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November 09, 2020 10 min read

We all want bigger shoulders. They’re key to that jacked frame you’re cultivating. If you’re working out, and you want to build muscle, then you can’t ignore the shoulders. You want that perfect, sculpted silhouette that you can show off on social media, and with a narrow pair of shoulder muscles, you’re never going to get that. Door frames should tremble at the approach of your side delts. A thick set of shoulders will give you the power and confidence to strut everywhere with your head held high. Today, we’re going to give you the tools you need to get there. These shoulder exercises are going to lift your head and shoulders above the rest. 

What are We Targeting? 

The first question you’re going to have to ask when you’re looking to improve any aspect of your workout is “what muscle group am I working out?” It’s not enough to just point at your shoulders and guess at shoulder exercises until you get it right. Starting with a strong foundation of knowledge will give you a strong foundation to build your routine around, and in turn, you’ll come out of this with big shoulders. If you want to build bigger shoulders, you want a multiple muscle approach.

The Deltoids

First, and most obviously, your deltoids are going on the “Bigger Shoulder Workout Tour.” The delts literally keep your arms attached to your torso. WIthout your delts, you’re not lifting any of these weights, and your shoulders are never getting any bigger. If you want to get jacked, you’re going to need to target these, and hit them hard. Being the nexus of shoulder growth also means that you need to make sure that these exercises are effective and safe. Getting injured while you work out is the single easiest way to get weaker. If you knock yourself out of the game, you’re going to have to sit things out, lose some of that hard work, recover from the injury (probably slowly), and then retread that lost ground. The best way to avoid that is to execute your exercises right the first time. You also don’t want to make the mistake of working on only your deltoids. If you work out just those delts, then the muscles that work in concert with them to give your arms your full range of motion will suffer, and your body will be furious.

A strong man working out outside with dumbells.

The Teres Muscles

The Teres Major basically starts on the part of your shoulder blade closest to your spine (or the dorsal surface of the inferior angle) and connects to the inside of your humerus. When you draw your arm back down after a front raise that’s your teres major at work. Be sure to thank it every time you get to bring your arms back to their resting position.

The Teres Minor is slightly above the teres major, it’s a bit shorter, and makes a sharper angle, reaching its way up to the outer and upper region of your arm, if you want to get technical, it’s running from the axillary border of the scapula up until its insertion point on the lowest impressions of your humerus’s greater tubercle.

Together the teres major and teres minor are responsible for holding your shoulder blade and your humerus together. The Teres muscles are just as important as your delts on the road to bigger shoulders. Working on the teres muscles will give you a greater range of motion when working out, and with improved motion comes more effective shoulder workouts. 

The Trapezius Muscles

Your traps are a large slab of muscle that extends between your neck and your shoulders and extends down towards the middle of your back. The traps get their name for their shape, they look a lot like a trapezoid stretched across your back. They become an integral part of your shoulder workout because of the slope between your shoulder and your neck. If you want bigger shoulders, you want stronger traps. Working on your trapezius is going to give you that beautiful powerful thick look.  

The Latissimus Dorsi

These are your lats, literally in Latin latissimus dorsi means “the broadest back muscles,” but it’s easy to think that “lats” comes from “lateral,” but we’re here to learn, so let’s just clear that one up real quick. Your lats aren't going to be the key muscles you need for bigger shoulders, but incidentally, they’ll get a decent amount of work, and they’re going to help stabilize you, and give you a powerful back while you’re jacking your shoulders up. The key to excellent exercise is working with your biology, and all of these things work together, so you might as well work with them as well. Your upper body exercises will be more manageable with support from your back.

The Pectoralis Major

The Pecs are another set of muscles that don’t immediately seem to have something to do with the shoulders, but a peek under the hood shows us that couldn’t be further from the truth. Your pecs are responsible for flexing your humerus. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to hold a newborn. Working your pecs as well as your lats and the teres set will leave you with a balanced chest and a solid foundation to rest your huge shoulders on.

Shoulder Injury

Common shoulder injuries come from bad form. The shoulder is an intricate system of tendons, muscles, and bone lovingly crafted and deftly placed into your body to allow your arms to serve you. Getting huge isn’t just a matter of lifting heavy weights, it’s about understanding your body and all of its component parts and pushing them to their limits. When you do these shoulder exercises you need to make sure you maintain good form. Your range of motion will suffer if you go into these sloppy, and it’s going to take so much effort and time to undo that. If you’re not careful about avoiding harmful shortcuts you’ll end up turning your biology against itself.  

A man doing rear delt machine flies in the gym.

1. Rear Delt Machine Flies

The fly machine or the pec deck is an invaluable tool for strengthening those shoulders. It’s a straightforward device that’s in nearly every gym worth its salt. Adding a rear delt fly to your routine is a surefire way to strengthen the posterior half of your shoulders. Most pec decks will have simple instructions printed right on the machine to get you started, but if you need help, that’s the whole point of this post. 

Figure out a weight that’s comfortable for you, and then start seated on the pec deck facing the weights. Set the bars of the machine all the way back so that when you grip them they’re in front of you, because you’re going to be pulling them towards your back. Make sure the seat has been adjusted so that your arms are about or just below shoulder height once to take hold of the bars. You want to grab the handles that allow your fists to rest horizontally. 

Once your body is all set in the starting position pull the bars towards you, driving the weight back behind you. Keep your arms fully extended, and make sure to squeeze your shoulders and engage them throughout the exercise. Breathing is important here. Without oxygen your body is useless. Inhale as you let the weight back down on the forward motion, and be sure to exhale when bringing the weight back up behind you.

