When you are wearing clothes, a good pair of shoulders is probably the most impressive part of any physique. They will make you look wide and powerful from all angles, and a pair of broad shoulders will also accentuate the appearance of a small waist. So in this article, I’ll tell you how to build big shoulders in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
But first you should know a bit about the structure of the shoulders (or deltoids, as they are more properly referred to). They are made up of three distinct heads – the front (anterior), the side (lateral) and the rear (posterior) deltoids. So for maximum size and thickness, all three heads need to be developed. But it’s the side head that needs the most emphasis if you are looking to create the appearance of width.
To properly develop the shoulders from all angles, you need two types of movements – overhead pressing movements and lateral raises.
The first and most important movement required to build really big, powerful shoulders is an overhead pressing movement. This can be done with either a barbell or dumbbells. I usually recommend a barbell for beginners, but this does put more emphasis on the front head than the side, so for more experienced people, it’s a good idea to switch to the dumbbell overhead press (or you could do both, of course). These can be done either standing or seated, but I prefer seated.
The dumbbell overhead press is better for developing width, as it puts a bit more emphasis on the side deltoid than a barbell press does. This is because the position of the arms is more out to the side, whereas the natural position for a barbell press is with the arms coming forward. Also, using dumbbells allows each arm to move independently, which helps to give a more even development.
It is important to use a full range of motion when doing overhead presses. You’ll see many people at the gym only going half-way down, but by doing this you are still putting most of the emphasis on to your front deltoids (and also your triceps). To better engage the side delts, you need to bring the dumbbells right down, almost to shoulder level. Or, if using a barbell, bring it down to below the chin.
The standing side lateral raise is a fantastic exercise, which really brings out the lateral head of the deltoids, and creates truly wide, well-rounded, shoulders. It can be done with either dumbbells or cables. Cables have the advantage of keeping constant tension on the muscles, but dumbbells are excellent too.
It’s important to get your technique right, if you want to get the best results from them, though. So don’t go too heavy – use a weight that you can control at all times. Lean slightly forward and brace your abs hard (this takes the stress off your lower back). Bend your elbows slightly, and as you start to lift, lead with your elbows, and keep your hands parallel to the floor as you raise the weight up. Stop when your upper arms are parallel to the floor, as going higher than this only takes the tension off the shoulders and puts it onto the trapezius.
Lateral raises can also be done bending forwards, to target the rear deltoids. Or, alternatively, you could do face pulls (or machine rear delt flyes) to target this area. Face pulls also work the side deltoids, as well as providing a good level of stimulation to the muscles of the upper back, and are an excellent, but underrated exercise.
You will also see people doing raises to the front, in order to target the anterior deltoids more. You can do these if you wish, but they are not really necessary, as the front shoulder gets plenty of stimulation, not only from your overhead presses, but also from all the other pressing movements that you do.
Sets, Reps and Frequency
When doing overhead barbell presses, do two or three warm-up sets, and then do 2–4 sets of 6–8 reps most of the time. For dumbbell presses, do 2–4 sets of 8–12 reps. And for lateral raises, bent-over laterals and face pulls, do 2–3 sets of 10–15 reps.
Train your shoulders twice per week for best results, but once every five days or so will work great too. So you might do standing barbell presses and side lateral raises in one workout, and seated dumbbell presses and bent-over laterals (or face pulls) in the other. That’s all you will need to build a really great pair of shoulders.
Focus On Progression
Progressive overload is the most important factor required for muscle growth, and training your shoulders is no different. So focus on increasing the weights you are using over time. You can’t do this indefinitely, of course, and trying to do so will only lead to setbacks, so you will need to back off occasionally, and then build back up again. But by this time next year, you should be using significantly more weight than you are at the moment – especially on your overhead press, which is your main compound shoulder movement.
And that’s about everything you need to know in order to build a pair of big, powerful shoulders in the fastest, most efficient way possible. Just train hard and be consistent, and you will soon get the results you want. Best of luck.
Photo credit: SSCusp, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr