No matter how big your arms, chest, or back are…an upper body just isn’t complete without well-developed shoulders.
For example, check out this picture of Greg Plitt, who had one of the greatest physiques I’ve ever seen:
Great chest, great traps, good lats, but shoulders are lacking. He knew that, though, and after several years of work, here is what he achieved:
Now, if you’re reading this article, I don’t think I have to do much to convince you to build bigger, stronger shoulders. You’re sold. You just need to know how.
I bet you’ve tried too. You’ve poured who knows how many hours of time and gallons of sweat into your delts only to be disappointed. I know how that goes.
The reality is anyone who says building impressive shoulders is easy is lying. It takes a lot of work–the right work–and patience. It can be done though. And this article is going to show you how.
So, let’s first take a quick look at the anatomy of the shoulders so we understand what we’re trying to achieve in our shoulder workouts and then we’ll talk about how to build size and strength.
Your shoulders are comprised of three major muscles known as deltoids, and here’s how they look:
It’s very important to develop all three heads of this muscle, because if one is lagging, it will be painfully obvious.
In most cases, the medial and posterior deltoids need the most work because the anterior deltoids do get trained to some degree in a good chest workout, and nobody skips chest day. Chest training doesn’t adequately train the other two deltoid heads though.
Let’s use my own physique as an example. First, check out the following picture taken about 7 years ago, before I knew what I was doing with my training and dieting:
Look at my left shoulder and how small it is compared to the middle of my upper arm and how much it’s overpowered by my chest (as you can see, I never skipped chest day). And let’s not talk about my calves. 😉
Keep in mind that I was training shoulders at that time. I was doing a lot of sets of pressing and raises as a part of a traditional bodybuilder workout that focused on isolation exercises, the 10 to 12+ rep reange, fancy rep schemes including drop sets, supersets, etc., and so forth.
Soon after I took that picture, I threw away the muscle mags and began truly educating myself on how to build muscle and strength and lose fat.
After about a year of this new style of eating and training, which I teach in my books, I looked like this:
It’s quite an improvement, of course (I was thrilled), but let’s focus again on that left shoulder because it’s still lagging. The medial head in particular lacked size–it didn’t protrude enough to balance the size of my triceps.
I kept working at it, however, and here’s a shot of me taken a couple years later:
My shoulders need a bit more work but I think you’ll agree they have greatly improved and are now fairly proportional to my arms, chest, and back.
I’ve learned quite a bit along the way, of course, and that’s what I’m going to share with you here in this article.
The two biggest mistakes most people make in their shoulder workouts are:
1. Focusing on the wrong shoulder exercises.
Many people focus too much on machines and isolation exercises, which are of secondary importance in building big, round delts.
2. Focusing on high-rep training.
This mistake will stunt the growth of every major muscle group in the body and is particularly detrimental in a smaller muscle group like the shoulders.
If those two points go against a lot of what you’ve heard and/or assumed about shoulder training, I understand.
I used to do every shoulder machine in the gym and used to think that smaller muscle groups responded better to lower weights and higher reps.
Well, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about lifting and building muscle naturally is the more you emphasize compound movements and heavy lifting (80 to 85% of 1RM and higher), the better your results.
And in terms of training the shoulders, that means a lot of heavy barbell and dumbbell pressing with supplementary work for the side and rear delts.
“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does a billion reps in his shoulder workouts and has cannonball shoulders… What gives?”
If only you had his #dedication. All 2 grams of it that he injects every week.
I know, that might sound cynical, but it’s true.
When the right steroids enter the picture, achieving muscle growth is mind-numbingly simple: sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing rep after rep after rep, exercise after exercise, and muscles get bigger and bigger.
In fact, when steroids are involved, focusing on high-rep training is generally recommended.
Steroids cause muscles to grow rapidly but don’t help tendons and ligaments keep up, so weights that feel manageable can simply be too much for connective tissues.
This is a common way that steroid users screw up their joints.
There’s another reason why steroids produce abnormally large shoulders, traps, and upper chest regions.
These areas of the body are quite dense in androgen receptors, which are special types of proteins in cells that respond to certain hormones in the blood (including anabolic hormones like testosterone).
Thus, when large amounts of anabolic hormones are introduced into the body, the shoulders, traps, and pecs are hyper-responsive and grow very quickly and can reach freaky levels of size.
Don’t be discouraged, though.
You can build a great set of shoulders without drugs. It just takes a bit of know-how, hard work, and patience. The strategy is simple enough:
1. Focus on lifting heavy weights in your shoulder workouts.
If you want your shoulders to get big and strong, you’ll want to focus on the 4 to 6 or 5 to 7 rep range.
2. Focus on the shoulder exercises that safely allow for progressive overload.
As a natural weightlifter, you can take this to the bank: if you don’t continue to get stronger, you won’t continue to get bigger.
The number one rule of natural muscle building is progressive overload, which means adding weight to the bar over time.
Well, certain exercises don’t lend themselves well to both heavy lifting and progressive overload. Upright rows, for example, increase the risk of shoulder impingement. Behind-the-neck presses are dicey too.
Another aspect of your shoulder training that you have to get right is volume, or the total amount of reps you do each week.
This is especially important when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the general rule is this:
The heavier the reps, the fewer you can do each week.