If you find yourself without a pec deck for whatever reason, this fly can be done just as easily with an inclined bench and a pair of dumbbells. LIe chest down on the bench, and use a hammer grip on the dumbbells. Other than your sitting position and the grip you’ll have on the weights, the dumbbell variant is the same. Maintain an even cadence of breathing, pull the weights up towards your back, and keep your arms straight. 

2. Ski-rows

A quick search for ski-rows will leave you thinking that you need to pick up a whole new machine just for this single exercise. Sometimes the road to a better body is paved with niche purchases. Not this time, the ski-row can be done on a specialty machine, but just as easily it is another exercise we’ll break out the incline bench for. The only other equipment needed for the ski-row is a pair of dumbbells. This is another exercise that’s great for cultivating your rear delts, and if the pec deck wasn’t to your liking then this one is worth a shot. 

Grab that incline bench, and rest one knee on it, while you lie down on your chest with the weights in your hands, hanging down towards the floor. From this position, while keeping your arms straight, and life the dumbbells straight back towards your body. Key to this is keeping your arms straight, and pushing the weight just slightly behind your back. Try to keep your head pointed straight forward as well, bending your neck towards the ground will cause your body undue strain, and getting big is no fun if you can’t even turn your head the day after you hit the gym.

3. Military Press

The Military press, or overhead press, is done with a barbell and is essentially the classic strong man pose. The power you exude with the overhead press is appealing for the ego boost alone, but we’re here for muscle growth, not just an ego stroke. 

So how do you do this one? The military press is going to be done with a  barbell, good form, and caution. The overhead press is almost like you’ve rotated a bench press 90 degrees. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, or whatever gives you the best balance, since we’re heading straight up with this one. Stand with the bar on the front of your shoulders. This next part is important. You want to press the bar over your head, but stop so that it’s balanced over your head. Aim to have the weight over your shoulders and the middle of your feet. You will then extend your arms all the way up, locking your elbows once you’re at the top. Reverse the motions to bring the weight back to the overhead position, and then lowering it to your shoulders again. Repeat until your set is finished. 

The military press is incredibly effective, especially when done standing. The balancing act engages almost the entirety of your body. Excellent core strength and strong legs are going to be a natural result of the overhead press, and if more powerful overall muscles are the end result of bigger shoulders, then we’re all for it. Remember, however, the focus on safety. Don’t be too proud when starting your overhead presses. Start with a manageable weight, you don’t want to crush anyone, or injure yourself. That’s going to get in the way of getting shredded way more than careful honest evaluation of the weight you can hold over your head.

A man doing rear delt flies in the gym.

4. Lateral Raises

The lateral raises are an excellent exercise for your deltoids. You’re going to need a single dumbbell and a workout bench. If you’re wanting bigger shoulders, then this exercise is just as key as the standing shrug. The dumbbell lateral raises are going to blast those delts. Your anterior deltoids and rear deltoid are going to help swing your arms out from your body, and that motion is where your jacked shoulders are going to come from. 

The lateral raise is going to put you on an incline bench to make it easy to isolate those muscles. Grab a single dumbbell, and set the bench at an incline around 45 degrees. Once you find a comfortable position lie down on the bench, you may want to rest your head on your free arm to avoid overextending your traps and while you execute the lateral raise. Your hand with the dumbbell in it should be facing towards your thigh. Remember, effective work is safe and works with your anatomy. 

Once you’re situated, it’s time to get those shoulders working. Bring the weight up until your arm is in line with your shoulders. This should be a deliberate motion made without the help of upward momentum. If you’re swinging the dumbbell your deltoids aren’t going to be doing the work they need in order to give you the larger shoulders we know you want.  

5. Wide Grip Incline Bench Press

We know what you’re thinking. The bench press? That’s for my chest, and I came here to get my shoulders looking right. And, if you’ve been paying attention you know why this is here. The bench press is going to engage your delts, as well as balancing out the action of your muscles. If you work out only your shoulders and your back you’re going to be applying all kinds of weird pressure to a delicate system of muscles and you’re going to have to spend time later reorienting your routine and fixing easily avoidable problems. This wide grip incline variant also has the additional benefit of really rounding out that big shoulder look you’re aiming for. 

So, in case you’ve forgotten how to bench press, you’re going to need to bust out the barbell again. If you’re packing on heavy weights make sure you’ve got a rack with you, bonus points if you’ve got a spotter. Lie down on your bench that you have adjusted to an incline of course, and grab the barbell with your arms well outside of your shoulder-width apart. You want to make sure your arms are fully extended and you have complete control over the weights. Keep your feet on the ground, and let the barbell sink towards your upper body, if you do this slowly you can also get your triceps in on the exercise. Once the weight is down towards your chest, shove it back up to the starting position. Don’t let your wrists twist, and keep an eye on the pressure you're putting on your lower back. Engage your chest and shoulders, and you’ll be seeing results in no time.

Don’t Shrug This Off

The shoulders are a system on several interlocking muscles, The anterior deltoids along with your rear delts come together to hook your arm into a slot (your rotator cuff) anchored by tendons and muscles all over the length of your back, and the front of your body works in tandem with the back to give you an impressive range of motion. Getting bigger shoulders is a matter of considering how these muscles work together, respecting your shoulder joints, and bringing out the best of them to sculpt your body in the image of someone capable of harnessing their muscle mass and knowledgeable about these puzzle pieces. Broad powerful shoulders capable of moving heavy weights every which way are the mark of someone that has taken their time to craft a smart routine and dedicated themselves to the best shoulder exercises possible. If you want to inch ever closer to the best bodybuilders, then you could do worse than these muscle building exercises.