The Top 10 Exercises for Building Bigger Shoulders

The Top 10 Exercises for Building Bigger Shoulders

The Anatomy and Function of The Shoulder

Building strength in the shoulders is hugely important for so many individuals. The shoulders are at a greater risk of injury in comparison to a number of other joints and structure. This is because the shoulder joint is relatively shallow and the surrounding musculature can easily become weak through inactivity and poor posture.

The function of the shoulder is to give movement and strength to the arms. The shoulder girdle is formed by 2 bones – the clavicle and scapula – that come together to create a strong base for the arm to insert into. The upper end of humerus (bone in the upper arm) has a ball-like shape which fits into the base created by the shoulder girdle. Due to the shallowness of the shoulder joint, there are a number of important ligaments, tendons and muscles surrounding, that work to stabilize the joint.

Because the shoulder is a ball and socket joint, the potential for movement is very great. There are a multitude of muscles that insert onto the clavicle, scapula, and humerus which allows the arm to move through a range of movements such as, shoulder flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, internal and external rotation.

The main muscle of the shoulder is the deltoid; a rounded triangular muscle that sits on top of the shoulder girdle. The muscle originates from 3 points – the scapula, acromion (tip of the scapula) and the clavicle – and all insert onto the humerus (upper arm).

There are 3 “heads” of the delts which are referred to as the anterior, lateral, and posterior delt. It may be possible to figure out where these heads are located based on their names. The anterior Delt is located at the front of the shoulder, the lateral Delt runs right along the top of the shoulder, while the posterior Delt is the rear portion.

With this understanding of shoulder anatomy and function, it should be apparent that when attempting to build size in the shoulders, it is wise to focus much of our efforts on building the size of the delts.

Muscular Hypertrophy Considerations

Before we have a look at the top 10, let’s briefly cover the basics of hypertrophy (muscle growth). Before even considering physical training, it is imperative that anyone looking to build muscle has an in-depth look at their nutrition. There are two influential factors when it comes to nutrition and muscle growth – a calorie surplus and daily protein intake.

A calorie surplus is where the number of calories consumed exceeds the number of calories burned. This will provide the body with more calories than it actually requires which will enhance muscle recovery after strength training sessions. Without this surplus, developing muscular size is challenging, if not impossible.

Secondly, consuming an adequate amount of daily protein should be high on the priority list when building muscle mass. This is because protein’s primary function within the body revolves around repair and growth. Consequently, by consuming a high dose of protein per day, we can once again enhance post-workout recovery.

Once these have been established, it’s time to consider strength training. When it comes to hypertrophy training, the previous understanding was that training each muscle group once per week was optimal for muscle growth. However, new research suggests that training a muscle group multiple times per week has a greater impact on muscle development (1).

This may come as a surprise to many, as for years the “5-day split” has been used by bodybuilders and seen as the best method for building size. For optimal growth, it’s worth considering moving away from the split and following a program that hits each muscle group 2-3 times per week.

The Exercise Selection Process

In order for an exercise to meet the “shoulder building” criteria, it must do two things. Firstly, the movements performed must activate the deltoids to a large degree. This can be verified by looking at scientific studies investigating the electrical activity (EMG) generated during a host of different shoulder exercises.

The second consideration is the loads that can be used for the exercise. In order to drive strength and size, we need to apply a great deal of stress to the deltoids. The best way we can effectively do this is to use heavy loads. Therefore, it would make sense to prioritize “big” exercises which allow the use of heavier weights, over smaller, lighter exercises.

The Top 10

Have researched a number of shoulder strength exercises, let’s now break down the top 10 mass building shoulder exercises.

1) Barbell Push Press

With the push press, it should be possible to lift a great deal of weight, more so than any other shoulder exercise in existence. This is because, initially the push press requires power to be generated from the hips and knees in order drive the bar in a vertical path. Once the bar is moving, the deltoids (along with a number of other upper body muscles) must powerfully engage in order to lock-out the elbows and successfully complete the lift.

For the push press, start by placing the feet slightly wider than the hips and keep the bar touching the upper chest so that the elbows are directly under the bar. From that position, focus on dipping and rapidly driving through the hips while simultaneously pushing the bar upward until it is directly over the head. The more explosive the movement is, the faster the bar moves vertically which will allow heavier loads to be pressed.

2) Barbell Overhead Press

The movements required for the push press and an overhead press are similar, with the only difference being that the overhead press is simply a press with no assistance from the legs. In terms of specifically targeting the delts, the overhead press is an excellent exercise. However, without power being generated from the powerful glutes and quads (as in a push press) the loads used for overhead press will be lighter.

To execute the barbell overhead press, take up the same stance as the push press – feet wider than hips, core engaged and bar at the upper chest. Prior to driving the bar up, focus on squeezing the glutes together – this will help to protect the lower back by maintaining a neutral spine alignment and prevent the hips from drifting forward. Finally, when pushing the bar overhead, aim to keep it close to the face which will facilitate a more efficient bar path and lead to a better lift overall.

