You could have the most amazing biceps and chest muscle development, but if your shoulders are underdeveloped, your upper body is going to look small and weak.
Large, well developed shoulders really standout, and, alongside muscular lats, give that impressive v-taper appearance.
The shoulders are important for that broad, strong, well balanced look and make up a big part of your overall physique. They are one of the only muscle groups that are highly visible from the front, side, and rear of the body.
Achieving that well-proportioned, 3-D, muscular development of the shoulders takes planning. You can’t just throw some exercises at them and hope for the best, you need strategic application of a verity of effective exercises.
If your stubborn shoulders seem resistant to growth, or you’re looking for a workout that will build more mass on your shoulders, fast… today’s your lucky day!
In this post, I’m first going to discuss the anatomy and function of the shoulder muscle group – you need to understand this or you’ll forever struggle.
I’ll then cover the best mass building exercises for deltoids, and provide a full workout routine to develop 360 degrees of cannon-ball shoulder muscularity!
Great… let’s get started.
The deltoid (shoulder) is built on a ball and socket joint and is a monoarticular muscle group that moves the arms in all directions.
The deltoid is a complex muscle that is divided into three muscle fibre bundles:
Anterior Head (front): The main function of this muscle is to lift the arm out in front of the body. The front head is heavily involved in all pressing exercises.
Medial Head (side): This muscle is responsible for abducting the arm out to the side and away from the midline of the torso. This muscle is involved in overhead press exercises, but benefits from more direct isolation such as side lateral raises with dumbbells or cables.
Posterior Head (back): This part of the shoulder pulls the arm backward and away from the body. The posterior head is utilized during some back (pulling) exercise such as rows, but is often under developed from lack of direct isolated exercise, such as reverse fly.
The Problem with Shoulder Development
Incorrect Exercise Selection
I see a lot of people in the gym moving from one piece of exercise equipment to another, in the belief that they’re effectively varying exercises, because they’ve heard that exercise variation will help build bigger delts.
Sure, exercise variation is vital for optimal shoulder development, but it must be done intelligently.
Moving from seated dumbbell shoulder press, to machine shoulder press, to barbell military press, in the same workout is not optimal or intelligent variation.
Performing smith machine shoulder press, then barbell shoulder press, then finishing with dumbbell from raises isn’t, either.
These are all effectively the same exercises (with the exception of the front raise) – it’s the same movement repeated, without change to the tension curve, or to targeted portions of the muscles.
Throwing in some front raises because you’ve seen that big dude doing them won’t cut it.
You see, muscle groups are made up of diverging, partitioned, bundles of muscle fibres, and are responsible for complex movement patterns – i.e. – angle of pull and plane of movement.
Randomly hitting the muscle with different exercises is not optimal, it takes some thought, because of the way muscles are partitioned into fibre bundles.
Looking from the outside, the shoulder muscle group might be thought of as one large muscle at the top of the arm, but, as you can see from the anatomy explanation above, it’s partitioned into three distinct heads that can be independently coordinated.
As you can see from closely looking at this muscle group, different exercises are required to target and stimulate growth of the entire muscle bundle – all three heads.
When choosing exercises, you need to think about what the muscle does, and then tactically work the muscle group with 2 – 4 exercises.
The second problem with the deltoids is imbalanced development of the three heads.
Most people who have been training for a while, find that they have a good amount of muscle mass on the front of the shoulder, a moderate amount on the sides, and very little on the back. In 1989 a study by “Deutsche Zeit Sportmedezin” compared the deltoid muscle mass of bodybuilders with sedentary people, and found that:
This common asymmetry comes from the fact that the from head of the shoulder gets worked during chest pressing movements, such as dumbbell, and bench press, even more some when doing incline presses to develop the upper portion of the chest.
The problem is further compounded by poor exercises selection, where people put too much focus on heavy pressing exercises, which primarily works the front and side head of the shoulder.
Having a well-developed posterior (back) head really sets the shoulder off and looks impressive, but the problem is that most people rarely train this part of the shoulder properly.
It can be quite a tricky muscle to isolate, recruit, and stimulate for growth. It’s very important that you incorporate rear delt exercises into your routine, more so than front.
Use a light weight and practice good from until you can really feel the muscle work, then increase the weight over subsequent training sessions to maximize its development.
To achieve great overall shoulder mass and definition, you’ll need to develop this posterior muscle bundle – reverse pec fly, bent over lateral raises with dumbbells or cables, are best.
Best Shoulder Exercises for Overall Mass
Let’s take a look at the most effective exercises, that target each part of the shoulder.
I’ve also looked at some scientific EMG test results to determine some of the best shoulder exercises to incorporate into your training program.
EMG (Electromyography) is a process used to measure the response of a muscle to a specific exercise, in other words, this test finds out how well the exercise is stimulating the target muscle.
I’ve listed to top 3 exercises for each head of the shoulder.
Select one from each and build a workout around them, or follow the shoulder workout below. The best shoulder workouts will include these exercises. I’ve included a link for each exercise that will take you to a description and tutorial on the EXRX database.
