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The ultimate shoulder workout The best shoulder exercises for large shoulder muscles

Das ultimative Schultertraining Die besten Schulterübungen für große Schultermuskeln

Here's a quick summary:

  1. Your shoulders are made up of three primary muscle heads known as the anterior, lateral and posterior shoulder muscles.
  2. The best shoulder exercises are pressing exercises that allow you to move heavy weights in a safe manner and increase your shoulder strength.
  3. The best way to build shoulder muscles is to get as strong as possible on a few key exercises including barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses, dumbbell side raises and Arnold presses.

Let's face it: a well-built upper body is not complete without well-developed shoulder muscles. It doesn't matter how muscular your arms, chest or back are, or how bulky your legs and calves are - if you don't have big, strong and defined shoulder muscles, then you'll always be missing some of the look that all strength athletes strive for.

This is especially obvious when you're clothed, as well-developed shoulders make a big difference when it comes to how wide your torso and how narrow your waist looks.

Many readers will have put who knows how many hours and gallons of sweat into their shoulder workouts - only to be disappointed with the results or, worse still, to injure themselves. I know what I'm talking about, I've experienced all of this myself. The truth is, anyone who wants to tell you that it's easy to build impressive shoulders is lying. It takes a lot of hard work - the right work - and a lot of patience to achieve it. But it is possible!

In this article, I'm going to show you how. Here's what you'll learn:

  • Which shoulder muscles you should train the most
  • The three biggest mistakes that exercisers make in their shoulder training sessions
  • The three most important principles of effective shoulder training
  • The absolute best shoulder exercises you can use (and this list is surprisingly short!)
  • What my favorite shoulder workouts look like
  • And more...

Let's start with some basic anatomy and then look at how you can build shoulder mass and strength.

The anatomy of the shoulders

The shoulder muscles are made up of three primary muscle heads: the anterior, lateral and posterior shoulder muscle heads. It is very important to develop all three shoulder muscle heads, because if one of these muscle heads lags behind in its development, this will be painfully visible.

In most cases, the lateral and posterior shoulder muscle heads need the most work and attention, as the anterior shoulder muscle head is already trained to a certain extent during chest training - and nobody skips chest day. Unfortunately, chest training does not train the other two shoulder muscle heads to an adequate extent.

The 3 biggest mistakes in shoulder training

The three biggest mistakes most people make in their shoulder training sessions are the following:

  1. They focus on the wrong shoulder exercises
  2. They focus on training with high repetitions
  3. They neglect progressive overload

Let's look at these mistakes in detail:

Mistake #1: A focus on the wrong shoulder exercises

Many people focus too much on machines or isolation exercises, which are only of secondary importance for building big, strong and round shoulder muscles. A common misconception is that because the shoulders are a relatively small muscle group, they respond best to exercises that only train the shoulder muscles - in other words, isolation exercises.

While this may make sense on paper, it represents a serious problem:

Because of the way your body is built, you can't safely move as much weight in an isolation exercise like cable side raises or dumbbell front raises as you can in a multi-joint exercise like barbell shoulder presses or Arnold presses.

For example, it's not uncommon for someone who is just starting to train with weights to start with the barbell shoulder press with an empty bar and work their way up to 60 kilos over the course of a year. But would it be possible for the same trainee to increase their front lift training weight by 40 kilos within a year? Absolutely not.

Sadly, there is little scientific data on what is the best shoulder exercise for building muscle in the shoulder muscles, but there is an unofficial study conducted by two German scientists called Buskies and Boeck-Behrens (1).

These two scientists had ten 22 year old men perform seven different shoulder exercises after hooking these men up to electrodes to measure the level of muscle activation in the shoulder muscles.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any details on how much weight the subjects used, but usually in studies like this, a certain percentage of the 1RM weight is used for all exercises. So, for example, 90% of the maximum weight for a repetition could have been used for all exercises when performing to muscle failure - or the point where no further repetitions could be performed with good form.

However, the key findings of this study were as follows:

  • Overhead presses produced the highest degree of muscle activation in the anterior shoulder muscle heads - 41% more, compared to dumbbell side raises.
  • Side raises produced the highest degree of muscle activation in the lateral shoulder muscle heads.
  • Reverse butterflies on the machine produced the highest level of muscle activation in the posterior shoulder muscle heads.

However, this study should not be overstated as it only involved 10 people, was not published in an official journal and only relied on a muscle activation test, which is not a perfect predictor of muscle growth. This study merely indicates that an exercise is likely to be effective for training a muscle as long as you increase the weight over time. Incidentally, the results of this research fit well with anecdotal experience.

