Shoulders 101: Build Bigger, Wider, and Stronger Shoulders

When it comes to upper body strength and aesthetics, most trainees focus on the popular muscle groups: the chest, back, and biceps.

While each of these plays a significant role in your development and physical abilities, one area is just as important: the shoulders. 

Read on to learn precisely why the shoulders play a huge role in your physical health and capacity, the risks of leaving the area under-developed, and how to train the muscle group optimally.

Shoulder Muscles Anatomy and Function

The shoulders, also known as deltoids, are the muscles surrounding the shoulder joints. Despite their relatively small size, these muscles have three heads: a front (anterior), middle (lateral; medial), and rear (posterior). 

All three heads work together on various movements and promote stability at the shoulder joint, but they also have some unique functions. Some deltoid functions include:

  • Arm abduction and adduction
  • Shoulder flexion and extension

One of the primary benefits of strong deltoids is shoulder stability, which allows for safer and more effective training. The shoulders are mobile joints, but that makes them relatively unstable, which can be problematic when handling heavier weights.

Another benefit is that strong deltoids contribute to upper body strength. The shoulders play a significant role in many exercises, and developing them allows you to train more effectively and make better progress.

The third notable benefit is that developed shoulders contribute to upper body aesthetics and complement your upper back, arms, and chest. For instance, the more developed your shoulders are, the broader your back looks, leading to a more pronounced V-taper.

The 8 Best Exercises For All Three Deltoid Heads

1. Barbell Overhead Press

The overhead barbell press is a classic exercise that develops excellent shoulder stability and strength.

A notable benefit of the movement is that it allows you to overload your shoulders with more weight, which leads to greater strength development. In addition, the range of motion is impressive, and the exercise develops your upper chest, triceps, and midsection alongside the deltoids. 

You can perform the exercise in two primary ways: standing or seated. Pressing heavy weights overhead from a standing position is more challenging but leads to greater core stability. In contrast, seated overhead presses are more beginner-friendly and generally allow trainees to use a bit more weight.

2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The single-arm dumbbell shoulder press is a less common exercise that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves.

One notable advantage is that dumbbells force both sides of your body to work independently, which reduces the risk of side-to-side muscle imbalances. In contrast, your dominant side can take over during a barbell press, causing strength differences to grow and create more significant issues down the road.

Another benefit is that you train one side at a time, which allows you to focus your efforts more effectively, engage the correct muscles, and experience more growth.

Plus, working one side at a time leads to greater stability demands, which can promote core stability and strength.

Like the barbell press, you can perform these from seated or standing positions. If you’re pressed for time, you can train both sides simultaneously with a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells.

3. Front Raise

Front raises are an isolation exercise that aims to develop the front (anterior) deltoid head. The objective is to grab a weight and repeatedly raise it in front of your body.

When done correctly, a front raise primarily works the front portion of the shoulders but also involves the middle deltoid head.

A notable benefit of front raises is that you can perform them in many ways, using various machines and free weights. The traditional way to perform the exercise is with a pair of dumbbells, but you can also use:

  • Kettlebells
  • Weight plate
  • Straight or EZ bar
  • Cable machine
  • Medicine ball

One thing to remember when doing these is that front raises are an isolation exercise. As such, they aren’t meant to be performed with much weight. Instead, you should use light resistance that allows you to do at least 12 to 15 slow and controlled repetitions.

There is a debate on whether front raises are even necessary, given the stimulation the front deltoids receive from other activities, such as the bench press. It’s difficult to say, but we recommend giving all three heads enough attention to ensure balanced development.

4. Lateral Raise

Like front raises, lateral raises are an isolation exercise for the shoulders. The difference is that you raise the weight to your sides instead of forward. Doing so shifts the emphasis from the anterior to the medial deltoids.

Lateral raises are one of the favorite exercises for bodybuilders because they develop the middle portion of the shoulders, contributing to the muscle’s round and ‘capped’ appearance. 

Like front raises, it is best to pick a lighter weight and do more than 12 slow and controlled repetitions. Doing so would ensure that the deltoids do all of the work and that other muscles, such as the trapezius, don’t contribute.

The classic way to do the exercise is with a pair of dumbbells. In addition, you can use a cable machine, kettlebells, weight plates, and resistance bands.

5. Upright Row

Upright rows are a compound exercise that develops the upper back, shoulders (all three heads), and biceps. 

As its name suggests, the objective is to maintain an upright body position and row weights vertically, pulling them from your hips to your chest. When done correctly, the exercise strengthens your shoulders, works your biceps, and leads to upper back growth. 

According to some sources, upright rows can lead to shoulder impingement. That can be the case, but typically when doing the exercise incorrectly. Doing controlled reps, lifting your elbows to shoulder level, and using an EZ bar, rope attachment on a cable machine or dumbbells will keep your shoulders out of harm’s way.

