Nothing changes the look of your physique more than well-developed shoulders. We ask our experts for their very best tips for capped delts.
What’s your single best training tip for building shoulder size?
Shoulders, as opposed to other muscle groups which grow via a few main compound movements and heavy lifting, need a lot of everything. Why? Because different areas of the delt respond better to different types of stimulation.
Rear delts respond best to high reps and a lot of time under tension. But to get thick, dense, and beefy front and middle delts, you’ll have to do some heavy military or behind the neck pressing.
There are two main keys to building shoulders: The first is variety (hitting different angles); the second is time under tension. The actual weight you lift here plays a secondary role when it comes to shoulders.
I’m not saying you have to be shoulder pressing with 5-pound dumbbells, but super-controlled movement with perfect technique will go a long way. What I like to do, as someone who hates high reps, is combine triple sets or giant sets with different angles, tempos, and exercises. Here’s an example:
Start with a heavy military press. Do the first half of the set stopping just under your ears and pause there for 2-3 seconds. Do the second half with a normal smooth pace. Then do two variations of lateral raises – one leaning away and one standing upright to hit it from two different angles.
To finish up, do a rear delt exercise for high reps, focusing on a squeeze. Hold it at peak contraction for 2-3 seconds on each rep for the first half of the set. You can take this same idea and change it around for your preferences. The options are endless.
I like to use “growth factor” sets which combine 2-4 isolation shoulder exercises performed non-stop. What this will do is keep your delts under tension for at least a minute and up to two.
Now, there’s no doubt that bench pressing and overhead pressing heavy for lower reps can increase the size of the delts. But it tends to focus the development mostly on the anterior (front) portion of the deltoid, and the stronger this part gets, the harder it will be to fully stimulate the lateral part, which is more important if you want to look wide, because the anterior delt will always want to compensate.
The behind the neck press actually hits all three heads of the delt fairly well, but unless you are Paul Carter or Dmitry Klokov it might be a better idea to stay on the lighter side with behind the neck presses.
Try this: Overhead press for strength skill – high number of sets of around 3 reps with 80-85%. Go heavy enough to improve your fast twitch fiber recruitment and activate the nervous system, but not so heavy that it can become traumatic on the joint. And then do most of the workload in the form of growth factor supersets.
Take your pick from any of these shoulder supersets or come up with your own, as long as you understand the concept of keeping the delts under constant tension for 1-2 minutes.
The deltoid is a lot more complex than what we originally thought. There are more than three innervation points. Not to mention that the shoulder joint is the most mobile in the body so it’s important to use a lot of different angles, both for full muscular development and shoulder health.
Sure, the standing barbell overhead press should be a staple, but if your main goal is to build bigger shoulders, pump some cables.
Now, it’s true that most shoulder machines kinda suck. They lock you into one plane of motion, which is odd because your shoulders don’t really work that way. But cable machines are different. As Charles Poliquin wrote years ago on T Nation, cable machines are as good as dumbbells, and in some practical ways, they’re better.
I like the Free Motion seated shoulder machine (pictured on the side) or the standing version, though other brands make the same type of selectorized cable machine.
With it, you can quickly and conveniently manipulate all sorts of variables for growth:
- Fast hypertrophy techniques – With a quick weight change you can do drop sets, ascending sets, run the racks, partials, holds, and just about every other proven hypertrophy technique. The machine makes it very easy to extend the time under tension without having to grab another set of dumbbells or change plates on a bar.
- Exercise changes – After a set of overhead presses, you can change positions, switch the weight fast, and go right into a set of burnout lateral raises, front raises, or rear-delt raises. This also keeps you from hogging several pieces of equipment at once, so it’s great for a busy gym.
- Grip changes – Unlike a barbell, you can change grip right in the middle of set: wide, narrow, pronated, supinated, or neutral. You can also switch from a bilateral to a unilateral exercise without stopping.
- Angles – As a bonus, the cable machine allows you to really tweak the line of pull and choose from any angle possible, unlike most machines. I recently separated my AC joint while rescuing a busload of nuns from a group of terrorists.* It was impossible to use a barbell, but the cable machine allowed me to manipulate the angle and tension, work around the injury, and recover faster.
* Tripped over the dog.
The delts are composed of 50% fast twitch and 50% slow twitch muscle fibers (Madidis et al. 2007). So to target both types of fibers this protocol hits the specific rep ranges required and it incorporates both heavy and lighter loads.
The delts respond best to multiple exercises with short rest intervals, varying the resistance load and resistance mechanics (i.e. free-weights, machine, and cables). Give this tri-set a shot:
- 1A Dumbbell Lateral Raise, 6-8 reps
10 seconds rest
- 1B Machine Lateral Raise, 10-12 reps
10 seconds rest
- 1C Cable Lateral Raise, 15 to 20 reps
120 seconds rest
Want to make this tri-set more challenging? Rather than increasing the weight, which often leads to poor technique on lateral raises, do 1A seated, and for the machine lateral raises in 1B, slow down the eccentric (negative).
When doing lateral raises, don’t focus on going heavy, but on feeling every millimeter of every rep.
