If you want to get big shoulders you have come to the right place. Our recent shoulder workout feature from master trainer Nathan Williams was so popular, we have now folded it into this, our original guide to those seeking big arms and a pleasing V shape, by using the best shoulder workout.
Being broad shouldered was once considered the height of manliness, before the days of six-packs, getting swole arms and, of course, big calves. But now delts – as shoulder work experts call them – are having their day again. Just look at Chris Hemsworth. Go on: look at him. He has a workout programme too, called Centr.
Shoulders are actually a very significant part of your arms. If you're a discerning gym-goer, you'll know that the bicep is a small muscle and it doesn't contribute all that much to how your arms look. If you want to really increase upper arm circumference, train your triceps. If you want to look good in a long sleeved t-shirt or in a jumper, and want suits to just 'hang' off you, pay attention to your shoulders.
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Why exercise your shoulders?
Shoulders can enhance the way you look massively. A pair of nice, rounded shoulders will make you look good, a force to be reckoned with. But there is a golden rule to follow if you want to look like Ryan Gosling in the shower scene in Blade Runner 2049: train all sides of your shoulders for a proper 3D look.
The golden rule of exercising your shoulders: train it all, not just the sides
The are three areas of the shoulder muscles: the front, the side and the back. Now, it might sound condescending to say that a three dimensional object has sides all over, but what people often forget is that this means that all areas need work in order for them to be activated.
The front of your shoulder is easy to train: most exercises involving pushing things away from you will activate this muscle, with the bench press being the most obvious example. If you want to further activate this part, you can also do front dumbbell raises.
The side of the shoulder is the biggest part of the muscle and most well-known, shoulder-specific exercises you do for shoulders will activate this area. Side lateral raise, overhead press and seated press can all help to add to the bulk of your shoulders.
The back of the shoulders are often forgotten, although they are equally as important as the other parts. This part can also help you improve your posture; a slumped shoulder is often stemmed from these muscles not being strong enough to hold the shoulders back. To train the back of the shoulders, do reverse flyers, either on a machine or just bent over with dumbbells. You can use a weights bench too, set in a 30º angle to support your chest.
When exercising the back of the shoulders, pay extra attention to the muscle. If you reach over with the other hand, move your shoulder back and feel what area is being activated just behind the side of your shoulder. Concentrate on this area when performing reverse flyers.
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Get big shoulders with this workout from leading PT Nathan Williams
To get big arms, the best shoulder workouts are a sure-fire route to success. Logically enough since, as doctors tell us, your shoulder bone is connected to your arm bone. (Now hear the word of the lord.) Anyone wanting to build a bigger physique or pack on muscle should pay attention to the shoulders. They are often described as 'the foundation of any physique", as broad shoulders give the illusion of a smaller waist and create the v-shape that those wishing to fill a t-shirt aspire to (whilst also working out how to get a six pack, natch).
"The shoulders are a complex joint, made up of several different muscles, allowing them to move in a range of different directions, says Nathan Williams, Personal Trainer, Body Building World Champion and Grenade sports nutrition ambassador. (opens in new tab)
"This means you can get creative with your shoulder workouts, as there are so many movements and exercises out there to try. This is why shoulders is one of my favourite muscle groups to train, as it’s so easy to keep the sessions interesting," he adds.
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The science bit: anatomy of shoulder muscles
Before we get into the routine, let’s talk about the make-up of the shoulders. We don’t want to complicate things, so we will start by covering the three key muscles groups, so you get a better picture of what requires movement and load to increase mass.
The anterior deltoid, located on the front of your shoulders, is primarily responsible for shoulder abduction and allows you to raise your arms in front of your body. Bulk these up to efficiently fill T-shirt sleeves and create a nice shape to the top of the arms.
Located on the sides of your shoulders, the medial deltoid is, similar to the above, responsible for shoulder abduction. It also allows you to raise your arms outwards to the side of your body. Adding mass to these helps increase the v-shape we mentioned earlier.