6. Face Pulls

Face pulls are one of the best isolation exercises for the rear deltoids. As their name suggests, the objective is to pull a resistance band or rope attachment toward your face. Doing so means your elbows have to remain flared, forcing the back portion of the shoulders to activate.

The primary way to perform the exercise is on a cable machine with a rope attachment. You can also use a resistance band to do the exercise at home.

One benefit of using a band is that you can contract your rear deltoids more effectively at the top of each repetition due to the greater resistance.

Like other isolation exercises, it’s best to use lighter resistance and do 12 or more slow and controlled reps.

7. Bent-Over Reverse Fly

Similar to face pulls, bent-over reverse flyes are an isolation exercise for the rear delts. To perform the activity, you must grab a pair of dumbbells, lean forward as you would for a bent-over row, and raise your arms to your sides.

The range of motion is excellent, and you can squeeze the rear portion of your shoulders at the top of each repetition.

You can also perform the exercise by training one side at a time and on a cable machine. For example, set the pulley to the lowest position, attach a handle, and position your right side to the machine. Grab the handle with your left hand, lean forward, and train your rear deltoid.

Once finished training one side, rotate 180 degrees and do the same number of reps for your opposite side.

8. Cable Y Raise

The cable Y raise is an effective exercise that develops the shoulders and upper back. More specifically, it develops the middle and posterior areas of the shoulders and the rhomboids, trapezius, infraspinatus, and other upper back muscles.

As with other cable exercises, the Y raise is beneficial because of the consistent tension that improves muscle activation.

To make the most of the exercise, pick a lighter weight that allows you to pull the cables smoothly without using momentum. 

How Often Should I Train My Shoulders For Optimal Growth?

Prevailing wisdom suggests that training our muscles once per week is enough for optimal results. This is one reason why training approaches like the bro split are so popular even today. 

While that frequency can work, it falls somewhat short for two primary reasons:

First, training your muscles once per week means you must do too much work in every workout, which affects your performance. For example, let’s say you want to do 16 sets for your shoulders in a week. Training the muscle once per week would mean doing all the sets at once, leading to progressively worse performance. 

The initial sets in the workout might be productive and disruptive, but fatigue will prevent you from lifting as much weight or doing as many reps as the workout progresses.

In contrast, if you split the 16 sets into two sessions, you don’t get as tired, which allows you to maintain your performance. As a result, you can lift more weight and do more reps across most sets, leading to better long-term outcomes. 

Plus, splitting up the training volume across two or more sessions limits muscle soreness due to the repeated bout effect. The more frequently you subject your muscles to a specific type of stress, the less likely you are to get sore.

Second, training your shoulders once per week means you get too much recovery time. For example, if you train shoulders on Wednesday, they might be fully recovered by Friday or Saturday, but you wouldn’t train them for a few extra days after that.

Because of these two reasons, training your shoulders two to three times per week might be best.

How Much Weight Should I Use When Doing Shoulder Exercises?

The shoulders are like any other muscle in the body and respond to various stresses. 

A good approach is to train in a variety of repetition ranges, which would result in adequate metabolic stress and mechanical tension––two crucial factors for muscle hypertrophy.

For instance, you can use heavier loads on compound exercises like the overhead press and lift light weights on isolation activities, such as lateral raises. 

Start your workouts with heavier and more demanding sets before gradually reducing the intensity, doing more reps, and working on your mind-muscle connection.

Two Sample Shoulder Routines For Muscle Growth and Strength Gain

1. Shoulder Routine For Muscle Gain

ExerciseSetsRepsRest Period
Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press3-48 to 121.5-2.5 minutes
Upright Row3-48 to 121.5-2 minutes
Lateral Dumbbell Raise312 to 151.5 minutes
Front Cable Raise312 to 151.5 minutes
Face Pulls315 to 201-1.5 minutes

This standard shoulder routine targets all three deltoid heads in two primary repetition ranges (8 to 12 and 12 to 20).

2. Shoulder Routine For Strength

ExerciseSetsRepsRest Period
Standing Barbell Overhead Press4-55 to 83-5 minutes
EZ Bar Upright Rows3-46 to 102.5-3 minutes
Lateral Dumbbell Raise312 to 151.5 minutes
Cable Y Raise312 to 151.5 minutes
Bent-Over Reverse Fly312 to 151.5 minutes

As you can see, despite being more strength-focused, the second workout isn’t that different. It has the same number of exercises, and you’re still working all three deltoid heads.

One difference is that you’re using more weight on the earlier exercises, resting longer between sets, and doing more sets. Doing so is beneficial for getting enough quality practice with the exercises that build strength.

Other than that, the isolation work is similar.

Final Thoughts

The shoulders are relatively small muscles that serve crucial functions related to upper body aesthetics, strength, and physical functionality.

As you can see, developing the area isn’t overly complicated, but it pays to be mindful of your exercise selection, workout structure, and other similar details.

Thanks for visiting Verado!

Table of Contents