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Shoulder Workout: The Best Exercises for Big Shoulders

Your shoulders are an interesting muscle group to train due to the vast range of movements the shoulder joint is capable of producing. In order to effectively target all of the muscles in a joint capable of producing multidirectional movement, like your shoulders, you will need to use a variety of different exercises.

Your shoulder joint is pretty complex and utilises a combination of ‘main movers’. These are your deltoids, the stabilisers in your rotator cuff and some back and chest muscles are intertwined in the production of movement at the shoulder too. This means if training is not approached correctly, with a focus on the overall development of the shoulder, you have an increased risk of imbalances and injury.


The shoulder muscles are involved in many movements including:

  • Rotation of the arm (turning the arm ‘in and out’)
  • Abduction and adduction of the arm (raising and lowering the arm out to the side)
  • Shoulder flexion and extension (raising the arm to the front and pulling it back to the rear)
  • Horizontal flexion and extension (moving the arm back and forth across the body)
  • Elevating and lowering the shoulder blades (shrugging type movements)
  • Retracting and protracting the shoulder blades (squeezing the shoulder blades together or releasing them forwards)

Due to the range of movements your shoulder muscles are involved in, you’ll often use a number of different muscles to perform them. This means there’re a movements you can utilise to target several muscle groups at once. These are called compound movements. This also means in order to target specific ‘lagging’ muscles, you’ll need to be a bit more ‘precise’ with how you execute exercises to make sure your more dominant muscles don’t take over.

For example, many people who’ve trained for a while have a good amount of anterior ‘front’ deltoid development because it’s used in both chest and shoulder pressing movements. However, these people are often lagging in the lateral ‘middle’ deltoid because the front deltoid can take over the weaker middle deltoid. This is due to subtle differences in movement which creates a shift and moves the focus on to the other muscle group.


The ‘big three’ shoulder muscles most ‘visible’ are the anterior ‘front’ deltoid, lateral ‘middle’ deltoid and posterior ‘rear’ deltoid.

Your front deltoid is usually the biggest muscle on the front of your shoulder, raises your arm frontwards and is heavily involved in overhead pressing. Your middle deltoid raises and lowers your arm to the side and your rear deltoid moves your arm horizontally from the front to the rear of your body.

There’re also deep lying muscles in your rotator cuff, which as the name suggests, enables many rotational movements at the shoulder and provides stability. It’s usually these muscles that get injured because they’re smaller and not adept at handling large loads. Using poor weight lifting technique, or taking part in a sport where the shoulder is loaded abnormally, will likely force these muscles to take the brunt of the load and lead to injury.


The most important thing for shoulder training is to leave your ego at the door. To isolate muscles in your rear and middle deltoids, you need to lift lighter, focus on producing the correct movements and use a slower repetition tempo in order to keep tension on the muscle. At least initially until you get a good feel for the muscle being worked.

One of the simplest and best pieces of training advice I have ever received was this… ‘show the muscle the load’. This means in order to target a specific muscle, the dumbbell, barbell, cable or whatever form of resistance you’re using must (typically but not always) be in direct opposition to the muscle you’re trying to develop.

For example, many people who perform dumbbell lateral raises in an attempt to target their middle deltoid allow their shoulders to drift ever so slightly forwards. The exercise will still hit the middle deltoid to some extent, however the more to the front you bring the arm the more your (often dominant) front deltoid comes into play. This is often a subconscious attempt to make the movement easier, which using bigger muscles will always do.

This is the same for any rear deltoid movements such as rear delt flyes. If you pull too high the bigger trapezius muscles will be more involved, which is a very common issue. If you pull too low other muscles in your back might take over.

This can also happen even when you set your movement up correctly, as your shoulders may elevate to make the movement easier. Once you’re set for whatever movement you want to perform, try to work on keeping your shoulder joint in the correct position in order to load the muscle and not ‘drift’ to get other muscles involved. To reiterate, this often means keeping the weight a little lighter, your form stricter and the speed of your repetitions slow and controlled.

For any isolation movements (raises, flying movements) try to keep the tempo as 2-1-2-0 (lifting for 2 seconds, squeezing for 1 second at the top, then lowering for 2 seconds with no pause at the bottom before going into the next rep).

For pressing movements (dumbbell, barbell or machine shoulder press) you can use a slightly more explosive lifting phase. But you still want to control the negative lowering phase to help develop shoulder control and stability to reduce the risk of injury. So a tempo of 1-0-2-0 should be a suitable tempo.

This means the movements that are used to develop the shoulder muscles are in effect a variation on a ‘theme’; there are overhead presses, lateral or front raises (using cables or dumbbells) and rear delt fly’s (using cables, certain adjustable chest fly machine, or front lying reverse dumbbell flyes).

The most important thing to note is everyone’s shoulder anatomy will be slightly different, so try different exercise variations and play with moving through subtly different angles and see which best fit your body and get the muscles you are targeting to ‘fire’.



Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 8-10, 3, 1-0-2-0, 120s
Dumbbell Front Raise: 12-15, 3, 2-1-2-0, 90s
Cable Lateral Raise: 12-15, 3, 2-1-2-0, 90s
Machine Shoulder Press (Drop Sets): 15-20, 2, 2-0-2-0, 90s
Standing Cable Rear Delt Fly: 12-15, 2, 2-1-2-0, 90s
Front Lying Dumbbell Fly: 15-20, 2, 2-1-2-0, 90s



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