The Ultimate Shoulder Workout: The Best Shoulder Exercises for Big Delts

by: Micheal Mathews


Do you want big, round delts that pop? This article will show you the best shoulder exercises and type of shoulder workouts to get you there.

When it comes to upper body training, the shoulders are often undertrained. They naturally tend to lag behind arm and chest development, and can remain very stubborn, refusing to change at all.

I know because I used to have this problem. But I don’t anymore, and in this article, I’m going to share with you how I finally grew some shoulders I could be proud of.

If you follow my advice in this article, and eat properly, your shoulders will grow in both size and strength.

So, let’s first take a quick look at the anatomy of the shoulders so we understand what we’re trying to achieve in our shoulder workouts.

Growing the Shoulder Muscles

Your shoulders are comprised of three major muscles known as deltoids, and here’s how they look:


It’s very important to develop all three heads of this muscle group, because if one is lagging, it will be painfully obvious.

In most cases, the medial and posterior deltoids need the most work because the anterior deltoids do get trained to some degree in a good chest workoutThe other two heads don’t, however.

Let’s use my own physique as an example. First, check out the following picture taken about 4 years ago:


I didn’t look horrible, but take a look at my left shoulder and how small it looks compared to the middle of my arm (the middle of my bicep and triceps). Here’s another shot from the same time period that shows it even more:


As you can see, my arm and chest completely overpowered my shoulder. Keep in mind that I wastraining shoulders at that time–I was doing a lot of sets as a part of a traditional bodybuilder routine (a lot of isolation work, 10 – 12+ reps, Drop Sets, Super Sets, etc.).

Soon after I took these pictures, I began changing the way I trained and ate, and after about a year of this new style of eating and training, I looked like this:


Quite an improvement, of course (I was thrilled), but let’s focus again on that left shoulder because it’s still lagging. The medial head in particular lacked size–it didn’t protrude enough to balance the size of my triceps.

I kept working at it, however, and here’s a shot of me taken a few months ago:


I still think my shoulders need a bit more work, but I think you’ll agree they have greatly improved and are fairly proportional to my arms, chest, and back.

The progress you’re seeing in the above pictures was achieved with shoulder workouts based on the training advice that I’m going to share with you in this article.

So let’s get to how to best workout your shoulders…

Shoulder Training 101

The two biggest mistakes most people make in their shoulder workouts are:

1. Focusing on the wrong shoulder exercises. 

Many people focus too much on machine and isolation exercises, which are not the key to building big, round delts.

2. Focusing on high-rep training.

This mistake will stunt the growth of any major muscle group in the body, but it’s particularly detrimental when it comes to shoulder development.

These two points go against what a lot of people hear and assume about shoulder training. Namely the assumption that because the deltoids are smaller muscles, they respond better to high-rep training. This is false, and I explain why in my article on muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Many people also focus on the wrong shoulder exercises–usually isolation exercises that don’t permit enough progressive overload without risking injury. Well, like all major muscle groups in the body, the reality is shoulders respond best to heavy, compound weightlifting. 

“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “INSERT SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL HERE does a lot of high-rep isolation shoulder exercises in his shoulder workouts, and he has amazing boulder shoulders… What gives?”

The answer is steroids. I know, that might sound cynical, but it’s true.

When someone is on enough drugs, achieving muscle growth is mind-numbingly simple: he sits in the gym for a few hours every day doing rep after rep after rep, exercise after exercise, and his muscles get bigger and bigger. In this case, focusing on high-rep training is actually a good thing.

Furthermore, the shoulders (along with the upper arms, traps, and upper chest) are quite dense in androgen receptors, which are special types of proteins in cells that respond to certain hormones in the blood (including anabolic hormones like testosterone). That’s why these parts of the body–the shoulders, upper arms, traps, and upper chest–grow very quickly when guys get on steroids, and can reach freaky levels of size.

That said, you can still build a great set of delts without drugs. It just takes time, and it takes the right approach to shoulder training. And the right approach as a natural weightlifter is very simple:

1. Focus on lifting heavy weights in your shoulder workouts.

If you want your shoulders to get big and strong, you’ll want to focus on the 4 – 6 or 5 – 7 rep range.

2. Focus on the shoulder exercises that safely allow for sufficient progressive overload.

We’ll talk more about this in a minute, but these are exercises like the Military Press, various types of Dumbbell presses, the Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise, and more.

Training volume and frequency is also important. Like “ideal” rep ranges, optimal training frequency is a hotly debated subject. The bottom line is it boils down to workout intensity and volume.

The lighter the weights and fewer the sets per workout, the more often you can train the muscle group. And, as a corollary, the heavier the weights and greater the sets per workout, the less often you can train the muscle group.

I’ve tried many different splits and frequency schemes, and what I’ve found works best is in line with an extensive review on the subject conducted by researchers at Goteborg University:

When training with the proper intensity (focusing on lifting heavy weights), optimal frequency seems to be about 40 – 60 reps performed every 5 – 7 days.

