It’s time to give those stubborn delts the cold shoulder with the ultimate shoulder workout.
If you want to build shoulders that fill out your t-shirts and make you look great on the beach come summer time, then you’re going to want to follow the training principles and workout in this article. Because this is the ultimate shoulder workout for a reason. It WORKS!
So grab a protein shake, put your feet up and relax as we dive into what’s going to make those shoulders pop and what’s going to turn those flat shapeless delts into surefire cannonballs.
Without doubt a great set of shoulders completes your physique. You can work hard on your chest, back, and arms as much as you like, but without a decent set of delts, you’re going to look out of proportion.
And I’m going to take a wild guess that you’re reading this article because you’re struggling to make your shoulders grow. Am I right?
Well, it may be of some small comfort to you that you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a common problem amongst both beginners and even more advanced lifters. Shoulders can be stubborn. And seeing significant progress can be a painful process.
Delts are like the calves of the upper body!
No matter how hard you hit them, they just don’t seem to respond like your other muscle groups. I bet you’ve got less issues building your chest and arms, that’s for sure.
So, you find yourself doing more and more exercises. And more and more sets. And what feels like a billion reps. But has that approach brought you results? I’m guessing not.
So what’s the solution?
The solution is quite simply exercise choice and rep ranges. Oh, and a bucket-load of hard work and effort.
Because building an awesome set of delts is difficult, and don’t let anyone tell you any different. I’ve not yet met anyone that found it super easy to make their shoulders grow, naturally.
But with the right approach to your training, you can turn your stubborn shoulders into the one muscle group that really completes your physique.
Let’s talk about how to do that, right now…
Understanding the Shoulder Muscles
The shoulder is made up of three major muscles. These being the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids (basically the front, side, and back). The image below shows where those muscles are located.
The red muscle is the anterior, the green is the medial, and the blue is the posterior.
It’s important you understand the basic anatomy of your shoulder as this influences exercise choice, or at least it should. You need to make sure that your shoulder workouts hit every one of the three muscles, so that your overall development is complete.
Fail to focus on all three muscles and you will create an obvious imbalance that you’ll end up spending several months (possibly years) trying to correct.
And it’s easier than you might think to create that imbalance without even realising it. If you’re anything like the millions of other gym goers out there, then you never skip chest day.
I mentioned it before in my article on the Ultimate Chest Workout that chest day is a sacrosanct day that’s imprinted on your brain every week.
It’s like the football manager picking his team. His favourite player is always first on the team sheet. Likewise, your chest workout is first to be programmed into your workout plan.
That focus on your chest has no doubt worked your anterior delt quite heavily at the same time. Along with your pecs, the front part of your shoulder got a great workout too (unless you were doing completely the wrong exercises).
But, that chest workout did nothing for the other 2 parts of your shoulders. So, you could be lacking in size and shape in your shoulders.
Basically, those t-shirts aren’t getting filled.
If this sounds like you then you’re similar to a ton of people that also tend to lack significant lean muscle in their side and rear delts.
You’ll be glad to know that this article is going to give you the solution you’ve been searching for. Keep reading and find the answers you’re looking for.
We’re almost ready to get stuck into the detail of how to build those awesome shoulders, but before we do, I wanted to quickly show you what the solution I’m going to show can actually deliver in the real world.
This is me before I started taking my training seriously. Before I really knew what worked and before I had my nutrition dialled in to maximise my efforts in the gym.
I was pretty skinny and my shoulders lacked any sort of size (along with the rest of me in all honesty). After a shit-ton of research into scientific studies and brain-burgling several industry experts, the penny dropped as to what I needed to do to make progress quickly.
Armed with that knowledge, I hit the gym with a new sense of motivation and vigour.
And this was the result after 9 months.
My shoulders weren’t exactly perfect, and were dwarfed slightly by the size of my arms, but I think you’ll agree I’d made some significant progress. But I knew that I needed to work on my overall physique and the proportion of my shoulders in relation to my arms in particular.
So that’s exactly what I did. I knuckled down and and but the consistent effort in, both in and out of the gym.
And here’s me after about another year of following the exact same process and pretty much the exact same workouts.
