Shoulder Exercises: the complete guidebodybuilding

If you ask ten women what is the first thing they notice in a man, often the answer, almost by default, is: “the shoulders”. The broad shoulders have always been associated with virility, physical performance and strength, even if for a few decades the aesthetic and performance of shoulders has been almost replaced by that of the bibs. It is no coincidence that the flat bench is one of the most used exercises in gyms around the world, both as an exercise to stimulate the pectorals, and as a test of strength.

But things have not always been this way.
Once distant, shoulder training was even more relevant for building a massive, powerful and symmetrical body, and the military press was the exercise of strength used to test the muscles of the upper body. “At the time the question was not” how much do you do on the bench “, but” how much you are spreading over your head “. ( Bill Starr )
Only later, thanks to the spread of powerlifting and the removal of overhead press as the official lift of the weightlifting, the flat bench has become so popular, celebrated and used in the world.

The shoulders play a fundamental role both for the sportsman, the powerlifter, as well as the natural bodybuilder, who starts from the back and back to research the famous v-shape. The training and the exercises for the shoulders are therefore of primary importance for a large number of people who go to the gym to train them, from the bodybuilder to the powerlifter, passing through the sportsman looking for a healthy, strong, resistant shoulder.
Carefully selecting the exercises and the type of work is therefore extremely important, as the specificity reigns supreme in the gym . The bodybuilder will certainly need massive, large and broad shoulders, the powerlifter of strong front deltoids for the flat bench lift.

Anatomy of the shoulders

The shoulder commonly refers to the anatomical region located in the upper and lateral part of the trunk between the base of the neck and the beginning of the arm, above the chest.

shoulder anatomy

The shoulder joint, or scapulo-humeral cingulum, is made up of three bone structures:

  • Homer
  • clavicle
  • scapula

It is a very complex articulation, in fact it includes 5 joints.

3 are real articulations:

  • the acromio-claveare (between acromion and clavicle)
  • the sternum clavicle (between the sternum and the clavicle)
  • the gleno-humeral (between the humerus and the scapula)

The other two are called fake joints because there is no real relationship between the articular surfaces and they are:

  • the scapula-thoracic (between scapula and ribs)
  • the sub deltoidea (sliding plane between the head of the humerus, the subdeltoid bag and the rotator cuff).

The shoulder muscles are divided into:

  • intrinsic (that is, that connect the humerus to the scapulo-humeral cingulum directly contributing to the movement)
  • extrinsic (connecting the torso to the scapulo-humeral cingulum).

The extrinsic muscles are:

  • trapezes
  • great toothed
  • great dorsal
  • rhomboids
  • big and small pectoral
  • subclavian

The intrinsic muscles are:

  • the rotator cuff (over-barbed, infraspinatus, small round and subscapularis)
  • big round
  • deltoid
  • long head of the triceps and the brachii biceps
  • brachial coraco

To simplify, in this guide I will use the term shoulder and deltoid as synonymous, and I will talk about the shoulder training in reference to the muscles:

  • anterior deltoids
  • lateral deltoids
  • rear delts


Shoulder training: Mass and Strength

The selection of shoulder exercises is essential, but the specificity must guide us in choosing the best exercises to perform for our purposes, which may be different.

  • powerlifter , for example, will certainly have a greater need for strong anterior deltoids than posterior deltoids.
  • bodybuilder will instead search for muscle mass, as well as symmetry.

This is why we will see how to train the shoulders in different subjects , with different purposes. So it will not change only the selection of the exercises, but also the patterns, the frequency, the intensity. But we can fix some key concepts that can bring together powerlifters, bodybuilders, powerbuilders, and why not: even sportsmen of all kinds, who often push their shoulders back.

How do the shoulders grow?

shoulders exercises

The shoulders grow like any other muscle in the body, so thanks to:

  • mechanical tension
  • metabolic stress
  • muscle damage

Of particular interest is the mechanical tension, especially for the powerlifter. To increase the muscular mass of the shoulders and their strength we must stimulate them sufficiently, give them time to recover, and then induce adaptation, for the process of SRA: Stimulus, Recovery, Adaptation . Without this sequence of events, regardless of which exercises for shoulders and patterns we use, the deltoids will NOT grow.
If the stressor is not significant, the shoulders will not grow. If recovery is not properly manipulated, the muscles will not have the necessary resources to grow.

