips

Variation: If you find yourself struggling with pressing overhead due to shoulder mobility issues or injury, you may be better off trying the landmine press. This works similar muscles to the shoulder press, but the bar is pressed at a diagonal angle. This increases stability and reduces injury risk, putting less strain on the shoulder joints whilst still building pressing strength.

2. Upright Row

Primary Muscles Worked: Lateral delts & Traps

Secondary Muscles Worked: Front Delt & Biceps

The upright row is a versatile shoulder exercise that targets the delts and trapezius. This simple movement is very effective at stimulating hypertrophy, improving pulling mechanics, and building strength for rows, deadlifts, and pull-ups.

Turn your attention to Olympic Weightlifting, and upright rows will help train you to keep the bar close to your body—a skill required for cleans and snatches, but much easier said than done, especially if you’re new to lifting!

Usually performed using a barbell or an EZ bar, the upright row can feel awkward at first, but it's worth including in your shoulder workouts if you want to increase size and strength. You can also perform the upright row using two dumbbells, which allows you to use one arm at a time and even out any muscular imbalances.

Discover How To Do The Upright Row

3. Landmine Press

Primary Muscles Worked: Anterior & Lateral Delts

Secondary Muscles Worked: Posterior Delts, Traps, Pecs, Triceps

If you want to build your shoulders and work on your pressing strength but lack the mobility to press overhead, the landmine press is for you.

This compound shoulder exercise involves pressing a barbell mounted in a landmine, giving the bar a fixed bar path as you press up at a diagonal angle. Compared to the overhead press, this puts less strain on the shoulder joints, increasing flexibility and reducing the risk of injury whilst effectively targeting the anterior and lateral delts.

You will need a barbell for this one and, ideally, a landmine anchor (or an alternative way to securely anchor one side of the barbell to the floor). If you’re unsure what a barbell landmine is or where to find one, they are usually attached to the bottom of the squat/power rack in the gym (check out What Is A Barbell Landmine?).

You can perform the landmine press from a standing or half-kneeling position. Both are effective shoulder exercises, but the kneeling position provides better stability and puts less strain on the lower back for those who struggle with back issues.

How To Do The Landmine Press

4. Rear Delt Fly

Primary Muscles worked: Rear delts

Secondary Muscles worked: Traps, Rhomboids

The clue is in the name, but these bad boys will help build those rear delts (basically, the back part of your shoulder). Making up one-third of the shoulder muscle heads, it’s surprising that many people neglect rear delt work in favor of the front and medial delts. However, including rear delt exercises in your shoulder workouts comes with many benefits, including improving posture and building strength for pulling movements – not to mention sculpting well-rounded boulder shoulders.

Rear delt flies can be done using a pair of dumbbells or a rear delt fly machine (or ‘Pec Dec’) machine.

How To Do Rear Delt Flies For Your Shoulder Workout

5. Lateral Raises

Primary Muscles worked: Lateral Delts

Secondary Muscles worked: Anterior & Rear Delts, Traps, Rhomboids

Lateral raises are one of the few isolation shoulder exercises that target the lateral (medial) delts. Working the sides or 'caps' of the shoulders, lateral raises can help build the iconic V-shape top half. They are a great exercise to include in the second half of your shoulder workout following your compound lifts to focus on building size in the lateral delts.

Lateral raises can be performed using dumbbells or a cable, giving you the ability to train both arms simultaneously or one at a time. Go light, but make sure you are using a weight that is challenging enough for 8-12 reps – trust us when we say you’ll feel the burn quickly on these! Focus on performing the raise in a smooth, controlled motion, bracing your core to prevent any momentum from helping to ‘swing’ the weight up. Focus on leading with your elbow and bringing your arms parallel with your shoulders.

How To Do Lateral Raises

6. Frontal Raises

Primary muscles worked: Anterior delts

Secondary muscles worked: Lateral delts, pecs, traps

You're probably starting to see a trend now with these isolation shoulder exercises... Front raises look very similar to lateral raises, but instead of targeting the sides of the shoulders, frontal raises work the front of your shoulder by bringing the arms up in front of you.

If done correctly, adding the dumbbell front raise to your shoulder workouts will help improve shoulder muscle symmetry and strength. If building your pushing strength is a goal, front raises are a great shoulder exercise to help. They build strength for movements such as the bench press while improving shoulder stability and mobility by working the stabilizing shoulder muscles.

Just like lateral raises, you’ll want to go on the lighter side of things for the weight! Going too heavy means you might end up using momentum to ‘swing’ the weight up, instead of fulling using the anterior delts to drive the weight up. The most popular way to perform frontal raises is using a pair of dumbbells, either together or one arm at a time, alternating reps between arms. You can also use a cable machine.

7. Face Pulls

Primary Muscles Worked: Rear delts

Secondary Muscles Worked: Rhomboids, Traps

Face pulls are a cable shoulder exercise that targets the rear delts, rhomboids, and traps. They are excellent shoulder exercises for strength and posture.

Isolating these posterior shoulder muscles means less weight is needed to build strength and size within the target muscles.

Setting the cable above head height will target more of the rear delts and rhomboids, while lowering the cable to head height or just below will place more emphasis on the rear delts and traps.

You can perform face pulls with a pronated (overhand, palms facing down) or supinated (underhand, palms facing up) grip. For your shoulder workout, we recommend using a supinated grip, as this allows for more rotation at the end of the movement, focusing the work in the rear delts.

Think about driving the elbows up and back, and pulling the middle of the rope towards your forehead.

How To Do Face Pulls

8. Shoulder External Rotation

Primary Muscles Worked: Rotator Cuff

Secondary Muscles Worked: Posterior Delt

This shoulder exercise is less of a muscle builder, but it's an excellent prehab exercise for building stability and strength in the rotator cuff and posterior deltoid.

