If you’ve always struggled to build your shoulders, coach and founder of Built with Science Jeremy Ethier made the difficult muscle group a major focal point. He previously shared his insights on how to build broad shoulders, 3 quick tips to build larger backs and how to master pullups. Now he shares his 15 favorite exercises you need to do to get the shoulder increase you need.
“How many of you have already slapped on your shoulders with everything in the book, but are disappointed because they just will not grow very well?” he says. “What you need, and what I wish someone had told me in the day, is more structure behind your shoulder training.”
Ethier divides the best exercises for each of the three regions of your shoulders, shows you how to choose the right exercises for your body and equipment availability, and how to combine them into a weekly routine. This is the structure you missed.
“Its muscle fibers run almost 45 degrees to the side relative to your torso. This means that to activate this muscle best, you want to avoid the common mistake of flicking your elbows to the side during overhead pressure,” says Ethier. “Not only is it a more risky position for your shoulder to be in, but it also fails to align with the anterior deltoid fibers.”
Instead, he explains you need to move your elbows in the scapular plane, which is slightly in front of the body (think elbows 45 degrees relative to your torso, just as he mentions above).
Exercise 1: Standing Barbell Overhead Press
Use a narrower grip that allows you to place your elbows directly under the bar and slightly in front of your torso. Squeeze your glutes, stretch your core and push directly over your head while keeping your lower back neutral.
Use a heavier weight and aim for sets of 6 to 12 repetitions.
Exercise 2: Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press
Ethier quotes a 2013 article that found that this overhead exercise had the highest activation across all three heads of the shoulder compared to three other pressure variations. However, it can become increasingly difficult to overload once you get to heavier weights. For this variation, choose a lighter weight and aim for a much higher total of repetitions per set (he suggests 20 to 30, but you should aim even lower if you are just starting out). This way, you can still take your shoulder muscles close to failure without letting your setup be the limiting factor.
Exercise 3: Sitting Dumbbell Overhead Press
The advantage of a seated press is that the bench offers more stability if you insulate the shoulders. For this, push in the scapular plane and keep your elbows stacked directly under the dumbbells.
Exercise 4: Kneeling landmine press
This move will help you work on any muscle imbalances you may have, especially if you usually just push with a barbell. As you push the weight with one arm, Ethier notes that your core will need to work hard to prevent your torso from turning too far toward the loaded side. This can lead to better strength in compound movements such as the dead light and squatting. As you run the landmine press, focus on reaching forward rather than just pushing.
Exercise 5: Bodyweight Pike Pushups
Pike pushups align the elbows in the way the front delt fibers run, according to Ethier. To set it up, bring your feet close to your hands to make an upside-down V-shape and push out. If it is too difficult, you can start by running it on your knees instead. On the other hand, if you feel they are too easy, lift your feet on a higher platform.
Side head (lateral)
“The key to their growth is to use a variety of exercises that emphasize this area in different ways,” says Ethier.
Exercise 1: Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The best way to perform this exercise for the most activation and safety of your shoulder joint is to lean slightly forward, lifting your arms in the scapular plane slightly in front of your body, with your thumbs placed slightly above your little fingers. Check out our guide for some extra tips.
Exercise 2: Lean Away Cable Lateral Elevation
Ethier notes that the side section only starts to become highly active once you have passed the first third or so of a raise exercise. To make the most of this, hang on to the cable machine with your non-working arm and lean slightly in the direction of the raise to make sure the parts work through the entire range of motion. If you do not have access to a cable machine, you can also just tie a resistance band to a luminaire and use it instead.
Exercise 3: Standing Cable Y Light
This exercise will provide another strain to the shoulder by taking your sideways to their completely contracted position. Cross the cables and then pull the cable up in a wide ‘Y’ position. This movement will also highly activate your lower traps.
Exercise 4: Chest Supports Y Lift Up
This exercise can help repeat the above movement without a cable machine. To do this, sit on a bench at 45 degrees and lift your arms into a wide ‘Y’ shape and hold light dumbbells. Think about lifting your arms out rather than up.
Exercise 5: Barbell Upright Rows
We usually do not recommend this exercise due to the high risk of injury. If you want to try it, think about using dumbbells instead. Ethier also offers tips for a safer ride, widening your grip to twice shoulder width. Lift your elbows only to the level of your shoulders, and at the top position make sure your hands are not below your elbows, but rather are lifted to the same level.
Rear head (rear parts)
“This part of your shoulder that is the key to balancing the appearance of your front particles by rounding off the back of the shoulder,” says Ethier. “If you look at how these muscle fibers run, it’s at an angle of about 45 degrees. This means that in order to best target this muscle, you want to use exercises where your elbows can retract this angle of 45 degrees relative to the torso. “
Ethier recommends these five exercises to do exactly that.
Exercise 1: Rear Delt Swing
Grab some light dumbbells and lie on a bench at an angle of 30 degrees. Then swing your elbows back behind your body while keeping your arms straight and protruding at about a 45 degree angle. Ethier suggests that you push hard and do as many repetitions as you can. Once you are tired, leave the set immediately after the next exercise.
Exercise 2: Rear Delt Row
Using the same setup and dumbbells, you can take the back particles to a complete failure by turning the swing in a row by simply bending your elbows. With this slight change, you will be bale to continue doing more repetitions until your back particles are completely tired.
Exercise 3: Standing Barbell Behind Delt Row
Use an overhand, relatively wider grip that allows you to pull high up to the level of your sternum and with your elbows at about 45 degrees outward. Think about pulling with your elbows while doing so.
Exercise 4: Rear Delt Cable Ride
This same move can be applied to a cable machine with a wider attachment and that sweet spot 45 degree angle.
Exercise 5: Pull Rear Delt Cable
Ethier says this exercise exercises the posterior particles in its fully extended position, an important mechanism of muscle growth. To do this, sit sideways next to a cable machine and adjust the pulley to a height where you can pull your arm at a 45-degree angle away from your torso. Reach your arm to your opposite ear, then pull your elbow over and then behind your body. You can also do this with a resistance band.
Put it together
According to Ethier, research shows that the front particles are already highly activated during exercises you already have in your exercise plan, such as the bench press.
“So since your front deltas are probably already well developed, you are only going to choose one main front delta exercise to do through the week. You will want to emphasize the side and back deltas more by choosing two exercises from each of those. Aim for three to four sets of these exercises, and throw them into your existing workouts throughout the week, or do it all in one-shoulder workout, “says Ethier.
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