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The very best exercises for broad shoulders and round shoulder muscles

Die allerbesten Übungen für breite Schultern und runde Schultermuskeln

This part of the article series will focus on a muscle group that even bodybuilders almost never stop fine-tuning: the complex muscles of the shoulders. These are made up of the following main areas:

  • The anterior, lateral and posterior regions of the deltoid muscle, which include the following muscles:
    • Pars clavicularis - the muscle that attaches to the collarbone
    • Pars acromialis - the muscle that attaches to the acromion
    • Pars spinalis - the muscle that attaches to the shoulder blade

  • The rotator cuff, which consists of the following muscles
    • Musculus Infraspinatus - the muscle that starts below the shoulder blade at the Fossa Infraspinata Scapulae and supports inward rotation,
    • Supraspinatus muscle - the muscle located directly above the aforementioned muscle and involved in the lateral adduction of the arm
    • Musculus Teres Minor - the muscle that attaches to the side of the shoulder blade at the Margo Lateralis Scapulae and plays a role in the abduction of the arm
    • Musculus subscapalaris - the muscle that attaches to the inner part of the scapula and enables internal rotation, adduction and abduction of the shoulder.

Figure 1: The muscles of the shoulders (red) on the front and back of the body and the rotator cuff (purple) - the group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulders.

Of these two muscle groups, the first - the complex of anterior, lateral and posterior shoulder muscles - is the muscle group that gives your shoulders the broad look everyone strives for, while the rotator cuff muscles are a necessary, yet often overlooked, prerequisite for building muscular shoulders.

Ultimately, the rotator cuff muscles provide the stability necessary to properly perform exercises such as front presses, side raises, reverse flyes and all the other common exercises used to build round, muscular shoulders. It's crucial to keep this synergy in mind when putting together your training program. And if the risk of shoulder injury due to underdeveloped shoulder stabilizers doesn't faze you, then perhaps the information that a strong shoulder base in the form of a well-trained rotator cuff will help you increase your weight on the bench will get your attention.

But enough of the complaining and mockery. Let's start building some mass in your shoulders and take a look at the most effective exercises for building massive shoulder muscles and a strong rotator cuff, according to EMG research.

1. The best exercises for the front, side and back of the shoulder muscles:

Figure 2: As it turns out, the neck press, which has been labeled for its susceptibility to injury, is the most versatile shoulder exercise because this exercise works both the anterior and lateral portion of the shoulder muscles hard (image from

I will probably never get tired of telling you that full isolation exercises like in "petri dish experiments" are not something you can do in the gym - not even if you use one of those fancy new training machines whose names suggest that they will allow you to do just that.

In the real world (and believe it or not, the gym is a part of this), your muscles will always work synergistically to move a weight from point A to point B. However, by choosing the right exercises and/or manipulating exercise execution, it is very possible to influence which muscle group and even which individual muscles do the lion's share of the workload. Always remember this when you look at the following list of "the most effective exercises" (perhaps more correctly I should say "the exercises with the highest EMG activity").

For the lateral area:

  • Lateral raises - with dumbbells, internal rotation
  • Reverse flying movements - machine, external rotation
  • Neck press - barbell, seated

For the front area:

  • Shoulder press - barbell, seated
  • Neck press - barbell, seated
  • Side raises - barbell, internal rotation
  • Bench press - barbell
  • Front raise - dumbbells, external rotation

For the rear area:

  • Reverse flying movements - machine, internal rotation
  • Reverse flying movements - dumbbells, internal rotation

Figure 3: The EMG activity of the anterior, lateral and posterior regions of the deltoid muscle during selected exercises relative to

  • Barbell shoulder press (anterior region), bars 1 to 5 (barbell shoulder press (blue), barbell neck press (red), front raise with external rotation (green), dumbbell side raise with internal rotation (purple), dumbbell side raise with internal rotation (turquoise))
  • Dumbbell side raises (lateral range), bars 6 to 8 (dumbbell side raises with internal rotation (orange), reverse flying movements on the machine with external rotation (light blue), barbell neck press (pink))
  • Reverse flying movements with dumbbells (rear section), bars 9 and 10 (reverse flying movement on the machine with internal rotation (light green), reverse flying movement with dumbbells lying on a bench with 90 degree arm/torso angle and internal rotation (light purple))

Based on the data from (1).

