The Complete Guide To Building Bigger, Stronger Shoulders

One of the most common requests I get when building a new online client's first training program?

"Can you make my shoulders look bigger/more defined?"

This is a trend I've seen for years, all the way back to my time working as a trainer in the college Rec Center.

Everyone wants bigger, stronger shoulders. A well-developed set of shoulders is key to creating a physique that looks lean, strong, and athletic. Thing is, very few people actually accomplish a great set of shoulders.

What's the problem here?

Well, from years of helping people online AND in-person build well-developed, strong shoulders, I've learned a few things that'll help YOU build strong, round shoulders.

Shoulder Anatomy 101

The first step in understanding how to build bigger better shoulders, is understanding their basica anatomy.

The shoulder muscles or "the deltoids/delts" can be divided into three distinct muscle groups:

The Anterior Delts OR Front Delts

The Medial Delts OR Side Delts

The Posterior Delts OR Rear Delts

Each of the delts is responsible for a different movements and ranges of motion. This means it's very hard to find movements that do a good job of hitting all three heads of the shoulder evenly, as they're each responsible for working in different planes of motion

The front delts get a lot of work without needing much attention. Any time you're pressing, either horizontally (e.g. bench pressing) or vertically (e.g. shoulder presses) the front delts are largely involved. Plus, we spend a ton of time working in front of us with our hands throughout the day, and the front delts are typically involved to a degree here as well.

All of this means that the front delts are typically exposed to a lot of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage, so they don't need much extra attention. Out of the three heads of the shoulder, the front delts are almost always the most developed. It's very unlikely lagging front delts are the reason your shoulders don't look strong and well-developed.

Outside of presses, your front delts don't really need any added work. If you're benching and overhead pressing a few times per week, they're good.

Your side and rear delts are quite the opposite. They are not well positioned on your body to be exposed to much mechanical tension or muscle damage.

Basically - they’re very hard to feel, hard to train with heavy weights, and hard to get sore.

This means that the side and rear delts, unlike the front delts, do need a lot of added focus in order to get your shoulders to look the way you want.

This is why so many people have such a frustrating time trying to build bigger shoulders.

I get it. I was in this exact situation for a LONG time. A few things I apply to online clients who want to build their shoulders, that also might be helpful for you...

Building Bigger, Stronger Shoulders

1. Presses

As far as "bang-for-your-buck" movements, the number one movements you'll get the most shoulder building stimulus out of is your presses.

All your bench press variations also hit the front delts, so be sure to take that into account.

From there, overhead press/shoulder press variations are by far the best way to hit your shoulders with tons of mechanical tension.

Your goal here should be to apply progressive overload to your overhead pressing movements in the 6-10 rep range.

Since progressive overload is the goal here, you're best served to choose two "bread and butter" overhead pressing variations, and stick with those. It's easy to get way too cute with the hundreds of different shoulder press variations, but the more you practice a movements, the better you'll get at it - which means the more progressive overload you'll be able to apply.

From my experience with clients, the two most effective movements seem to be:

Dumbbell Seated Shoulder Presses

Barbell Overhead Presses

Now, while presses are great, too much pressing is very hard on your shoulders. Pressing more than twice per week is too much for most people to handle. Your shoulders very quickly start feeling beat up, so you do need to limit pressing frequency, and be smart about how you work your pressing into your week.

If I was writing a training program for YOU, I'd likely have you hitting each of these movements once per week, with a layout something like this:


Upper Body Day 1 (Monday):

BB Bench Press 4x6

T-Bar Row 4x8-10

a.) DB Seated Shoulder Press 4x8-10

b.) Lat Pull-Down 4x10-12


Upper Body Day 2 (Thursday):

BB Overhead Press 4x6

Weighted Chin-Up 4x6

a.) DB Low Incline Bench 4x10-12

b.) DB Chest Supported Row 4x8-10

Remember, your bench presses AND overhead presses use the front delts - so whenver you're overhead pressing before you're bench pressing, you're reducing the amount of weight you'll be able to bench (because youve fatigued your front delts). This makes the delts much more likely to become the limiting factor when benching instead of the chest.

Thus, for a strong chest AND shoulders, it makes sense to have one day where you bench first, one day where you overhead press first.

On Day 1, the seated shoulder press works well as a secondary movement. You're already fatigued, so the seated position is less taxing and uses less overall musculature (you'll be able to perform better here than you would a BB Overhead Press).

The standing overhead press works great for the second vertical press of the week. This more of a full body movement, and allows you to push a lot more weight. It makes most sense to go into the movement fresh at the start of the day, and focus on pushing heavy weight in slightly lower rep ranges.

Again, with your pressing work alone, you've done enough to smoke your front delts. No need to add anything more for 99% of people.

