Many of the best shoulder exercises for mass are what we consider to be "essentials" when it comes to upper body training. Some of them are seen as core lifts, as they hit multiple muscle groups at once, while others are often referred to as auxiliary movements as they target smaller areas in isolation.
When putting together a shoulder-focused routine, we'd advise going for a combination of core and auxiliary movements in order to increase strength and, most importantly in this instance, add mass.
That said, 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, powerlifting, and/or bulking should be a good place to start as protein is essential to building, maintaining, and growing muscle. But that's not all...
It's important to minimise stress and to get enough sleep too, as these are both vital to performing at your best. For example, one study by Brotherton et al. found sleep deprivation significantly decreased participants' one rep max. during bench press and leg press, plus reduced grip.
With all this in mind, make sure you check some of our supplement guides, such as the best protein powder, creatine, and sleep supplements, if you're looking to optimise your diet and rest to potentially enhance your training. With that covered, let's get into our list of the best shoulder exercises for mass...
Barbell overhead press
The barbell overhead press is a highly effective exercise for developing shoulder mass as it engages all three deltoid heads. Not only that, but this particular variation also enables you to increase both strength and size as you can load up the plates, providing you have the right home gym equipment, to lift heavy.
To perform this exercise safely at home, we recommend investing in a power cage. To help you make an informed decision, you can refer to our list of the best power cages available.
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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.
- Developing a strong overhead press can enhance your bench press by engaging and strengthening various muscle groups, including the triceps, deltoids, and chest, which are involved to some extent in both exercises.
- When performed standing, it can also help improve core strength as you'll need to engage your abs to stabilise your spine and prevent excessive arching or bending.
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. Then, when you're ready, press straight up until lockout before slowly lowering the bar to the starting position ready for the next rep.
The Arnold press, named after the renowned bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a variation of the overhead press that effectively targets all three deltoid heads while also increasing time under tension when executed correctly. This exercise involves an extra rotation in the movement, which brings your arms forward during the return rather than out to the sides.
If you're looking for a simple way to adjust the weight while performing this exercise, you can find a list of the top adjustable dumbbells by checking out our recommendations.
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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.
- The movement typically takes longer to execute compared to a standard press, resulting in increased time under tension. This extended duration can enhance the endurance of your muscle fibres.
- Adding the rotation of the wrists throughout the movement can increase the range of motion in the shoulder joint.
How to perform the Arnold press
Begin the Arnold Press by sitting on a weight bench (refer to our list of the best weight benches) then bring a pair of dumbbells to the regular press position. Then, turn your hands until your palms are facing towards you.
Next, lift the dumbbells up while rotating your hands simultaneously until you reach a similar locked-out position to the traditional overhead press. Pause briefly at the top and then lower the dumbbells slowly while rotating your hands until your palms face towards you again to complete the rep. If you need further guidance, you can refer to this demonstration by Colossus Fitness.
Leaning cable lateral raise
Although the dumbbell lateral raise is a widely favoured exercise, we believe performing the movement with cables is better as it increases the tension during both the eccentric and concentric phases.
By incorporating a leaning motion, the exercise increases the range of motion and extends the duration of the contraction as well, ultimately contributing to greater shoulder muscle growth.
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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
To begin, start by grabbing hold of your cable machine, 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 secret lies in adopting the wide grip that, when executed correctly, engages not only your upper back but also targets your posterior deltoids.
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Benefits of the wide-grip cable row
- The anterior and lateral deltoids are relatively easy to engage, but targeting the posterior delts can be more challenging. However, incorporating the wide-grip cable row into your routine can be beneficial in addressing any imbalances between these muscle groups.
- You also reap benefits in your upper back at the same time as working your shoulders.
- Compared to a barbell row, for example, the wide-grip cable row places less stress on the lower back.
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 is an excellent exercise for targeting your front delts and can be combined effectively with lateral raises as part of a superset.
Moreover, this exercise can be easily performed at home with just a set of dumbbells. For beginners, using resistance bands for front raises is also a viable option if dumbbells feel too heavy initially.
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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 (FAQs)
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.
Should you train your shoulders every day?
No, you should not train your shoulders every day. Like all other muscle groups, the shoulders require rest and recovery time to repair and grow stronger. Overtraining the shoulders can lead to fatigue, injury, and decreased performance.
It's recommended to train shoulders one to two times a week, depending on your fitness goals and current level of fitness. If you're a beginner, one shoulder workout per week is usually sufficient, while more advanced athletes may benefit from two workouts per week to build mass.
Ultimately, though, it's crucial to listen to your body and take rest days as needed. If you experience any pain or discomfort during your shoulder workouts, it's best to take a break and seek advice from a qualified trainer or healthcare professional.
How many reps do you need to build muscle?
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.
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.