The flippant answer here is to tell you to overhead press and shut up. But the thing about overhead pressing is most people are really, REALLY bad at it and end up making it a standing incline press – plowing through their lower back and not hitting the shoulders as much as they’d like.
One exercise I like to use with clients is the legless or tall kneeling scrape the rack press.
By kneeling on the ground you take the lower back out of the equation, which automatically makes it more challenging because it’s harder to cheat. Moreover, because you’re pressing INTO the rack you’ll get more serratus activation and anterior core recruitment which will nudge you into a little more posterior pelvic tilt (better overall alignment).
I’ll often have my clients perform a heavy-ish set of these for 6-8 reps, followed with a lighter dumbbell variation so they can really feel the delts work. Most guys have a hard time getting their delts to grow because they try to “muscle” everything and use too much body-English (bouncing around at unnecessary levels).
Follow the scrape-the-rack press with one of these two moves using light dumbbells, 10-20 pounds.
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: Shoot for 20-30 reps.
- Ladder Dumbbell Lateral Raise: Do 5 reps, 5 second hold at top, 4 reps, 4 second hold at top, 3 reps, 3 second hold at top, 2 reps, 2 second hold at top, 1 rep.
If you want to build sick delts then continue lifting heavy and building strength, then cap off your workout using the iso-dynamic lateral raise. This method uses a crucifix hold at the beginning of a lateral raise to improve your mind-muscle connection and supercharge shoulder growth, particularly at the medial head.
Since the medial head is notoriously difficult to recruit, this method will help you recruit stagnant muscle fibers, place a ton of muscle-building metabolic stress on your shoulders, and provide plenty of tension to simulate growth. Use a pre-set hold for 10-20 seconds, followed by 10-15 reps. Repeat for 3-5 sets with 30-60 seconds rest in between.
Start with a light pair of dumbbells and do 25 reps. Immediately grab a heavier pair and do 15 reps. Then grab a heavier pair and do 10 reps. Rest a few minutes while cursing to yourself, then go back down. Restart with 10 reps, then 15 reps, then 25 reps. Doing this twice a week will slap medial delts on pretty much everyone.
- Determine how much overhead pressing you can tolerate.
- Figure out what supplemental training you can do to enhance that tolerance.
Most lifters will, at some point, have shoulder issues, and even those who don’t have symptoms normally have something that’s structurally out of whack. Most people over the age of 50 have some sort of rotator cuff pathology, so you could make the argument that everyone is kicking the can down the road with respect to shoulder pain in a lifting environment. That road is just a bit longer for some people.
With that in mind, the best training tip for long-term shoulder development is to determine your tolerance for overhead pressing. Cycle it in and out throughout the month and/or year. Substitute in the landmine press (shown below) or extra horizontal pushing exercises here and there.
Also, remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Work in a bit of external rotation work at the end of your upper body sessions; as little as 2-3 sets per week can make a big difference. Do some prone trap raises as part of your warm-up. Use a foam roller on your pecs, lats, and upper body. Pull more than you push. All these things bump up your overhead pressing tolerance and yield better long-term results.
When it comes to building massive shoulders the key is strategic overload, eccentric muscle damage, and time under tension. The eccentric accentuated (which means lower slowly) push press requires each of these hypertrophy-inducing mechanisms. That makes it one of the most effective functional mass builders for the entire shoulder region including the delts, traps, and upper back.
Simply do a standard push press by using both your low body and upper body to drive the weight overhead. Pause in the top position for several seconds, then slowly lower the barbell for 4-5 seconds. Pause in the bottom position before repeating this for 3-6 reps.
Because the load should be 15-25% greater than what you could typically handle with the strict press, doing these with a controlled negative will increase the growth-inducing benefits. Think of it as heavy negatives for the shoulders but instead of having a spotter help you lift the weight up (like you would on a negative bench press set), your legs will assist instead.
Besides the hypertrophy stimulus these create, using inordinately heavy loads with strict motor control and rigid body mechanics does wonders for strength and neuromuscular efficiency. As a result, your numbers on just about every upper body exercise should dramatically improve, which will have a direct impact on building gigantic shoulders.
Due to the extended time under tension (each rep should last a minimum of 8 seconds), a full set should last about 30 seconds. Using heavy loads in an overhead position for such an extended period of time triggers massive gains.
Want to up the challenge? Do your final set then drop the weight in half and add more strict reps to failure. The discomfort will be almost unbearable but the resulting shoulder growth will be well worth the pain.
In addition to the various overhead pressing and upright rowing exercises, you should be performing front, side, and rear delt raises from different positions and with different forms of resistance.
My favorite methods include:
- Drop set dumbbell lateral raises
- High-rep band lateral raises using the bands with the handles
- Cable one-arm lateral raises leaning away from the stack
- Prone dumbbell rear delt raises
- Reverse pec deck
- Heavy one-arm dumbbell lateral raises with a slight forward lean while posting against a wall
If your delts are a weak link and you’re striving to rapidly improve them, hit delts three times per week with 9 sets per session.