I have worked with thousands of exercisers over the years and have not seen one who has achieved the shoulder development they wanted solely through the use of isolation exercises. This has always required some form of heavy pressing.

As this study and most experienced exercisers will tell you, isolation exercises can work well if you want to target a specific part of your shoulders (like the posterior shoulder muscles), but they should never be the primary focus of your shoulder training sessions.

Mistake #2: A focus on pump training with high reps

This mistake will slow down growth in any primary muscle group of the body and is especially devastating for smaller muscle groups like the shoulders. The reason for this is that the best way to get the shoulder muscles (and any other muscle group) to grow is to use heavier weights.

In a study conducted by researchers at Lehman College (2), 24 physically active, trained men were divided into two groups:

  1. Group one performed three workouts per week, consisting of 21 sets per workout with a repetition range of 8 to 12 repetitions and performed with 70 to 80% of 1RM weight.
  2. Group two performed three training sessions per week, consisting of 21 sets per training session with a repetition range of 25 to 35 repetitions and performed with 30 to 50% of the 1RM weight.

Both groups used the same exercises, the barbell bench press, barbell shoulder press, lat pulldown with wide grip, seated rowing. Barbell squats, leg presses and leg extensions. Both groups were also instructed to maintain their normal eating habits and keep a food diary.

After 8 weeks of training, both groups had built approximately the same amount of muscle mass, with the first group having built significantly more strength than the second group. Group one was able to increase their 1RM weight on the bench press by 10 pounds - which is a pretty good amount for slightly more advanced exercisers, while the second group was not able to significantly increase their strength.

As I mentioned earlier, the gains in muscle mass over the eight week study period were about the same for both groups, but it is very likely that group one built more muscle over time as they continued to get stronger. This is because the closer you get to your genetic limit for muscle growth, the more important building strength becomes for building muscle mass.

In addition, to build significant amounts of muscle mass with higher reps, you need to perform each set closer to the point of muscle failure (the point at which you can no longer move the weight). While this is possible, it is extremely difficult.

If you want an idea of what this feels like, perform a set of 20 repetition barbell bench presses, ending one or two repetitions before reaching muscle failure. And then imagine that you have to do a few more sets of this type and repeat the whole thing after a few days. And then imagine having to do this for months in a row.

Fortunately, you don't have to do this as you can easily train with heavier weights, which is just as effective - if not more effective - for building muscle but much less grueling.

This is the reason why the shoulder workouts I'm going to present in this article will focus on heavy training with low repetitions. These workouts will also include a few sets with higher repetitions of exercises that are less suitable for heavy training.

Mistake #3: Neglecting progressive overload

The first, second and third commandment for building big and strong shoulders is to progressively overload your shoulders.

If you don't, then you will always struggle to develop your shoulders (and every other muscle group). The term progressive overload refers to an increase in the tension your muscles produce over time and the most effective way to achieve this is to progressively increase the amount of weight you move.

In other words, the key to building muscle and strength is not to perform different exercises while balancing on a Bosu Ball and seeing how much you sweat, but to make your muscles work harder (3). And this is exactly what you achieve when you force your muscles to move heavier and heavier weights.

So your number one goal as a trainee should be to increase your full body strength over time and the training program outlined at the end of this article will do just that.

The simple science of effective shoulder training

All it takes to build superbly developed shoulders is a little know-how, hard work and patience. The basic strategy is as follows:

  1. Target anterior, lateral and posterior shoulder muscles
  2. Use multi-joint exercises and move heavy weights
  3. Perform one to three shoulder training sessions per week

Let's look at the points of this plan one by one:

1. target anterior, lateral and posterior shoulder muscles

As you learned earlier, you should primarily focus on your lateral and posterior shoulder muscles, as your anterior shoulder muscles already get plenty of attention during your chest workouts.

As data from two German scientists and other studies (4) have shown, the front shoulder muscles are trained during all pressing exercises, which is particularly the case with the bench press and incline bench press (5). So if you already bench press a few times a week, then you are also training your front shoulder muscles a few times a week.

This is the reason why I would recommend that you focus primarily on exercises that target the lateral and posterior shoulder muscles in your shoulder training sessions. Here are a few basic tactics I use and recommend to target all areas of the shoulders:

  1. Train flat bench and incline bench presses two to three times a week to work your front shoulder muscles.
  2. Add exercises to your workout that include both shoulder extension (like side raises) and shoulder rotation (like reverse butterflies). This ensures that you train both the lateral and posterior shoulder muscles.
  3. Train with heavy weights as scientific research shows that this increases the activation of all three areas of your shoulder muscles (6).

2. use multi-joint exercises and move heavy weights

Like many others, I used to think that heavy training with low repetitions was primarily for building strength and not for building muscle mass. And I have to admit that I was wrong. One of the most important lessons I've learned is this:

As a natural exerciser, your main long-term goal should be to increase your strength.