How to stimulate the muscle mass of the shoulders

As I mentioned in the article on the best exercises for triceps , the volume of training is the factor most associated with muscle hypertrophy , and will therefore be essential even in the case of shoulder training.

Over the weeks, the volume of shoulder training must necessarily increase, as the body becomes accustomed to the stressor, if kept constant, and stops adapting.

Just as there must be progressive overload:

  • shoulder training must be harder and / or voluminous
  • for muscle mass must increase seriousness and / or repetitions
  • to increase the strength of the shoulders must increase the intensity (understood as a percentage of the ceiling, in short, the kg on the barbell / dumbbells).

Some key points to take into account in shoulder training to increase muscle mass are:

  • The training sets must be predominantly 60 to 80% of the ceiling
  • The most comfortable range of repetitions for hypertrophy is between 8 and 20 repetitions
  • We do not necessarily have to work to break down, but go near it
  • We can train the shoulders directly from 1-4 times a week

Why such a vast range?
It depends on the programming and how much flat bench and push exercises you make, and on which shoulder portion we want to work.
In fact, the anterior deltoids are already particularly stimulated in the flat bench, for example. If you are a powerlifter or a bodybuilder who prefers multi-frequency training , you probably do not even need training in the isolation of the front deltoids, or you can limit yourself to a few weekly series and even one session per week of direct work.
Side deltoids , on the other hand, can be stimulated a number of times certainly greater, pushing us up to 3-4 weekly sessions.

How many series and how many repetitions?

rear raised exercises

It is impossible to answer such questions. It depends on your starting level, your goals and a thousand other variables in play, as well as what exercise for the shoulders we are using. A military press is not a side elevation, and definitely different set x reps patterns are used. It is more logical and widespread to use medium-low ranges of repetitions in heavy multiarticulars such as military press, and high repetitions in isolation exercises , such as shoulder-cable training or dumbbells.

However, to leave you with something practical on which to build a workout for the shoulders, however, we can keep in mind some basic guidelines, while aware that each of us holds a different training volume.

Let’s see the number of sets to be performed within a week to stimulate the best shoulders:

  • minimum of 6-10 training series
  • maximum of 15-25 training series

And the recommended repetition range is from:

  • 3 at 6 to stimulate strength
  • 8 to 20 repetitions to stimulate the mass

Combining repetition ranges and different exercises is always better than focusing excessively on a single specific range of repetitions. We can then periodize the training of the shoulders and work, in the individual weekly microcycles, on intensity and range of different repetitions, to get an optimal stimulus. Combining multiarticular heavy and light insulation with high repetitions, that this happens in the single microcycle or in the different training mesocycles, will guarantee us a complete development under practically every point of view.

The best exercises for the shoulders

best shoulders exercises

There are really many exercises at our disposal for shoulder training.

Among the many, some of the best are:

· Military Press
·      Overhead straps
·        Chin pulls
·      Arnold Press
·      Side raises
· Rear risers ·      Handlebar
variants, cables, machines

Let us also remember that the anterior deltoids are extensively stimulated in the push exercises as a flat bench or dip at the parallels .
The back deltoids are often recruited in traction exercises, even if these – alone – will not be enough stimuli to get the maximum development.

According to many old-schoolers, the Military Press would be enough to build strong and big shoulders. In fact, as we have repeatedly seen, stimulating the muscles in its different parts and from different angles is always an optimal choice, especially for bodybuilders looking for muscle mass and symmetry. It is equally true that by using an excellent progression on the Military Press and focusing on that, we will still obtain excellent results in terms of performance and muscle mass.

Strength Training Shoulders for Powerlifters

A powerlifter primarily seeks shoulder strength , especially in the anterior deltoids, as these muscles are of primary importance in the flat bench.

For this reason, the focus of the work of powerlifters looking for strength and shoulder mass are:

  • Military Press
  • Panca Piana
  • Dip to Parallel

If we want to induce an increase in muscle mass of the shoulders, then add more specific isolation job as side risers , rear risers , arnold press ,  etc. it can be a valid solution. This on the condition that you do not take your attention away from the basic exercises and the military press, which remains the exercise par excellence in the construction of strong and rocky shoulders, useful in powerlifting.

