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Top 12 Exercises For Big Shoulders

Ah, the quest for those broad, commanding shoulders

Over the years, I’ve been on the hunt for the best routines and exercises to sculpt my deltoids, giving me a more defined and impressive silhouette. I’ve tried my fair share of workouts – some successful, others not so much. 

But, the journey led me to discover a solid mix of traditional and innovative exercises, which I’ve woven into my personal regime and watched as my shoulders blossomed into their current state of robustness

Now, I’m thrilled to share these gems with you. 

Whether you’re just starting out or you’re an old hand looking to switch things up, here are my top 12 exercises for shoulder mass that have personally transformed my physique. 

Prepare yourself for a world of gains!

Anatomy Of The Shoulders

Male doing dumbbell shoulder raises.

Our shoulders are one of the most complex and versatile parts of our body.

I’ve always been fascinated by their design, and over the years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time understanding and working with their anatomy. 

Here’s a breakdown:

  • Deltoid Muscle (Delts): This muscle group is like the outer shell of the shoulder and is responsible for giving it a rounded appearance. It’s split into three parts (which I’ll cover in a moment).
  • Rotator Cuff: Comprising four smaller muscles – the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. These are crucial for stabilising the shoulder joint.
  • Acromioclavicular Joint (AC Joint): The joint at the top of the shoulder.
  • Glenohumeral Joint: The main joint of the shoulder, which is a ball-and-socket joint.

Before we get to the exercises, let’s discuss the muscles in more detail.

Understanding the muscles and how they work will aid your form and improve results.

Deltoid Muscle (Delts)

The deltoid muscle is not just a singular entity; it’s divided into three distinct parts, or “heads.” 

Each of these heads has its unique role in shoulder movement:

  • Anterior Deltoid (Front Delts): Located at the front of the shoulder.
  • Lateral Deltoid (Middle Delts): Situated on the side of the shoulder.
  • Posterior Deltoid (Rear Delts): Found at the back of the shoulder.

Anterior Deltoid (Front Delts) 

The anterior deltoid has always been one of my favourite muscles to work on, primarily because it plays a big role in overhead pressing movements and bringing the arm forward. 

Whether you’re reaching out to grab something off a high shelf or pushing up a heavy barbell, you’re engaging this muscle.

In my personal workouts, I’ve found that targeting the front delts specifically helps give the shoulders a more defined and “capped” look.

Lateral Deltoid (Middle Delts) 

Ah, the middle delts! This section of the deltoid muscle is responsible for the abduction of the arm, meaning it’s what you use when you’re lifting your arm out to the side. 

I remember a time when I was focusing too much on my anterior delts and neglecting these. 

The result? My shoulders lacked that rounded, broad appearance that so many of us aim for. By incorporating lateral raises into my routine, I noticed a considerable improvement in my shoulder width and definition.

Posterior Deltoid (Rear Delts) 

The rear delts play an essential role in retracting the shoulder blade and moving the arm backwards. From my own experience, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of not overlooking this part of the deltoid. 

When I first started training, I was guilty of ignoring my rear delts, leading to an imbalance in my shoulder development. Once I started including exercises like face pulls and reverse flys, I found my shoulders looked more balanced and, frankly, just better.

Rotator Cuff

The unsung heroes of our shoulder anatomy. These are the muscles that ensure your shoulder joint remains stable during movements. 

From personal experience, I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep these muscles strong and flexible. Neglecting them might not show immediate consequences, but trust me, over time, you’ll wish you’d given them a bit more love.

Acromioclavicular Joint (AC Joint)

This joint’s right at the top of the shoulder and is essential for lifting movements.

Once, I had a minor strain here, and it made me realise just how much we rely on it in daily tasks. Take care of your AC joint; it’s more crucial than you might think.

Glenohumeral Joint This ball-and-socket joint is what most people commonly refer to when they talk about their shoulder joint. 

Having personally struggled with a bit of tightness in this area, I’ve learnt that it’s a part of our anatomy that demands respect. 

Treat it well with proper stretches and exercises, and it’ll serve you faithfully for years.

Right, now you understand the shoulder muscles, let’s dive into the good stuff.

Best 12 Shoulder Exercises

1. Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press is the cornerstone of most of my shoulder workouts. 

It’s dynamic and targets the entire deltoid group. Because of the dual weights, each shoulder works independently, ensuring that both sides develop evenly. 

