Well-developed shoulders are the key to achieving a balanced physique and completing that full “3-D” look everyone is striving for. How do I make my shoulders wider? After 20 years of training, this is what I have learned:
If you want to build massive shoulders, all three parts of the deltoid must be thoroughly trained, especially the side and back. You can achieve a rounded shoulder shape by localizing your training efforts and consuming a protein-rich diet which encourages hypertrophy.
The most significant mistake people make when it comes to their shoulder training is not focusing on the three heads of their deltoid muscle.
Neglecting any one of the three heads is detrimental, since all three parts’ proper development is what gives the shoulders that three-dimensional look.
I have always appreciated the value of developed, rounded, and grooved deltoids.
Nothing can surpass the type of impression given off by 3-D shoulders; those that have clear separations between the three heads that compose them.
I perform many press moves and foot paddles for muscle size, but what brings about the ideal type of deltoid development is when I train for separation.
Doing that, I base my entire routine on isolation exercises. In each of these exercises, I work a different section of the deltoid group.
How to get massive shoulders
Focus on the muscle
This advice is a little obvious, and maybe you already know it, but it is perhaps the most vital advice for the shoulder muscles’ development.
I realized importance of the muscle-mind connection was while I was doing a barbell bicep curl. I was training very hard, pushing my body and, consequently, cheating. Next to me was a bodybuilder with a giant arm doing the same exercise, but with only 22 pounds on each side.
I was amazed. He worked to the bone with each repetition; but not with the weight, with his mind. He was extremely focused, squeezing the muscle in the concentric part of the exercise, going down very slowly and stretching to the fullest in the eccentric portion.
This taught me the importance of technique, and each muscle fiber’s involvement in every repetition until the muscle was exhausted.
For the deltoid, it is crucial to use a weight that allows you to lift the load without cheating. It is a small muscle and does not need much weight to train properly.
You will gain volume and muscle quality, and the appearance of ripped shoulders like cannonballs.
Change the focus of your workout
This advice is necessary if you want 3-D shoulders. The shoulder has three heads, and you must work out all three!
In my early days, I only trained with presses because I thought it was the only way to get big shoulders. That created a tremendous visual disproportion in me, though. I had a very developed frontal deltoid head. But, when I stood sideways, you could see that I had underdeveloped lateral and rear heads.
My shoulders changed and looked proportionate after I diligently trained the rear and side heads. This change to my approach gave me very rounded and aesthetic shoulders.
Look for the right training frequency
In my case, it helped a lot to increase the frequency of my shoulder training. However, other people only need to train them once a week. I’ve also seen Rod Montana’s shoulders start to grow when he began working them out daily.
Rest is essential, but everybody is different; so try to find the routine that works best.
Please start with what all the trainers recommend (including myself): work on your shoulders only twice a week. That is the common frequency, and it works for almost everyone.
Watch your body’s progress, though. If you don’t notice a significant change after three months, then work your shoulder three times a week. If you see a considerable evolution after a couple of months, go down to once a week. You are the best judge of what you want.
Take a break
This step is not optional. The muscle always grows when it rests. Training only stimulates hypertrophy. You should allow at least two days of rest between workouts.
That is the frequency that has worked best for my clients and I. The two days rest between sessions is incredibly conducive to hypertrophy in the deltoids.
Remember, you have to try what works for your body. As a general rule, training without giving the muscle fibers a rest has the opposite desired effect: muscle size decreases.
Most common mistakes when training deltoids
- Training with excessive weight, thus working the trapeziums instead of the shoulder.
- Overtraining with too many sets in each session.
- Neglecting the development of the back of the deltoid
Routine for massive shoulders
|Military Press||4 × 6-10 reps.|
|Lateral Elevation||4 × 8-12 reps.|
|Bent-over Side Raises||4 × 8-12 reps.|
|Seated rope Face Pull||4 × 8-12 reps.|
|Standing Face Pull||4 × 8-12 reps.|
For this training routine to work, you must not train your shoulders more than two times per week. Remember that the muscle grows when you rest. The training only stimulates this growth.
Best exercises to widen shoulders
Exercise 1 – Military Press
The Military Press works the front and side deltoids, and is an essential composite movement for shoulder training.
That is due to the opportunity to easily overload it with weight and still target all the deltoid heads.
Although there are several variations of this exercise that I will discuss, they all primarily target the anterior deltoid, with some involvement of the lateral and posterior heads.
Also, the standing Military Press will place more emphasis on the serratus anterior muscles.
Many studies have shown this exercise to be the best for the anterior deltoid, and ultimately getting 3-D shoulders. It is even 40% better than dumbbell front raises.