Studies have indicated that the dumbbell overhead press actually has more of an impact on delt activation however, it is possible to lift heavier with a barbell overhead press due to the fact that stability is generally greater when using a barbell.

3) Dumbbell Incline Row

While a row is generally used for back development – specifically the lats, rhomboids and traps – it is also a superb posterior delt developer. This is highlighted by a recent study which investigated the EMG activity of each head during a number of shoulder-based resistance exercises. The results indicated that, during the row, the delts were activated to a large degree and greater EMG activity was seen when compared to a number of other shoulder exercises. The row appears to be specifically effective at targeting the rear and lateral heads of the delts (2).

When setting up for this exercise, begin by placing a bench on an incline. Grab two dumbbells and lie directly on top of the bench so that the entire trunk is in contact. Starting with arms extended, focus on keeping the shoulders down and pull the elbows in tight to the ribcage ensuring to squeeze between the shoulder blades at the top of the movement.

4) Seated Barbell Overhead Press

Having covered the benefits of the overhead press, it is possible to make a slight adjustment to increase the difficulty and challenge of the exercise. By sitting, it immediately becomes much more difficult to use momentum to continually push the bar upward from the chest. Additionally, being seated also provides a better, more stable base to push from which may place a greater demand on the delts.

As touched upon earlier, by using the barbell over the dumbbell, it is typically possible to lift a greater weight as a result of the enhanced stability that a barbell provides. Research also indicates that barbell may have a greater anterior delt activation associated with them in comparison to dumbbells (3).

5) Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

The primary benefit of using dumbbells over barbells is the fact that they work both limbs independently. By using two individual weights instead of one fixed weight (barbell), stability of the movement decreases which places a greater demand on the surrounding stabilizing muscles. Additionally, dumbbells often allow for a greater movement, in comparison to the barbell, and therefore it is possible to work the delts through a larger range of motion.

Once again, the seated position reduces the use of momentum by nullifying the lower body. Unlike the barbell press where the bar is in front of the face, the dumbbell overhead press aligns the weight with the middle of the shoulder and therefore engages the lateral Delt to a greater degree, rather than the anterior Delt.

6) Upright Row

The upright row is another lateral Delt exercise, which can be completed using a variety of equipment such as barbells, dumbbells, cables and even the smith machine.  The exercise involves assuming a narrow grip and bringing the load up to the upper chest by driving the elbows high, above the height of the shoulders. A close grip has been found to enhance the rows range of motion, however, a wider grip is associated with a greater delt engagement (4).

7) Arnold Press

Named after bodybuilding legend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the arnold press is a variation on the seated dumbbell overhead press which incorporates rotation. To perform this exercise, start with the weight in line with the shoulders and palms facing towards the body. As the dumbbells drive up, focus on rotating the dumbbells so that at the top of the movement the palms are facing forward. Reverse the movement as the dumbbells lower and return to the starting position.

8) Machine Rear Delt Fly

The final three exercises are isolation, or single joint exercise, which are useful for ironing out any weaknesses or imbalances. The rar Delt fly is a specifically important isolation exercise for ensuring comprehensive shoulder development, as many individuals place too much emphasis on the anterior and lateral heads and end up neglecting the rear Delt.

For this exercise, the main focus should be on maintaining straight arms throughout the movement and driving the arms back as far as possible. It is recommended to use a neutral grip with this machine as a pronated grip (palms down) will fail to activate the muscle to the same extent (5). 

9) Dumbbell Lateral Raise

To isolate the lateral delts, focus on the lateral raise. Simply, hold two dumbbells by the hips and drive straight arms out to the side until they are approximately in line with the shoulders. As far as possible, avoid bringing the dumbbells back down to the side of the hips and stop at approximately 30° from the hips. The purpose of this is to maintain tension in the delts for the duration of the set. 

10) Dumbbell Front Raise

The movement required for the dumbbell front raise is identical to the lateral raise; the only difference being the plane in which the arm moves. This time, start with the dumbbells at the front of the thighs and look to raise straight arms directly up until approximately aligned with the shoulders. As the name suggests, this isolation exercise places the most demand on the anterior head of the delt.

Final Word

Now, this top 10 exercise we’ve covered are not to be treated as exclusive and I would not recommend trying to incorporate all 10 exercises into a training program. Instead, consider training goals, exercise preferences and experience before selecting a number of the aforementioned exercises.

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1- J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jul;29(7):1821-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000970.

2- Sweeney, Samantha P. (2014-05). Electromyographic analysis pf the deltoid muscle during various shoulder exercises

3- Saeterbakken, Atle H.; Fimland, Marius S. (2013-7). “Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27 (7): 1824–1831. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b873. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 23096062.

4- McAllister, Matthew J.; Schilling, Brian K.; Hammond, Kelley G.; Weiss, Lawrence W.; Farney, Tyler M. (2013-1). “Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27 (1): 181–187. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f23ad. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 22362088.

5- J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Oct;27(10):2644-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318281e1e9.

Jacob Ladon
Jacob Ladon is a staff writer and former amateur bodybuilder. He has been passionate about bodybuilding since he was 15 years old and discovered the joys of training in the gym. He reports and comments on all bodybuilding related matters.