The EMG data in Figure 3 confirms what exercisers around the world have been advocating for decades.

A pressing exercise for the anterior shoulder muscles, some lateral raises for the lateral shoulder muscles and reverse flying movements for the posterior shoulders are all you need to develop shoulder muscles like cannonballs.

Another common belief is that front raises are one of the most effective exercises for the front shoulder muscles. Even with outwardly rotated arms, front raises with dumbbells are 41% less effective than the gold standard barbell shoulder press. One possible reason (and one of the primary drawbacks of all EMG data) for the "inferior" activation of the anterior shoulder muscles by dumbbell front raises is that significantly lower weights are used in this exercise than in barbell shoulder presses.

For example, if the subjects used 120 pounds in the barbell shoulder press but only 25 pounds per dumbbell in the front lift, the muscle activity per pound of weight in the dumbbell front lift would have been about three times higher at 548µV/25lbs=21.92 than in the barbell shoulder press at -929µV/120lbs=7.71.

Against this background, however, there is no question that there is certainly a place in a volume program for an isolation exercise such as dumbbell front raises, even if this is not a classic muscle-building exercise whose most prominent characteristic is maximum overloading of the muscles.

Training tip:

Although the corresponding EMG values for dumbbell exercises were not measured in this study, it is very likely that exercises such as dumbbell shoulder presses provide an additional stimulus compared to their barbell counterpart, which is related to the natural arc of the movement, where you get a good stretch at the lowest point of the movement and can consciously tense the muscles hard in the contracted position as the dumbbells approach each other at the top of the movement.

This also makes dumbbell shoulder presses a viable alternative to barbell neck presses, as the position of the center of gravity is more in line with your head throughout the movement. It can therefore be assumed that the stimulus is shifted away from the front shoulder muscles more towards the lateral shoulder muscles, as is also the case with neck presses vs. barbell shoulder presses.

Figure 4: With the natural arching movement, dumbbell shoulder presses could be a viable, if not preferable, alternative to barbell shoulder presses and barbell neck presses (Image source:

I can't emphasize enough that form becomes increasingly important with lighter weights, and since your shoulders are particularly susceptible to injury and generally weaker than, say, your legs, using lighter weights is not only advisable but simply a matter of physical limitations. The previously cited example of the dumbbell front lift shows that lighter weights are not synonymous with inferior muscle stimulation, as - correctly performed - isolation exercises can generate significantly more torque/pull-through force per pound of weight moved than their mass-building counterparts.

Figure 5: Reduction in EMG activity in selected variations of dumbbell side raises and reverse flying movements relative to side raises with external rotation, side raises with 90 degree arm/torso angle and reverse flying movements on the machine with internal rotation:

  • Dumbbell side raises with internal rotation (blue)
  • Dumbbell side raises with neutral grip (hammer grip)
  • Reverse flying movements with dumbbells and 45 degree arm/torso angle
  • Reverse flying movements on the machine with internal rotation

(Calculations based on (1)).

However, form doesn't just determine the overall intensity - the way you perform your shoulder exercises also has a strong influence on the degree to which the three areas of the shoulder muscles are activated.

  • For example, performing dumbbell side raises with internal rotation reduced the activity of the lateral portion of the shoulder muscles by 16%.
  • The use of a neutral grip (hammer grip with the thumbs pointing upwards) was associated with a 12% reduction in EMG activity.
  • In the case of reverse flying movements with dumbbells, using a 45 degree angle instead of a 90 degree angle reduced the load on the lateral aspect of the shoulders by 29%.
  • For reverse flying movements on the machine, gripping the handles from the outside instead of the inside (external vs. internal rotation of the arm) resulted in a 20% reduction in stimulus.

