Ahh the shoulder pump, one of life’s little joys. There are few things in life more satisfying than the floating sensation you get after a great shoulder workout. What’s more, unlike that killer leg workout, you don’t have to walk on your shoulders later – they just float on top of your body and you know you’ve built some mass.
Huge shoulders are the holy grail for most bodybuilders, usually because it takes a bit of experience before they realise they’ve been doing it all wrong. Achieving barndoor shoulders isn’t rocket science, so let’s dispel the myths and lay out the best way to achieve them.
1. Use correct form
You don’t have to grunt like a pig to achieve big shoulders. You’ll have to lift heavy, but if you’re using correct form you won’t be breaking any records with your weights. When you use the right form you target the muscle more effectively and reduce your chance of injury. Think for a moment how much a shoulder injury would limit your training. It’s worth doing it correctly, isn’t it?
The shoulder group consists of three muscle bellies, none of which are especially big. Make sure you give them enough recovery time to grow. Most people overtrain their shoulders rather than undertrain them.
It’s hard to avoid using your shoulders when working out your chest or back, but there are ways of minimising the load on them. An extra-wide grip on the bench press uses more shoulders and less chest, so keep a moderate grip for chest workouts. When doing cable rows, loosen your grip and really focus on pulling with the lats.
3. Train your rear delts
Most weight trainers start off by working on their mirror muscles, chest, biceps, and front deltoids. All of this front work predisposes them to injury and sets them up for an unbalanced physique. Great shoulders are well-rounded at the front, side, and back.
Many bodybuilders will say that it takes years to develop good rear delts, but they start to grow when you start training them. If you start training your rear delts early in your weight training career, you’ll have boulder shoulders in half the time of most other lifters.
You build muscles when you lift and not when you swing. Most of the hard work in the shoulder press is at the bottom of the movement. Once you get past a certain angle, the delt load is eased by the external rotation of the scapula (shoulder blade) and the extension of the triceps. Maximise each rep by focusing on working through the bottom of the movement where you’re actually working the shoulder muscles. The same goes for lat raises. Once you start shrugging your shoulders or the dumbbells start swinging, you’re taking the load off the muscles you want to work. Drop your weights and feel the burn of effective form!
5. Show your shoulders love
If shoulders are a priority for you then let them know you care by prioritising them in your training. Most people who struggle to put on muscle benefit from training less and eating more. Rather than sticking your shoulders onto the end of a workout, start off with the shoulders (ideally on a leg day), or give them a whole day to themselves.
6. Make them pop
People who put on muscle easily but are unhappy with their shoulders will usually have more fat on them than they realise. Keep training for mass because you will lose some size as you cut up, but one of the highlights of cutting up is seeing your shoulders start to pop. Those delts and striations are under there, so keep dieting and they will come out.
7. Take it easy
The fundamental principle behind growing muscle is to work, rest, and replenish. Choose weights that will work your shoulders without compromising effective form. Take care not to overtrain, especially when working with other body parts, and stick to your post workout nutrition like protein powderto help you recover.
A shoulder workout to try
- Shoulder press – Start with a press. Barbell, dumbbell, or smith machine, it doesn’t matter which you choose and you should change it up every now and then. Variety is good for growth. Do:
- 15 reps at a warm-up weight
- 12 reps at a weight where 12 is the max you can do
- 2 to 3 sets at a heavier weight for 8 to 10 reps. Bump up the weight when you think you have an 11th rep in you.
- Side lat raises – Your shoulders are already warm from the shoulder press so your warm-up weight should be close to a working weight. Do:
- 1 x 10-12
- 2 x 6-10 in good form. Have a lighter set of dumbbells on hand to drop the weight if you need, or do that second working set as a drop set.
- Rear delt raises – This movement is much smaller than you think would be effective, but does work to round out those posterior delts. Do this by sitting on a bench and leaning forward as you pull the dumbbells up behind you. It should feel like you’re a world champion butterfly swimmer bringing your elbows high out of the water.
- Backstage shoulder pump – Anytime you feel like you have still have something left at the end of a shoulder workout, you can stick this killer pump onto the end of your lat raises. Do a full set of lat raises and then keep dropping the weight until you think you can’t do any more. Pick up a set of dumbbells and just do that last 30 degrees of the movement until failure.