Give your shoulders the boulder treatment by correcting these 9 common mistakes that keep a lot of builders from gaining bigger shoulders.

Do you want wide, meaty, broad shoulders but have failed at every attempt? Do you chalk it up to bad genetics or a lack of the newest piece of gym equipment? Have you tried everything in the book when it comes to shoulder training without an ounce of new muscle to show for it?

Well, it may not necessarily be something you aren’t doing; it might actually be something you are doing – incorrectly.

Below are 9 reasons why you can’t build big shoulders. Give some serious, honest thought to your current routine and finally get an idea at what you can improve on and bigger shoulders will be on their way with your very next workout.

1. The problem: You treat deltoids as an afterthought

Focusing a great deal of attention on chest, back, and legs is a good thing. After all, these are the biggest areas of the body to give you the most mass and strength. But going to the point of flat out neglecting your deltoids won’t go very far regarding building huge, muscular shoulders.

The Fix: Start to prioritize your deltoid training. Either train them on their own day or first during an arm workout, for example. Don’t think of your shoulders as small, weak little muscles that don’t require a significant amount of volume. Treat each head (anterior, medial, posterior) as a separate muscle to be trained. When it’s time to train shoulders focus on the task at hand and dig deep into your arsenal for the very best, most effective exercises available.

2. The problem: You’re using too much weight with poor form

Are you guilty of turning a shoulder press into an incline bench press and only using half of the range of motion? Bottom line: You’re using too much dang weight! What about dumbbell lateral raises? Are you contorting, swinging, and flailing like a confused moth? How’s that working for you?

The Fix: The absolute best remedy is to cut your current weight to at least half and practice perfect, textbook form. Yes, I use the word practice here for good reason. Your job is to practice these movements the way they were meant to be done to help your shoulders relearn patterns of movement, proper contraction and control and to avoid injury. Once you focus on these factors, then you will start to see improvements in muscle mass and real, functional strength.

Ronnie Coleman Exercising

3. The problem: You’re doing too much anterior deltoid work

The next time you are in the gym and someone is training deltoids, watch closely. Are they performing dumbbell presses, machine/Hammer presses and some sort of front raise? In reality, that is a ton of front delt (anterior) work. Not only is this overkill, it may also impact other lifts later in the week such as bench presses in a negative way.

The Fix: Limit a shoulder workout to one multi-joint overhead pressing movement and possibly (if you feel it’s a weak point) a higher rep front raise. This will ensure that you aren’t overdoing it on your front delts so you can put a little more attention toward working on building balanced shoulder development.

4. The problem: You’re not contracting your deltoids correctly

This problem goes hand-in-hand with executing proper form. Once you compromise form for lifting more weight the idea of effectively contracting the targeted area goes out the window. If lifting more weight is your top priority you will start to recruit other muscles to help lift the weight and compromise your safety along the way.

The Fix: Again, by focusing on correct form and deliberate contraction of the working muscle, you will properly stimulate the muscle for better results, period. For example, don’t lean back so far that you turn a shoulder press into an incline chest press. Sit upright, lower the dumbbells until they are nearly touching your shoulders, and then raise the weight without clanging them at the top. Elbows back and in-line with your shoulders, slow and steady.

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5. The problem: Your reps are too low

Unless you are going for a 1 rep max or trying out for a powerlifting meet, there is really no need to pile on the weight and shoot for super low reps for shoulder training. For the average lifter chest and back training provide plenty of the heavy stuff.

The Fix: If you’ve been on a heavy weight binge lately, lighten up a little and try performing some higher reps for a change. Notice I said higher reps and not easy reps. The fact that you will go a bit lighter doesn’t mean it will be a walk in the park. You will still work to failure on each set. Shoot for 10 to 20 reps for a while. You will quickly find the higher reps will put you more “in touch” with your muscle fibers and you’ll get a huge pump along the way.