How to perform side raises correctly

If you use what you learned at the end of the last section to your advantage, you can optimize the load on the target muscle while using lighter weights and reducing your risk of injury. I know the heavy weights are more impressive, but at the end of the day, what's the point of using the heaviest weights if you're not making progress in terms of strength or muscle mass due to incorrect exercise execution form?

It's one thing to fudge the last 1 to 2 reps of a set to squeeze every last drop of fuel out of your muscles' tanks - and quite another to neglect proper form just to be the guy moving heavy weights.

There are few exercises where this is as obvious as dumbbell side raises. If you don't do it yourself, then you probably know someone who grabs the 25 kilo dumbbells, holds them vertically in front of the bar, pulls the dumbbells up to the side, lets them fall back down and then starts the whole misery all over again until he grabs his shoulders with a pained face after putting the dumbbells down - but not without the pride of having used heavier weights than the guy next to him.

Note: The following analysis is based on a very simple mechanical model and does not take into account factors such as increased load per square surface area of muscle fibers in the stretched position, effects of static or full contraction, etc.

You already know from the previous section and the EMG data that it is crucial to keep the arms externally rotated - i.e. pretend you are trying to pour an imaginary liquid out of the dumbbell at the highest point of the movement - if you don't want to lose 16% of the muscle tension from the start.

But what about the guy I just mentioned who doesn't even get a chance to think about pouring a liquid other than the one in his shaker bottle when he's doing his ballistic exercises? Which of his mistakes do you think affects the effectiveness of the deadlift the most?

  1. Too much flexion of the elbow (often to 90 degrees) and a reduced lever arm as a result?
  2. Or the inability to move the dumbbells up to shoulder height, i.e. the angle between arm and torso is well below 90 degrees (often even well below 70 degrees).

Well, from a physical point of view - which always provides a very selective and oversimplified view of reality - the answer is "1. too much flexion of the elbow." Surprised?

Figure 6: Effects of arm/torso angle and elbow flexion on torque/tightening force during dumbbell side raises.

While raising the dumbbells to 75 degrees only reduces the torque/tightening force by 5%, flexing the elbow 90 degrees reduces the torque your lateral shoulder muscles have to overcome by a massive 50%!

Think about this the next time you see a guy at the gym using 25 kilo dumbbells for side raises. There's a good chance you're significantly stronger than him with your 15 kilo dumbbells as long as you don't reduce your elbow flexion by more than that 15%, which reduces some of the load on the joint but only minimally reduces the torque applied to the muscle.

2. the best exercises for the rotator cuff

With all that you've learned about shoulder training, I hope you haven't forgotten what I mentioned at the beginning of this article: Training for the rotator cuff is synonymous with active injury prevention.

Although most exercisers don't even feel these muscles working, the rotator cuff muscles are critical to the stability of the most mobile and sensitive joint in your entire body. These often overlooked and untrained muscles hold the ligaments and bones of your shoulder in place so that your other muscles such as the shoulder muscles and pectorals can do their job. Developing strong infraspinatus, supraspinatus and teres minor muscles is also the foundation for moving heavy weights on the bench to impress the guys at the gym. If you don't believe this, then you should read the following anecdote from strength coach Charles Poliquin:

One of my pro field hockey players, Jim McKenzie, improved his close bench press by almost 51 pounds from 280 to 331 pounds in 12 weeks by focusing on rotator cuff muscle strength.

While I would question the universal applicability of Poliquin's "research," as far as the average gym-goer is concerned, it's certainly worth noting that his years of experience training athletes of all disciplines have shown him that "rotator cuff strength should be about 9.8 percent of what you can bench press without pain." This means that if you bench press 100 kilos, don't be surprised if your shoulder starts to hurt if you are unable to perform external rotations lying on a mat on the floor with 10 kilo dumbbells.

Figure 7: EMG activity of the primary rotator cuff muscles during selected exercises relative to external rotations with dumbbells lying sideways on the floor (blue):

  • External rotations with dumbbells, elbow on a bench, upper arm horizontal (red()
  • External rotations with dumbbells standing, slightly bent (green)
  • External rotation on cable pulley (purple)
  • Static door post pushbacks with 90 degree arm/torso angle (turquoise)

The calculations are based on the data from source (1).

Speaking of external rotation - as the data from Figure 7 shows, this is by far the best isolation exercise for the rotator cuff muscles. Basically, it doesn't really matter whether you perform this standing with a dumbbell, lying on the floor or with your elbow on a bench, or whether you prefer to perform this exercise on a cable pulley.

The differences are negligible compared to the big difference an incorrect exercise execution would make. So it's better if you perform an exercise you like with light weights and feel the muscles working than if you use an exercise that was shown in study XYZ to be most effective with a weight you can barely handle and where you don't feel the target muscles working.

Incidentally, this also applies to static doorframe pushbacks, which are basically an inverted stretch of the pecs where you push backwards with the back of your arm (arm/torso angle of 90 degrees) against an immovable object such as a doorjamb. If you don't feel that this static exercise is working for you, then choose another exercise.

Isolating the supraspinatus muscle with side raises:

According to Jobe & Moynes (1), dumbbell side raises with a 30 degree horizontal adduction of the arm completely isolates the supraspinatus muscle when you rotate your shoulders so that your palms are facing the floor (the good old "emptying the bottle" technique). Doing 1 to 2 sets of side raises in this way is a time-efficient way to include a strengthening exercise for the upper part of the rotator cuff in your program. However, you will need to use much lighter weights than for regular side raises.

Figure 8: Dumbbell side raises with arms adducted 30 degrees horizontally for the supraspinatus muscle (Image: Thirty Exercises for Better Golf Paperback- January 1, 1986 by Frank W. Jobe)

3. conclusion - three plus one equals injury-free strength and muscle mass

A mandatory prerequisite for building impressive shoulder muscles and therefore broad, round shoulders is a stable foundation in the form of strong rotator cuff muscles. If you neglect the latter, you will either reach a plateau or - even worse - injure yourself sooner or later.

Your front shoulder muscles in particular are worked hard during pretty much all chest and triceps press exercises. It is therefore neither necessary nor advisable (if at all) to perform more than one "isolation exercise" in the form of a multi-joint exercise such as barbell or dumbbell shoulder presses. Shoulder presses are also an exercise that will significantly help you to develop your upper chest - an area where many bodybuilders feel they have deficits.

If you do some side raises and reverse flyes in addition to this mass building exercise, then the only thing left to do is a rotator cuff exercise of your choice - after which you're ready for some highly anabolic rest and recovery.

An EMG optimized shoulder workout

There are of course a variety of ways to combine the individual exercises. My personal recommendation for good overall shoulder development and rotator cuff strength based on EMG measurements would be as follows:

  1. Shoulder press - barbell or dumbbell seated, 6-8 reps
  2. Lateral raises - with dumbbells, elbow flexion <15°(!), 10-12 repetitions
  3. Reverse flying movements - machine or dumbbells, internal rotation, 10-12 repetitions
  4. External dumbbell rotations - lying on the floor, 12-15 repetitions

Tip: You can also perform a few Arnold Presses if you feel that you are not challenging your front shoulder muscles enough with the shoulder press.

You may have noticed that I don't give any volume recommendations (i.e. number of sets). This is based on the fact that I have found that everyone has to find out for themselves what works best for them in terms of optimal volume, training frequency and split program. This may change over time depending on lifestyle factors, diet and supplementation.


  1. Wend-Uwe Boeckh-Behrens Wolfgang Buskies. Fitness strength training: The best exercises and methods for sport and health. Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg, 2000.
  2. Thirty Exercises for Better Golf Paperback- January 1, 1986 by Frank W. Jobe


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