Shoulders are a tough nut to crack; that is to say, they’re tough when you don’t know how.
There’s a great deal of variation from one person’s shoulders to another; you’ll see all kinds of shapes and sizes on the gym floor.
Some people have perfectly rounded shoulder caps that literally look like somebody has placed a gigantic stone underneath their skin; others look a little flat and in need of some serious dumbbell TLC.
Genetics do play a part in the manner your shoulders are going to develop; one thing is always certain though…
Genetics do not dictate effort.
It doesn’t matter who you are or how long you’ve been training for; whether or not you get an amazing set of huge, wide bulging shoulders is going to be down to whether or not you want to put in the necessary effort to get them.
It’s way too easy to neglect the righteous path on your way to the top of the boulder shoulder mountain, but that’s precisely why so many people struggle to develop them fully.
You owe it to yourself to do this properly.
And if you’re going to do it properly; we need to look at what goes into making a shoulder.
Back To School - The Anatomy Of The Shoulder
Are you feeling ready for a biology lesson geared purely towards developing a set of devastatingly powerful shoulders?
If only they’d done this at school. Think about where you’d be now…
The Anterior Deltoid
This is the front of the shoulder and its most instantly visible component; this is also often the most overworked aspect of the shoulders and this intense focus on the anterior deltoids is one of the many reasons why so many people struggle to “round off” their shoulders fully.
See, the problem lies in the fact that the anterior deltoid is used for pretty much every pressing movement going; it doesn’t matter if it’s a shoulder press, a bench press or even a chest isolation exercise like a fly.
Your anterior deltoid is right there on the frontline, driving the advancing charge on the dumbbells that leads to the successful performance of the exercise.
You might be a little lost at the mention of chest isolation exercises heavily integrating the anterior deltoid; surely this has got nothing to do with your shoulders at all?
Technically, you’re completely right; however, the reality is a little different. Where the problem here lies is in the fact that not many people do chest isolation exercises or even presses properly!
You’d be amazed at the number of people currently performing exercises like cable fly’s and bench presses who are actually doing some weird hybrid version of a shoulder press instead.
Unless your shoulder blades are fully pinched together and you’re “feeling” your way through every inch of a chest exercise, it’s highly likely that you’re just using your shoulders, namely your anterior deltoids to throw the weight around with instead.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is great news for your shoulders; but it really isn’t. All it does is lead to major imbalances and makes it incredibly difficult to develop the fully rounded and symmetrical appearance you’re looking for.
Luckily; this is easily fixed.
The Medial Deltoid
If you were to get asked which part of the shoulder you thought was responsible for creating the “boulder” like effect; you might think it’s the anterior deltoid mentioned above being that that’s the first area you see when viewing the body front ways on.
Creating this effect actually has far more to do with the medial and posterior deltoids than it does this front aspect though; they ultimately sculpt, fill out and generally balance every aspect of the shoulders out.
In order to target this area effectively; you really have to develop your mind body connection and make it work for you. There are thousands of people out there right now training shoulders, but only a handful of them are effectively targeting them.
This concept could never be truer than it is with the medial and posterior deltoids; these two areas require an intense amount of focus on technique delivery, especially when it comes to the position of the arm whilst performing the exercise and the tempo (speed) in which it is performed.
If you take the lateral raise exercise for instance; this is one of the most popular (and effective!) exercises for the medial deltoid in existence, and due to the vast number of ways in which it can be performed, it is incredibly popular.
This popularity has seen it get used by everyone and anyone in the pursuit of boulder shoulders; the issue at hand here though, is the manner in which so many gym goers are currently performing it.
Along with perhap leg extensions, the lat raise is probably the worst offender in terms of exercises that get performed with terrible form; people frequently swing the dumbbells up and down like uncaged, flapping birds. Never once do they successfully target their medial deltoids in the process though.
Any lateral raise variation is supposed to be done with very tight control; the arms should be slightly bent at the elbow (no more though) and the arms should be raised with control, held at the top of the movement, squeezed and returned.