Rotator cuffs are particularly prone to injuries, especially if trained too hard too soon. To mobilize the joint before taking on bigger lifts, add shoulder external rotations to the start of your shoulder workout.

You can perform these using a cable or a resistance band.

How To Do Shoulder External Rotations

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Shoulder Workout Programming

How Should You Structure Your Shoulder Workout?

You can have all the best shoulder exercises in the world, but if you don’t know how to program them into an effective shoulder workout, then you won’t get very far!

Generally, you should start with the big, compound exercises before moving on to isolation movements.

Assuming that growing big shoulders is your goal, you’ll want to stick mainly between the hypertrophy (muscle growth) rep range, which is 8-12 reps at around 70-80% of your one-rep max. That being said, adding in a little lower-rep, heavy-weight strength work for your compound lifts, along with some high-rep, lighter-load training as a finisher at the end of your session, can help optimize muscle growth.

Alongside this, you also mustn’t forget progressive overload – you’re probably bored of hearing us go on about this one, but it’s really important! If you aren’t familiar with progressive overload, it essentially means that to see progress, you must increase the difficulty of your sessions each week, usually by increasing the load (although there are other ways of ramping up the difficulty, too). Growing big shoulders isn’t easy – so you really need to challenge them to force them to work harder!

You’ll also want to make sure you are hitting all the major muscle groups of the shoulder to develop an equal top half. The best shoulder workouts are those that work all the muscles of the shoulder using heavy presses, compound exercises, and isolation movements to chisel and tone individual muscle groups. Including the shoulder exercises above, along with a good shoulder warm-up and post-workout stretch, will give you a good shoulder workout to build size.

How To Warm Up For Your Shoulder Workouts

You should never hit snooze on a warm up, but for shoulder workouts, a warm up is even more important! As mentioned, the shoulder is a complex joint, which makes it particularly susceptible to injuries, strains, and dislocations. Taking 5-10 minutes to properly warm up the shoulder joint at the start of your workout can be fundamental in preventing injury and ensuring a good range of motion.

The best way to warm up for your shoulder workout is by using dynamic stretches that cover all planes of movement (forward and backward flexion, along with adduction and abduction). This helps to increase blood flow, reduce tendon stiffness, and increase power output [1].

While a shoulder warm-up can be done using just your body weight, we recommend using a light, long resistance band to help activate the muscles.

Our favorite shoulder warm-up exercises include:

  • Standing straight arm circles

  • Shoulder wall angels

  • Banded shoulder external rotation

  • Band pull apart

  • Banded face pulls

For more, try our Best Shoulder Prehab Exercises.

Post Workout Shoulder Stretches

Although it can be tempting to walk straight out of the gym after your shoulder workout, taking a few minutes to do some post-shoulder workout stretches can be really beneficial. Static stretches are not only a great way to prevent those horrible day-two DOMs but can also help with flexibility and injury prevention.

Our favorite shoulder static stretches include:

  • Shoulder cross-body stretch

  • Shoulder extension stretch

  • Cow face stretch

  • Child’s pose

  • Overhead triceps stretch

How Many Times A Week Should You Do Shoulder Exercises?

This depends on how many shoulder exercises you are doing per session. According to studies, it is the total weekly training volume, rather than the workout frequency, that matters most for muscle growth [2]. Another study found optimal training volume to sit between 9-15 sets at 70-80% 1 rep max [3]. It doesn’t necessarily matter how many days a week you train shoulders, just that you are hitting them with enough volume across the week to elicit growth.

That being said, the shoulder is a delicate joint, and even if you aren’t doing a dedicated shoulder workout, you’ll still be training your shoulders during compound lifts. Take this into consideration when calculating your overall weekly volume, and spread your shoulder exercises over multiple days to avoid overtraining. Include a couple of shoulder exercises on chest or back day, rather than doing a whole day dedicated to shoulder training, but always remember to allow adequate time for recovery between sessions to avoid overtraining or injury.

Workout programming can be a minefield, but we’ve got you covered: Discover the best programming and workout splits.

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Time To Build Big Shoulders

From working out your deltoids to toning your traps—and not forgetting rehabbing those rotator cuffs—building big shoulders is no easy task by any means. But with pain comes gain, and if you put in the hard graft, you’ll have something to show off in your vest or an athletic build under your muscle fit shirt.

So if you’re ready to sculpt and shape your top half, download The Gymshark Training app, head to the gym, and get lifting – boulder shoulders are on their way.

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WRITTEN BY: Alex Kirkup-Lee

Alex is an inhouse Content Writer for Gymshark’s Health & Conditioning categories. A qualified Personal Trainer, CrossFit Level 1 and Functional Fitness Coach, Alex is experienced in training clients from a range of sporting backgrounds. With a passion for functional training, her favorite workout is anything that includes deadlifts, rowing, or wallballs.

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References:

  1. Opplert, J. and Babault, N. (2017). Acute Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Muscle Flexibility and Performance: An Analysis of the Current Literature. Sports Medicine, [online] 48(2), pp.299–325. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0797-9.

  2. Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B.J., Davies, T.B., Lazinica, B., Krieger, J.W. and Pedisic, Z. (2018). Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Gains in Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 48(5), pp.1207–1220. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0872-x.

  3. Peterson, M.D., Rhea, M.R. and Alvar, B.A. (2005). Applications of the Dose-Response for Muscular Strength Development: A Review of Meta-Analytic Efficacy and Reliability for Designing Training Prescription. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, [online] 19(4), p.950. doi:https://doi.org/10.1519/r-16874.1.

Alex Kirkup-LeeBy Alex Kirkup-Lee

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