June 10, 2021 10 min read

Most men in the gym want thick, broad shoulders that give him a frame worthy of envy. It’s tough to achieve if you aren’t blessed with the biology, but there are some workarounds we can focus on that will maximize the perception of your shoulders, giving you what is effectively a broader image.

We’re going to dive deep into the 10 best exercises that will beef up your delts, the best ways to project a bigger frame, and some pitfalls to avoid on the road to success.

color coded anatomy chart of deltoid muscles

Muscles

Building broad shoulders is a matter of packing on muscle in the right places. Much like building a broadened neck, your shoulder span is dependent on the amount of muscle you can build on top of your already existing bone structure.

There are three sets of muscles that can help with this perception, and if you can hit all of them during your regular workouts, you’ll be well on your way to increasing the size of your shoulders.

Delts

Your delts are the star of the show when it comes to building out your shoulder width. Particularly your mid delts are what you want to focus on if you’re trying to broaden your shoulders. They’re split into three sections, the anterior, the posterior, and the medial delts make up the triangle-shaped guardians of your shoulder joint.

Your goal is to grow these muscles the most in order to push your overall shoulder width outwards. Your middle delts, in particular, are going to need a great deal of attention if your intent is to bring on the outward-facing gains.

Trapezius Muscles

Your traps work to keep your shoulders pulled back. If you spend a ton of time working on the front half of your body, then you’re naturally going to start hunching forward without the support of your traps. 

Well-developed traps will allow your chest to naturally open up. This way you won’t have to consciously wander around in your daily life constantly readjusting your posture so your shoulders don’t create a pathetic-looking  crescent despite all of the hard work you’ve put in. 

Lats

Your lats are located along your lower back. They’re the least important in this network, but they’re crucial for improving your posture along with your traps. If you want to project strength and confidence, giving people the image of drastically broadened shoulders, then you need the support your lats give your lower back.

Pecs

Your pectoral muscles aren’t exactly on your shoulders. In fact, they only connect to that area in some fringe areas. Your pecs are primarily a set of wide muscles that cover the upper area of your chest. They span from your clavicle and sternum and reach their way across your chest and attach again to your rips. 

Functionally they help deliver pushing power and a degree of rotation to your upper arms. Your pecs are also integral to your posture and the energy you project to the world around you.

If you can beef up your pecs, you’re going to have a much broader chest to present, if you can broaden your chest, this will also give people the sense that your shoulders are broader as well. A little chest work can go a long way if you feel like your progress is stalling out.

The Difficult Truth

The most important thing to remember about your shoulders is your skeletal structure.

Everyone is built differently from birth, and that means that you’re going to naturally begin bumping up against the physical limitations of your body at some point. 

Chasing broader shoulders means that you’re always going to be working against this difficult truth. That’s why we suggest working on your chest, traps, and lats alongside your deltoids.

If you can build a broad chest while building broad shoulders, that will drastically increase the intended effect, leaving you with a body you can be proud of working towards. 

Exercises

1. Bench Press

Bench presses are one of the exercises that most folks gravitate to when they start their gym journey. They’re an excellent exercise for showing off your strength and they target several muscle groups at the same time. 

The compound nature of this exercise makes it great for very quickly blowing through your energy reserve and pushing your body towards muscle growth much more quickly than other exercises.

  • Start on a workout bench with the weights situated near your chest
  • Fully extend your arms straight up towards the barbell
  • Set your core and keep your feet firmly planted on the floor
  • Lift the weight off of the rack and lower it towards your chest until the bar is just about to touch your chest
  • Explosively press the bar back up until your arms are fully extended again
  • Repeat as appropriate for your current skill level


2. Incline Press

When you feel like you’ve begun mastering standard bench presses you can vary the exercise by inclining the bench you’re pressing from. Changing the incline of the bench shifts the muscles involved in pressing your weights away from your chest. 

  • Start on a workout bench with the bench inclined about 20 - 30 degrees with the weights situated near your chest
  • Fully extend your arms straight up towards the barbell
  • Set your core and keep your feet firmly planted on the floor
  • Lift the weight off of the rack and lower it towards your chest until the bar is just about to touch your chest
  • Explosively press the bar back up until your arms are fully extended again
  • Repeat as appropriate for your current skill level

You’ll feel this in your upper chest and your delts more than you would with standard bench presses. They’re a great way to increase the mass and strength of your delts.

bodybuilder doing lateral raises with dumbbells

3. Lateral Raise

Lateral raises are the exercise that comes to mind first when we think of exercises that will test the strength of our delts. They’re pretty much perfectly designed to isolate that exact part of your anatomy. These are, by far, the most straightforward exercise you can add to your arsenal if you’re looking to add muscle mass to the width of your shoulders.

  • Start by standing with a dumbbell in each hand
  • Begin with your arms by your sides, your palms should be facing inwards and your feet should be a comfortable distance apart.
  • Engage your core and keep your head pointed straight ahead
  • Raise both of your arms straight out to the side until the weights are in line with your shoulders
  • Pause for a few seconds at the top of the movement before slowly lowering the weights
  • Repeat 8 - 10 times per set

A simple way to upgrade the challenge level and effectiveness of this exercise is to spend longer periods of time lowering your weights back into their starting position. By using a high degree of control to lower your weights back into their starting position, you engage your delts in eccentric contraction. 

Eccentric contractions are what you call it when you maintain tension on a muscle while increasing the length of the flexed muscle. These contractions pull a lot of strength out of your muscles by starting them from a position of strength. Because eccentric contractions are so good at pushing your muscles to their limits, they’re excellent for wearing your muscles down quickly and encouraging muscle growth.