My shoulder development came on leaps and bounds in that time. You can see in the picture that my medial delt is much more rounded and has that cannonball look. And in terms of proportions it’s much more in balance with the arm.
How did I do it? Now’s the time to let you in on the big secret…
The Secret to Effective Shoulder Training
First up. There is no secret!
That’s right, effective shoulder training is actually pretty simple. It’s sadly made all too complicated by those around you. I think trainers and athletes feel the need to create workouts filled with crazy rep schemes, dropsets and supersets as a means to break the stubborn growth of the shoulders.
But, when you look at the science AND evidence of what guys similar to me have achieved through an approach that is essentially the polar opposite, then you HAVE to sit up and take note.
In my view, following the complicated, more traditionally accepted way of training is not optimal. Train with those methods and your shoulder development will stall because of two main problems with your training:
Focusing on the wrong exercise for muscle development. Many people (me included at one point in time) are guilty of gravitating towards the various machines, cables, and isolation exercises in the belief that these will help focus on each intricate part of the shoulder and assist with the overall development.
Working in the wrong rep range. As I mentioned before, there’s a huge tendency to focus on lighter weights and high reps, often with weird and wonderful rep schemes that take your weekly volume through the roof.
You’re probably sitting there reading this wondering why I’m calling these out as problems. These are the exact things that the latest fitness magazines are telling you to do and what you seen some jacked guy doing on one of the many YouTube series out there.
I hear what you’re saying. My views fly in the face of the commonly accepted theories.
But the truth is that the magazine you’re reading has come up with the all new “delt blaster” workout because the editor needed some new content in order to shift a few more copies this month.
And that jacked guy on YouTube probably hasn’t got those perfectly formed cannonballs from those high rep exercises alone. There’s a good chance that there was a few grams of something you can’t get over the counter at your local health food store involved in the process.
Because let’s face it if you’re taking those extra couple of grams of enhancement then you’ve changed the game. You can pretty much do anything in the gym and your muscles will respond and grow significantly. Tons of sets and tons of reps are actually the order of the day. In fact 2-3 hour workouts and multiple sessions per day aren’t going to be a problem for you.
Although, I’m sure you’re aware that it isn’t always a rosy picture for the guys and girls that head down this path.
Steroids have a ton on side effects. Dabble in these drugs and you’re risking a number of health issues.
Acne, high blood pressure, shrunken testes, hair loss, osteoporosis, and the growth of moobs (man boobs for the uninitiated) are all risks for us guys. And the ladies are equally at risk of some of these side effects, as well as increases in body hair and other such side effects that I’m sure you’d rather not contemplate.
And these aren’t just short-term things that disappear after a course is finished. There are proven to be both physical and mental effects associated with steroids that have a long-term impact. To give you a bit of an idea, we’re talking about conditions such as cardiomyopathy (where the walls of the heart chambers become stretched, thickened or stiff) and atherosclerosis (where the arteries get clogged with fatty substances).
And you can add joint pain to that long list, which as someone that’s suffered a serious injury I can attest to that not being a pleasant experience.
Anabolic steroids rapidly increase your muscle mass but that growth outstrips the growth of your ligaments and connective tissue, which are unaffected by the drugs. I’d highly recommend you don’t bring this type of chronic pain on yourself with steroid abuse.
When you see pictures of your favourite fitness guy or girl on Instagram, think twice about how they achieved those results and then think 3 or 4 times about whether those risks are worth taking.
Now the last few paragraphs feel like a bit of a bitter and twisted rant against steroid users, but that’s not my intention.
I have nothing against someone that wants to take steroids. It’s up to those guys if they want to do that.
My intention is to highlight to you that the physique that you’re trying to emulate may not ever be achievable. You can do all the Flex magazine training routines you like and follow the words of every pro builder, but you’ll never look remotely like them without that little boost.
This article is aimed at those of you that want to do this naturally and maximise the growth potential of your physique. And to do that we need to look at doing things differently, which is why my advice goes against the grain a little bit.
The Principles You Need to Remember
There are two core principles you need to sign up to and truly believe in, in order to get great results.
Prioritise Compound Lifts. It’s time to kick those isolation exercises to the curb. They do have their place in your workout, but they are not the priority. Go back to basics and focus your workout on pressing movements. This is the fastest way to build strength and in turn muscle.