Anterior Head (front deltoid exercises):
Medial Head (lateral deltoid exercises):
Posterior Head (back deltoid exercises):
Shoulder Building Workout Program
Shoulders are arguably my strongest body part, which I owe to the exercise routine that I’ve been following on and off for years, which I’ve set out below.
I only ever make slight changes to this every couple of months, such as changing from dumbbell press to military barbell press, switching from dumbbells to cables on side raises (to change the strength curve and line of tension), changing up rep ranges, or changing up the odd exercise.
But I’ve pretty much stuck to this program and it’s served me well. Now it’s your turn to build mass and delt definition, optimally.
And by the way, this shoulder routine is suitable for men and women.
Make sure to warm up properly before starting these shoulder exercises with some mild stretching, followed by a few light rehearsal sets, to get some blood into the muscle, the joint and nervous system warmed up. Always follow the rule of progressive overload, with every muscle group.
Seated Dumbbell Press
If you’re serious about building massive strong shoulders then the dumbbell press should be a staple in your training. There are a lot of variations of this exercise… Arnold, Cuban, and incline presses for example. But we’re going with the tried and true classic seated dumbbell press here.
This exercise moves the arms through a very natural range of motion, placing stimulating tension on the anterior and medial heads and puts the anterior bundle in its best position for work.
The contraction at the top of the movement is much better because it allows for the arms to freely move closer together as they straighten, compared to a barbell where your hands are locked in one position.
How to Perform:
Sit on a bench with back support at its highest setting.
Pick the dumbbells up and let them rest in an upright position on the top of your thighs.
Raise the dumbbells to shoulder height (starting position) one at a time, using your thighs to help propel them up. Make sure your palms are facing forward.
Arching your back when pressing shifts emphasis to a different plane of movement and therefore taking some of the tension off the target muscle (shoulders) and directing it to the upper pectorals.
To keep the tension on the muscle and maintain good form your back should be firmly placed against the pad and maintain a slightly “retracted” position of your shoulders to eliminate your shoulders from sloughing forward.
Maintain an erect spine and stop any back arching. Contracting your abs can help maintain this firm position.
To insure optimum shoulder muscle recruitment, make sure that your forearm is perpendicular (90 degrees) to the floor through EVERY rep of the exercise.
Your hands should be in direct line with your elbow. They should never move your hands inside or outside of that line.
Side Lateral raises
This is my favourite shoulder exercise and the best to give the shoulders that rounded look from the front. It’s the only exercise that offers great isolation of the medial head, while minimizing the recruitment of the anterior and posterior heads.
Side lateral raises can be done using either dumbbells, cable pulley or machine.
All are very effective but the cable provides the greatest tension throughout the entire range of motion because of the direction of resistance. However, I recommend switching between dumbbells and cables weekly for some variety to the tension curve.
How to perform:
There’s no need to bring your hands above shoulder height when doing side lateral raises. Don’t try lifting the arms as high as possible, stop when the arm is parallel with the floor.
The medial head is in a fully shortened position at shoulder level. Going any higher will recruit the trapezius muscles.
Maintain good form during this exercise, don’t swing the weight, jerk or twist your body. Keep your body in a static position concentrating on just contracting the medial head and lifting the arm out to the side.
Keep the weight fairly light so that you reach failure around the 12 rep mark and so that you are able to maintain good form. Remember, explode up and slow on the way down maintaining constant tensions on the muscle through every rep.
Reverse Fly’s or Face-pulls
Perform this exercise using a rear deltoid machine if your gym has one, or a chest fly machine with handles on a reverse setting.
Before you start, grip the handles and place your shoulders in a protracted position. Protract your shoulders by moving them forward slightly while keeping your torso completely still. You may find it difficult to maintain this position at first but it’s essential to properly isolate the posterior deltoid.
Set the seat so that your hands are in line with your chin. When bringing your arms back keep a slight bend in your elbows and keep them up. Squeeze the muscle for one seconds when you move your arms all the way back.
For face-pulls, use a rope attachment on a cable machine, pull the rope towards your face, keeping elbows out and level with your shoulders.
This exercise is optional, because the anterior head (front of the shoulder) is heavily involved in pressing movements, such as bench pressing, so most people find that this muscle is fairly well developed.
However, if you find that the front of your shoulders need some work to equal the development of the other deltoid heads, and develop overall delt definition, then do a couple of front raises to finish off your shoulder training.
This exercise can be done using different equipment such as straight bar, kettlebells, EZ bar, dumbbells, large plate, cables etc.
The best way to do this front shoulder exercise is on a machine cable with handle using a pronated grip (palms facing down) or by using a rope attachment and a neutral grip (thumbs facing up).
These exercises are all you really need for well-rounded shoulder strength and muscle development.
Lifting Tempo: 2-1-3-0
Your lifting tempo should be 1-2 seconds on the way up (concentric) in an exploding motion, 1 second pause at the top, 3 seconds to lower the weight (Eccentric – very important to maintain a slow and controlled contraction on this part), 0 second pause at the bottom.
Now go get those cannon ball delts!