When it comes to dumbbell and cable raises at least; this rarely ever happens. It’s probably going to be to your advantage to use a lat raise machine or perform one of the seated (or lying) alternatives for the dumbbell version of this exercise to fully integrate this vital aspect of your shoulder.
When people say “I don’t have the genetics to develop good shoulders” what they typically mean in reality is “I don’t have the discipline to control the weights I lift effectively on shoulder day.”
There’s an enormous difference between the two.
Your medial deltoids are also one of the vital components needed to create the “wide appearance” you desire as they help to produce the all important shoulder “ends” that protrude outwards and away from the body.
The Posterior Deltoid
Commonly known as the “rear delts”, the posterior deltoid is another prime candidate for an area that isn’t frequently targeted to great effect.
What the posterior deltoids do for the appearance of your shoulders is matched in greatness only by what they do for your posture; it’s the severe underdevelopment of the posterior deltoids that leads to many common postural issues in existence today.
You might be thinking you don’t care too much about your posture right now; you just want big shoulders after all.
Whilst your willingness to develop said enormous shoulders is admirable; you need to understand a fundamentally vital aspect of shoulder development at this point.
We’ve touched on bad form, swinging dumbbells and generally not being wholly effective during shoulder workouts so far; one aspect we haven’t mentioned is your body position.
Another common reason why people don’t have the set of full, widely developed shoulders they’re looking for (as well as bad form) is actually because they often have quite appalling posture.
Picture this; the posterior deltoids are one of the main muscle groups involved in “pulling” the upper body backwards, therefore elevating the shoulder girdles. If you don’t develop this area, then your upper body is naturally going to slope forwards.
When this happens; your anterior deltoids pull forwards and down; this in turn drags the medial deltoids in the same direction. Ultimately what you’re left with is a set of “dragging” arms that pull your shoulders downwards and makes your deltoids far less visible.
In terms of aesthetics, that’s clearly not what you want. This is actually a common issue amongst gym goers as there is such a prominent focus on pressing exercises but a huge neglect of the posterior aspects of the upper body.
In conjunction with this; the posterior deltoids also help to produce the “cannon ball” effect that any legendary set of shoulders has.
You’ve got to picture the deltoid as a whole in three sections; neglecting any one of these sections will leave you with something that resembles a half baked dough ball with a dent in one area. It’ll be less of a ball shape and resemble more of an uneven, confused looking breadcake.
However; if you work all three of these areas evenly you’re going to be left with a set of beautifully carved cannonballs that protrude outwards with a very fine cap to them.
Ensuring that you do work this area effectively is also an incredibly vital part of your shoulder training; the posterior deltoids, as with the medial deltoids often find themselves the victim of terrible form as a result of swinging and loosely targeted dumbbells and cable handles.
When targeting the posterior deltoids; be sure to take your time (always use s bench if you struggle to fix yourself in the right position to target them, or a reverse fly machine) and really squeeze at the top of the movement in order to fully contract them and feel the full effect of the chosen exercise.
Or the “traps” as you may commonly know them.
This is the “coathanger” muscle that fills in the void between your deltoids and your neck; it’s an incredibly important part of your shoulder development due to the effect it has on dragging the shoulder girdle upwards and making the shoulders appear more prominent.
It’s also an integral part of your postural development; as with the posterior deltoids, the trapezius plays a vital role in ensuring that your body doesn’t slope forwards and down by pulling the body back and up.
You should always consider your trap development when it comes to your shoulders; without a finely raised, protruding set of traps, there’s going to be a gaping hole next to your finely sculpted shoulders that really let your overall aesthetic appearance down.
As with the medial and posterior deltoids; not many people are giving their trapezius the love it truly deserves.
Shrugs are easily the most common example of a trap exercise frequently going completely and utterly wrong; this isn’t in any way due to the exercise it self being ineffective. It’s all about the way people are performing it.
A common mistake made when shrugging is to roll the shoulders either forwards or backwards; a truly effective shrug requires you to raise your shoulders (and your traps) upwards in a vertical line. You then squeeze at the top before returning the bar down to the hips and repeating.
This tiny difference in the way the exercise is performed is what makes all the difference to your shoulder development. The same could be said for the dumbbell variants of the exercise too; you’ve got to take your time and fully integrate the muscle in order to reap the full benefit.