Low reps for glory. High reps are not going to bring you the growth you want. You need to activate and recruit as many muscle fibres as possible in order to build lean muscle. And the way to do that is through heavy weights.
Let’s dive into these two principles in a little more detail for you.
Why Compound Lifts?
Compound lifts are movements that recruit more than one muscle. In terms of the shoulders that’s predominantly barbell and dumbbell overhead presses.
These exercises help you progressively overload the muscles safely. What’s progressive overload? I hear you cry.
Progressive overload is the principle whereby you you continually increase reps and weight for a given exercises. Effectively, it means consistently increasing the load your muscle are trying to cope with.
This causes increases in strength and grow adaptations in the muscles. You can read more about it in an article I wrote on rep ranges.
How to make sure you progressively overload correctly
You don’t have to chuck a 20kg plate on each side of the bar to progressively overload the muscles. I’m sure you’re glad to hear that.
What you need to do is focus on doing one more rep than you did in your previous workout. That one extra a rep is a sign you’re getting stronger and your muscles are growing.
What you need to do is focus on doing one more rep than you did in your previous workout. That's a sign you’re getting stronger.
Once you hit the top of your target rep range (which we’ll be coming on to in a second) that's the time to up the weight. And all you need to do is up it by the smallest weight increment available to you, so if that’s a 1.25kg each side then whack those on, or if it’s grabbing the next set of dumbbells off the rack, then do that.
So sit or stand under that bar and and start lifting and then keep those weights moving up!
Simply put. Lift as much mass as possible, safely!
Why Low Reps?
Any of you out there that have done a PT course know that the rule of 8-10 reps for hypertrophy (muscle growth) is drilled into you. But my own experience, and the science out there shows that it’s a little more complicated than that one dimensional approach.
The ideal rep range to work in is 4-6 (8-10 for the ladies), particularly on your compound lifts, which we’ve established are your priority.
To back that theory up, check out this study, which shows the effect of low–moderate volume, high intensity training vs traditional high volume, lower intensity training.
Importantly, the study was carried out on trained athletes. This is an important point as studies in untrained athletes indicate that strength increases are negligible between the different approaches. However, this has been proven to be as a result of neurological adaptations to a new exercise regimen, as opposed to muscle hypertrophy caused as a result of a weight training programme.
The study was carried out on 33 trained men over an 8 week period. The men were split into two groups:
High Volume & Moderate Intensity: 4 workouts per week, 4 sets per exercise all in the 10-12 rep range at 70% of 1RM
Moderate Volume & High Intensity: 4 workouts per week, 4 sets per exercise all in the 3-5 rep range at 90% of 1RM
The results were clear. The group working in the lower rep range increased both strength and muscle significantly compared to the higher rep range group.
This was determined to be as a result of higher amounts of mechanical stress (as opposed to the metabolic stress of the higher rep range group) of training with heavier weights. Additionally, training with heavier weights stimulated more of the participants Type II muscle fibres, leading to greater adaptation and muscle growth.
Higher rep ranges do have their place in your routine. For example, not everyone gets on well with heavy side lateral raises and therefore dropping the weight, maintaining good form, and working in a higher rep range can be a good strategy to adopt for these types of exercises.
So which exercises should you be planning into your Ultimate Shoulder Workout?
Now we’ve established the core principles you need to follow, let’s run through the key exercises you need to use within your training to maximise your time in the gym.
The Military Press is the best exercise for your shoulders, full stop. If you were only able to incorporate one shoulder exercise into your routine, then I’d highly recommend it be this one.
It’s that compound lift that allows for the greatest development in strength and lean muscle.
They are a couple of variations you can choose, all have the merits and it’s a case of trying them out and seeing which one works for you.
The main choices you have are seated vs standing and barbell vs dumbell.
My personal preference is seated barbell presses. The main reasons for that are a standing barbell press draws away slightly from being an out and out shoulder exercise. You’ll find your lower back and core gets a bit of a workout here as there is a need to stabilise your body as you lift. Whilst this is good in some respects, it’ll probably limit the weight you can lift. But we’re only talking fractional differences here, so standing is still a great option.
