Best shoulder exercises for mass: Top picks for size and strength

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If you're looking for the best shoulder exercises for mass, you've come to the right place. We've compiled a list of what we consider to be some of the essentials for a challenging upper body session.

Not only does shoulder training improve strength, but it's also important for other exercises too like, for example, bench press, especially if you target your anterior deltoids.

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However, training is just one piece of the puzzle. You'll also need to team your workouts with the right fuel in order to reach your maximum potential. Consuming some of the best foods for protein should be a good place to start as protein is essential to build, maintain, and grow muscle.

Not only that, but minimising stress and getting enough sleep are vital to performing at your best. One study by Brotherton et al. found sleep deprivation significantly decreased participants' one rep max. during bench press, leg press, and reduced grip.

With that in mind, make sure you check some of our supplement guides, such as the best EAAs, and sleep supplements, for instance, if you're looking to optimise your diet and rest to potentially enhance your training.

Without further delay, here are our favourite shoulder exercises for mass...

Barbell overhead press

The barbell overhead press is one of the best exercises for building mass in your shoulders because it targets all three heads of your deltoids.

Not only that, but this particular variation allows you to load up your barbell with plates to help you improve your strength whilst also adding size.

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If you're looking for a way to perform this exercise safely at home, then check out our list of the best power cages right here to support your barbell.

Benefits of the barbell overhead press

  • The anterior, lateral, and posterior heads of your delts are all hit in one movement.
  • Can load up the weight to improve strength, more so than dumbells.
  • A strong overhead press can greatly improve your bench as well with the combination of triceps, deltoids, and chest being used in both movements to some degree.
  • When performed standing, it can also help improve core strength as you'll need to engage your abs to help stabilise your body.

How to perform the barbell overhead press

As demonstrated by ScottHermanFitness, the key to getting the form right with the overhead press is to keep your shoulders, back, and core tight. Check out some of the top weightlifting belts to help you achieve this.

Your hands then need to be placed in a vertical position just over shoulders width apart in front of you. It's important to make sure your wrists remain in front of your elbows in order to avoid injury.

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Then, when you're ready, press straight up until lockout before slowly lowering the bar to the starting position ready for the next rep.

Arnold press

Named after the bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Arnold press offers a slight variation to the overhead press which, if done correctly, increases time under tension whilst still hitting the three deltoid heads.

The key difference is this press adds an additional rotation to the movement, bringing your arms out in front of you on the return rather than to your sides.

For a quick and easy way of altering the weight whilst performing this exercise, check out our list of the best adjustable dumbbells right here.

Benefits of the Arnold press

  • Due to the rotation, the Arnold press calls upon the anterior delts to, arguably, a greater degree as your elbows drop in front of your body.
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  • The move is longer to perform than a standard press, thus increasing time under tension which, in turn, can improve your muscle fibres endurance.

How to perform the Arnold press

To start the Arnold Press, take a seat on a bench (check out our list of the best benches to start your search) and bring a set of dumbbells up to the normal press position.

Then, rotate your hands until your palms are facing towards you.

At this point, press up and rotate in unison until you end up in a similar locked-out position to the standard overhead press, pause at the top, and then slowly bring the dumbbells back down whilst rotating until your palms are facing towards you once more.

If you're still unsure, then check out this expert demonstration by Colossus Fitness.

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Leaning cable lateral raise

While the dumbbell lateral raise is a popular choice for many, we believe performing the movement with cables can be slightly more beneficial as it increases the tension in both the eccentric and concentric phases.

The leaning element increases the range of motion and the time under tension, which, in turn, will help you add mass to your shoulders.

Benefits of the leaning cable lateral raise

  • The cable helps to provide tension at both the top end and the bottom of the rep, especially whilst leaning.
  • The additional lean also helps to extend the range of motion, thus increasing the time under tension.
  • As you're holding onto something, you should be more stable which can help you concentrate on contracting your shoulders throughout the entirety of the lift.

How to perform the leaning cable lateral raise

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To begin, start by grabbing hold of your cable machine or your best multi-gym then move your feet towards the hand not holding the cable.

Then, with your elbow slightly bent, grab and raise the cable out away from your side until your arm is parallel with the ground.

Slowly lower the cable back down until your arm is vertical, as shown in this video from Ryan Treadaway, as this will help keep the tension on your lateral delt throughout the set.

