Complete Guide To Growing Big Shoulders! Includes Workout Plan

Brad Borland
Written By: Brad Borland
March 26th, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
70.2K Reads
Complete Guide To Growing Boulder Shoulders
Learn how to hit all shoulder muscle groups correctly for optimal size gains! Includes a complete shoulder workout plan.

Nothing can affect your look like a pair of well-developed shoulders. If you possess some balanced deltoid muscle then you will look pretty boss from all sides. A side effect of awesome shoulders is the fact that it will make your waist appear smaller and give you that V-taper look we all want.

But to get to that point you must first understand real-world shoulder training. Don’t just throw a few pressing and lateral movements together and call it a workout routine. Take a little time to understand and piece together an appropriate program that will balance weak points and cap off your frame.

Shoulders are an integral part of the coveted X frame. If you were to draw diagonal lines from shoulder to opposite calf on each side of your body you would create an X which signifies true proportion. Along with deltoids, abs and calves complete this look.

So, are you ready to finally take your shoulder training to the next level? Are you ready to make your whole body look strong, balanced and symmetrical? 

First, a little anatomy and function

With a muscle group as complex as the deltoid region it can get a bit confusing as to which deltoid head does what. With so many angles to choose from let’s take a look at how they work.

Anterior deltoid: Originating from the collar bone and attaching to the humerus, the anterior (front) deltoid head raises the arm away to the front of the body. This deltoid head is heavily utilized in many pressing movements.

Medial (or lateral) deltoid: Also originating from the collar bone and inserting into the humerus, the medial (middle) deltoid head abducts the arm out to the side and away from the body. This head gives the upper body its wide look when developed properly.

Posterior deltoid: Originating on the scapula and inserting on the humerus, the posterior (rear) deltoid head moves the arm away and back from the body. The posterior head is strongly utilized in back movements such as pulls and rows.

Trapezius:  This is a long, trapezoid-shaped muscle that runs along the upper section of the spinal cord, originating at the base of the skull and attaching in the middle of the lower back. The traps function includes scapular elevation (shrugging up), scapular adduction (bringing the shoulder blades together) and scapular depression (pulling the shoulder blades down).

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The six main areas of shoulder training

Okay, so now you know a little about the “what and how”, now let’s get into the pieces that will ultimately be a part of your new shoulder training program.

1. Barbell and dumbbell shoulder press

Mainly for the anterior and medial heads of the shoulders, overhead presses are the bread and butter for mass. They not only enable you to lift an increased amount of weight (compared to other deltoid exercises) they also have many variations available.

Tips to keep in mind: Be sure not to get into performing half reps. Start with the weight below chin level, or if you are performing dumbbell presses start with the plates of the dumbbells nearly touching your shoulders. Press all the way up just short of locking out your elbows. Also, be sure when seated to stay in an upright position and avoid leaning your upper body back as if you were doing incline presses.

A great alternative for the traditional overhead press would be the Arnold press. Start with the dumbbells in a position similar to the top of a dumbbell curl. From there raise the weight up overhead while twisting the dumbbells so that ultimately your palms are facing forward. Return to the starting position twisting the opposite way.

2. Dumbbell and cable side lateral raises

Building the medial heads of your shoulders will give you that long, sought-after wide look. Again, you will quickly see that you have a variety of exercises to choose from.

Tips to keep in mind: If you find you don’t have the very best lateral raise form in the world try cleaning it up and lifting a little lighter. Start with a pair of light dumbbells by your sides. Lift the weight out to the sides with a slight bend in the elbow. Instead of keeping your grip parallel with the floor, keep the pinky side of your hand up and the thumb side down for the entire motion. This will isolate the medial head more effectively. These can also be performed one arm at a time as well.

For cable side laterals, start with the cable line behind your body while you raise the handle out to the side. Also, be sure to perform this exercise in a slow and controlled manner. It’s all too easy to swing the weight up and use momentum.

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3. Bent dumbbell lateral raises and reverse pec deck rear laterals

The often neglected posterior (rear) delts, when built properly, will nicely round-out your entire shoulder area. Since this is a common weak point in so many gym-goers (with so much emphasis placed on front delts) you may need a few extra sets for your rear delts to catch up.

Tips to keep in mind: Bent-over dumbbell lateral raises can be performed either standing or seated. Whichever version you decide on, be sure to maintain a flat back position and avoid rising up cheating with each rep. Also, maintain a slight bend in the elbow all the way through the motion. This elbow position should stay static as to not turn the bent lateral raise into a rowing motion.

For reverse pec deck rear laterals set the seat of the machine so that your shoulder joint is in line with the handles. Squeeze the handles back for a count or two before returning to the starting position. Rear laterals may also be performed with two floor pulley handles. In contrast you will start bent over with the cable handles crossed in front of you (the right handle in your left hand and the left handle on your right hand). “Uncross” the handles for a tight squeeze of the rear delts and then return to the starting position. 

4. Barbell and dumbbell upright rows

Another effective way to put some mass on those medial heads and get wide is to perform upright rows with a wide grip on a barbell or wide arc of movement with a pair of dumbbells. Upright rows will also enable you to use more weight to overload the targeted areas than with side lateral movements alone.