Therefore, I would say that it is the only exercise that you need to include in your routine that emphasizes frontal deltoid.
Now, in terms of what is the most significant variation, you have four options:
- Standing Military Press
- Standing Dumbbell Press
- Sitting Military Press
- Sitting Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Military press variations
A study by the US journal Strength and Conditioning compared these four variations and concluded that the following are the best:
- Standing Military Press. This study found that the standing Military Press caused greater anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoid activation than any other variation. In short, the research suggests that this variation is the best. However, I think that it is an exercise that can be difficult to emphasize the deltoid muscle, especially once you get to a very heavyweight. For this reason, I would opt for the Military Press with a moderate weight.
- Standing Dumbbell Press. The Standing Shoulder Dumbbell Press was not far behind in overall shoulder activation—outperforming the sitting variations—making it a viable alternative. Keep in mind that the other variations are still practical exercises, and they can be alternated in your training program as needed. For example, if you usually do the Military Press, don’t hesitate to switch to the Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press.
You can make changes if you get tired of regularly performing an exercise for several months.
But, I would suggest maintaining the exercise for an extended period before considering the change.
Exercise 2 -Lateral Raises
This exercise is the most common shoulder movement in the gym, and I strongly recommend it for lateral shoulder development.
Lateral elevations focus primarily on the lateral deltoid, with little involvement of the other two heads and the upper trapeziums. It would be best if you lift a moderate weight to successfully perform this exercise with a strict technique.
This exercise was demonstrated in a study by Behren & Buskies to be the most effective shoulder exercise in obtaining a more direct medial deltoid activation.
“I’m not too fond of it when people ask how much weight I use. Just enough to do the job right.”
Lee Labrada (Mr. Olympia 1989, 1990 runner-up)
Since this exercise is so popular, I want to delve deeper into its proper form to maximize shoulder activation while minimizing stress on the shoulder joint.
When you lift your weight by your side, the activation of each deltoid area depends on the extent to which it is in a direct line of force opposite gravity.
So, without any shoulder rotation, you can see that both the lateral and anterior deltoids are in a direct line of force opposite gravity.
That means that both will be sufficiently activated, and this will help us get those rounded shoulders we want.
When we lift the dumbbells laterally, we have to act as if we were pouring water from a pitcher. That motion takes the anterior deltoid out of the equation, and puts the lateral deltoid in the most direct force line, which is what we want to achieve.
However, this is a risky move for the glenohumeral joint, and can cause wear and tear on the shoulders in the long run (this may take months or even years to occur).
To avoid this, all you have to do is externally rotate your shoulder when you perform this exercise.
But you may notice that the muscle in the direct line of force is now the frontal deltoid, so to address this and put more emphasis on the middle deltoid, you may choose one of two options.
- Option 1: Lean slightly forward, so that the lateral deltoid is now more in the line of force.
- Option 2: Do the exercise on a sloping bench, which achieves the same effect.
In both cases, you have to make sure that you are slightly turning your shoulder externally.
Exercise 3 – Bent-over Lateral Raises
Now, let’s put more emphasis on the rear deltoids. As I mentioned earlier, their development is essential for the shoulder’s balanced and aesthetic look, and will give you the desired 3-D appearance.
This exercise will primarily emphasize the posterior deltoid, but will also involve several secondary muscles.
Contrasting studies have shown that Rear Shoulder Lifts result in greater deltoid activation. What this means is that including them in your routine is essential for optimal development of the rear deltoid.
In terms of the grip to use, a Journal of Strength and Conditioning study showed that the neutral grip—where the palms of the hands face each other—causes higher activation of the posterior deltoid and infraspinatus than the prone grip, in which the shoulders are rotated internally and the palms of the hands are placed downwards.
“The neutral grip on the elevations for the posterior deltoid causes a higher activation of the back of the shoulder, thus helping us to have a 3-D appearance.”
So, the neutral grip may be the best option.
Why does this happen? Apart from horizontal abduction, the posterior deltoid also externally rotates the shoulder.
Since the neutral grip involves more external rotation than the prone grip, it makes sense that it would result in greater activation of the rear deltoid.
The researchers also wrote that the prone grip position causes considerable stretching of the posterior deltoid.
Therefore, that grip may prevent the muscle from developing adequate strength due to stress on the joint.
In my opinion, this hypothesis requires further study. Regardless, we always recommend training this muscle with moderate weights.
However, it is essential to say that there was much variation in this study.
Some subjects found the prone grip more effective, so try both and see which one works best for you.
Exercise 4 – Seated Rope Face Pull
This exercise is my favorite to isolate the rear deltoids, and is one I highly recommend you try.
