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Best Exercises for Bigger Shoulder Muscles

Updated on May 4, 2013
The deltoids as art.
The deltoids as art.

Big shoulders are an amazing spectacle. Man or woman, when a person has defined, well developed shoulder muscles almost devoid of fat, it's a fascinating sight. Not only that, but shoulder muscles are seriously useful. Keep reading to find out the right way to develop an impressive set of deltoids. Here's a hint-it's not just about lifting heavy weights.

Building any muscle in your body is a matter of placing enough stress on that particular muscle group so that it is forced to adapt and change. With the right stress, those changes mean increased muscle size, resulting in increased strength and power. With a little tweaking to your sets and reps, you can even increase the muscle's short term endurance.

Some people suggest that the key to size is just lifting big. But lifting heavy weights is only advisable if you can perform the repetitions in excellent form, without cheating. Remember, heavy is relative to the individual; if it feels heavy to you, it is!

There are some exceptions to this with exercises like the Jerk or Push Press, which are intended to increase power output more than anything, but these are not our 'go-to' moves when we want to focus on the muscle being worked. Instead, let's go back to basics and their variations and see why these moves work.

Arnold doing the seated dumbbell press
Arnold doing the seated dumbbell press

Amazing Facts!

Oldtime strongman Paul Anderson once performed the clean and press (a strict overhead press, not like the jerk, ) with 435 lbs. (197 kg.) He is also on record for doing a one arm dumbbell press with 300 lbs. and back squatting with over 1200!

Seated or Standing Barbell/Dumbbell Press:

Doing these seated eliminates the possibility of using your legs, but if the temptation to drive with the legs is great, the weight is probably too heavy. Two tips for either position:

-Tighten, tighten, tighten your core. Controlling the legs (including glutes,) lower back and abdominal wall will help prevent leaning back while pressing. It will also give you a stronger base to push against, making the exercise more efficient.

-Make sure the emphasis is on the deltoids. Leaning backward can bring in the pectoral muscles. Try imagining you are moving the weight in a straight line. Start out with a lighter weight to really get a feel for pushing with the shoulder muscles.

***When doing overhead presses of any kind, stay within a comfortable range of motion. For some, locking out at the top and bottoming out when they lower the bar can stress the shoulder joint.

What muscles does it work?

Regardless of what type of press you do, if it is done properly, all three heads of the deltoid will be used, with emphasis placed on the medial deltoid. The triceps are also brought in to use, as well as the supporting muscles of the rotator cuff and upper back.

The Arnold press.
The Arnold press. | Source

Fun variations

The Arnold Press:

Using dumbbells, start in a seated position, elbows facing forward, palms facing you. In an alternating or simultaneous motion, press up while rotating the palm forward to face away from you. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position.

Why do these?

The emphasis switches to the anterior (front) deltoid, and it may be easier on the elbows and shoulder joint for some.

Kettlebell Press:

Kettlebells are just off-balance enough to force you to concentrate on tightening your core, as well as your form in the press. Use these in place of barbells or dumbbells, or throw in some KB presses to jazz things up.

Dumbbell front raise.
Dumbbell front raise. | Source
Dumbbell lateral raise
Dumbbell lateral raise | Source
bent-over lateral raise.
bent-over lateral raise. | Source

Dumbbell Raises:

Front, lateral and bent-over lateral raises are performed with dumbbells. Each emphasizes but not completely isolate, a different part of the deltoid.

Front: More than the other two, this exercise isolates; the anterior deltoid to be specific. Use it regularly as it also works the part of the pectoralis that attaches to the clavicle. It also carries over to your performance in pushups and the bench press.

Lateral: A practical exercise that focuses on the middle deltoid, while forcing the other two heads to assist in supporting the weight. Form is everything here, so use weight that allows the shoulder muscles to do the work. Raising the dumbbells above the horizontal line of the shoulders will bring the trapezius muscles into play, so stop at horizontal.

Bent-over laterals: These work the posterior deltoid, and should be performed with straight arms for best effect. Inevitably, the trapezius, rhomboids and certain muscles of the rotator cuff group will be used as well. Bring the dumbbells up to horizontal and use a weight you can control.

Why do these?

For the majority of people, doing nothing but presses will not result in the defined rounded orb we want to create. Adding muscle in every direction is how you develop this rounded appearance. More importantly, devoting time to building up each part of the deltoid helps prevent injury and can enhance performance in various athletic endeavors. Professional powerlifting routines, for example, include posterior deltoid isolation work to help protect the shoulder joint during the bench press.


Front raises: Experiment with holding the dumbbell in a vertical and a horizontal position. Go with the one that is most comfortable while eliciting the greatest effort from the anterior shoulder muscle.

Lateral raises: Try these in three positions. First, with the hands in front of the body, then with the hands starting at your sides, and finally with the hands just behind you. Use the position that allows the smoothest range of motion while emphasizing the work of the deltoids.

Bent-over laterals: If these create too much strain on the lower back, try performing these lying face down on a bench. Even in this position, keep the core tight during execution.

There are many more variations for each exercise, including front barbell raises, suspension trainer pulls (often called the TYW exercise,) and the use of cables for any of these movements.

No matter what type of equipment you use, start out with a weight you can control in order to make the shoulder muscles feel the brunt of the work. Increase resistance and the number of sets as you get stronger to keep the muscles growing. Work these basics and you will soon feel those softballs forming on your arms.


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