Did you know that one of the best trap building exercises on the planet is actually the deadlift as well? If you don’t do them already; you should start throwing them in!
That’s Enough Biology; Let’s Get To The Huge Shoulder Part
That’s ok. If you fully read the above sections then the important thing is you now understand not only what goes into developing a fully rounded set of shoulders; you’ve probably identified a few of the areas where you might have been going a little off track too.
It’s all well and good understanding the anatomy of the shoulders of course; but what you really want to know is how you’re going to set about practically applying the above thought processes to your training.
What are the best exercises? How many reps per exercise? How often per week?
Stop right there. You’re not ready yet.
Take things down a notch and be prepared to do a little more research before you dive deltoid first into a set of military presses; there are still a few things about the shoulders you’re going to need to understand before you progress any further.
"Give Me Width"
What do you think makes a really wide, protruding set of shoulders?
You already know that the medial deltoids play a huge role in filling the shoulders out and creating the cannonball effect we’ve previously discussed; but they aren’t all there is to it.
If you honestly want to know one of the best shoulder exercises to develop shoulder width; you’re going to have to be prepared to open your mind a little and digest some information that may initially confuse you, but will ultimately lead to the fulfilment of your every shoulder related dream.
One of the best shoulder exercises for developing huge, wide deltoids is actually a back exercise. Wide grip chin ups are almost second to none when it comes to expanding shoulder girdle girth and creating as much space as possible between shoulder ends.
See; it’s all well and good working on the medial deltoids and making that one area grow outwards, but you’ve got to remember that the medial deltoid is attached to an underlying structure.
In order to make the medial deltoids travel outwards and away from the body at lightspeed; it’s the structure they’re fixed to that needs to expand just as much as the muscles attached to it.
Wide grip chins are actually one of the best ways to create the enormous width you’re looking for; in fact, any back exercise that targets the outer head of your lats is. In reality, that’s pretty much all of them.
Can you potentially see where you may have gone a little off track in regards to your shoulder development here? Can you honestly say that you’ve made your back a priority over the past few months or years?
Even if you have; there’s a massive difference between back training and truly effective back training. Actually integrating, squeezing and feeling the lats is something that many gym goers struggle with intensely.
Effective back training requires a strong mind body connection; one that can sometimes take years of time and experience to develop. This is one of the main reasons why so many people struggle with their shoulder development; they aren’t training their back properly and creating the necessary width to build their deltoids on!
So Which Exercises Should I Be Doing?
We’ve touched on this a little and discussed not only a few of the exercises involved in creating boulder shoulders; but also how they should be performed.
It’s this crucial focus on performance that you really need to adhere to throughout absolutely every single shoulder session; without correct technique and true isolation, your shoulders will simply never develop to the point they need to be at.
As with any muscle group; you’re going to need a combination of both compound and isolation exercises; some are always going to be more effective than others across different areas and for very different reasons.
You need to perform the exercises that are specifically going to lead to enhanced size and appearance; for that reason there’s no point in asking you to perform three rep max clean and presses or to torture yourself through an intense set of push presses. This is all about growth over strength. The two are very different goals.
With this in mind; let’s take a look at some of the most effective exercises you’ll need to perform.
Compound movements are movements that involve several muscle groups at once; they also allow for the most weight to be moved at once, thus leading to the enhanced stimulation of growth in a chosen area.
These movements are best performed for between 6-10 reps to promote dense muscular growth with increased weight loads.
Here are hands down some of the best compound shoulder movements:
Barbell Military Press
This is one of the best mass building shoulder exercises around; perhaps even the best.
In order to make it truly effective, the barbell needs to come down to the very top of the shoulder caps in order to fully extend the anterior deltoid head and stimulate as many fibers as possible.
You can perform this movement in a variety of ways, but for the purpose of your goal performing the movement seated is going to be the best way to place as much stress as possible directly onto the shoulders without using any other body parts for momentum.
Using a free weight barbell is going to integrate as many fibers as possible; the smith machine is also a viable alternative as it provides the same benefit but with the stability of a rack to ensure damage risk is low though the muscle fiber integration is a little less.