Practical example of shoulder training in the Powerlifter

Let’s try to see how it could be structured a schedule that includes work aimed at increasing the strength and mass of the shoulders for the powerlifter.

Frequency of 2 direct training sessions per week, designed for intermediate level level athletes, to be added to the bench press work (2-3 times a week).

Day A:

  • Military Press 3 × 8 with 1 or 2 repetitions in reserve
  • Lateral Raises 3 × 10 with 1 or 2 repetitions in reserve

Day B:

  • Military Press 3 × 5 with 2 repetitions in reserve
  • Rear lifts 3 × 10 with 1 or 2 repetitions in reserve

As you can see, a few exercises, little total volume, due to the stress already induced to the deltoids by the frequent flat bench. Over the weeks, if we are in a training block dedicated to hypertrophywe could increase in particular the number of training series, or repetitions, or both. If we are instead in a block dedicated to the specific increase of strength in powerlifting , we could increase the intensity and, when necessary, decrease the total repetitions.

Mass Shoulder Training for BodyBuilders

exercises for the shoulders

A bodybuilder needs to increase the muscular mass of the shoulders, and also a certain symmetry and proportion between the front, lateral and posterior deltoids , and will therefore direct most of his work on medium-high repetitions , aware that the Military Press nevertheless a primary role in shoulder training. Let us always remember that in this discipline it remains fundamental to have broad shoulders and a narrow waist.

The best exercises to enlarge your shoulders in bodybuilders are:

  • Military Press
  • Relaxation with the handlebars
  • Panca Piana
  • Side risers of handlebars and cables
  • Rear risers
  • Pull to the chin
  • Facepull
  • Variants with handlebars, cables, machines

In the bodybuilder, using all these exercises in rotation, on various ranges of repetitions, will ensure optimal shoulder development.
In the old school bodybuilding , the repeatedly praised Military Press played a primary role in the training of the deltoids, and should still do so today in the natural athlete. It is rare to see huge, rounded shouldersin natural subjects with a cheap military press. However, reserving exercises with higher repetitions to the cables and handlebars is a great way to inject the total workout volume of the deltoids. As well as other small muscles, in particular the lateral and posterior deltoids can be stimulated several times a week. Why limit yourself to just one direct training per week, when such small muscles recover totally in a few hours, more than days?

Practical example shoulder training for Bodybuilding

Let’s try to see how a bodybuilder card could be structured to focus on the development of the deltoids.

Frequency of 3 workouts with direct focus per week, designed for bodybuilders who grind iron for a few years.

Day A:

  • Military Press 3 × 5 with 2 repetitions in reserve
  • Arnold Press 2 × 6 with 2 repetitions in reserve

(Medium Pause)

Day B:

  • Arnold Press 2 × 12
  • Side raises 3 × 12 to yield
  • Rear risers 3 × 12 to failure

(Short breaks)

Day C:

  • Military Press 3 × 8 with 1 repetition in reserve
  • 3 × 12 facepull to subsidence

(Short breaks)

Over the weeks there will necessarily be a progressive overload, with particular emphasis on increasing the total volume of work. An advanced bodybuilder can also use intensity techniques such as drop-sets, stripping, giant sets, to which small muscles as in particular the lateral deltoids respond particularly well.

Training Free-body shoulders

The shoulders, unfortunately, are complex muscles to train free body, at least for those who start. The bending vertically are definitely the exercise par excellence, in this case, but far from simple for beginners.
The pushups conventional arms may instead at least stimulate the anterior deltoids, until we will be able to make vertical ones.
For these muscles, at least the exercise of elastic bands, bands and light dumbbells would be really useful for a direct training of the muscles in question.

Conclusion on the exercises for the shoulders

At this point, it seems clear that there is not just one way to train the shoulders, one exercise, one range of repetitions, but countless exercises, patterns, schedules.

Deltoids are important muscles for powerlifters, bodybuilders, athletes of all kinds. We can train them directly and indirectly several times a week, since they are small muscles, which recover very quickly, and that respond particularly well to medium-high range of repetitions and total volume of training.

Good workout!

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