I also prefer barbell simply from a practical point of view. I typically train alone and therefore it can be quite tricky to safely get heavy dumbbells into position at the start of a set. With a barbell, it’s much easier unrack and rerack the bar alone.
That’s just my take on it.
Experiment with what works for you and run with that. You can always alternate every 8 weeks between the different variations to keep things new and interesting.
Here’s a couple of videos of how to perform the variations of the exercises correctly.
These are a great exercise for hitting the anterior (front) delt. You can work up to quite a heavy weight over a period of time, which will really help make those shoulders take shape.
Stick to dumbbells for this lift and resist the temptation to use cables. The dumbbells will be far more effective.
Now we’re hitting the medial (side) delt. Again dumbbells are best for this exercise. You could use cables here as you can get a greater range of movement. However, I’d leave that until you’re a more advanced lifter as there’s a high tendency to ‘cheat’ on the movement and lose form.
Stick with the dumbbells for best results at this stage.
If you find that you’re cheating too much on the movement and struggling to correct yourself, a top tip I’ve found is to perform the exercise while leaning. This reduces your ability to cheat and will force you to be stricter with your movements.
Here’s a video to help demonstrate what I mean.
Rear Delt Raises
This is an exercise where you have to leave your ego at the door if you want it to be effective. With this exercise you’re targeting the posterior (rear) delt, which is the smallest of the three. And even though it’s small, it’s still important for finishing off the look of your shoulders.
As it’s such a small muscle your ability to lift heavy weights is limited, so this is where you’re going to be dipping into the higher reps ranges, c.8-10. Focus on strict form and resist throwing the weight around with lots of rocking and upper body movement.
Watch this video and apply that exact technique when you hit the gym
It might sound strange but my hip injury means that the rear delt raise is quite an awkward exercise for me to perform. And a lot of other people simply don’t get on with it and can’t seem to make it effective.
In those cases I recommend the face pull. It’s a great exercise to target the rear delt and you’ll also get some secondary benefits from working / strengthening the rotator cuff.
Just remember that this is a small muscle and focusing on form and strict technique is much more beneficial than trying to thrown a ton of weight around, just to look cool.
I was debating whether or not to put this exercise in the article. Mainly because, in terms of pressing, the military press is where you want to focus your attention and I didn’t want you to get side tracked from that.
However, the Arnold Press (named after the Austrian Oak himself) is a good variation of the dumbbell press that works in a greater range of motion and does have added benefits.
In the past I’ve supplemented my military presses with a couple of sets of these to really hit the shoulder from all angles. So again, experiment with it, but don’t sacrifice your standard presses.
Piecing it all together for the Ultimate Workout
Creating an awesome workout of any description really needs to take into account the individual that's going to be doing it. Everyone has a different experience level and different strengths and weaknesses.
But the workout below is going to hit the mark for the vast majority of you out there. Even if the gym isn’t a new concept to you, there’s still some benefit to be had in following a workout like this.
Here's a sample workout that takes into consideration all the points you've just read through. Copy this and your shoulders will be looking all sorts of awesome in about 2-3 months time.
Seated Barbell Military Press - 4 sets (warmup); 2 x 50% main set weight, 1 x 75%, 1 x 90%
Seated Barbell Military Press - 3 sets; 4-6 reps
Front Raises - 3 sets; 4-6 reps
Side Raises - 3 sets; 6-8 reps
Face Pull - 3 sets; 8-10 reps
Other Things to Consider
We’ve covered the major aspects of effective shoulder training but there are 4 other things you should consider as well. Let’s quickly run through those to complete that perfect workout.
#1. Set up your training split correctly
This is a concept I covered in the article on building the ultimate chest workout (go check it out if you want an awesome looking chest too).
Like I said before, your chest workouts are most likely your favourite and first sessions of the week. After all they don’t refer to Monday as International Chest Day for nothing!
You need to make sure that you have the same approach to not only your shoulder workout, but ALL your muscle groups. Building that complete physique means every muscle group has to have a degree of focus.
How you split your training up is going to all depend on how many days a week you are able to dedicate to your training. 5 is optimal, but you can still make gains with less.
