Updated: 6/28/2010 – Added more info about high pulls, push press, and overhead squat .
It doesn’t matter how big your chest and biceps are, if you have narrow shoulders you will appear to be weak and puny. Someone will surely kick sand on you at the beach.
For men, wide shoulders will make you look tall, broad, and powerful so that you can be the one defending geeks from sand kicking bullies.
For women, hard toned shoulders will help you appear sleek and sexy. No man alive wants their woman to have soft, squishy or flabby shoulders. Well, maybe some of us do, but not me.
Half of womens’ dresses I’ve seen have built in shoulder pads anyway. How nice would it be to never have to buy dresses with shoulder pads? Actually, don’t some mens’ military outfits have added shoulder padding too? I rest my case.
Everyone needs to train their shoulders. Strong shoulders help with every other exercise from bench press to pull ups, and for all you boxers and MMA guys, well conditioned shoulders will help you to win a fight. It is also very important to have a strong shoulder girdle, including the rotator cuff area, to prevent injuries from sports and heavy lifting.
Firstly, chest and back are two muscle groups that are important to train, when training for stronger shoulders. As a unit, the chest, shoulders, and back form the core of your upper body strength. Once you’ve read this article you can move on to the top 5 best chest exercises and the top 5 best back exercises.
Secondly, no one developed great shoulders by focusing on dumbbell side raises or shoulder pressing on machines. The compound exercises that involve your whole body will be most effective at building big, strong shoulders. Isolation exercises will be necessary, but only for developing super strong rotator cuffs.
We should have a working knowledge of how the shoulder is put together, to better understand how to train them effectively.
Your shoulders are constructed as a ball and socket joint, and is one of the most unstable joints in the body but is also the joint with the largest range of motion (ROM). The shoulder socket is called a glenoid, while the ball of the joint is actually the head of the humerus, your upper arm bone.
The acromion sits on top of the ball and socket, next to the acromioclavicular joint (AC Joint), which is the most common place for shoulder separations. Incidentally, I separated my shoulder playing football and it took me 3 months of recovery before I could bench 200 lbs again. Treat your shoulders with care!
Your shoulders can abduct 150 degrees, flex forward 180 degrees, extend 45 degrees, rotate externally 90 degrees, and rotate internally 90 degrees. That is a pretty significant ROM, but also opens you up to a huge potential for injury.
You need to take a second to examine the most frequently injured area of the shoulders: the rotator cuff. The muscles that make up the rotator cuff are small, and can be strained easily. Injuries result from overuse, underuse, relative weakness, or muscular imbalance.
The shoulders, or deltoids (derived from the Greek word delta, or triangle), are triangular in shape, and have 3 distinct heads.
The front head of the shoulder flexes and rotates the arm inward. The anterior delts play a major role in bench pressing, other chest training, and usually get stimulated from triceps and biceps training. This is typically one of the most overdeveloped muscles for traditional weight lifters, which often develops into a muscular imbalance that can lead to injury and posture problems.
The side head of the shoulder abducts the arm, which means it brings the arms out and away from the midline of the body. This muscle is activated more by isolated shoulder abduction movements, such as dumbbell side raises, than by anything else.
The rear head of the shoulder extends and rotates the arm outward. Back training such as rows, chin ups, and pull ups involve the rear delts more than most other exercises. Reverse flyes are considered an isolation movement for the rear delts.
Honorable mentions: internal rotations and external rotations for the rotator cuffs, bent over reverse dumbbell or cable flyes.
To integrate these exercises into a full body workout program, you should use a standing barbell press as your base shoulder exercise on the day when shoulders are trained first. On the days you train squats and deadlifts first, you should choose either heavy dumbbell shoulder presses or hang clean & press. The day that prioritizes chest should be the day you choose lateral side raises and/or upright rows.
To integrate these exercises into a training program that splits the body amongst different days, you can choose a press, upright rows, side lateral raises, and finish off with reverse dumbbell flyes on shoulder day. This will allow you to really fatigue the shoulders from all angles and forms of tension. A ‘shoulder day’ should also include some arms and abs training, if nothing else.
Focusing too much on the shoulders could be a detriment to your chest training. Furthermore, focusing too much on the front delts, like if you just bench press all the time, could results in problems with your posture. Always remember to balance chest and shoulder training, and to hit your back (vertical and horizontal) just as hard as you hit your chest and shoulders combined.