8 Tricks for Bigger, Healthier Shoulders

No matter how small your waist is, without a mighty pair of well-sculpted, cannonball delts, it just won’t look great. Your shoulders are more than mere mirror muscles – they play a critical role in most upper-body exercises and work hard to stabilize your chest during push-ups and bench presses. Yet if you take a look around in most commercial gyms, you can see that most shoulders are weak or slopped forward. It’s a rather sad picture, but it’s not primarily caused by a lack of effort.

Most guys understand the importance of strong, healthy shoulders – it’s just that their shoulder training routines are incomplete or unbalanced. All athletes need to regularly train their shoulders with the right moves to improve their health, strength and size. Powerful shoulders will increase your performance on all lifts and ensure that your physique looks as impressive as it possibly can, so check out these 10 tips to learn how to get them!

#1. Keep Them Healthy

This is obviously a no-brainer, but it gets neglected way too often. If your shoulders are injured but you keep on training like you normally would, your performance will suffer and their health will deteriorate even further. Every exercise can be unbearably hard to do when the shoulders aren’t in top health.

Structural imbalance is the most common reason for shoulder injuries and that dreaded hunched look, and it usually means that the front part of the shoulders is overdeveloped while the rear muscles are too weak. Weak rotator cuff muscles is also a frequent problem for lifters.

For example, healthy shoulders are designed to do a press behind the back without any problems. If you can’t do this, you have some issues. Wall slides are another good test for shoulder health. Stand with your back against the wall and bring your arms at shoulder height while bending the elbows about 90 degrees. Move your arms up and down – can you feel your shoulder blades moving downward?

If you notice that your arms are coming forward, that’s a clear sign that your shoulder complex is too stiff. If you want to have healthy shoulders and continue making mass gains, you need to take care of this before returning to your regular routine. Never neglect shoulder pain.

#2. Improve Flexibility & Mobility

The shoulders figure into every upper body exercise – bench presses, overhead presses, dips, push-ups and any other move that involves your arms depend on healthy shoulders and good scapular function. Scapular stability is the foundation for strong, flexible, healthy shoulders and without a strong scapula you can’t expect neither good performance nor injury-free training sessions.

Flexible shoulders will increase your strength and decrease the amount of stress on your bones, ligaments and joints, so you really need to work on this issue. Stretching exercises can help you keep your muscles moving freely and your joints moving through a full range of motion. Begin with towel stretches: grab a towel with both hands and try to bring it over your head behind your body, while keeping the arms extended. Do 3 sets of 20 every day.

#3. Check Your Elbows

You should always make sure to have your elbows directly under the bar so that you can place more tension on the delts right from the start. Always keep them in a neutral position and prevent them from bending or drifting forward. Also, when performing lateral raises, focus on moving the elbows before the wrists.

To do lateral raises correctly, you need to create a very slight bend in the elbows and then maintain it throughout the set. If you start opening and closing at the elbows, you will undermine the delt stimulation you’re trying to achieve. That being said, another common mistake is to wave the weights up and down without raising your elbows out to their sides, which basically cancels most of the delt-developing benefits of the movement. Instead of doing that, always “lead with your elbows” so they can go through their full range of motion.

#4. Train the Cuff

The rotator cuff is a muscle group that deserves special attention because it’s crucial for any athlete in any sport. Namely, these muscles – the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor – work together to provide muscular stability of the shoulder joint and training them properly will assist in preventing potentially debilitating shoulder injuries.

Unfortunately, most lifters only realize that they exist after they injure them. But it doesn’t have to be like that for you! Here’s how to check on your rotator cuff muscles: lay sideways on a bench and rotate a dumbbell upward against your hip. You should be able to move about 8-10% of your incline bench weight. If you’re weaker than that, it’s time to work on strengthening your rotator cuff by performing inwards and outwards rotations at least once per week.

#5. Don’t Do Front Raises

If your routine already includes a generous amount of pressing and pulling movements, there’s practically no need to overload your anterior delt even further with front raises, as these movements already provide all the stimulation you need.

Furthermore, all delt heads don’t work equally, and the one that typically carries the heaviest load is the anterior delt, which is a primary mover during overhead presses and also assists on all chest and triceps workouts. So if you’re doing front raises in addition to many shoulder, chest and triceps compound lifts, you are overworking your front delts and thereby increasing their susceptibility to injury.

#6. Make Your Rear Delts Roar

Imbalance between the three deltoid heads can lead to painful rotator cuff issues down the road, not to mention that having big front caps and weak rear delts will screw up your posture and make you look like a caveman.

Overhead shoulder presses don’t provide enough stimulation for the rear delts, but these are highly engaged in compound back exercises that involve bringing your elbows back behind the plane of your body. A good way to prevent structural imbalance and avoid overdeveloping your anterior delts is by beginning every shoulder workout with rear delt exercises such as rear delt flyes, uncrossovers and j-pulls. This way you can create better symmetry, achieve that 3D look you want and ensure optimal shoulder health.

#7. Clean and Press

This forgotten gym classic is an amazing tool to accelerate strength and size development in the entire upper body, increase stability and reap bigger gains from your training sessions. And if your shoulders are lagging, doing a couple of sets at the beginning of every shoulder workout can significantly improve the effectiveness of the rest of your hypertrophy work. The clean and press utilizes everything from your core muscles to your delts, traps, biceps and serratus, and you will find out what’s your weakest area as soon as you try it.

Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart so that you have a stable and powerful base, and keep your legs straight but not locked all through the movement. Your grip should be overhand and placed just a bit wider than shoulder width. You don’t have to go too heavy, especially if you’re new to this exercise, so use about 60% of the weight you would be using for overhead presses. Focus on sets of 5-8 reps, unless you’re already very strong and advanced in your training.

#8. Superman Presses

This exercise primarily targets the shoulders, core and glutes, while also incorporating a variety of synergists and stabilizer muscles. It can be performed anywhere and is ideal for preventing postural problems and protecting the health of your shoulders and spine, but it’s also very useful for developing roundness in the delts.

Set an incline bench at 45 degrees and lay with your chest on the bench. Grab a pair of relatively light dumbbells and press perpendicular by extending one arm at the same time as you extend the opposite leg. Make sure to keep your hips straight and your lower back flat. Keep the movement smooth and slow. Switch and repeat.

Finally, keep in mind that your shoulders can handle a lot of work, so don’t be afraid to hit them twice a week.