This not only applies to the shoulders but to every other major muscle group as well. If you’re an advanced weightlifter (3+ years of proper training under your belt), you can probably push this up to the 70 – 80 rep range, but any more than that and you will be risking overtraining.

Alright, let’s now look at the best shoulder exercises for muscle growth.

 The Best Shoulder Exercises

My list of favorite shoulder exercises is pretty short and simple. These are the exercises I’ve used to dramatically improve my own shoulders, and that will do the same for yours.

1. Seated or Standing Military Press

Barbell pressing is the most effective way to build your shoulders because although it focuses on the anterior head, it also involves the other two, and it allows you to push heavy weight without risking injury.

I prefer the Seated Military Press because the standing variation requires quite a bit of balance and lower back stability to perform, and as I squat and deadlift heavy every week, I don’t feel I need any more lower back training.

Here’s how to properly do the Seated Military Press:

The key point here is I’m bringing the weight down to my chest in a controlled manner. Don’t stop at 90 degrees for fear of your shoulders–so long as you keep your elbows under the bar and resist the urge to flare them out, you’ll be fine.

Here’s how to do the Standing Military Press correctly:

2. Seated Dumbbell Press

The dumbbell variant of the press is also a great exercise for building overall strength and size. Here’s how it’s done:

3. Arnold Press

The Arnold Press is a variation of the traditional Dumbbell Press, and uses an increased range of motion to further overload the anterior deltoid. Here’s how to do it:

4. Dumbbell Front Raise

The Dumbbell Front Raise is an effective exercise for targeting the anterior deltoid. Between this and the presses, you don’t need anything else for this front head of the muscle group. Here’s how to do it:

5. Side Lateral Dumbbell Raise

The Side Lateral Dumbbell Raise is the most effective exercise for building the medial (middle) deltoid. This head is usually underdeveloped when compared to the anterior because people tend to focus on chest and shoulder pressing.

Here’s how to do it:

As your shoulders get stronger, you’ll find it harder to maintain proper form when trying to lift both dumbbells simultaneously. An effective way to get around this without cheating is to do a hanging variant of the exercise:

6. Rear Dumbbell Raise

The posterior (rear) deltoid is the smallest and weakest of the three heads, but still needs some love if you want to have a “three-dimensional” shoulder that doesn’t fall flat in the back.

The Rear Dumbbell Raise is a simple and effective exercise for building this posterior head. Here’s how to do it:

You can also do a standing variation of this exercise:

7. Rear Lateral Barbell Row

The Rear Delt Barbell Row is another great exercise for targeting the posterior deltoids. Here’s how to do it:

Remember–Progression is the Key to Muscle Growth

That’s it on the exercises.

The key, however, isn’t just doing the above exercises. It’s progressing on them. That is, increasing the amount of weight you can push over time.

If you don’t get stronger, you won’t get bigger. But if you do work on building your strength on these exercises, and you eat enough food to grow, your shoulders will get bigger and stronger.

The Ultimate Shoulder Workout

A good shoulder workout trains all three heads of the muscle, and focuses on heavy weights. Just like any other muscle group, shoulders can benefit from higher rep work, but you have to emphasize the heavy weightlifting if you want them to grow.

While I go over everything you need to program your own leg workouts in Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger (and provide you with an entire year’s worth of workouts that can, when combined with proper nutrition, help you put on 20 – 25 pounds of muscle in your first year of weightlifting), I want to leave you with a shoulder workout that will prove the effectiveness of what I’ve discussed in this article.

What I want you to do over the next 8 weeks is perform the following shoulder workout once every 5 – 7 days:

Seated or Standing Military Press: Warm up and 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps

Dumbbell Side Lateral : 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps or 6 – 8 reps if you can’t maintain proper form with 4 – 6

Rear Dumbbell Raise: 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps or 6 – 8 reps if you can’t maintain proper form with 4 – 6

Optional (if you feel like you have some juice left): Dumbbell Front Raise: 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps or 6 – 8 reps if you can’t maintain proper form with 4 – 6

That’s it–just 9 – 12 heavy sets for your entire workout. If you’re an advanced lifter, or you feel you have more in you at the end of the workout, you can do the final 3 sets, but don’t do more than that or you will likely wind up overtrained at some point.

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight. For instance, if push out 6 reps on your first set of the Military Press, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can press it for 6 reps, and so forth.

Rest 2 – 3 minutes in between each set. This will give your muscles enough time to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.

I guarantee you that if you combine that shoulder workout with a proper nutrition plan, you will be very happy with how your shoulders respond.

This type of training is the core of my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs, and I’ve received hundreds and hundreds emails from readers ecstatic that they were finally breaking through 1+ year plateaus with ease, gaining strength and size every week.

Source:  Michael Mathews, 



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