This muscle is on the back of your shoulders and its role is external shoulder rotation and transverse abduction. Learning to activate these by pulling the shoulders back and down towards your butt is a great way of stabilising other, heavy lifting exercises, such as the deadlift and overhead press.
What’s the best routine to build bigger shoulders?
So, now we know what each muscle does, let’s put together a routine to help build those boulder shoulders.
"I always like to start any routine with exercises where I can shift the most amount of weight. The more weight you lift, the more the muscle fibres will be recruited, meaning more gains!" explains Nathan.
"After the heavy compounds are completed, I then add in isolation exercises, paying attention to each muscle of the shoulders," he adds.
Below is a quick outline of a fast and efficient shoulder routine, which can be performed in any gym or can largely be completed with a good set of dumbbells - preferably a set that allows for weight to be added over time.
Seated dumbbell shoulder press
3 sets of 6 reps
Grab a set of dumbbells and secure an empty bench in the gym or at home. Sit on the edge of the bench and avoid pressing the back into a pad. It is best to stabilise using the abdominals here.
With feet planted to support your weight and palms facing outwards, dumbbells resting just in front of the shoulders, press the dumbbells straight above your head, remembering to activate the posterior deltoid. Don't allow the dumbbells to clank together at the top, but instead finish the moves just before the elbows lock out. Pause and lower slowly. Repeat.
Hammer strength shoulder press
3 sets of 10 reps
This exercise requires a fairly specialist piece of machinery that can be found in most commercial gyms. the beauty of this machine is that it can be loaded with particular heavy weights, without the need for a spotter.
The movement is self explanatory, but ensure posture is correct when lifting big, as there can be a temptation to round the lower back for that additional push. This could lead to injury.
Standing dumbbell lateral raises
3 sets of 15 reps
Standing in a shoulder-width stance, grab a pair of dumbbells with palms facing inward and let them hang at your sides. Start off light with this move and gradually increase as the weeks go on.
Raise the arms up and out to the sides, ensuring the elbows remain high and thumbs point towards each other and slightly up toward the ceiling. Don't over rotate and point thumbs to the floor. Pause at the top and lower slowly, ensuring you you activate all of the shoulder muscles.
Plate front raises
3 sets of 15 reps
Grab a weight plate in the gym or hold a single dumbbell at each end. Start with your chosen weight out in front of your waist, activate the shoulder muscles and pull the weight up and out in front of you, keeping the elbows almost locked out.
Pause at the top of the movement and lower slowly. It is a good idea to adopt a nice, smooth tempo on the lowering portion of this exercise, as it keeps the muscles under tension for longer.
Chest supported dumbbell reverse flies
3 sets of 15 reps
You'll need an adjustable workout bench for this one and it needs to be set at around a 45-degree angle. Lay on the bench with your chest pressed into the padding, head and neck above the cushion.
Pick up a set of light dumbbells (ideally positioned on the floor next to the bench so you can grab them easily) and let them hang. Activate the shoulder muscles by 'puffing' the chest out and bringing the shoulders back, bending the elbows slightly. Without letting your shoulders shrug up to your ears, bring the weights apart in a reverse fly fashion, pause at the top and lower slowly for a single rep.
Cable to face pulls (using a rope)
3 sets of 15 reps
Again, this requires a specialists piece of equipment typically found in commercial gyms, but it is an excellent way to finish a tough shoulder workout. Assume a solid, square stance with the rope in front, set above your head.
Grab the rope with palms facing inwards, inhale and pull the rope towards your face, keeping the elbows high and 'parting' the rope so the move finishes with forearms at a 90-degree angle to your bicep, which in turn are at a 90-degree angle to the floor.
Don't go too heavy with this one and make sure the rope is pulled right back, with shoulders pinned back and down towards the floor. This will ensure you are activating the correct muscle groups.