As a beginner, you can build a useful amount of muscle mass without getting much stronger, but as you progress from the second or third year of training, strength and muscle mass will show a strong correlation. Once the beginner phase is over and your body is no longer hyper-receptive to resistance training, the best way is to make further gains in muscle mass and continue to build strength.

What is the best way to do this?

While the exercise science is complex and raises more questions than it answers, the evidence is pretty clear on one thing: heavy training with multi-joint exercises is the most effective way to get stronger (7). And this is the reason why we strength athletes need to do a lot of heavy training with basic exercises if we want to build significant amounts of muscle and strength.

This is not just a specific rule for the shoulders. This is applicable to every primary muscle group in the body including the smaller, more stubborn muscle groups like arms, calves and chest, as well as the larger, more responsive muscle groups like legs and back.

So if you want to build big, round or even just defined shoulders as quickly as possible, then you should build strong shoulders as quickly as possible and this means performing heavy shoulder training. And in most cases this means a lot of heavy pressing.

You might be wondering what I mean by "heavy".

By this I mean training with primarily heavy weights in the range of 70 to 80% of your 1 RM weight or in the range of 8 to 10 (60%) or 4 to 6 repetitions (80%).

In practical terms, this means performing each set up to one or two repetitions before reaching technical failure (the point at which you can't perform another repetition without decreasing form of exercise execution). Another way to look at this is to finish the set when you have one or two repetitions left in reserve. In other words, your muscle building sets should be damn hard

What do I mean by multi-joint exercises?

Multi-joint exercises involve multiple joints and muscles, whereas isolation exercises focus on a single joint and a limited set of muscles.

An isolation exercise like dumbbell side raises primarily involves the shoulder joint and lateral shoulder muscles, while a multi-joint exercise like barbell standing shoulder press involves the shoulder and elbow joints, as well as the pectorals, shoulder muscles, triceps, back and even the legs to some extent.

"But wait," you may be thinking, "[FITNESSMODEL XY] does a trillion reps for his/her shoulders and has bombastic shoulder development..." Unfortunately, this is often where illegal performance enhancing substances come in and change everything. But don't worry, you don't need chemical assistance to build a pair of shoulders you can be proud of. You just need a little know-how, hard work and patience.

3. do one to three shoulder workouts per week

You may have heard that you should train each muscle group at least two to three times a week to maximize gains in muscle and strength. This advice is along the right lines, but it doesn't see the wood for the trees.

Scientific research shows that training frequency per se - or how often you train a particular muscle group - is not all that matters when it comes to building muscle and strength (8). More important is your total weekly training volume, or the total number of hard sets you perform each week (9).

What do I mean by hard sets?

Well, as you know, a set is a fixed number of repetitions of a particular exercise and a 'hard' set is a heavy, muscle and strength building set performed to near technical failure (the point at which you can no longer continue training with correct form).

Going back to my point above, as long as you perform enough hard sets per week for a given muscle group, it doesn't matter how you divide those sets up between individual workouts. For example, you can expect more or less the same amount of strength and muscle gains if you do 12 hard sets for your shoulders on Monday or if you do 4 hard sets each for your shoulders on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

How many hard sets should you do per week to build impressive shoulders?

I have tried many different training splits and volume and frequency schemes and the one that works best in my experience is also consistent with two comprehensive study reviews on the topic (10, 11). If you emphasize heavy sets in your training - 70 to 80% of your 1 RM weight - then an optimal volume seems to be in the range of 9 to 15 heavy sets every 5 to 7 days. This applies to shoulders as well as any other major muscle group.

Before you increase your training volume or frequency beyond that, make sure you're aiming for progressive overload in your workouts, getting enough sleep and eating enough food. I've often worked with people who thought of themselves as hardgainers who needed high volume, but who really just needed to train harder, get more sleep and eat more.

Sometimes I hear from people (mostly men) who seem to be doing everything right, but just can't seem to make significant changes in terms of strength or muscle mass in their shoulders. Here's what I like to have these people do:

  1. A shoulder workout two or three non-consecutive days per week.
  2. An increase in the number of hard sets per week to 18 to 27.

For example, if they currently train their shoulders on Mondays and Thursdays, I have them switch up their workouts so that they can train their shoulders on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (this includes chest workouts, which also train the shoulders).

This slight increase in weekly volume isn't a magical miracle solution, but it can help break through stubborn growth plateaus.

Now that we've got the basic training theory out of the way, in the second part of this article I'll outline the 8 best shoulder exercises and look at some effective training programs for building impressive shoulder muscles.


By Michael Matthews

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