Key Points

  • Don’t take your shoulder exercises to failure if you want them to grow
  • Make sure to hit all three muscles of your shoulder 
  • Vary the rep ranges used

Check out these two Wolverines.

Which one has your ideal shoulders?

I’m willing to bet my first born that you chose picture #2.

He’s got the wide meaty shoulders which automatically answers the most important gym question…

Do you even lift?

Growing broad shoulders can seem tricky, so in this article, I’m going to show you the best shoulder exercises and how to structure your workout to build those “You don’t have to ask, you know I lift” shoulders.

Shoulder Anatomy

Pull out those Livestrong bracelets we’re going back to anatomy class.

Your shoulders are made up of multiple muscles, but we are going to focus on the muscle you want to develop and that is the deltoid.  From here on out I’m just going to call this your delts.

Your delts have different heads which basically mean they attach to different parts of your shoulder area.  Front delts attached to your collarbone, Side (lateral) delts to your scapula and Rear delts to the spine of the scapular.  Cue the token shoulder anatomy pic.

The front delts are used in pushing exercises and bringing weights in a diagonal motion across the front of your body.

The side delts help you move things laterally away from your body.

The rear delts help pull things towards your body.

Now I could go knuckle deep here and add your traps, rhomboids, and lats as shoulder muscles however like I mentioned we’re sticking to the delts because they’ll give you those “You don’t have to ask, you know I lift” shoulders.  

Ideally your workout program will be well rounded by focusing on movement patterns rather than specific muslces so the traps, rhomboids and lats will be hit as well.

Setting The Right Volume For Size

Front Delt

The front delts are used for pushing and what workout day has no one ever missed?

Chest day.

If you did chest exercises this week there is a good chance your front delts had all the stimulus needed to grow.  The front delts are stimulated anytime you hit flat or incline bench as well as overhead press.

The front delts tire quickly so if your goal is overall muscle building I wouldn’t add in front delt specific exercises.  

If on the other hand one of your goals is to grow your front delts then training them specifically 1-2x per week with one exercise in a workout is all you’ll really need.  Any more than that and you’ll be sacrificing your ability to train your chest as hard.

Side Delt

Unlike your front delts, your side delts need direct work to grow which is dope because I love the shirt stretching feel after a good set of lateral raises.

Since most exercises don’t stimulate your side delts and their ability to recover quickly (when’s the last time your side delts were post leg day sore?) you can hit your side delts multiple times per week depending on your workout split.  

According to Dr. Mike Isratel’s Hypertrophy Guide

Most intermediate-advanced lifters need at least 8 sets of direct side delt work per week to make gains, and for some, it’s even more than that. If you’re training twice a week, that’s about 4 sets per session. It’s about 2-3 sets per session for 3x training, 2 sets for 4x training, and 1-2 sets or so for 5x or 6x training. Because the side delts recover so fast, they are probably best trained at a 3x weekly minimum in many cases.

Rear Delt

And for the red headed stepchild of your delts; your rear delts need direct work.  I call them the red headed step children because they fall into the out of sight, out of mind category.  But if you’ve ever had shoulder pain, I’d be willing to put good money down that a weak rear delt is the issue.

Strong rear delts pull your shoulders back which improves posture and stabilizes the shoulder joint when crushing the bench press or shoulder press.

The rear delts, like your side delts, recover quickly and can be added in 2-5 times during the week.  Where you fall into this range is dependent on if your trying to progress them with everything else or if your goal is to specifically grow them because you’ve been neglecting them for years.

Bringing back Dr. Mike:

Most intermediate-advanced lifters need at least 6 sets of direct rear delt work per week to make gains. The rear delts recover very quickly, and training them once a week is unlikely to lead to consistent gains past the beginner stage. At least 2 weekly sessions are recommended (3 sets each to hit MEV for the well-trained), and 3-5 weekly sessions are probably going to result in much better gains for this quickly recovering muscle group.

Shoulder Exercises With A Barbell 

Barbell Front Raise 

Standing Barbell Shoulder Press

Barbell Upright Row

Shoulder Exercises With Dumbbells

Dumbbell Front Raise

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Lateral Raise

Bent Over Lateral Raise

Shoulder Exercises With Cables 

Cable Underhand Front Raise

Cable Lateral Raise

Cable Face Pull

Cable Cross Body Bent Lateral Raise

Shoulder Exercises With Bands

Band Pull Apart

3d Band Pull Apart

Rear Delt Row

Double Band Pull Aparts

There’s endless variations with all these movements and they all work depending on your abilities and range of motion.  The list above are some of my favorites to program into client’s workout programs.  If you need to substitute an exercise the basic thing to look for is the same movement pattern.

So if you can’t do overhead presses with a barbell, switch it out for a dumbbell overhead press.  Both are vertical presses.  

Shoulder Exercises for Pain 

The first thing you should be doing is letting it rest.  Live to fight another day.  It’s a lot easier to bounce back when the injury isn’t severe.  

If the injury is minor, work within the range of motion that doesn’t hurt.   This is one of the only times I would suggest using half reps or partial range of motion training.  

Finally focus on rear delt training to help stabilize your shoulder.  Usually when there is a shoulder pain/injury weak rear delts are often an issue.  In this instance I would do rear delt specific exercises on the higher end of the range above.

The Best Shoulder Gainz Don’t Come From Going To Failure 

Shoulders respond to a variety of rep ranges so I like to program shoulder exercises like this generally:

Barbell Shoulder Exercises: 5-12 rep range, 

Dumbbell and Cables Shoulder Exercises: 8-15 rep range

Band Shoulder Exercises: 15-30 rep range

This way you can hit the three drivers of muscle growth; mechanical tension by using heavy weight with barbell exercises, then transition to mechanical stress with dumbbell and cable exercises and put a nice bow on the whole package with a pump with bands.

I also like to use the band exercises above for warmups on any upper body day.  Warm shoulders lift better.

SIDE NOTE: Here’s an article where I showed how to program a proper workout and you can even steal the templates I use. 

Now once you put a program together, hitting on all rep ranges and different muscles in your shoulder it’s important to not go full-on ape shit in the gym taking every shoulder exercise set to complete failure.

Instead use Reps in Reserve and gradually increase reps over the course of the month. 

This prevents you from digging yourself into a deep recovery hole each workout because you’ll only build muscle when you can fully recover from the exercise.  Otherwise it’s like trying to get out of a hole by digging deeper.