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Muscle Growth

What are the Best Exercises to Grow Big Shoulders

By Joe Talarico on Apr 10, 2024 9:00:00 AM
6 Minutes Reading Time


Training the shoulders is one of my favorite muscle groups to train. I love the 3D look that they give, the fact that they make your arms look bigger both shirtless and with a shirt on, and they truly are one of the main muscles that make you look jacked even if you are lacking everywhere else. Unfortunately, I’ve also had the hardest time growing this muscle. It took me years to develop the mind muscle connection to get them to actually grow. Early on, I used to just lift and do some shoulder work, and assume I was doing the right things. It wasn’t until I really got into studying the anatomy, and hitting all 3 heads of the shoulder that I truly found some growth.


Before getting into the exercises, the big thing I want to point out is that you DO need to hit it with variety. You have the front delt, the lateral delt, and the rear delt. Don’t get me wrong, if you do enough chest work (benches and presses), and back work (rows, pull-ups, etc), the front and rear delt will definitely receive a lot of stimulation. Some argue, particularly for the front delt, that you do not even need any more front delt work.

While I don’t disagree with that, your body is your body. If you find any or all heads seem to be lacking in size, then I encourage you to work on all three. This is important because people tend to not realize that all three may need direct work. Every person is different, and it comes down to your own body's response to training to know which delts need more exercises. The overall point to take home is to recognize that and implement accordingly.

Front Delt Exercises

Shoulder Press: There are a ton of variations here. You can do military press, arnold press, dumbbell press, you can be seated or standing. You can even use barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells. Try them each and see what your body responds best to. Generally speaking, the barbell overhead press is the go-to exercise to build your overall mass.

Side Delt Exercises

Lateral Raise: You can do these on the cables or with dumbbells. These will help really create that width that most people want to see. The key with these is to not chase weight. If you keep increasing the weight you run the risk of using too much momentum and swinging and not targeting the side delt. This can also lead to too much trap involvement. Focus on slow, controlled movement, and building that tension in the shoulder over everywhere else.

High Pulls and Upright Rows: These are other exercises you can use for the lateral head. This provides more variety, and a different resistance curve for you to stimulate that lateral delt through another range.

Rear Delt

Rear Fly: Taking a fly through a full range of motion will allow you to target that smaller rear delt muscle. This can be a difficult muscle to hit, as it is small, and it’s easy for the back to take over. So similar to the lateral raise, make sure to use slow and controlled movements. Really feel that target muscle being hit and not others taking over.

Bonus - Rotational Movements: Exercises like face pulls, external rotation, and rotator cuff exercises, will help keep that shoulder blade stable and your joints in the optimal position. While these don’t directly increase the size of the shoulder, as someone going through a shoulder impingement issue right now, I can’t stress enough how important this is. It is very easy to neglect this work because it isn’t glamorous, but it keeps that shoulder joint healthy. Think of it this way; if you DON’T get ahead of this, picture trying to grow your shoulders when it hurts to do any of the exercises above. We won’t possibly get the growth we want if we can’t work the muscle due to injury. Take care of that shoulder!

With the shoulders being a smaller muscle group, you can work them 3-4 times a week. This will allow them to receive the proper stimulus, and allow you to spread your work out over more days so you can be fresher to hit them with the appropriate volume. Rotate through the rep ranges (6-10, 10-15, 15-20) to see what ranges you respond best to for each exercise. The lower rep work will generally be better for the heavier pressing movements, while the higher rep work will be better for the side and rear delts.

Another thing to keep in mind is if growing shoulders is your priority, train them FIRST in your workout. You are the strongest then, so we want to prioritize what order the shoulders get hit.

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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