Five Exercises For Bigger, Stronger, Healthier Shoulders

It’s hard to miss a great set of shoulders.  Visually, they stand out, on both men and women. Building bigger and stronger shoulders is a goal of many clients I work with, but when it comes to training the shoulders, most people target them incorrectly altogether. Most people wind up focusing primarily on anterior movements (bench presses, shoulder presses, and front raises) and neglect lateral and posterior deltoid training. Not only does this create an unbalanced physique visually, it also results in poor shoulder strength, performance, and health.

Regardless of whether you’re a strength athlete or just looking for bigger, wider shoulders, when selecting exercises in your shoulder training you need to make sure you’re using a TOTAL shoulder focus- meaning you are designing a shoulder workout that targets all three heads of the shoulder (front, back and side) and strengthens the rotator cuff. Targeting all three heads of your shoulders will not only help to improve their musculature and strength, but will help to keep them healthy as well, which is important, because shoulder injuries are among the most common in athletes.

Your shoulders are a ball and socket joint.  This basically means that the nature of the shoulder joint is such that the ball-shaped surface of one rounded bone fits into the cup-like depression of another bone.

Ironically, shoulders are one of the most unstable joints found in the body, yet they are also the joint with the largest range of motion. Your shoulders can abduct 150 degrees, flex forward 180 degrees, extend 45 degrees, rotate externally 90 degrees, and rotate internally 90 degrees. That is a pretty significant ROM, but this ROM is also what places the shoulder at such high risk of injury.


As I mentioned, there are three main “heads” to your shoulder: 1) Anterior Deltoid 2) Medial Deltoid and 3) Posterior Deltoid. The front head of the shoulder (anterior head) flexes and rotates the arm inward. This is typically one of the most overdeveloped muscles for traditional gym goers,  which often results in a muscular imbalance that can lead to posture problems and an increased risk of injury. People who are “anterior dominant” have rounded shoulders, stooped forward in a hunchback fashion.  Their anterior deltoid is so dominant and so over trained that it literally pulls their shoulders down and forward, rounding the back and creating postural issues and muscular imbalance.

The lateral head of the shoulder abducts the arm, bringing it out and away from the body’s midline. The posterior deltoid, which is often neglected, extends the arm, and rotates it outward. Your rear delts also  help to pull the shoulders down and back and therefore contribute to creating a healthy upright posture.

Matt Mankoff bodybuilder back

When building better shoulders, it’s important to emphasize the balance of front to back shoulder strength but you also need to take into account training for the overall health and ROM of your shoulder joint and girdle. I always suggest including rotator cuff movements in your shoulder programming to help strengthen the four small muscles that comprise the rotator cuff, the area of the shoulder most commonly injured. The four muscles are: infraspinatus, supraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis.

The following are five exercises I employ in my own programming, and the programming of my clients exercises that target all three heads of the shoulder , while also addressing shoulder stability and rotator cuff health.

Cheat Lateral Raises

DB Inverted Cross

Overhead Shoulder Shrugs

Overhead Shoulder Press

Barbell Rear Delt Row


Cheat Lateral Raises

Michaela Augustsson


Most people tend to do lateral raises towards the end of their workout, using lighter weight, higher reps and pushing to fatigue by using strict form lateral raises- either arm extended, or bent arm. For the purposes of size gain, or adding solid muscle to an area, fatigue is not overload. Overload means overloading the muscles with heavier weight. Doing “cheat” lateral raises will allow you to do this. IF you struggle to add width and size to your lateral deltoid, cheat lateral raises will do the trick. Cheating correctly allows you to use heavier loads that offer greater time under tension, heavy eccentrics, and muscle damage, which in the pursuit of size, is a good thing. Cheat lateral raises should be done by slightly bending at the elbow and using slight body momentum to allow you to lift heavier weight. I like to do them single arm, holding onto a stable surface or apparatus with the non working arm. On the way down control the negative as best you can and be sure to use weight heavier than you would normally use for strict form lateral raises.


DB Inverted Cross


The DB Inverted Cross is a phenomenal exercise for strengthening the shoulders in external rotation To perform, all you need to do is hold a pair of dumbbells overhead with external rotation. Lower with locked out elbows to a cross position (arms are parallel with ground) then return to overhead. Strengthening your shoulder in external rotation is important to develop a stable and functional shoulder joint and shoulder girdle. Targeting the smaller stabilizing shoulder muscles helps fortify overall shoulder health and range of motion which will translate into your ability to train your shoulders to their full potential for size and strength. The DB Inverted Cross will also help prevent future injury.


Overhead Shoulder Shrugs

Five Exercises For Bigger, Stronger, Healthier Shoulders

Typically, behind the back shrugs are performed in effort to target the shoulders. I prefer overhead shoulder shrugs instead. Behind the back shrugs place your shoulders into a forward rotated posture position.  This places you at risk of shoulder impingement. By swapping out traditional shoulder shrugs for overhead shoulder shrugs you minimize that risk. Hold a barbell overhead, hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart, overhand grip. Shrug your shoulder up, keeping elbows locked and press the barbell upward.  Raising the barbell overhead helps keep your shoulders in a more neutral position and this minimizes risk of injury while still targeting the shoulder for effective strength and size gains. It also fosters upright posture and incorporates your core to help stabilize the barbell overhead.


Overhead Shoulder Press

Danielle Sidell

The overhead shoulder press is to the shoulders what benching is to the chest or what squatting is to the lower body. It’s a compound exercise that engages the entire deltoid in one fundamentally important movement- the ability to press weight out over your head. I prefer the standing barbell overhead shoulder press to alternative pressing movements like seated dumbbell presses because the standing overhead press incorporates total body strength and recruits the core muscles for stabilization. Barbell pressing is also one of the most effective exercises for building strength in the shoulders because it allows you to really push some heavy weight. And, although the emphasis of this movement falls onto the anterior head of the deltoid, it also recruits the lateral and posterior delotid heads as well, making it a great base exercise to target the overall size, shape, and strength of your entire shoulder.


Barbell Rear Delt Row


The posterior head of the shoulder is the head of the deltoid that is most often avoided, or under-trained, largely because it’s hard to target. Most people default to targeting the rear deltoids (if they target them at all) with movements like rear delt flys. Flys, when executed properly are incredibly efficient at hitting the posterior deltoids, but the problem is that most people use weight too heavy for the exercise and wind up performing the movement primarily relying on muscle groups other than the posterior delt head, the area of intended target. I like rear delt barbell rows for several reasons, the first being that I find most people take to the movement easier than they do a fly and can quickly and easily target the posterior head of the deltoid while minimizing surrounding muscle recruitment. The movement also (like a cheat lateral raise) allows you overload the muscle. Remember overload means overloading the muscles with heavier weight, not just doing copious amounts of reps. Barbell rear delt rows allow you to utilize heavier weight than you could for flys and this makes it an effective exercise for gaining size and strength in the “hard-to-target” area of the posterior deltoid. They key is to keep your elbows high, pulling the barbell into the area between your upper chest and your collarbone.


In closing, the best shoulder programs should take into account not just gaining size in the shoulder area, but also gaining strength, stability and well. Select exercises that help to increase the overall health and ROM of the shoulder and make sure you prioritize working in all joint articulations.  Focus on incorporating exercises that balance the shoulders from front to back and don’t compromise correct form. And lastly, include exercises to help target the stabilizing muscles that comprise the rotator cuff to help prevent injury. Remember, you cannot effectively train the shoulders for size or strength if they’re unhealthy or unbalanced.

Allison Moyer, B.S/C.P.T/C.S.N

Photo Credit:,  Jay Fuertez