You may consider them a small part of your body, but the benefits of having well-defined and strong shoulders shouldn’t be underestimated. Not only do you need strong, stable shoulders to perform a number of key exercises for other muscle groups, but broad shoulders – coupled with impressive lats – can help give the impression of a smaller waist, while impressive delts give your upper arms shape.
Broad shoulders – coupled with impressive lats – can help give the impression of a smaller waist
So what muscles are you working when your target your shoulders? Predominantly, you will be hitting the deltoid muscle, so called because of its similarity with the Greek capital letter delta (Δ). The deltoid muscle (or delts) has three distinct heads – the anterior (or front) delts, the lateral (or side) delts and the posterior (or rear) delts – which can all be targeted by using the specific exercises detailed below.
You may find that, for some shoulder exercises, you will also be hitting the trapezius muscle as well as the muscles of your rotator cuff (the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and the subscapularis muscle) that act to stabilise the joint. However, while it’s good to be aware of these muscles, for the purposes of this blog, we will mainly be focusing on the delts.
So which exercises should you be using to develop boulder shoulders?
1. Military press
There are many different kinds of shoulder presses, the dumbbell shoulder press, the seated barbell shoulder press, the machine shoulder press and the Arnold press, which I will cover next. However, my favourite exercise for challenging your shoulder muscles has to be the military press. It’s a great exercise for working all three heads of the shoulder muscle and has the added benefit of strengthening your core muscles. You’ll need a squat rack for this exercise; so start by loading up the weight at about mid-chest height. It’s important to start lighter than you think you’ll manage, as it’s a tough exercise to master.
Once you’re racked up, grab the bar with your hands just slightly wider than your shoulders then, standing close to the bar, lift the bar off the rack by driving up with your legs. Take a step back to give yourself space then, standing with your feet together (as if you’re standing to attention), drive the bar upwards, keeping a tight core and glutes. Slowly lower and repeat. Be careful not to arch your back during the movement. Keep a tight core to mitigate against this, or lower the weight!
Watch: How to do a military press
2. Arnold press
The Arnold press is my second go-to press exercise for shoulders, not simply because it comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger, but because it’s another awesome move for hitting all three heads of the shoulder muscle. Definitely start out using lighter weights with this one – it’s slightly harder to master and the rotation can put quite bit of pressure on the joint. Start by positioning the bench to have an upright back and grab two dumbbells from the rack. Sit facing forward with the dumbbells clasped at your chest, your palms facing your body (as if you’re performing a bicep curl). Then slowly press upwards, twisting your palms outwards in the process (your right hand should rotate clockwise and your left hand should rotate anti-clockwise). Your end position will resemble a regular dumbbell shoulder press – your arms raised above your head. Reverse the process on the way down and repeat for the desired number of reps.
Watch: How to do an Arnold press
3. Lateral raise
The lateral raise is one of the best exercises, in my opinion, to give you a great boulder-shoulder pump, mainly because it works the lateral head of the deltoids. It is also a great one to add in variation, whether by straight sets, or through alternating arms or via isometric holds (aka holding your arms straight out to the side and maintaining the position). However, the basic lateral raise is one shoulder exercise you need to have in your routine.
To start, grab two dumbbells and hold them by your sides, palms facing your body. Slowly raise the dumbbells to the side until your palms are facing the floor and your arms are at right angles to your body. Hold for a moment at the top before lowing the dumbbells back to your sides. And repeat. As with all the exercises I have talked about previously, you should try to avoid swinging the dumbbells where possible as slowing down the movement will increase the amount of time the muscle is under tension.
Watch: How to do a lateral raise
4. Front raise
Like the lateral raise, the front raise is another great exercise for shoulders, mainly working the front head of the delts. Keep the same dumbbells you used for the lateral raise (or choose ones that are slightly lighter) and stand with the dumbbells just in front of your thighs, palms facing your body. Slowly raise your arms to the front until they are just above shoulder height and your palms are facing the floor. Pause for a second at the top before slowly bringing your arms back down to just in front of your thighs. And repeat. Again, as if I haven’t written this enough already, avoid swinging your arms, or using your back or glutes to thrust your arms forward. Keep a controlled motion throughout and a tight core for maximum benefit.
Watch: How to do a front raise
5. Cable rear delt fly
I normally finish any shoulder workout with my all-time favourite shoulder exercise; the cable rear delt fly. It’s tempting, when you’re exercising, to concentrate on the muscles that you see most often, which means that muscles in the back, hamstrings and rear delts are often neglected in favour of the quads, abs, chest and biceps. However, for well-rounded shoulders, you should look to do some exercises that specifically hit the rear delts; and the cable machine is a great place to start.
Stand facing the cable machine with the cables set in the high position. Cross your arms in front of your body and grab the end of the cables (no attachment needed), one in each hand. Take a step back from the machine and, starting with your hands together in front of you, slowly bring your hands and arms out to the sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together in the process. Keep a slight bend in the arm throughout the movement and pause and contract your muscles when your hands draw level with your shoulders. Slowly bring your arms back to the start position and repeat. Aim for higher reps and a lower weight with this exercise and always keep the movement controlled.