Building boulder shoulders is a common goal amongst gym rats. After all, thicker, more defined deltoids help you fill out your T-shirt sleeves, make your waist look proportionally smaller, and give you the specific “upside down triangle” look many bodybuilders are after.
The benefits of building strong shoulders go beyond crafting a particular look, though. “Strong shoulders help you to safely complete daily tasks like carrying groceries or putting something away up overhead,” says online performance and nutrition coach Seamus Sullivan, C.S.C.S. Strong shoulder muscles also protect your rotator cuff (a structure surrounding the shoulder joint that helps secure the upper-arm bone into the shoulder socket). “When your rotator cuff muscles are weak, you become at risk of sustaining an overuse injury to the surrounding muscles,” says certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. Not to mention, weak shoulder muscles can also lead to poor, forward-slouching posture, while strong muscles can keep you standing proud and upright, he says.
Whether you want to grow your shoulders to support your aesthetic or health goals, there’s nothing more frustrating than stalled progress. Read on for six common reasons why your shoulders’ size and strength may have plateaued.
1. Your Shoulder Mobility Is MIA
In order to complete any shoulder-to-overhead movement (jerk, press, push-press), you need solid spinal and shoulder mobility, according to Harcoff. If you don’t have adequate mobility, you won’t be able to press the weight directly overhead and target the shoulder muscles in doing so. Instead, you’ll be forced to press the weight at an inclined angle and ultimately target the chest muscles, he explains.
“Doing a shoulder press or push press without the requisite shoulder and spinal mobility likely isn’t going to provide the desired shoulder training stimulus or increased shoulder strength gains,” Harcoff explains. Worse, over time this poor positioning can lead to lower back strain and pain, according to Sullivan.
The fix: Begin incorporating shoulder mobilization exercises like the cross-arm stretch, child’s pose, and doorway stretch as often as possible, suggests Sullivan.
In the meantime, Harcoff recommends subbing out overhead pressing movements with the incline chest press. Doing so protects your lower back and thoracic spine, which can assume suboptimal positions when you shoulder press without sound shoulder mobility. “Incline chest press will still primarily work your chest muscles, but it will secondarily work your shoulders,” he says. You’ll have to settle for that while you get your mobility up to speed!
Once you have adequate mobility to straighten your arms directly overhead in a diver’s position without pain, you’re ready to overhead press properly—and reap the gains that follow.
2. You’re Not Progressively Overloading Your Muscles
The progressive overload principle is the most efficient training technique for consistently putting on strength. At its most distilled, the principle says that in order to continue getting stronger, you need to continue challenging your muscle fibers by increasing load, total reps or reps per set, or time under tension, explains Harcoff.
Most commonly, people try to implement the principle by going up in weight. While that can be effective for movements like the squat, it’s less effective for shoulder movements, according to Harcoff. “Shoulders have lower relative load capacity compared to other parts of their body,” he explains.
For a lateral raise, for example, you’re going to opt for a significantly lower weight (think five to 20 pounds) than for a back squat. “Because of the increments that most dumbbells increase in, when an individual wants to increase the weight they’re using for a lateral raise, they have to go up a huge percentage,” Harcoff says. To put that in perspective, jumping from a 15-pound to a 20-pound dumbbell increases the load on the muscles by a substantial 33 percent—and the body may not be physically capable of handling that kind of increase.
For this reason, try implementing the progressive overload principle by upping volume whenever your current rep and set scheme get too easy, Harcoff suggests. In practice, this means continuing to use the load you can handle, but adding additional reps and sets so that the last few reps of each set are a struggle. If you usually do three sets of 10, for example, you might up that to three sets of 12 or jump to four sets of 10.
3. You’ve Been Neglecting The Rear Deltoids
The shoulder girdle is made up of a series of muscles, including the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis, pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, the deltoids (anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid), trapezius, and the serratus anterior. That’s a lot of muscles, and failure to train all of them can stagnate growth, says Harcoff.
“The most common muscle for lifters to miss is the rear deltoid muscles,” Harcoff says. Also known as the posterior deltoids, this muscle is located along the backside of the body just above your lats. These muscles contribute to a look of shoulder fullness, so if you ignore them, your size suffers, according to Seamus.“A big rear deltoid helps give the shoulder cap a fuller look,” he says.
How do you hit your rear deltoids, exactly? Through a combination of compound pulling exercises, like dumbbell rows and pull-ups, as well as accessory exercises like side-lying external rotations and rear deltoid raises, says Harcoff.
4. You’re Falling Short On Calories or Protein
Loading the barbell is an essential ingredient in putting on shoulder mass, and so is loading your plate. “If building muscle is the goal, you need to be in a hyper-caloric state,” says Harcoff. That means you consume more calories than you burn. If you don’t consume enough fuel, your body can’t recover as effectively or efficiently.
Ideally, you’ll tack on 300 to 500 more calories per day, according to the National Federation of Personal Trainers. The body uses this surplus fuel to generate new muscle tissues, Sullivan explains.
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
Still, where those calories come from matters. “To put on muscle, you want to consume about one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day,” says Harcoff. Why? Because protein-rich foods are made up of amino acids, which the body uses to repair torn muscle fibers following digestion. To make sure you’re hitting your daily calorie and protein needs, he recommends tracking your intake.
5. Your Recovery Game is Weak
Going hard in the gym but slacking on sleep? “Exercisers need to remember that muscle isn’t built in the gym,” says Harcoff. The gym is where you break down your muscle fibers, but your bed is where your muscles actually get bigger and stronger.
“Sleep is when the bulk of muscle recovery happens,” echoes Sullivan. Indeed, research published in the European Respiratory Journal shows that your body secretes human growth hormone, the main hormone involved in muscle recovery, while you sleep.
The amount of sleep you need depends on a variety of factors such as your personal body chemistry, how long and hard you’re training, and how active the rest of your day is. Regardless, research shows that at least seven hours per night is a healthy starting point.
6. Training Too Much Or Not Enough
To grow and strengthen a muscle group as effectively and efficiently as possible, you need to apply the Goldilocks principle and find that training sweet spot, according to Sullivan. “If you want something to grow, focus on working in that area three times per week,” he says.
Train your shoulders more often than that and your muscle fibers won’t have enough time to adequately repair between sessions, says strength coach Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., owner of the online training platform Beyond Fitness Online. Continue to train muscles that aren’t recovered, and you continue to break down your muscle fibers. In extreme cases, this can lead to overtraining syndrome, which is a condition marked by physical setbacks like injuries, prolonged muscle soreness, and stagnated progress, as well as emotional and mental side effects like irritability, inability to relax, and depression.
Meanwhile, if you train your shoulders just once or twice per week, you will still see some progress—but likely not at the speed you’d like, says Sullivan. Start training shoulders on three nonconsecutive days of the week and you’ll be on the fast track to building the mass you’re after.