Dumbbell Arnie Press
This variant of the seated dumbbell press is a fantastic way to target every head of the deltoid array in one movement.
You start in a seated position with the dumbbells (and palms) facing inwards towards the shoulders before extending overhead and rotating them 180 degrees and outwards so that the palms are facing away from the body at the top of the movement.
When performed with control and full range of movement; this exercise is truly fantastic for developing a finely sculpted set of shoulders and covering all of the major areas.
As the name implies; this exercise was made incredibly popular by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s simply a good one for everyone.
Upright rows are a fantastic way to target the anterior deltoids whilst also integrating the trapezius at the same time; it’s simply a great mass builder.
To perform this exercise you should ideally use a bent “EZ” bar; this will accommodate your wrists in a more comfortable manner than a standard barbell leading to your enhanced focus on targeting the muscles without any distractions.
Ensure that you always squeeze at the very top of the movement and control the negative (downwards element) as this will ensure you fully “attack” the muscles in question.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The seated dumbbell shoulder press is the standard version of the movement (the srnie press being the more advanced version) that places strain primarily on the anterior deltoids.
To perform this movement you simply need to start with the dumbbells facing outwards (they should be placed just above the shoulder caps) and extend the arms overhead, ensuring you leave a slight bend at the elbow. Always hold and squeeze at the bottom of each rep.
One of the biggest mistakes made when dumbbell shoulder pressing as with the barbell movement is to neglect the full range of movement; if you do not come down to just above the shoulder cap then you will not fully integrate all of the necessary muscle fibers.
Barbell And Dumbbell Shrugs
Shrugs are a crucial exercise when it comes to targeting the trapezius; this is however only the case when it is performed correctly as discussed earlier.
Dumbbells are a great way to perform this exercise in conjunction with the barbell variant as they allow for a slightly more comfortable grip.
You start with the dumbbells at hip height, just outside of the shoulder girdles and proceed to raise the shoulders up, before squeezing the trapezius at the top and returning them to the starting position.
With both the barbell and dumbbell variants of the exercise you can experiment with your grip by either going narrow, or wide to place stress on the trapezius and medial deltoids respectively.
Behind The Neck Smith Machine Press
Whilst fairly controversial; this exercise is an amazing way to target the posterior deltoids as well as the anterior deltoids together in one seamless movement.
Hands down the safest way to perform this exercise is on the smith machine due to the risk involved with destabilisation; you simply start with the bar placed behind the neck (just at the top of shoulder girdle height) and proceed to press up and overhead whilst leaving a slight bend at the elbows.
Why this is such a good exercise for integrating the anterior and posterior deltoids is because it forces the rear delts to contract and engage due to the position of the bar; it also creates an enormous stretch on the anterior deltoids, thus stimulating many fibers at once for growth.
Isolation movements simply involve targeting one area only.
Whilst the load being lifted on these exercises is never too great; this is for good reason. You’ve got to ensure that you really feel the muscle being targeted with isolation exercises, and they are best performed for a rep count of between 8-15 reps to ensure the area is truly exhausted.
Here are some of the best shoulder isolation exercises you can perform to carve an outstanding set of shoulders.
Lateral Raises (All Varieties)
Lat raises are one of the absolute best ways to target the medial deltoids (the medial delts are involved in pressing movements too believe it or not, but not to a great or highly effective extent.)
Any variety of the lat raise is going to work wonders for this area; but the key to its effectiveness really does come from the manner in which it is performed. You’ve got to make sure your technique is infallible.
In order to perform a lat raise; simply start with two dumbbells placed just outside of the hips (palms facing inwards) and proceed to elevate the dumbbells out and away from the body until they are directly in line with the shoulders.
Squeeze at this level, then return to the starting position but without letting the dumbbells rest against the leg to ensure tension is never released.
You should try performing this movement using cable handles, or by lying on a 45 degree inclined bench too to promote true isolation and remove any integration of other body parts.
Alternating Dumbbell Front Raises
Front raises are a great way to isolate the anterior deltoids and are a very popular movement amongst gym goers.