Tips to keep in mind: Most will have the tendency to pull the weight up in more of a reverse curl motion. The trick to getting the most out of the upright row is to lead the movement with your elbows. Let your elbows pull the weight up and peak above shoulder level during the exercise. Also, keeping a wide grip (wider than your shoulders) will emphasize the medial delt more giving you the opportunity for more overload applied to that area.

For those who have shoulder impingement issues and find a straight bar too restrictive, give dumbbells or a cambered (EZ curl) bar a try. The freedom of dumbbells and the curvature of the cambered bar will put your wrist more in line with the pull while relieving pressure on your joints.

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5. Barbell and dumbbell front raises

Normally used as a finishing move for the anterior and medial heads of the shoulder region, front raises are a great addition to carve out that last bit of detail in your delts. Performed with lighter loads and strict form front raises can also be used as an isolation/pre-exhaustion move prior to compound, multi-joint pressing exercises.

Tips to keep in mind: Start with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells in front of your body and your arms perpendicular to the floor. Maintain a slight bend in the elbows as you raise the bar or dumbbells up in a wide arcing motion. Stop the movement just above eye level before returning to the start position. For dumbbell front raises experiment with different hand positions such as thumbs up, palms down and a twisted motion. Alter which to use each workout to add variety.

If you find yourself in the gym at a busy time and all the dumbbells are being used, simply pick up a weight plate and go to work. Grasp the plate on the sides and raise the plate to eye level as you would with a barbell or dumbbells. Quick and easy!

6. Barbell and dumbbell shrugs

One of the most abused and misused exercises to date is the shrug. Rolling and rotating shoulders, too much weight lifted and bouncing are just a few of the no-no’s that can quickly lead to injury much less any gains at all. Done correctly and you will start to possess some wicked looking traps!

Tips to keep in mind: Grasp a barbell with an overhand grip and with your arms straight down and perpendicular to the floor. This will allow you to apply maximal effort and leverage to the lift. Shrug the weight straight up (do not roll your shoulders) as if you were trying to touch your ears with your delts. Return in a slow and controlled manner back to the starting position – no bouncing or swaying.

If balance is an issue or you simply find the barbell path to be a bit difficult to master opt for dumbbell shrugs. By starting the dumbbells closer to your sides instead of in front of your body you will create more balance and control with the weight. Shrug up in the same manner focusing on the squeeze at the top.

Complete programs for bigger shoulders

Note: Perform 2 sets of 10-15 on the first movement for a warm-up with light to moderate weight.

Beginner Shoulder Program
Exercise Sets Reps
Standing Or Seated BB Shoulder Press 3 10-12
DB Side Lateral Raise 3 10-12
Bent-Over DB Lateral Raise 3 10-12
Barbell Shrug 3 10-12
Medial Head Emphasis
Exercise Sets Reps
Seated DB Side Lateral Raise 3 10-15
Wide-Grip BB Upright Row 3 10-15
Cable Side Lateral Raise 3 10-15
Seated DB Arnold Press 3 10-15
DB Shrug 3 8-12
Posterior Head Emphasis
Exercise Sets Reps
Bent-Over DB Lateral Raise 3 10-15
Standing DB Side Lateral Raise 3 10-15
Cable Rear Lateral Raise 3 10-15
Seated DB Press 3 10-15
BB Shrug 3 10-15
Intermediate/Advanced Program
Exercise Sets Reps
Standing BB Shoulder Press 3-4 6-12
Superset: Standing DB Side Lateral Raise w/ Bent-Over Lateral Raise 3-4 10-15
Superset: DB Upright Row w/BB Front Raise 3-4 10-15
DB Shrug 3 10-15

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Posted on: Mon, 05/04/2015 - 03:05

I'm sure this is a pretty common question. I'm a novice when it comes to weight lifting, what should the amount of weight be per set and rep? Thank you

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Posted on: Tue, 05/05/2015 - 12:26

Hi Jeremy. Enough weight so you reach muscular failure within the allotted rep ranges.

Steve knowles
Posted on: Sun, 04/26/2015 - 09:42

Being a firefighter and being short i do a lot of over head things I need my shoulders strong . This seems like a very interesting article will use this for sure. Any other tips for someone doing firefighting ops? We lift everything from saws to ladders to axes . Thanks

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Posted on: Thu, 04/30/2015 - 12:11

Hi Steve!
First off, thanks for your service!
Check this out and let me know what you think:

Posted on: Fri, 04/10/2015 - 05:46

Dumbbell lat raise and upright row also make a good superset in the second program

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Posted on: Mon, 04/20/2015 - 15:12


Steven S
Posted on: Wed, 04/01/2015 - 20:38

I appreciate this article very much. I have problems growing my shoulder muscles, especially the medial head. Is this genetic? My shoulders appear slack. My pecs develop well and quickly as do my quads and abs.

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Posted on: Mon, 04/20/2015 - 15:12

Hi Steven, something that I do is double up on all medial head work for high reps. Also, compound supersetting works too.

Posted on: Mon, 03/30/2015 - 11:14

Great article! Will be working those tips into my workout routine, thanks.

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Posted on: Mon, 03/30/2015 - 22:00

Hi Jeff, thanks! Let me know how you do.