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man lifting weights: shoulders exercise

6 Must-Follow Tips For Building Massive Shoulders

To the untrained eye, big shoulders may seem like nothing more than a tank top imperative—but building strong shoulders offers far more health benefits than just giving shirt strings something to grip onto (though that part is nice, too). 

Of course, most fitness fanatics and bodybuilders find that building boulder shoulders is more difficult than just lifting things up and putting them down. That’s because factors like improper form, imperfect mobility, an incomplete strength program, and poor lifestyle choices can all interfere with shoulder development. 

Have questions? Read on. We’ve got the must-have puzzle pieces you need for achieving major delt gains. 

The Benefits Of Building Massive Shoulders

The value of sculpting sturdy shoulders cannot be overstated. “Strong shoulders are very important for maintaining an overall higher quality of life,” says certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. James de Lacey, who holds a Master’s Degree in Sport and Exercise Science.

“Strong shoulders help us perform any task that involves reaching our hands over our heads, like putting something away on a shelf,” says strength and conditioning coach James de Lacey, who holds a Master’s Degree in Sport and Exercise Science. They also support all sorts of pushing (extension) and pulling (flexion) movements in and out of the gym, such as opening a door, pulling a chair out, pushing off a table to stand, or moving a wheelbarrow, stroller, or luggage trolley, adds Harcoff. If your shoulders are weak, doing things like getting a dish off the top shelf suddenly becomes difficult (or even dangerous).

Read More: 3 Common Habits That Undermine Muscle Building

Having strong shoulders also supports sound, upright posture, notes Harcoff. Typically, an individual subsumes a rounded spinal position because they have tight chest (pectoral) muscles that pull the shoulder girdle downward, he explains. But when the muscles in the shoulder—in particular, the trapezius and rhomboids— are strong, then they can work overtime to help pull the body into proper position. Given that poor posture puts undue pressure on the spine, increases the likelihood of back pain and the development of pot-belly, and increases falling risk, the value of improving posture can’t be understated. 

In short: “The more developed an individual’s shoulder muscles are, the lower their risk is of injury in and out of the gym,” says Harcoff.

6 Must-Follow Tips For Building Massive Shoulders

Whether you’re sold on all of the everyday health and lifestyle benefits of having strong, healthy shoulders or just want to top your physique off with show-stopping delts (nothing wrong with that!), use these tips to pack on strength and muscle.

1. Lift To The Point of Muscle Fatigue 

Muscle failure training—which involves repping out a movement until the muscle is no longer physically or neuromuscularly capable of contracting concentrically—is a common training methodology for increasing muscle hypertrophy (mass) in high-level athletes and experienced lifters. The idea behind pushing to muscle failure is that it leads to a greater degree of muscle breakdown compared to other kinds of training, which leads to greater muscular adaptation (read: gains) following recovery, explains Harcoff. 

The thing is, while muscular failure training has been proven to be an effective approach to lifting big and getting big, it is not without its risks. By design, this style of training involves pushing your body past its limits. As a result, it poses a greater risk of injury and overtraining syndrome compared to training that does not involve pushing to failure. 

Read More: 6 Strength Training Tweaks To Prevent And Ease Back Pain

To strike a balance of mass-building benefits and safety, Harcoff suggests lifting to muscle fatigue instead of true failure. “The goal is to train close to failure without actually getting to the point of failure,” he explains. Generally, that means putting the weight down and halting reps when you have one or two reps left in the tank. (In muscle failure training, you wouldn’t be able to lift another rep if your life depended on it.) 

It is important to recognize that when training to the point of muscle fatigue, there is no prescribed rep range you need to stick to. “Various rep ranges can contribute to hypertrophy,” Harcoff says. “Therefore, the key to building massive shoulders lies not in staying within a specific rep range, but in training close to failure.” The exact rep count it takes will vary from movement to movement, weight to weight, and so on. 

2. Progressively Overload Your Muscles 

If you want your muscles to get big and strong, you need to progressively overload them, says Harcoff. That means continuously pushing them to work a smidge harder by lifting heavier, at a different (usually, slower) tempo, increasing your number of sets, and decreasing rest between sets. 

Assuming you are recovering properly (which you can do by getting adequate sleep, ample protein, enough calories, and by managing stress levels), your muscle fibers adapt to the shoulder-forward strength training regime you throw at them, explains Harcoff. In practice, this means that a weight that was once challenging for you to shoulder press will eventually become less challenging (because you’ve gotten stronger). It also means that you’ll stop seeing quite as much mass bang for your workout buck. 

For your shoulders to continue to get stronger, you need to up the ante of your routine. The easiest way to do this is simply by going up in weight, says Harcoff. 

Your move: Pay close attention to how your shoulders feel with your go-to weight with any given movement. When your perceived rate of exertion (a.k.a. how hard you have to work) for the same rep count with a given weight goes down, increase your weight. The number of reps you’ll be able to crank out will likely go down by two to eight(!) reps, depending on how many pounds you increase by—but that’s okay. 

Harcoff generally recommends increasing the weight you use by five pounds or less at a time. The shoulders have a lower load capacity compared to other, bigger muscles in the body (like the glutes or hamstrings). That means that a five- to 10-pound weight increase on a movement like the lateral raise will feel like a way bigger jump than that same weight increase on your deadlift. 