To perform this exercise you simply need to start with the palms facing inwards (towards the hips) whilst holding a pair of dumbbells. Proceed to raise one arm upwards until it is in line with the front of the shoulder and parallel to the ground.
Squeeze at the top of the movement before returning to the starting position but without letting the dumbbell rest against the hip. Complete the movement with the other arm for the desired rep count.
Never, ever swing or rush this movement as it will totally nullify its effect on the shoulders; use control and a slow pace and ensure that the movement “flows” smoothly.
Reverse Fly (All Variants)
This is a relatively tricky exercise to perfect but once you do; you will be rewarded with not only great posture, but also a set of finely rounded shoulders.
To perform the movement grab a pair of dumbbells and ensure the palms are facing inwards towards the body. Bend the body over to a 45 degree angle, before raising the arms backwards and away from the body (picture a bird spreading its wings.)
Squeeze the shoulder blades at the very top of the movement before returning the dumbbells to the starting position.
The key to the successful performance of this exercise is to ensure the spine stays straight throughout by keeping the shoulder blades pinched together; when returning to the starting position never round the shoulders forwards as this will release tension.
This movement can be performed lying flat on a bench, sitting on a pec deck in reverse position or by using cable handles as well; all of which are highly effective!
For a little variety it’s sometimes a good idea to have the arms in a “Y” shape too in order to really accentuate the outer head of the posterior deltoids.
This is not only a really good trap isolation exercise; it hammers your rear delts too.
You’ll need to grab a cable pulley rope and set the height so that it’s in front of your face. With the arms outstretched; proceed to pull the rope backwards towards the face and allow the handles to separate and run by the side of each cheek.
Tense and pinch the shoulder blades together at the very back of the movement before returning to the outstretched position. Ensure you leave a slight bend at the elbows to keep the tension on the muscle in place.
This is a good one for targeting your traps and anterior deltoids; think of it as a hybrid between a shrug and a front raise.
All you need to do is grab a weight plate; then proceed to place your hands in a double overhand grip on the plate with them positioned just inside the shoulder girdles.
Elevate the plate so that it is in line with the front of the shoulders; squeeze the delts and traps, then return to the starting position but without allowing the plate to touch the hips to keep the tension on.
Another great addition to a well rounded shoulder routine.
Piece It All Together
Here are some great workout examples for you to follow in order to develop the aesthetics (appearance) you desire.
All Out Mass
Perform the following exercises over a series of three sets. Aim for between 6-8 reps per set (unless stated otherwise) and take no longer than 90 seconds rest in between sets.
Perform the following exercises over a series of four sets. Aim for between 12-15 reps per set (unless stated otherwise) and take no longer than 60 seconds rest in between sets.
Perform the following exercises over a series of three sets. Aim for between 8-10 reps per set (unless stated otherwise) and take no longer than 60 seconds rest in between sets.
These three workout blueprints will absolutely deliver a hard punch to every head of the deltoids and you should give one of them a shot on your next shoulder day.
With everything we’ve gone over; you’d be forgiven for forgetting a few areas.
We’ll now quickly recap on the most important aspects you need to focus on if you want to develop the boulder shoulders you’ve been dreaming about.
In No Particular Order:
Every principle, technique, exercise and thought process you’ve read here will lead to a fully developed and fantastic looking set of shoulders.
It goes without saying that your nutrition needs to be highly effective if you’re serious about gaining mass on any area of your body; but assuming that is in place, you’re going to love the results you see by adhering to these guidelines.
Never be tempted to get caught by the trap of habit and continuing to do things the way you’ve always done them.
With due respect, that’s the very reason why your shoulders haven’t yet developed in the way you want them to.
You’ll find that many gym goers get set in their ways, and especially their routines without ever varying what they do or paying true attention to their training technique or even the area they’re trying to target.
This is a great shame; because the effort is there.
What’s lacking is the execution and finesse needed to develop the kind of body you seek.
You’re different; you took the time to read through this article in the pursuit of the kind of shoulders you really want. That patience is what’s going to carry you through to the end of your journey with your reward being a set of deltoids every other gym goer can really aspire to.