There’s no denying it: Great shoulders complete a guy’s physique. They give you width, create an impression of “dominance,” and top off that coveted V-taper. Unfortunately, lots of guys struggle to build healthy shoulders, even though they’re trying. Take a look around most gyms, and you’ll find that most shoulders are sloped forward and/or injured. Rarely do your see a big pair of cannonball delts.
What ruins it for most guys? Simple: Their routines—and, therefore, their muscles—aren’t fully balanced, making them more prone to injury and slowing their progress in the gym.
But that’s not you—no sir. You know better. So the next time you’re prioritizing your shoulders at the gym, remember these 10 tricks to build big, healthy shoulders.
1. Keep Your Shoulders Healthy
If your shoulders are inflamed or injured, almost every aspect of your training will get a lot more difficult. This sounds obvious, but guys often neglect it. Even barbell squats become tougher, since it’s challenging just to hold the bar with a set of inflamed delts.
The main reason guys injure their shoulders is due to a structural imbalance—shoulders that are overdeveloped in the front and too weak in the rear. This gives guys a weird hunched look and even inflames the biceps tendon.
To test if your shoulders are balanced, try performing a wall slide. Stand with your back against the wall, bring your arms to shoulder-height against the wall, and bend your elbows about 90 degrees so your hands are pointing upward. Now simply move your arms up and down along your body, in parallel with the wall, while keeping your back against the wall. You should feel your shoulder blades moving downward. If your arms keep moving forward, you’re probably too stiff, or your shoulders are simply overdeveloped in the front.
2. Prioritize Flexibility
Working on your flexibility in regards to chest and front delts is your first line of defense against a shoulder impingement. The easiest way to increase your range of motion is the towel stretch.
Grab a towel with both hands and your arms extended. Try to bring it over your head and behind your body, while keeping your arms extended. You might struggle with this exercise at first, but over time you should be able to bring your hands closer together. Do 3 sets of 20 reps every night.
3. Train Your Rotator Cuffs
Most people only realize rotator cuffs exist after they get injured, which is why your rotator cuffs deserve extra attention. A good way to measure the strength of your cuff is to lay sideways on a bench or the floor and rotate a dumbbell upward against your hip. You should be able to move about 8% of your incline bench weight. (If you bench 200 lbs., your range of strength for this move should be about 16-20 lbs.)
If you’re significantly weaker, you’re on the fast track for an injury. The rotator cuff should be trained once a week with inward and outward rotations. It takes 5 minutes, and will save you a lot of grievances down the road.
4. Avoid Front Raises
Well, not exactly. If you’re working with an expert trainer who has evaluated your strengths and weaknesses, and you’re confident your shoulders aren’t too imbalanced, then the front raise is probably okay to do.
But for most regular gym rats, there’s no need to add any more direct work for the anterior deltoid (that’s the front-facing section of your shoulder), since it already gets plenty of stimulation via every press and pull you do. If you’re already doing compound upper-body exercises, then it’s probably safe to skip this one and focus on your rear (posterior) deltoid instead.
5. Start From the Back
This goes in line with point #1, but because the rear deltoid is woefully underdeveloped in many guys, this point is impossible to overstate. Always start your shoulder workout with rear delt exercises, such as rear delt flyes, uncrossovers or j-pulls. Setting up your workout in such a manner will create symmetry and keep you healthy. Some of the greatest physiques in bodybuilding got their “exclamation mark” by having rear delts that capped off their shoulders and gave them a 3-D look.
6. Learn the Clean and Press
If you have somebody qualified to teach you, the clean and press is a great tool to stimulate the nervous system. Doing a couple sets at the start of your shoulder workout will greatly improve the effectiveness of the actual hypertrophy work. There’s no need to go heavy—think 4 sets of 8 reps at 60% of the weight you would be using for overhead presses. And remember: Whenever you’re starting to learn Olympic lifts, start by practicing light, or use a PVC pipe first.
7. Sit Down
The next time you’re doing overhead presses, do them seated on the floor in the power rack, with the pins set at the lowest level. The added balancing effort will make your delts work so much harder that you might have to reduce the weight by 40%.
8. Do Superman Presses
These types of presses are extremely helpful when developing roundness in the delts.
Set the incline bench at 30 or 45 degrees and lay with your chest on the bench. Now grab a pair of very light dumbbells and press forward, parallel to the floor. Tough, right? There’s nothing more humbling than struggling with 12-lb. dumbbells.
9. Watch Your Elbows
Whenever you’re doing an overhead press, you always want to have your elbows directly under the bar so you can create tension on the delt from the start. Do not bend your wrists backward. Always keep them in a neutral position. Likewise, when you do side raises, always focus on moving the elbows before the wrist—otherwise you’ll be performing shrugs.
10. Train Your Shoulders Often
Shoulders can handle a lot of volume, so if yours are lagging, hit them twice a week. But remember that increased volume puts strain on your muscles and connective tissue alike, so don’t try to constantly nuke them into submission.
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