No physique is complete without well-developed, rounded shoulders. Adding mass on top makes your waist appear slimmer, giving you that highly desirable V-Taper. Besides, it will push up your strength numbers on the big lifts, so you not only look impressive, but also have the level of performance to match.
Unfortunately, most lifters never realize their full shoulder potential. While various factors come into play, one common mistake gym-goers make is working out their shoulder in an unbalanced fashion. Most lifters over-stimulate certain parts of the shoulder girdle while under-stimulating others.
The good news? From now on, you’ll never again have to fall prey to that blunder because in this article you will learn the top ten exercises to build rounded and balanced shoulders in record time. Let’s go!
Shoulder Anatomy – Here’s What You’ll Be Working With
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, you must know what you’re working with. While the shoulder joint is a complex area, we can roughly split the shoulder muscles into four categories. They are as follows:
- The anterior head (front delts): This part is responsible for moving your arms forward, like during a dumbbell front raise. In most lifters, the front delts are better developed compared to the other heads, sometimes even over-developed.
- The lateral head (side delts): This muscle head helps move your arms sideways, like during dumbbell lateral raises. When well-developed, it contributes to that wide V-Taper look. In most lifters, however, the side delts are the least developed of the three shoulder heads.
- The posterior head (rear delts): Located at the back of your shoulder joint, your rear delts move your arm backward, like during dumbbell rows and reverse flyes. Developing this muscle head is not only crucial for building a balanced shoulder girdle, but it also aids posture and decreases your risk of injuries.
- The rotator cuff: This is a group of four muscles – the subscapularis, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor – and their tendons that work together to ensure the stability of your shoulder joint. For the most part, they are buried underneath the three shoulder heads. This makes them less visible to the bare eyes. But out of sight should not mean out of mind since building strong rotator cuff muscles helps prevent shoulder injuries. Besides, it improves your physical appearance although less significantly than the three shoulder heads.
Great! You now know more about the shoulder muscles than most lifters. But what exercises are best for adding an impressive amount of mass to this area? Well, one of the most important things is balance – you have to develop the muscles in relation to each other. So here are the top ten movements that target each section and help you build a set of massive, symmetrical shoulders.
#1. Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press
According to a Norwegian study, the standing dumbbell overhead press is the ultimate shoulder builder, especially for the front and side delts [I].
In this study, the researchers measured the activity of the three shoulder heads during various overhead press variations using EMG (a method that measures the amount of muscle fiber recruitment). They compared the difference in muscle activation between overhead presses done in a seated versus a standing position, and between overhead presses done with dumbbells versus a barbell.
What they found was quite interesting. Of all the variations, the standing dumbbell overhead press activated the shoulder muscles the most. The researchers noted it is because this variation requires the most shoulder stabilization.
#2. Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press (Neutral Grip)
While the regular standing dumbbell overhead press is an excellent shoulder builder, by having your palms face each other, you can shift some of the tension from your rear and side delts to your front delts. Besides, this neutral position is friendlier on your shoulder joint, making it an ideal variation for people with beaten-up shoulders.
#3. Arnold Press
With the Arnold press, you internally rotate while lowering the weight and externally rotate while pushing back up. This has two main benefits over the regular overhead press. First off, it slightly increases the activation of your rear delts. Second, it is less stressful on your shoulder joint. The reason is that the internal rotation creates extra room in your shoulder joint, preventing the impingement of one of your rotator cuff tendons (supraspinatus).
#4. Face Pulls
Face pulls should be a staple in the program of most lifters. Why? Because they are one of the best “structural” upper body exercises you can do. The movement stimulates all muscles that are crucial for maintaining proper shoulder alignment. Those include your rear and side delts, your rotator cuff muscles, your trapezius, and your rhomboids. For maximal muscle activation, focus on “spreading the rope apart” throughout the movement.
#5. Dumbbell Lateral Raises
When it comes to the shoulders, most lifters have under-developed side delts. And while this part gets stimulated during most compound shoulder exercises, it’s most often not enough to grow them optimally. The solution is adding direct side delt exercises to your program such as the dumbbell lateral raise. To maximize side delt activation, statically hold your arms in at the top of the movement (when your arms are parallel to the floor).
#6. Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
The dumbbell reverse fly is an excellent exercise to target your rear delts. Moreover, it trains your upper back muscles, including your trapezius and rhomboids. To maximize rear delt activation, use a grip in which your pinkies point outwards, not backwards (as most people do the movement). If you’re having problems maintaining the proper position, do the exercise while lying on a 45-degree bench.
#7. Push Press
The push press is essentially a regular overhead press with a twist: you use a slight leg drive at the beginning of the movement. This allows you to use a heavier load, meaning you can overload your muscle fibers more intensively. After you’ve locked the weight, slowly lower it for 4 or 5 seconds to maximize tension.
#8. Cable External Rotation
While working out your rotator cuff muscles might not be as fancy as hitting a bigger muscle group, giving them proper attention is crucial for long-term success in the iron game. The reason is that strong rotator cuff muscles drastically reduce your risk of shoulder injuries.
An excellent exercise to train your infraspinatus and teres minor – two of the four rotator cuff muscles – are cable external rotations. Because those muscles act mainly as stabilizers, they are most effectively trained with a relatively high rep range, such as 12 to15 reps.
#9. Cable Internal Rotation
As the exact opposite in movement of the cable internal rotation, this version develops the other two of your rotator cuff muscles – your subscapularis and your teres major. When doing the exercise, make sure you keep your elbows close to your body throughout the whole movement.
#10. Farmer’s Walk
While dynamic exercises are generally superior for building muscle, a static one like the farmer’s walk is an excellent addition for maximizing your shoulders’ potential. During the exercise, your shoulder muscles statically work hard to maintain proper shoulder alignment. And since your shoulders are under constant tension, the blood flow to your muscle fibers is restricted. This causes the build-up of lactic acid, which in turn triggers the release of HGH, a powerful muscle-building hormone [II]. In addition, nearly every other muscle in your body is involved during this exercise, especially your trapezius, forearms, and core muscles. This makes the farmer’s walk an excellent movement to finish your workout with.
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1. Saeterbakken, A. H., & Fimland, M. S. (2013). Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(7), 1824-31. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b873.
2. Godfrey, R. J., Whyte, G. P., Buckley, J., & Quinlivan, R. (2009). The role of lactate in the exercise-induced human growth hormone response: evidence from McArdle disease. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(7), 521-5. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2007.041970.