The Ultimate Guide to Building Massive Shoulders

If you're trying to build massive shoulders but are focusing solely on lateral and front raises, you're selling yourself short. Get the scoop in this guide!

Big, round, capped deltoids and an awesome set of traps to boot are among the most coveted physique points for anyone in the strength training game.

True, many times both muscle groups will grow as a by product of good training, but if you want them to be “next level” you’ll have to zero in and isolate them.

The truth is, you’re at a handicap if you’re not part of the genepool lottery, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that.

We meager souls will have to work twice as hard to get the gains we can be proud of. As a guy who’s naturally a beanpole, these are the tips I used to help my own cause (in many cases, without even knowing it!).

Tip 1: Get on Your Back Training

If you don’t have a V-Taper and a thick upper back, you’re missing the first step of the entire game. Part of having broad and impressive shoulders is having enough width and generally occupying enough space to make them look imposing. Developing this takes rows of every kind, and of course, plenty of pull ups and chins.

Related: A Complete Road Map to Building a Thick Muscular Back

Fact is fact: Plenty of this stuff has to do with where the eye is drawn. If you have a good ratio between your shoulders and waist, you’ll be off to a good start. My 5 favorite mass building back exercises are:

You’ll see plenty of gains incorporating these movements into your program. Making a minimum of 10 reps per set your general goal (that’ll be tougher on pull ups) is a smart directive. In other words, chase volume more than the heaviest weight in the gym.

Tip 2: Start Olympic Lifting

The traps of most Olympic lifters speak for themselves, and we can do well to take a page out of their book. But don’t get what I’m saying wrong. This isn’t imploring you to order a bodysuit and compete when you probably hardly know how to define “triple extension”.

This is simply directing you to use simplified, safer versions of the Olympic lifts so you can receive the benefits from doing so. Especially if you’re new to movements like hang power cleans and hang power snatches, your body is sure to be shocked into new gains.

This isn’t about to be a full scale tutorial to Olympic lift; I’ve detailed that in other articles on this website. Just keep in mind that these are my two go-to Olympic lifts, and it’s worthwhile to learn them – if not for great shoulders and traps, then definitely because their athletic demands will get you in better shape.

Tip 3: The Heavy Strict Press

The seated dumbbell and barbell shoulder press are all fine and dandy, but there’s nothing out there that will challenge the shoulder capsule and all of its associated stabilizing muscles better than a strict standing barbell press. And most people avoid them because they’re much more difficult than the above.

Think about it: How many people at your local gym do you see regularly incorporating standing barbell overhead presses into their workouts? And of those people, how many can lift impressive numbers with good form? This is a lift where that strong and developed upper back will come in handy.

For the record, a strict press starts with the legs hip width apart, and involves a push from the collarbone to a full lockout. The weight makes it all the way back down to the collarbone and repeats the motion. The legs don’t assist the movement the way they would in a push press.

As a guide, make it a goal to hit ¾ of your body weight using proper form – that means legs together, no excessive back arch, no leg drive, and no cut range of motion. I pride myself on a strong and technically sound strict press, so use this video as a guide.

Tip 4: High Pulls over Upright Rows

To get the traps and shoulders working together, scratching upright rows in favor of high pulls will be the best thing you ever do. To add to this, you’ll be taking yourself out of injury territory since the traps will help take the shoulder out of impingement territory (due to the traps elevating the shoulder).

Lastly, these allow a lifter to use a heavier load than normal, which will trigger more involvement of the fast twitch fibers. Of course, you don’t want to go all CrossFit and use these for high reps. Chase volume by doing many sets of 3-5 reps, rather than a few sets of 10 – 12.

I like treating each rep as its own set by coming to a dead stop on pins or blocks between my reps. It keeps the lifts honest and disallows transfer of force that can throw off technique.

Tip 5: Don’t Forget Your Rear Deltoids

I saved the most important tip for shoulder development for last. The rear deltoids are routinely the most neglected, even within the demographic of guys who are looking for shoulder development and putting in the work necessary.

Related: Muscle & Strength's Entire Database of Shoulder Workouts

They’ll press, raise and row to oblivion, but forget about targeting their rear delts which makes their physique suffer tremendously. We have to remember, as far as rear deltoids go, they won’t only get hit from fly patterns, but also patterns that exploit a rotary component to the lift. With that in mind, these are my go-to’s:

Reverse Fly w/ Palms Forward

Check out this instructional video explaining the mechanics of the shoulder and rear deltoid, and why this minor change in the way you do bent over flys will be so effective.

2 Rope Face Pulls

You read this right. Set up 2 ropes to one attachment and pull them long. This will give you more lateral space and create a better environment for you to fully rotate your shoulder at the end of your face pulls – and you’ll feel it.

Because of the extra lateral movement you’ll be employing, it won’t take much weight to really feel the rears working hard.

Wrap Up

So much talk about shoulder and trap development, and not a front raise or shrug in sight. Believe me, there are a number of movements I’ve left off of this article due to space constraints and priority, but neither of those were on that list.

Augmenting your bodybuilding program with the lifts outlined in this article will be a sure fire way to see gains that last the test of time. There’s a reason why most guys at your gym who do shrugs with dumbbells they can hardly even carry, have less than impressive physiques to show for it.

Don’t be like them – train smart instead.