6. The problem: You’re not working the medial deltoids enough

Muscular shoulder width is largely determined by the size of your medial (middle) deltoid heads. These are the heads that give you that wide, V-tapered look. However, a lot of gym-goers don’t give their medial heads their due. Instead they focus on presses and then throw in a few lateral raises for good measure.

The Fix: If wide is what you want then it would be wise to prioritize your medial delts more than any other deltoid head. Standing and seated side laterals, barbell and dumbbell upright rows, dumbbell and cable one-arm side laterals and various side lateral machines are all at your disposal. Include at least 2 medial deltoid head exercises in your program in order to ramp up gains.

7. The problem: Your program isn’t balanced

Many points above all come down to balance. Training your shoulders with tons of presses, a little lateral work and virtually no posterior (rear delt) work isn’t considered a very comprehensive, balanced program. Additionally, if you stay down that road of imbalance your physique will show it – out of proportion and forward-hunched shoulders.

The Fix: If you are one of the guilty ones out there who press too much then the answer is fairly simple. In addition to performing 2 medial delt exercises, add in 2 posterior delt exercises as well. Doubling-up on these areas will slowly get your physique in balance and proportion all the while getting you the muscle mass you need in the right areas.

Ronnie Coleman

8. The problem: You’re not using supersets and giant sets

Are you stuck in the straight set mentality? If so, I bet your shoulder training is quite boring if not mind-numbing. It’s hard to stimulate any new growth with the same ole routine week after week. Your delts are screaming for something new!

The Fix: Deltoid work is one of the best opportunities to take advantage of supersets and giant sets. Since most exercises can be performed with dumbbells gym space and monopolizing equipment aren’t issues. A simple giant set could look something like this: Standing dumbbell side laterals, bent-over dumbbell rear laterals, Standing dumbbell overhead presses, dumbbell upright rows. Do 3 to 5 rounds of 10 to 20 reps each, rest 2 minutes between each giant set.

9. The problem: Your frequency is too low

Another factor to give serious consideration to is your frequency training shoulders. Once per week seems to be the norm for most gym-goers these days. I’m sorry to say, that just won’t cut it if your goal is to prioritize a weak point. Why wait an entire week to train your delts again?

The Fix: Let’s do the math: If you train shoulders once per week you will have 52 chances per year to stimulate growth. If you train them twice per week you instantly increase those chances to 104. Which will get you to your goal of better shoulders faster? Sometimes all you may need is a bit higher frequency in order to get those gains going. Additionally, the fact that you will train them twice per week will actually require a little less volume in your routine since you’re hitting them more often.

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Posted on: Tue, 08/24/2021 - 09:51

Been working out side delts for a long while now my right shoulder is popping nicely my left however is still starts to pop at the top then half way down the muscle it goes flat which gives me a real deformed look...I've focused on mind to muscle in that exact bottom half the muscle getting good gain pain but still nothing...any ideas how to fix this or should I just give up on working out...maybe it's just not for every one

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Posted on: Thu, 09/09/2021 - 19:38

Hey Chad, first, never give up! Second, consider starting with single side movements like a cable lateral raise or a lateral raise on an incline bench. Do three or four sets of 10-15 reps with that side only when you begin training. That may help.

Jeffrey James L...
Posted on: Tue, 11/17/2020 - 18:59

What’s hillarious is that in my opinion the exact opposite is true of most these guidelines. The only thing I agree with is number (4). Contraction us always a huge priority. Here aew my guidelines 1) you can never lift too heavy a weight. Most people do not go heavy enough. My overhead press is 250 and my side laterals are 85 lb dumbells. 2). Concentrate on the negative during presses. 3) focus on compound movements. Standing military press and upright rows account for probably 80 pervent of my mass. 4) doing strict isolated movements are good but as far as side laterals using extremely heavy weights and loosening up your form and concentrate on the negative will give you better results. 5) do not train your shoulders more than 1 x a week. You overload your anterior deltoids with chest, and your posterior deltoids with back training them more than once a week willl lead to joint pain weakness and unnecessary injuries. Best results 5x 6-8 reps on compound exercises and 3x12 on isolation moves. Good luck.

