Muscle Growth, Muscle Adaptation, Resistance Training

Best Exercises to Help Put Muscle Mass on Your Shoulders

By Joe Talarico on Jan 9, 2020 9:25:00 AM
5 Minutes Reading Time


Most men, if not all of us want fully capped, 3D shoulders. It’s one of the biggest indicators of a “manly man’s” aesthetic (along with big traps and chest). It makes your upper body look wider and thus waist look smaller.

The irony though, is that it is one of the hardest to train and gain size on. Between choosing the wrong exercises, performing even the correct exercises wrong, or overkilling certain areas, guys will spend most of their years in the gym thinking they’re hitting their delts when in reality they are just spinning their wheels. Here are the best shoulder exercises. 

Z-Press - Most people are always taught to start with a regular overhead press. That’s fine if you are just focused on strength or naturally have big shoulders. But other than that, going too heavy on shoulder presses just causes compensation patterns that takes away the focus. The beauty of the Z-Press is it can’t be done without maintaining proper position. And by forcing a proper position you create a more ideal movement pattern for targeting the delts.

Check out Mind Pump's Video for this Exercise

I would recommend starting with these for 3-4 weeks, and then getting into a military or other overhead press.

Lateral Raises - great for bringing up the middle, meaty part of the delt. Forget about the weight and focus on connection. Most lifters don’t grow big shoulders because they treat the shoulder like every other muscle and go as heavy as possible. The reality is shoulder’s do better off maximizing the mind muscle connection (more on that later). Keep your shoulders in place and think about pushing the arms out as you raise them to the sides.

Check out Mind Pump's Video for this Exercise

Rear Flyes - If the shoulder is a lagging muscle body part that you are really trying to bring up, then I definitely recommend STARTING with the rear flyes. You’ll have the most energy to put focus towards hitting the weakest part of the shoulder. Like the lateral raises, it isn’t about weight but about making sure the rear delts are what are activated during the whole movement and not the back.

Check out Mind Pump's Video for this Exercise 


Frequency: 2-3 days a week

Reps: Rotate through all ranges for maximum efficiency.

Weeks 1-4 - 8-10

Weeks 5-8 - 10-12

Weeks 9-12 - 12-15

3 Variables to Understand When Hitting the Shoulders

1. Mind Muscle Connection

This is HUGE. I cannot stress this enough. If your shoulders (or any muscle for that matter) aren’t growing as much as the rest and falling behind, it’s most likely because you aren’t hitting that muscle. Just because you did a bunch of overhead presses, and what you thought were effective side raises, doesn’t mean you ACTUALLY hit the shoulders. Confused?

Your body only knows movement. It doesn’t know you want pumpkins for shoulders. It just knows you are working with a heavy weight and will do whatever it takes to move that weight. So in the case of heavier lateral raises, as you get tired, have you ever noticed you start to use your traps more? Or come up on your toes to swing the weight up? Then you aren’t hitting your shoulders. Focus on the connection to the muscle. Go lighter on the weight, and focus on being able to hit a peak contraction on each movement. Check your ego at the door. Most people will have to drop down to 10-15lbs to really feel the muscle. Play around with SLIGHT changes to the angle to see if you feel a better contraction more in different areas. I have found for myself, playing around with this and finding where that sweet spot is made all the difference in shoulder growth.

2. Neglecting the Rear Delts

Most programs have a ton of overhead pressing, maybe some side delt, but rarely does a typical program have rear flyes. If you really want that 3D look from any angle and that nice muscle fullness you see on your favorite marvel superhero, then you need to really hit the rear delts. Also, you are probably doing a ton of benching already on top of all your overhead pressing work so your front desk most likely are getting overworked. Switch your focus over to side and rear delt, and watch your shoulders grow. 

3. Neglecting all Rep Ranges

People know their ideal sweet spots. If I asked you right now what rep range you work in the most, you probably already know the answer. We stick with what we’re good at. That’s all fine and dandy, but again, your body is an adaptation machine. Once the new stimulus wears off, your growth slows down, and you’ll get less and less progress from sticking to the same ranges.

To stimulate bigger growth responses again, you need to throw a new stimulus at the body. It usually takes about 3-4 weeks (on average) for your body to adapt to a new stimulus. So as shown in the recommendations earlier, try phasing through rep ranges so that you can kick start your progress back up.

Guide to Growing Big Shoulders | Mind Pump 

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Joe Talarico

Joe is a certified Precision Nutrition and strength & conditioning coach. He assisted the UCLA Women’s Tennis team in winning their 2014 NCAA Championship Title, as well as study under the great strength coaches at Pepperdine University. He was a collegiate rower at the University of Rhode Island (where he got his Kinesiology degree) as well as an amateur physique competitor. He is currently the master trainer at Upgrade Labs in Santa Monica where he is combining his years of training clients in the gym with newer technology to optimize their performance and recovery. He also cohosts The RelationSH*T Show Podcast with his fiancée where they discuss all relationship topics unfiltered from who pays on dates, to open relationships.

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