Heavier weights necessitate more recovery, which means you can’t do as many every week without risking overtraining.
When your training emphasizes heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This not only applies to the shoulders but to every other major muscle group as well.
Alright, now that we have basic training theory under our belts, let’s look at the best shoulder exercises for building muscle and strength.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
Like with most muscle groups, there are scores of shoulder exercises you can choose from but only a small handful are really necessary.
These are the exercises I’ve used to dramatically improve my shoulders. They will help you do the same.
Barbell and dumbbell pressing is the most effective way to build your shoulders because although it focuses on the anterior head of the deltoid, it also involves the other two, and it allows you to push heavy weight without risking injury.
Practically speaking, I wouldn’t say the dumbbell military press is better than the barbell press or vice versa.
Like the bench press, I’ve found dumbbell and barbell pressing to be complementary and have included both in my workout routines for some time now. Both require strength and stability and both produce good results, and I recommend you alternate between them.
What I like to do is 6 to 8 weeks of heavy barbell pressing followed by 6 to 8 weeks of heavy dumbbell pressing.
Now, there are two variations of the military press–standing and seated.
Give them a try and you’ll quickly learn that the standing military press (also known as the overhead press) is significantly harder than the seated. And harder usually means better.
The same EMG study I cited earlier supports this, showing that the standing presses (both dumbbell and barbell) activated the shoulder muscles slightly more than their seated counterparts.
Furthermore, many well-informed fitness experts say the standing barbell press is the superior choice and I don’t necessarily disagree. In terms of whole-body training, there’s no question that the standing press is superior.
That said, there are two drawbacks to the standing military press that you should be aware of:
You see, the standing press places a lot more stress on the lower back and core than the seated press, which means you won’t be able to lift as much weight and you’ll be at a higher risk of injury if your form is sloppy.
These disadvantages are especially true with the standing dumbbell press, which really doesn’t lend itself to heavy pressing.
This makes the overhead press a better whole-body exercise but if you’re trying to maximally overload your shoulders, the seated press allows you to “target” your shoulders with heavier weights.
My personal preference is the seated military press (barbell and dumbbell) because I feel that my heavy deadlifting and squatting is more than enough for my core and back.
That said, I do like to alternate between standing (barbell) and seated (dumbbell and barbell) military pressing.
I prefer the seated military press because the standing variation requires quite a bit of balance and lower back stability to perform, and as I squat and deadlift heavy every week, I don’t feel I need any more lower back training.
Here’s how to properly do the seated barbell military press:
And here’s the dumbbell press:
Here’s how to do the standing barbell military press correctly:
And the standing dumbbell press:
The Arnold press is a variation of the traditional dumbbell press that increases the range of motion.
Here’s how to do it:
The dumbbell front raise is an effective exercise for targeting the anterior deltoid.
Here’s how to do it:
The dumbbell side lateral raise is the most effective exercise for building the medial (middle) deltoid, which needs targeted work to keep up with the anterior head. Pressing alone won’t get the job done.
Here’s how to do it:
As your shoulders get stronger, you’ll find it harder to maintain proper form when trying to lift both dumbbells simultaneously.
An effective way to get around this without cheating is to do a hanging variant of the exercise:
The posterior (rear) deltoid is the smallest and weakest of the three heads of the shoulders, but it shouldn’t be neglected.
If you want “three-dimensional” shoulders that don’t fall completely flat in the back, you want to train your rear delts. And the dumbbell rear lateral raise is a great exercise for this.
Here’s how to do it:
You can also do a standing variation of this exercise:
The barbell rear lateral row is another great exercise for targeting the posterior deltoids. Here’s how to do it:
The face pull is a great exercise for strengthening both the posterior deltoids and the rotator cuff muscles.
Here’s how it’s done:
That’s it on the exercises. Out of all the dozens and dozens you could do, these seven are all you need to build strong, full, and functional shoulders.
The key, however, isn’t just doing the above exercises. It’s progressing on them. That is, increasing the amount of weight you can handle over time.
Remember that as a natural weightlifter looking to get bigger, you must focus on getting stronger.
A good shoulder workout trains all three heads of the muscle and focuses on heavy lifting.
Just like any other muscle group, shoulders can benefit from higher-rep work, but you have to emphasize heavy weightlifting if you want the best possible results.
So, here’s what I want you to do for the next 8 weeks, once every 5 to 7 days:
Seated or Standing Military Press
Warm up and 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps (80 to 85% of 1RM)
Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps or 6 to 8 reps (75 to 80% of 1RM) if you can’t maintain proper form with 4 to 6
Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise or Barbell Rear Delt Row
3 sets of 6 to 8 reps
3 sets of 8 to 10 reps (70 to 75% of 1RM)
That’s it. And trust me–it’s harder than it looks.
A few odds and ends:
For instance, if push out 6 reps on your first set of the military press, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can press it for 6 reps, and so forth.
Getting adequate rest in between sets is important because it allows your muscles to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
Most people know that high protein intake is necessary to maximize muscle growth but don’t know that calorie intake also plays a major role.
Learn more here.
If you give this workout a go and like it, I highly recommend you check out BLS/TLS because you’re going to love it.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your shoulder (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- and long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.