Hugo Danner
Posted on: Sun, 06/12/2022 - 07:12

I too was surprised by the article’s statement about training delts more than 1x/week. Under a balanced program, they are a primary mover on most chest exercises - so they already get worked at least 2x/week. Rear delts are activated during back work - but not a primary mover so they benefit from specific (delt) training.

Having said all the above, however, it would be nice if someone eventually writes a science-based article that talks about overall workout volume for delts. All these articles tell you to do x sets of y reps for a variety of movements. But I’ve yet to see any that say, in the context of overall training, where the lifter works chest and back weekly too, the total overall volume of sets for delts to stimulate but not overtrain. After all, they are a relatively small muscle group. But, are they one that benefits from a ton of frequency and volume, like calves that are also in constant use? Or one that requires little, given the work they already do on chest and back day?

Posted on: Tue, 12/17/2019 - 08:34

Can you tell me how to target my side delts with calisthenics excercises?... I do handstand push ups I usually get sick pump from that but they die down eventually

Posted on: Sun, 11/15/2015 - 20:11

While doing barbell presses I noted a muscular imbalance to my middle delts. I typically incorporate dumbbells and cables for my shoulder work, less barbell. How can I fix this imbalance?

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Posted on: Tue, 11/17/2015 - 11:08

Hi Brenda. You can always double up on your working sets for your middle delts. If you typically do 4 sets of side laterals, try 8 sets for a few weeks - and you could also try higher reps (10-20)

Posted on: Wed, 02/24/2016 - 14:15


Alessio Cappelli
Posted on: Mon, 11/02/2015 - 06:03

Hi Brad,
thank you for your important article.
I consider myself to be a mesomorph, nevertheless I feel that at the end of the day growing huge shoulders (as any other part of the body for that matter) mainly comes down to having good genetics (muscle fibres, bone structure, metabolism etc...). Can you confirm that or could you affirm that even a normal looking pair of shoulders could get to an "unbelievable" state of growth given a proper training and nutrition? Also, what is your stance regarding supplements in general?
Thanks for your time!

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 11/03/2015 - 10:52

Hi Alessio. I personally believe that anyone can improve any body part with hard work, consistency and discipline. Yes, genetics play a role, but how will you know until you work your butt off?

Posted on: Mon, 05/18/2015 - 11:12

Mr.Brad Borland... I want to know how many maximum exercises we can do for each three part of delt and how many reps and sets... thanks

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Posted on: Mon, 05/18/2015 - 22:33

Hello, I would start with one exercise for each head of the delt and then one multi-joint move for the whole area.

Posted on: Thu, 04/30/2015 - 05:09

10. You're not using AAS

Posted on: Thu, 04/30/2015 - 02:29

As a 55 yr old BB I still am always looking for new Ideas and training tips. The conventional training can get boring. Supersets I feel work best when the weather warms up in the northeast when you want to be out doing things and less time in the gym.

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Posted on: Thu, 04/30/2015 - 12:14

Thanks for your input, Anthony!

Posted on: Mon, 03/23/2015 - 12:14

Fasinating read, going to use some of these tips! Thanks

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Posted on: Mon, 03/23/2015 - 13:55

Thanks, Curt!

Posted on: Tue, 03/17/2015 - 16:54

Great article

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Posted on: Wed, 03/18/2015 - 22:51

Thanks, Matt!

Colin Hill
Posted on: Sun, 03/15/2015 - 20:54

Good read and a lot of common sense

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Posted on: Tue, 03/17/2015 - 12:48

Hi Colin, thanks!

Posted on: Sat, 08/19/2017 - 00:40

Great info, would just like to add as I'm sure you know,how important it is to let any injuries heal completely, as a 54 year old I wish would've listened to my own advice.Its so hard to wait to get back to training but essentiall!