The Ultimate Shoulder Workout: The Best Shoulder Exercises for Big Delts

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:

#lifegoals ?

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.

Understanding Shoulder Anatomy

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 lateral 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 lateral 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.

Would you rather listen to this article? Click the play button below!

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The Simple Science of Effective Shoulder Training

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.

[Read: The Best Way to Stimulate Muscle Hypertrophy (Build Muscle)]

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.

I’ve tried many different splits and frequency schemes and what I’ve found works best is in line two extensive reviews on the subject.

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.

The Best Shoulder Exercises

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.

1. Seated or Standing Military Press

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.

EMG research has shown that dumbbell pressing may activate the shoulder muscles slightly more than barbell pressing, but the effects seen were small and EMG data isn’t exactly rock solid.

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:

  • Your 1RM will be lower.
  • You have to be more careful when you’re trying to move heavy weights (80%+ of 1RM).

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:

2. Arnold Press

The Arnold press is a variation of the traditional dumbbell press that increases the range of motion.

Here’s how to do it:

3. Dumbbell Front Raise

The dumbbell front raise is an effective exercise for targeting the anterior deltoid.

Here’s how to do it:

4. Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

The dumbbell side lateral raise is the most effective exercise for building the lateral 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:

5. Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

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:

6. Barbell Rear Delt Row

The barbell rear lateral row is another great exercise for targeting the posterior deltoids. Here’s how to do it:

7. Face Pull

The face pull is a great exercise for strengthening both the posterior deltoids and the rotator cuff muscles.

Here’s how it’s done:

Remember–Progression is the Key to Muscle Growth

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.

[Read: How to Create the Ultimate Muscle Building Workout]

Remember that as a natural weightlifter looking to get bigger, you must focus on getting stronger.

The Ultimate Shoulder Workout

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

Face Pull

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:

  • Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight.

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.

  • Rest 3 minutes in between each 4-to-6-rep set, 2 minutes in between 6-to-8-rep sets, and 1 minute in between 8-to-10-rep sets.

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.

  • Make sure you’re eating enough food.

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.

This type of training is the core of my Bigger Leaner Stronger (for men) and Thinner Leaner Stronger (for women) programs and I have hundreds of success stories that prove its effectiveness.

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.

Happy training!

What About Supplements?

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.

[Read: The Ultimate Guide to the Best (and Worst) Workout Supplements]

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.

If you want to read the rest of this article, including my supplement recommendations for building bigger shoulders, click here to learn more.

What’s your take on shoulder workouts? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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