If you can, set aside a specific day for shoulder training and try not to include additional muscle groups like triceps.
Adding 2-3 tricep exercises into your workout will mean you are likely to have to compromise somewhere in your shoulder routine, either in terms of less shoulder specific exercises or lots more time in the gym, as your workout starts to creep up to the 2 hour mark.
Don't lose sight of where you shoulder workout sits in relation to everything else.
If shoulders are a lagging body part for you then you need to give them the right amount of attention and you want to avoid heading into those sessions with fatigue in your triceps.
Therefore try to leave a gap in between your chest, arm, and shoulder workouts. Allowing for this little bit of extra rest will really help you nail those delts.
If you've got an element of doubt or some lingering DOMS then I guarantee you won't be getting all the gains possible out of your shoulder workout.
Here’s an example of how I set up my 5 day training split.
Day 1 - Chest
Day 2 - Back
Day 3 - Shoulders
Day 4 - Arms
Day 5 - Legs
Day 6 - Rest
Dedicate a specific day to shoulders and leave enough time to recover from any prior push-dominant workouts like chest and arms.
#2. Getting the proper amount of rest between sets?
You'll be working hard during the sets of the compound movements, so you need to make sure you're recovering enough between sets. You want to give yourself time for your heart rate to come down and to compose yourself before getting under that bar again.
I recommend 2-3 minutes as being the ideal amount of rest time.
It gives you the recovery you need, while at the same time not being so long that your workout drags on for hours and hours.
2-3 minutes for anything in the 4-6 rep range is ideal. However, your shoulder workout is likely to incorporate some other rep ranges and your rest periods should be adjusted for these exercise.
When you get into the 6-8 rep range, you can afford to cut the rest time down to c. 1.5-2 minutes, and when you got up further for exercises like face pulls you can come right down to 1 minute.
#3. Back it all up with great nutrition?
Training is just one component part of making sure you develop those awesome shoulders. You need to make sure your nutrition is equally focused and targeted to achieve your goals. Without a great nutrition programme in place, you won't be able to realise the full potential of your muscular development.
Ensure you plan your pre-workout nutrition so that you are fuelled for you workouts and can lift as heavy as possible. Getting this meal right will also prevent muscle breakdown and increase protein synthesis, so it’s important to pay it some attention.
Likewise, your post-workout nutrition needs to be set up to give your body the nutrients it needs to repair, strengthen and grow those muscles. A good balance of protein and carbs within a couple of hours of your session is a good start point.
You also need to make sure that what you eat throughout the rest of the day is calculated and targeted towards your goals. Getting your overall calorie and macro requirements set up correctly is the only real way to guarantee results. Get it wrong and you could be floundering in mediocrity for a long time.
If you need help with setting up your nutrition, I have a free online nutrition workshop that you can register for by clicking here.
On the workshop I’ll talk you through some of the most common mistakes in setting up your nutrition plan and crucially I’ll show you how to avoid them. You’ll have all the information you need to to get on the right track straight away.
And it’s all done in 7 simple steps.
It’s all free. All you need to do is head over to the registration page and pick a date and time that suits you.
#4. Mobility and injury prevention
Lastly, but definitely not least, you should allocate a decent amount of time in your weekly routine to focus on mobility and flexibility. And that goes for all your muscle groups, not just the shoulder. But for now, we’ll just focus on the delts.
A lack of flexibility in the shoulder can lead to a variety of different issues and those issues could keep you out of the gym if you’re not careful.
You also need to be mindful of the rotator cuff, which is a group of small muscles in the shoulder that assist with stability and proper movement. Damaging these muscles is easy if proper technique isn’t used. They also require strengthening to help prevent weakening and ultimate injury that could require surgery. And no one wants that.
Follow this simple routine prior to your workout to ensure that you reduce the risk of injury.
And it’d also be well worth your while incorporating some wall slides as well.
This will also increase the mobility in your shoulder, which will allow for a less restricted range of motion when it comes to the main body of your workout.
There you have it. The Ultimate Shoulder Workout. If you like what you’ve read and what to read more about my training principles and how I help people just like you achieve real results, then head over to ironparadisefitness.com for more information.
Be sure to let me know what you think about the workout in the comments section below.