Wide-grip cable row

You're probably wondering how a cable row can help build muscle in your shoulders rather than your back.

Well, the trick is to take a wide-grip approach which, if performed right, will hit your posterior delts as well as your upper back.

Benefits of the wide-grip cable row

  • While the anterior and lateral delts are easy to hit, the posterior delts are harder to target, but the wide-grip cable row can help equal out any imbalances.
  • You also benefit reap benefits in your upper back at the same time as working your shoulders.

How to perform the wide-grip cable row

As showcased by Jeff Cavaliere of ATHLEAN-X, to perform the wide-grip cable row, grab hold of a long bar and bring it towards your chest with your elbows up high and away from your sides.

The key is to try and get the top of your arms as far back as possible before controlling the bar back to the starting position so you're ready for the next rep.

Dumbbell front raise

The dumbbell front raise offers a great way of targetting your front delts, whilst also being a great exercise to perform as part of a lateral raise superset.

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It is also one which you can easily perform at home. All you need is a set of dumbbells and you're good to go.

As a beginner, you can even use a set of resistance bands for front raises if you find dumbbells too heavy to start with.

Benefits of the dumbbell front raise

  • Can help increase the size of your anterior delts.
  • You focus on your anterior delts with this exercise, so the front raise should help improve your overhead press performance and stabilisation as well.

How to perform the dumbbell front raise

The key to this movement is to stand straight, look straight ahead, and bring the dumbbell up as if you're trying to touch the wall in front of you.

The benefit of trying to reach the wall is that it should help you engage your front delts during this exercise.

You can slowly bring the dumbbell back down to start the movement again when the dumbbell is roughly in line with your chin.

You can either do this alternating or using both arms at the same time, but we'd recommend alternating to fully focus on engaging your muscles.

Check out the above tutorial from ScottHermanFitness if you're still unsure.

Frequently asked questions about shoulder exercises

Figuring out the right exercises to build mass can be tricky at times. Don't worry though, we've answered some of the most commonly asked questions right here.

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Should you train shoulders every day?

While it may be okay to work out your shoulders every day if you're only performing a small number of sets, we'd recommend incorporating some rest and upping the number of shoulder exercises on specific days.

More specifically, we'd recommend training your side and rear delts 8-12 sets per week, and front delts around 6-8 sets per week over a two or three-day time frame.

Ultimately, giving your shoulders enough rest should give them time to recover and rebuild which, in turn, can actually help you build muscle and size.

It should also lower your risk of injury as your shoulders won't be so fatigued, and can help improve your overall performance.

How many reps do you need to build muscle?

As mentioned in our list of the best back and bicep exercises, the key to building muscle is to maximise the time under tension.

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For muscle growth, this can be anywhere between 40-120 seconds, which should equal around 8-12 reps per set.

If you can only complete 6-7 reps though, don't worry. Simply drop the weight slightly until you can complete 8-12 without form dropping.

Should you warm up your shoulders before exercising?

Like with all exercise, it's important to warm up first to ensure your body is ready to work. In fact, one review by Neves et al. concluded that strength improved when a higher load is used during warm-up, with few repetitions.

That said, your shoulders are particularly important to warm up as they're a relatively sensitive area that you can easily injure if not adequately prepared prior to lifting.

The key to warming up is low-intensity movements focusing on rotating, abducting, and raising your shoulders.

We'd recommend warming up your rotator cuffs, in particular, as they are one of the most common areas to injure and tear.

What shoulder exercises should you do first?

There's no real right or wrong answer to this as how you train shoulders will depend on your personal preference.

That said, if you're looking to get the most out of your strength during compound shoulder movements, then we'd recommend adding some going for some sort of vertical shoulder press variation near the beginning of your routine.

You can then go ahead and add various accessory exercises after for a more complete shoulder workout.

Are shrugs a good shoulder exercise?

Shrugs definitely have their place and should definitely be considered for upper body sessions as they're one of the most effective lifts you can do to train your trapezius muscles, or as they're more commonly known your traps.

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That said, we wouldn't say they're essential as they only really target a relatively small muscle group. In fact, there are other lifts you can perform which will benefit your traps as well as help you build muscle elsewhere as well.

For instance, snatch-grip deadlifts and farmer's walks put tension on your traps whilst primarily working your lower body and back at the same time. Therefore, we'd argue that potentially adding these two exercises into your routine may be more beneficial and efficient than opting for shrugs.

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