4. Half-kneeling One-arm Kettlebell Press

This exercise forces you to focus on your balance and keeps your upper back from rounding out into an abysmal posture. While working out our shoulders

  • Start with one knee on the floor and the opposite foot flat on the floor
  • Grab your kettlebell with the hand on the same side as the planted foot
  • Set your core and bring the kettlebell a few inches off of the floor
  • Press the weight of the kettlebell straight up until your arm is fully extended above your shoulder 
  • Hold that position for a few moments before brining the kettlebell back down into the starting position
  • Switch your stance and lift with the opposite arm
  • Repeat 7-10 times per set

5. Face Pulls

These don’t have anything to do with pulling your face, thankfully. The name comes from the level at which you should have your cable machine set up for this exercise. It’s an excellent way to build up your shoulder strength. 

  • Using the rope attachment on your cable machine, start with the rope a few inches above your eye line
  • With an overhand grip, grasp the rope and take a step or two back away from the machine to put some tension on your rope 
  • Push your hips back a little bit and pull the cable towards your face
  • Let your elbows flare out a little, they should create a parallel line with the ground
  • Slowly return the rope to the starting position and repeat 

6. Overhead Press

  • Either sit on a workout bench or stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
  • With either a barbell or a set of dumbbells, set your core and start with your weights around your shoulder height
  • Press the weights straight up until they’re above your head
  • Slowly return them to your upper chest
  • Repeat 5-8 times per set

7. Seated Behind the Neck Press

  • Start seated in a workout bench, preferably one with enough of a back to support your body
  • With your hands pronated, grab your barbell a little bit wider than shoulder-width 
  • Press the bar up above your head by extending your arms 
  • Slowly lower the barbell behind your head. Make sure you’ve angled your head away from the bar to avoid bonking yourself on the dome
  • Press the bar back up over your head just before the weights touch your traps or the base of your neck 
  • Repeat about 5-7 time per set

8. Incline Lateral Raise

Incline lateral raises might feel a little silly the first time you break them out in the gym, but their results aren’t something you can laugh at. By getting your feet off of the ground and putting your body at an angle relative to gravity, you force your upper body to engage with the exercise more fully. This variation on a classic is a great way to push yourself even further.

  • Find a workout bench you can incline and bring the bench up into a 70 - 80 degree incline
  • Face the inclined bench with a weight in each hand and lie against it with your chest
  • Bring your feet up onto the bench
  • Pronate your wrists and lift your weights in a natural arc until they’re in line with your shoulders
  • Pause for a moment before lowering them back into your starting position

9. Front Raises

Front raises focus your workout on your anterior deltoid. They aren’t the ideal exercise for building your horizontal presence, but they’re important for maintaining a well-rounded deltoid and they help define your shoulders enough to sell the definition of your shoulders more effectively.

  • Start by standing with your feet about hip-width apart. You want to be comfortable and steady for this exercise
  • Grab a dumbbell in each hand with your palms pronated a few inches in front of your thighs
  • Bring your arms up in front of your body, keeping your elbows slightly bent so they’re not being forced into an uncomfortable position by your weights 
  • Hold your weights in front of yourself for a brief second before lowering them back into your starting position
  • Repeat about 8-10 times per set

10. Push-Ups

Push-ups are the ultimate exercise when it comes to versatility. If you have a muscle in your upper body that you’re trying to polish, they would benefit from the addition of push-ups into your routine.

  • Start on the floor with your arms fully extended in front of your torso about shoulder-width apart
  • Keep your back, legs, and head in line with each other
  • Lower your body to the floor until your nose is almost touching
  • Pause for a moment then push against the ground to return to your starting position
  • Repeat 10 times per set

Tips for Broadening Up

Muscle Growth Basics

If you want to pack on muscle you need to make sure you’re feeding your body the protein it needs in order to rebuild your damaged muscle tissue. If your diet is severely lacking in the protein you need then you’re not going to bulk up. Your body places a premium on repairing damaged tissue.

If you don’t have the building material to repair the damage done to your body then it’s going to try its best and you’ll just end up repairing your delts to their former state. That’s going to erase your hard work and draw out the process of building muscle massYou should also be getting plenty of rest between sessions.

If you keep chiseling away at your muscles without giving yourself the opportunity to recover between workout sessions then you’ll face a similar fate. Your body works quickly but it’s never instant. 


Don’t Come Up Short

Your lateral delts are engaged most during the upper half of your arm’s range of motion. This means that if you’re going to be spending time building up your delts, then you should make sure your weights are coming all the way up until they’re in line with your shoulders. 

If you come up short on your exercises, you’ll still be getting some exercise in, which is all fine and good, but you’re not going to be fully engaging your muscles, which, very quickly, is going  to frustrate your progress.

The least you can do to simplify your workouts is push yourself as far as you can. If you’re having trouble with this or you’re not quite sure how well you’re doing, a mirror will work wonders for you. 

Leading With Your  Hands

This goes hand in hand with the previous point. The grip you have on your weights will alter how much you’re able to engage your delts and traps. A hammer grip will cheat your body out of its potential. The curvature of your arms will effectively lower the height distance your body is capable of moving your weights, leading to less work being done by your muscles.

If you can attack your shoulder with your arms pronated this will flatten out the plane of your arms and allow your shoulders a wider, more comfortable range of motion. Make sure you’re also keeping your arms flat. It’s not enough to just pronate your arm and call it a day, you should be keeping your arms flat all the way throughout your lifts. 

Broaden Your Horizons

It’s a hard truth to accept, but there’s only so much you can do in pursuit of broader shoulders. What you can do, however, is take the time to build on the other aspects of your physique that will give you the best possible silhouette to place on top of the natural frame you were blessed with.

Building up your shoulders is a great start, but you need to incorporate your traps, your back, and your chest to really perfect the effect.