Beginners can get the hang of this without too much difficulty, but the beauty of this move is that even seasoned lifters can increase the weight and continually challenge themselves.

I’ve found this exercise a brilliant base for building that strong shoulder foundation. 

People with pre-existing shoulder injuries should approach with caution and maybe consider a machine press for more stability.

Seated dumbbell overhead press illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Sit on a bench with back support.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height.
  3. Keep your back flat against the bench.
  4. Press the dumbbells upward until arms are fully extended.
  5. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.

2. Lateral Raise

The lateral raise, for me, is the secret weapon for getting that wide-shouldered look. 

Specifically targeting the lateral deltoids, this exercise is perfect for those looking to build the coveted “V-taper.”

I reckon beginners will appreciate its simplicity, while advanced lifters can always adjust the weight or even the angle to increase difficulty. 

However, individuals with rotator cuff issues should take care with this movement.

Seated lateral raise illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Stand upright holding a dumbbell in each hand by your side.
  2. Keep a slight bend in your elbows.
  3. Raise the weights out to the sides until they reach shoulder height.
  4. Slowly lower back down.

3. Face Pulls

Face pulls might look a tad unconventional, but they’ve been a lifesaver for my rear delts and traps. From personal experience, this exercise not only strengthens but has helped correct my posture.

It’s beneficial for office workers or those who spend a lot of time hunched over. 

Beginners can get into this with lighter resistance, and advanced users can ramp it up. But, if you’ve got serious neck issues, you might want to skip this.

How to do it:

  1. Attach a rope to a cable machine at head height.
  2. Pull the rope towards your face, splitting it at eye level.
  3. Return slowly to the starting position.

4. Front Raise

I turn to the front raise when I want to emphasise the front deltoids. This exercise has given my shoulders a fuller appearance from the front. 

It’s straightforward enough for rookies to integrate into their routines, while veterans can simply add more weight or tweak the grip. A word of caution: those with severe shoulder impingements should be wary.

How to do it:

  1. Stand upright holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of you.
  2. Raise one arm straight in front of you until it’s at shoulder height.
  3. Lower it and repeat with the other arm.

5. Bent-Over Reverse Fly

Here’s an underrated gem… the bent-over reverse fly. 

The first time I tried it, my rear delts were on fire! It’s a wonderful isolator for the rear shoulder region. While it can be tricky for complete novices, with some practice, they’ll nail it. 

More advanced folks can up the weight or slow down the rep speed. Those with lower back issues should keep their spine neutral and perhaps use a bench for support.

Bent-Over Reverse Flyes illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and bend over at the hips.
  2. With a slight bend in your elbows, open your arms wide.
  3. Squeeze the shoulder blades together.
  4. Slowly return to the start.

6. Arnold Press

The Arnold Press is my fancy twist on the regular shoulder press. By introducing a rotation, the entire deltoid region gets a workout. 

It’s somewhat advanced because of the movement pattern, so newbies might need a session or two to get the hang of it. Lifters with wrist issues should approach this one carefully due to the rotation involved.

Arnold press illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Start with dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing you.
  2. As you press up, rotate your palms to face forward.
  3. Reverse the motion as you bring the weights down.

7. Push Press

The push press is not just a shoulder burner but a full-body power move. By incorporating a leg drive, you can hoist more weight overhead.

I often use it when I fancy a more compound, explosive exercise.

This is great for athletes or those looking to develop functional strength. However, if you’ve got knee or back problems, ensure your form is spot on, or consider an alternative.

Push press illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Start with a barbell at shoulder height.
  2. Dip your knees slightly, then explosively push up with your legs as you press the bar overhead.
  3. Control the bar back down to the start.

8. Pike Push-Up

My go-to bodyweight move for the shoulders is the pike push-up.

Not only do the deltoids work hard, but the core gets a nice engagement too. Ideal for those who might not have access to weights. 

Those with wrist issues or severe hand conditions might find this uncomfortable.

Pike push-up illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Start in a pike position with hips high.
  2. Bend your elbows and lower your head towards the ground.
  3. Push back up.

9. Shrugs

On days when I want to target the traps and give my neck a good stretch, I turn to shrugs.

It’s straightforward, and I believe even beginners can jump straight into it. However, those with neck issues should be cautious and ensure they’re not straining the area.