If your gym set-up is not robust enough to offer 2.5-pound weight plates or 2.5-pound jumps between dumbbell sets, consider investing in a set of fractional weight plates that allow you to increase your weight as incrementally as the stabilizer muscles in your shoulders require. 

3. Hit Your Lateral Deltoids

“If you want to achieve a beefy and well-rounded appearance in the shoulders, you need to pay specific attention to developing the lateral deltoid fibers,” says Harcoff. The lateral deltoids, also known as the side delts, are the triangle-shaped muscles along the outermost portion of the shoulder that give the shoulder its rounded shape, he says. 

“This muscle is responsible for creating width to the shoulder and contributes significantly to the overall appearance of broad shoulders,” Harcoff explains. As such, paying extra attention to this specific muscle group can help you achieve the massive shoulder look you’re after. (These muscles also help your arm move up and down, as well as side to side, so working them can make certain gym and non-gym activities easier.)

Target this muscle group with lateral raises, upright rows, and lateral pull-downs,” Harcoff suggests. When doing lateral movements, slow and steady wins the race, as slowing down allows you to really target and fatigue the lateral delts, notes online performance and nutrition coach Seamus Sullivan, C.S.C.S.

4. Fix Your Form 

If you’re slugging away in the weight room but still not seeing shoulder gains, poor form could be to blame, Sullivan says. While there are more form flubs an individual can make while doing shoulder exercises than there are actual shoulder-strengthening moves, issues are most common during the overhead press.

Quick refresher: The overhead press is a movement that involves pressing weight (you guessed it) overhead. Whether performed with a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or other tools, this move involves bracing your midline and extending your elbows while pushing the weight(s) overhead until your arms are fully extended and the weight is straight up overhead. 

Achieving the top, arm-extended position of this exercise, however, requires a baseline level of shoulder mobility. Without that, other muscles in the body compensate, which typically results in an individual overextending their upper or lower back. “This looks like a person flaring their ribs and pushing their hips back,” Sullivan says. It can also be indicated by the head, shoulders, upper, and lower back being out of alignment.

Sure, this poor form may result in the weight getting overhead. But, unfortunately, the cost is significant and the benefit is low, according to Sullivan. “Pressing overhead with an extended back can be dangerous, as a lot of the pressure goes into the lower back and spine, which increases the risk of injuries like spinal compression, slipped discs, and pulled muscles,” he says. Plus, this positioning allows your back muscles to help move the weight overhead, which means the shoulder muscles do less work. The result? Lackluster improvements in strength. 

If the overhead press is part of your shoulder routine, Sullivan recommends doing a form check in the mirror to monitor alignment. Or, ask a trainer to take a peek at your form. If it’s not optimal, consider implementing shoulder mobilization exercises like the standing arm swing, PVC pass-throughs, shoulder rotations with bands or dumbbells, and the cross-body stretch. 

5. Control Your Movements 

On the topic of proper form, de Lacey says it’s essential to use strength—not momentum—to execute the shoulder exercises in your movement rotation. 

He explains: Movements such as the shoulder press, front raise, and reverse fly are all strict movements that involve using your upper body (and some core) to get the weight into the proper position. Unfortunately, it is common for individuals to kip their hips and add in unwarranted leg drive to get the weight up. No doubt, this additional momentum makes it easier to get the weight into position, but it actually reduces the amount of load placed on the shoulders. 

“In addition to reducing the engagement of the targeted shoulder muscles, swinging also places undue stress on the lower back as the body attempts to generate momentum,” adds Harcoff. “To optimize shoulder development and minimize the risk of injury, it’s essential to prioritize controlled, deliberate movements, ensuring that the shoulders bear the brunt of the workload.” This can be achieved by selecting an appropriate weight, maintaining strict form, and focusing on moving with control through the joint’s full range of motion on each repetition, he says. 

6. Dial In Your Nutrition 

“While lifting the right amount of weight and the right amount of reps is important, it’s crucial to understand that nutrition plays a significant role in achieving mass gain,” says Harcoff. In short, if you want to put on muscle mass, you need to be in a calorie surplus and consume a sufficient amount of protein, he says. 

Anytime someone wants to put on muscle mass, they need to consume more calories than they burn, says Harcoff. “Consuming a calorie surplus provides the necessary energy for intense shoulder workouts and also supports the additional metabolic demands of repairing and building muscles,” he explains. Without adequate calories, your body will not have the fuel it needs to efficiently repair the microtears shorn into your shoulders from lifting, which will keep you from achieving the shoulder strength or mass additions you’re after. As a general rule, aim to be in a 10- to 20-percent calorie surplus to put on mass. Typically, that amounts to an extra 200 to 500 calories per day. 

To be clear: Where you get those calories from matters, too. “Your diet should put a particular focus on protein intake, as consuming sufficient protein is crucial for muscle protein synthesis,” says Harcoff. Individuals should aim to consume at least one gram of protein per pound of ‘goal’ body weight. If that feels like a lot of protein (it is!), a protein powder can help you rack up the grams quickly and easily.

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