When I first started working out, I had absolutely not idea how to workout my shoulders in safe, effective manner.
I would do tons of strange exercises that I saw the bigger guys in the gym doing, not realizing that many of these guys were on steroids so the traditional "laws of gravity" that govern how easy it is to gain muscle didn't apply to them.
It wasn't until I sustained multiple prolonged shoulder injuries that I finally decided to start lifting smarter.
And you'll never guess what happened...
I got bigger and stronger!
The good news is that, after 10 years of lifting the wrong way, lifting the right way, and figuring out what works, I know exactly how I should have been working out my shoulders the whole time.
These days, my shoulder injuries rarely flare up, but they're still there.
It's not to late for you though! Using the information I'll share throughout the article, my hope is that you'll avoid a similar fate.
Anatomy Of The Shoulder Muscles
When we talk about the muscles that make up your shoulder, we're generally referring to the Deltoids, or "delts".
The Deltoid is comprised of three sections:
- Anterior (Front) Deltoid
- Posterior (Rear) Deltoid
- Lateral (Mid) Deltoid
Here's a visual representation:
It's important to train each part of the deltoid proportionately so that you don't develop any kind of strength imbalances.
These types of issues, if left uncorrected, could potentially result in a shoulder injury or lob-sided physique.
You'll find that some exercises--and we'll talk about which ones shortly--work different parts of the deltoid muscles, so it's not as simple as just doing a bunch of shoulder exercises.
In fact, most shoulder exercises are a waste of time!
The truth is, you can build the shoulders of your dreams by sticking with a handful of exercises and abiding by a few guiding principles...
What Makes A Great Shoulder Workout?
If you're really serious about building bigger/stronger/more-defined shoulders that you can be proud of, you'll want to keep a few things in mind for your shoulder workouts.
Lift Heavy. Focus On Getting Stronger
You can't get bigger if you don't get stronger. That is, assuming you're not on steroids.
If you are on steroids, congratulations! You can just go to the gym for two hours a day and get a nice pump on doing hundreds of reps of light weight and you'll magically get bigger and stronger.
For the rest of us though, it's a little harder than that...
Your body doesn't necessarily "want" to gain muscle, so you have to continuously reinforce the notion that it needs to build muscle.
By lifting heavy weight, over and over, until you get stronger.
That means usually working with a weight that is about 85% or so of your 1 Rep Max (1RM), doing about 4-6 reps per set.
Start with a weight that you can lift for 4. Lift it until you get it for 6. Then add more weight and repeat the process.
This is called progressive overload. If there's one fundamental underlying principle that should guide your should workouts, it's progressive overload.
In order to get bigger, you need to get stronger. In order to get stronger, you need to continuously add more weight to the bar.
Keep In Mind Your Shoulders Are Always Working
Your shoulder muscles are getting a workout even when you're not lifting shoulders. The shoulder joint is one of the most inter-connected, delicate joints in the whole body.
That's why it's usually a bad idea to lift shoulders the day after you lift chest or back.
It's also a bad idea to do a ton of unnecessary, light-weight exercises.
This only places additional stress on the delicate joint that lies within the shoulder which can eventually result in an injury that keeps you out of the gym for a while.
Trust me, a thing or two about prolonged horrible injuries!
Hit All 3 Shoulder Muscles
As I said earlier, it's imperative that you work all three delts to roughly the same degree.
Most people make the critical mistake of only focusing on certain exercises that work certain parts of the deltoid.
If you do front delt raises and don't do lateral delt raises or rear delt raises, you'll probably develop an imbalance which could ultimately impact:
- joint health
I've run into all of those issues and I can assure you, they're not fun!
Not to worry though...
Just stick with the exercises and workout routines I'm about to lay out for you and you'll never run into any such problems.
I just wish I knew all this 10 years ago! Live and learn though, right!
Anyway, let's get to the meat of this sandwich and talk shoulder exercises...
The Best Shoulder Exercises
As I said earlier, you don't need to do a ton of different exercises or exercise-variations to build strong, angular shoulders that pop.
You can easily get there with 5 or 6 different exercises, done in accordance with the principles we laid out earlier.
The military press, also referred to as the "shoulder press" is hands down the single most important shoulder exercise for building strength and packing on muscle mass.
Here's what it looks like:
While the importance of the traditional standing barbell military press should never be overlooked, there are some other variations to consider.
Seated Shoulder Press
The seated shoulder press is simply a variation of the military press where you're sitting, usually with some sort of back support.
Here's how to do it:
Of course, then we have the ever-lasting debate of barbells vs dumbbells...
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press is performed like this:
You won't be able to press as much total weight with the seated dumbbell shoulder press, but research indicates that total muscle activation may be slightly greater with dumbbells compared to barbell shoulder press.
This makes sense when you consider that dumbbells require more muscle stabilization.
Although I typically preach about not going overboard with different variations, you should experiment with some.
- Seated vs Standing
- Dumbbells vs Barbells
All of them are worth doing, but you don't have to do them all every time. In fact, that's probably not such a good idea if not getting injured is a priority of any kind.