General Recommendations For Pressing:

Goal - Apply progressive overload (get stronger)

Sets: 6-8 Per Week

Reps: 6-10 Per Set

Frequency: 1-2 Times Per Week

Tempo: Seated Shoulder Press 3-2-1-1 (3-sec lowering phase, 2-sec pause at bottom) |BB Overhead Press 2-2-1-1

2. Training The Side And Rear Delts

So, as we've established, your front delts should already be smoked from all your presses.

That said, your side and rear delts are not, and will need to be hit with much more training volume to catch up to your front delts. This is where online clients incorporate lots of different lateral raise and back fly variations.

The approach here is almost completely the opposite of your approach for presses:

While your shoulders can only handle so many heavy presses per week before getting banged up, you can handle TONS of volume from lateral raises and the like, without hindering your recovery. So you'll take full advantage of this by training these movements with a lot of frequency.

You can train different fly variations six days per week, without seeing any detrimental effects on your training. This adds up to A TON of extra shoulder volume/gains.

Here you have a lot more freedom to mix it up with different movements. Play with different grips and raise variations, find the ones that allow you to "feel" the side and rear delts work the best. While your overhead presses were all about pushing heavy weight, these are all about building the mind-muscle connection with the side and rear delts, and really feeling the muscle work.

From my experience with clients, you WON'T build great delts until you have a strong mind-muscle connection with them. Don't worry about the weight here - focus on building a strong mind-muscle connection first. Increase weight when you can, while maintaining quality form, and a strong mind muscle connection.

These movements are also better suited to the higher rep ranges, as trying to go too heavy typically causes you to compensate with other muscles. The side and rear detls are very small muscles, and aren't strong enough to handle super heavy weights on their own.

Great Side Delt Movements:

  • DB Lateral Raises
  • Cable Lateral Raises
  • DB Leaning Lateral Raises
  • DB Around-The-World Lateral Raises
  • Cable/DB/BB Upright Rows

Great Rear Delt Movements

  • DB Back Fly
  • Chest Supported Back Fly
  • DB Thumbs Up Raise
  • Band Pull-Apart
  • Band/Cable Face Pull
  • TRX Scarecrows

General Recommendations For Side & Rear Delts:

Goal - Add volume to shoulders, build the mind-muscle connection

Sets: 16-22 Per Week

Reps: 10-30 Per Set

Frequency: 2-6 Times Per Week

Tempo: Slow, and controlled. Generally, slow the negative to 3-5 seconds.

3. Putting It All Together

For a hypothetical online client who came to me with the goal of getting lean, strong, and building more well better shoulders, their training split would like start like this:

Upper/Lower split 4x/week (2 days upper, 2 days lower)

1 conditioning day per week

First, we'd simply see how there shoulders responded to a bit of extra emphasis just 2 days per week. So their upper body days would look something like...

Day 1 (Upper):

BB Bench Press 4x6

Pendlay Row 4x6

a.) DB Seated Shoulder Press 4x8-10

b.) Lat Pulldown 4x10-12

DB Leaning Lateral Raise 3x12-15/side

Chest-Supported Back Fly 3x12-15

a.) BB Drag Curl 3x10

b.) Cable Overhead Extension 3x12-15


Day 3 (Upper):

BB Overhead Press 4x6

Weighted Chin-Up 4x6-8

a.) DB Low Incline Bench 4x8-10

b.) DB Chest Supported Row 4x8-10

Cable Upright Row 3x15-20

Cable Facepull 3x15-20

a.) DB Hammer Curls 3x12-15

b.) Med Ball Push-Ups 3xAMRAP

If this is the clients first time training properly, they'll likely see great results just from this (plus getting their nutrition for muscle gain on point.)

From here, if/when shoulder gains stall, the order of operations would look like:

Add 1-2 sets to their current side and rear delt exercises OR add 1-2 more side/rear delt exercises to the end of each upper body training day.

If/when progress stalls again...

Add 1 side and 1 rear delt movement, 2-3 sets each, to the end each of the client's lower body training days. Gradually increase this to 3-4 total movements as needed.

From here the client is getting a TON of volume. I've never had to take anyone past this point to see the shoulder growth they've wanted, but if the client hypothetically needed more volume, we'd eventually ramp up to...

Add 1 side and 1 rear delt movement, 2-3 sets each, to the beginning of the clients conditioning day.

You get the idea.

And that's how you build amazing shoulders. Get strong at pressing 1-2x/week. Incorporate lots of frequency, chase the burn, and build the mind-muscle connection with your side and rear delt exercises.


Jeremiah Bair is the biggest Taylor Swift Fan in Lincoln, NE. He's also a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the Online Coaching Business Bairfit. His Instagram is noticeably missing any calf pictures.


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