Barbell shrug illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with a weight in each hand or a barbell.
  2. Simply shrug your shoulders, lifting the weights.
  3. Lower them down.

10. Upright Row

This exercise provides a unique blend of trap and deltoid engagement. Every time I throw this into my routine, I’m guaranteed a good burn.

It’s suitable for intermediates, but beginners can start with light weights. 

Individuals with existing shoulder problems might want to avoid this due to the internal rotation.

Upright row illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a barbell in front of you with hands shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pull the bar up to chin height, keeping it close to your body.
  3. Lower it down.

11. Scaption

The scaption, in my view, is a great change from the usual raises.

It activates the delts in a different plane of motion. It’s not overly complicated, so even beginners can give it a shot. But, as always, if you’ve got rotator cuff issues, proceed with caution.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Raise the weights at a 30-degree angle to your body, in line with your ears.
  3. Lower back down.

12. Band Pull-Apart

This is a fantastic warm-up or cool-down exercise. It’s gentle, but don’t be fooled – it can be intense when done in high repetitions. 

I believe it’s a must for those seeking shoulder health and better posture. It’s suitable for all levels. The only consideration is to ensure the resistance band isn’t too tight for those just starting out.

Band pull apart illustration.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a resistance band with both hands in front of you.
  2. Pull the band apart, stretching it as wide as possible.
  3. Slowly return to the start.

Shoulder Mass FAQ

Why are my shoulders not growing despite consistent workouts?

In my experience, one of the biggest reasons is not varying the exercises.

Shoulders are complex, made up of the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids. If you’re just doing a tonne of front raises, you’re missing out on the lateral and rear delts.

Mix it up with side lateral raises, face pulls, and overhead pressing.

Is it true that shoulders respond better to higher reps?

I’ve always believed in the power of mixing things up.

While shoulders, being smaller muscle groups, often respond well to higher rep ranges (like 12-15 reps), it’s also crucial to incorporate some heavy lifting in the 6-8 rep range.

Remember, variation is key.

How often should I train my shoulders for maximum growth?

From my personal workouts and observing others, training shoulders 2 times a week seems to hit the sweet spot.

It provides enough stimulus and also allows for adequate recovery.

Can I solely rely on compound movements for shoulder development?

While big compound movements like the overhead press and bench press do hit the shoulders, they often prioritise the anterior (front) delts.

If you rely solely on these, you might end up with imbalanced shoulders. I’ve learnt the hard way that isolation exercises like lateral raises are crucial for that rounded shoulder look.

Are dumbbells better than barbells for shoulder exercises?

Both have their merits. I’ve found dumbbells to offer a greater range of motion, especially for exercises like the Arnold press.

They also force each shoulder to work independently, ironing out any imbalances.

Barbells, on the other hand, allow you to load up more weight, especially useful for overhead pressing.

I feel a lot of shoulder pain during workouts; what am I doing wrong?

First off, please see a physiotherapist if you’re in pain. From a trainer’s perspective, it’s often about form.

I’ve noticed many folks neglecting proper warm-up or going too heavy too soon.

Also, not engaging the core during overhead movements can strain the shoulders. Always prioritise form over ego.

Shoulders have always been one of my favourite body parts to train, and I hope my insights and experiences shed some light on your path to boulder shoulders!

If you have any more questions, always remember the fitness community is vast and welcoming – reach out and keep learning!

Summary: Best Exercises For Shoulder Mass

In my years of personal fitness experience, there’s always been a constant debate about the best ways to develop those broad, powerful shoulders

From the dusty corners of local gyms to the gleaming equipment in top-notch fitness centres, I’ve tried it all. And after all the sweat and hours I’ve personally put into it, some exercises stand out undeniably more than others.

The shoulder is a complex joint with multiple muscle groups, and achieving that full, rounded look requires a mix of compound and isolation movements

Remember those days when I could barely lift my arms after a tough session? 

Those were often the days I incorporated overhead presses, lateral raises, and face pulls, among others.

If you’re after significant shoulder mass, then my personal advice would be to stick to these tried and tested routines. 

Just be mindful of proper technique, and don’t shy away from seeking guidance if unsure. Here’s to powerful delts and turning heads the next time you walk into a room! Cheers!

Illustrations © Lio Putra |

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