That's why I typically stick with standing barbell curls and then every other week or so I'll use dumbbells.
Nothing crazy, just some slight variation.
Upright Barbell Row
The upright barbell row is a simple, yet powerful movement which easily allows for progressive overload.
Here's how you do it:
You need to be careful when it comes to form on this one. The bar should be moving vertically, straight upward.
Front Delt Raise
When it comes to isolation exercises for the delts, nothing beats the front delt raise.
Here's what it looks like:
This exercise, though simple, is extremely effective for building the anterior (front) deltoids.
You can either do one are at a time with dumbbells, or hold a barbell with even more weight and lift it with two arms.
Both are effective variations for building mass and really getting those 3d delts that pop.
Lateral Delt Raise
Remember earlier when we established that you need to train all three sections of your deltoids?
Well, if you crush 3 sets of heavy front-delt raises, you better follow it up with some lateral delt action!
Lateral delt raises are awesome more isolating the the lateral (side) delts.
Here's how to do them:
Just make sure you utilize proper form on those and don't let yourself cheat.
Bent-Over Lateral Raises
When it comes to rear delts...I know a few tricks. One of them is the bent-over lateral raise, which pretty much everyone does wrong.
Here's how to do it right, with the emphasis on the rear delts.
Achieving the proper angle is essential with this one. You may need to experiment with slightly different positions, depending on your level of flexibility and rear-delt strength.
Just make sure you feel it in your rear-delts, not your rhomboids or traps.
This is rear-delt trick number two for you. Reverse flyes with your thumbs facing in and your palms facing the ground.
Here's a visual if you're not quite understanding:
This simple variation of a "would be" back exercise is all it takes to place the emphasis almost squarely on the rear delt.
I would not have the rear delts I have today had I not accidentally discovered this one while attempting to do reverse flyes for back.
Last but not least, we have a nice rear-delt/trap-building exercise that allows you to take it down a notch with the heavy lifting and work within the 6-8 rep range, while still actually getting somewhere.
Here's how to do them properly:
I wouldn't say face-pulls are a make-or-break type exercise, but they're definitely worth throwing in your shoulder workouts every now and then to build that rear delt/upper-trap definition.
I do these like every other week.
The Ultimate Shoulder Workout
Now that we've carved out a nice handful of exercises to incorporate into our shoulder workouts, let's talk about the actual workouts.
First though, let's get one thing crystal clear...
You do not need to do tons of reps, sets, and exercises.
- 5-6 exercises per workout.
- 3 sets per exercise.
- 4-6 reps per exercise.
That may not seem like a lot, but if you're really lifting heavy (85% of your 1RM for most exercises), you'll be making some serious shoulder gains.
So, here it is. The ultimate shoulder workout...
Supplements That Help
The truth is...
No supplement will help you gain muscle if you're not already taking the necessary steps to ensure your diet and exercise program or on point.
If you've made it this far, you're now equipped with the ultimate shoulder workout blueprint, and assuming your diet is high in protein and not too low in carbs, there are some supplements that can help.
First and foremost, we have Creatine. This is by far the most extensively researched workout supplement on the planet, and all the research is quite unanimous.
Creatine has been proven time and time again to:
- Increase Strength And Power
- Improve Body Composition (More Muscle, Less Fat)
- Speed Up Recovery/Reduce Soreness
Making it really the only muscle-building supplement that not only has a ton of research inidicating it works, but also that it's incredible safe.
A Clinically Dosed Pre-Workout Supplement
A pre-workout supplement can make a huge difference when it comes to:
- Motivation To Train
- Physical Strength/Endurance
- Energy And Focus
But, unfortunately, the vast majority of pre-workout supplements are under-dosed and ineffective.
That's why I took matters into my own hands a couple years ago and created my own pre-workout, Catalyst.
Each serving of Catalyst contains clinically effective doses of:
Beta-Alanine (3.6 grams) - proven to boost muscular endurance and increase lean body mass
Betaine Anhdrous (2.5 grams) - proven to increase strength and power output during exercise.
Alpha GPC (600mg) - shown to increase power output (contractile force) and enhance cognitive function through non-stimulant means.
Caffeine (250mg) - We all know about Caffeine. It makes you more alert and focused. But it also directly improves physical performance as well (strength and endurance).
L-Theanine (100mg) - Theanine has been shown, in numerous studies, to reduce the negative side effects of Caffeine while further amplifying the cognitive enhancement aspects.
The Bottom Line On Shoulder Workouts
Building bigger, stronger 3-dimensional shoulders that pop at every angle is no easy task. It takes a lot of dedicated and hard-work.
But make no mistake...
It's entirely possible, as long as you keep in mind what we talked about in this article.
Just to reiterate, you should:
- Focus On Getting Stronger (Progressive Overload)
- Stick With Mostly Heavy, Compound Exercises
- Hit All Of The Deltoid Muscles
Do those things right and you'll be well on your way to shoulder workout mastery.
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Matt Theis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Momentum Nutrition. Among other things, he is chiefly responsible for product formulation and has spent years researching, testing, and developing supplements.