Although this variation targets the same muscles worked by the traditional pull-ups to the standing face, it will decrease the traps.
As shown in the Journal of Sports Medicine, traps are more frequent during standing exercises. After all, they work like a postural muscle.
Thus, placement on the floor eliminates gravity and can decrease trapping and achieve 3-D shoulders.
That is ideal, because most people tend to do hyperactive traps which dominate the rear deltoids in many movements.
Therefore, performing this sitting exercise allows the rear deltoids to become more involved by decreasing the traps.
“It is more common to cheat in standing exercises, so it is better to work the ‘face pull’ for greater activation of the rear deltoid.”
However, keep in mind that traditional pulls to the face have their benefits in terms of strengthening rotator cuffs and postural muscles.
Therefore, I strongly advise you to incorporate them somewhere in your routine, or do a few sets of each variant.
If you incorporate it using the right technique, you will get your 3-D shoulders. Next is a very detailed PowerExplosive tutorial.
Shoulder fiber types
Numerous studies show that the shoulders are equally divided between Type I and Type II muscle fibers.
Generally, high repetitions with low weight are not useful for maximizing Type I fiber, and low repetitions with high loads are not effective in maximizing Type II fiber growth.
Several studies agree with this. However, others show that both types of fiber will grow regardless of the repetition rate used.
I think the research still tends to favor a varied repetition rate according to fiber type.
Including both high and low repetitions in your training would be the best option in hypertrophy.
How do I build my shoulder muscles?
- Training until muscle failure
- Forced repetitions
- Concentration and maximum isolation possible
- Maximum contraction (remain in the final position for a moment)
- Completely controlled impulse movements
- Pause between sets, just enough to recover
You may be interested in “How to get a wider back, all my secrets.”
What are good sets and reps for shoulder muscle?
Sometimes, I recycle my training to work hard one day, and then light and strict the next. Another approach is to start with the heavy movements and finish with the light ones during each muscle group’s training.
I always do sets of size and strength, though. If I don’t work hard, I see the muscles start to shrink.
You should not abandon heavy training, because you can lose some of the muscle you have gained through so much hard work.
For muscle size
- 6 to 8 repetitions
- Free weights
- Forced power movements
- A minimum of one minute rest between each series
For quality and definition
- 10 to 12 repetitions
- Free weights, pulleys, or machines
- Complete movements with strict style
- Decreased rest between sets
Whichever training you choose, you should work the muscle most in need of development at the beginning of the mash, when you’re fresh and energetic.
Since I have never had problems with deltoids, I train them at the end of the cycle on my last day of training.
I had a failure with my pectorals, but I managed to balance them by working on them at the beginning of my training.
You may be interested in “The secrets of how to have a chest like Captain America.”
Workout routine for broader shoulders
To conclude, here is a sample of exercises you can do using the previously mentioned tips to get 3-D shoulders.
Feel free to change or add exercises, or split the workout in half if you train your shoulders more than once a week.
- Military Press: 3-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions
- Lateral Raises: 4 sets total (2 sets of 6-10 repetitions, 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions)
- Bent-over Lateral Raises: 4 sets total (2 sets of 6-10 repetitions, 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions)
- Seated Rope Face Pull: 2 sets of 8-12 repetitions
- Face Pull: 2 sets of 8-12 repetitions
To better understand this, let’s take a look at your anatomy.
Like the three heads of the triceps, the deltoid muscle is divided into three parts—the anterior, lateral, and posterior.
They are also known as the frontal, medial and posterior deltoid.
Keep in mind that you will activate all three heads to some extent during all shoulder exercises.
We can emphasize each head through the use of specific exercises and how we perform them.
Is isolation of the frontal deltoid needed?
As I mentioned earlier, it is essential to activate all three heads of the deltoids to achieve 3-D shoulders.
But, keep in mind that the front deltoid gets enough indirect work through various pressure movements.
That is because the anterior deltoid is already very active in exercises such as bench presses.
It has been proven that its participation in pushing movements increases significantly as the level of inclination increases.
That means that, since you are likely to perform many flat and inclined pressure movements involving the anterior deltoid, it is best to focus more on developing the lateral and posterior heads—which are often neglected in workout routines.
Not only does this help balance your shoulder aesthetically but, as a study in the Journal of Clinical Biomechanics shows, strengthening the posterior deltoid head ensures the integrity of the shoulder joint and reduces the potential risk of injury.
Therefore, we suggest emphasizing the lateral and posterior heads of the shoulder.
Also, keep in mind that the four rotator cuffs are essential muscles that we should not overlook because they stabilize the shoulder.