Bodybuilding Training Principles For Creating Shoulder Routines

Get Bigger & Wider Shoulders With These Bodybuilding Shoulder Training Routines

Hugo Rivera's Shoulders and Triceps.
Hugo Rivera's Shoulders and Triceps.

The shoulders are a muscle group that consist of the deltoids and the trapezius muscles.

The deltoids function is to move the arm in all directions. It is a complex muscle, and as a result has three main heads:

  1. The anterior deltoid, which is the front head that raises the arm to the front.

  2. The lateral deltoid, which is the side head whose function is to lift the arm to the sides.

  3. The posterior deltoid, which is the rear head, that enables you to raise the arm to the rear.

    No physique is complete without a nice set of properly developed shoulders. Great bodybuilders that come to mind with unbelievable shoulder development are Larry Scott, Dave Draper, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. More recent champions with awesome shoulders are Kevin Levrone, Flex Wheeler, Lee Labrada, Darrem Charles, and David Henry. By the way, if you are a figure girl, then shoulders are of utmost importance as well since that is one of the muscle groups that the judges look at the most. And if you are not looking to ever compete, well built shoulders will just make you look good.

    How To Achieve Powerful Looking Shoulders

    To have a powerful looking shoulders, the size of all three heads needs to be maximized in order to attain a wide and three dimensional thick look. In addition, training all three heads prevents shoulder injuries due to strength imbalances.

    The trapezius muscles are also part of the back muscle complex as they start at the base of the neck and go all the way to the middle of the back.
    Their function is to lift the shoulders up. One needs to be careful in not overdeveloping the trapezius (traps) as overdeveloped ones give the optical illusion of having a narrow physique.

    Good Shoulder Exercises

    Like any other list of bodybuilding exercises, shoulder exercises are divided in compound, multi-jointed movements and isolation movements.
    The compound movements will activate more than one head of the muscle and often involve the trapezius as well. As I mention in my article Choosing The Right Exercises for Maximum Results, compund movements with dumbbells will give you the most stimulation followed by compound movements with barbells. Isolation movements with dumbbells then come in 3rd place followed by those performed with a machine.

    Compound Basic Shoulder Exercises

    1. Front and lateral head emphasis

      These exercises emphasize the front and lateral heads of the deltoids with secondary stimulation on the rear head and trapezius.

      • Dumbbell Shoulder Presses

      • Barbell Shoulder Presses To Front

      • Barbell Shoulder Presses To Rear (not an exercise I like to use as it hyperextends the rotator cuff and puts you at risk for injury).

      • Smith Machine Presses (which gives you less stimulation than the exercises presented above, but can be useful at times when you want to introduce variety in the program).

    2. Side, rear delt and traps emphasis

      These exercises emphasize the side, rear delts and trapezius muscles with secondary emphasis on the front delts.

      • Dumbbell Upright Rows

      • Barbell Upright Rows (medium shoulder width grip or wider grip for more side head stimulation)

      • Cable Upright Rows (provides a different feel from the dumbbell and barbell versions due to the tension that the cables provide).

    1. Rear head and traps emphasis

      These exercises emphasize the rear delts and traps with secondary emphasis on the front and side delts. The trick to make them work on the rear delts is keeping your upper arm away from your torso. As you go up, the elbow should bend and the forearms should always face down to the floor. The final position of the movements below places your upper arm parallel to the floor and perpendicular to the torso (there should be a 90 degree angle between the upper arm and your torso). The forearms should be perpendicular to the floor as well as they should always be facing down.

      • Rear Delt Dumbbell Row

      • Rear Delt Bent Over Row

      • Rear Delt Rows on T-Bar Row Machine

      • Cable Rear Delt Low Pulley Rows With A Rope (here you use a rope on the low pulley machine and bring it towards your neck as the elbows and arms are kept to the side parallel to the floor).
      Isolation Exercises

      For the shoulders, isolation exercises will be of extreme importance in order to dial in each specific head. The following are my favorite isolation exercises.

      1. Front head emphasis

        For the front head, any variation of front raises is a good one.

        • Front Raises With Dumbbells

        • Barbell Front Raises

        • Front Raises With A Weight Plate

        • Cable Front Raises (one arm at a time or at the same time).

      2. Side and traps emphasis

        Lateral Raises are the king of isolation exercises to target the side head.

        • Dumbbell Lateral Raises

        • Incline One Arm Dumbbell Laterals.

        • Lying Dumbbell Laterals (performed lying side ways on an incline bench).

        • Cable One Arm Laterals.

      3. Rear head

        The rear head gets targeted well with bent over lateral movements. However, this is one muscle group that benefits a lot from the direct stimulus that a rear delt machine provides.

        • Bent Over Lateral Raises

        • Bent Over Lateral Raises Facing Down On An Incline Bench

        • One Arm Bent Over Lateral Raises With Low Cables

        • Rear Delt Machine

      4. Trapezius Muscles

        The best isolation exercise for the trapezius muscle is the shoulder shrug. There are many variations of this valuable exercise.

        • Dumbbell Shoulder Shrug

        • Barbell Shoulder Shrug To Front

        • Barbell Shoulder Shrug To Back

        • Cable Shoulder Shrug (to front or back)

        • Smith Machine Shoulder Shrug (to front or back)

        • Machine Shoulder Shrug (some machines are designed to mimic the dumbbell shrug movement)

      Now that we have presented several exercises for the shoulders, lets take a look at some effective bodybuilding shoulder routines.

      Beginning Bodybuilding Shoulder Routine

      For those who are just starting out in bodybuilding, I always recommend a full body routine practiced 3 times a week that uses mostly basic exercises to target each muscle group. As a result, a shoulder routine for the beginning bodybuilder may consist of just a couple of exercises that cover all of the shoulder muscles.

      • Barbell Upright Rows 2 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Bent Over Lateral Raises 2 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      How to Progress:
      After 4 weeks of performing 2 sets of each exercise for 10-12 reps, move up to 3 sets per exercise. Keep the rest to 1 minute in between sets.

      Where are the shoulder presses?, you may ask. Since a full body routine will consist of several presing movements, I don't see the need of including a shoulder press at this time. One is better served instead by using a barbell upright row which emphasizes the side head and the traps with secondary emphasis on the other heads and combining it with a bent over lateral for direct emphasis on the rear delts, which most beginning bodybuilders tend to overlook.

      Intermediate Bodybuilding Shoulder Routine

      After 12 weeks in the beginning bodybuilding schedule, it is time to graduate to an intermediate routine in order to keep progresing. In this routine, the body is split in two separate days; chest, back and arms on day 1, and shoulders, legs and abs on day 2.

      • Military Press 2 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Barbell Upright Rows 2 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Bent Over Lateral Raises On Incline Bench 2 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      How to Progress:
      After 4 weeks of performing 2 sets of each exercise for 10-12 reps, move up to 3 sets per exercise. Keep the rest to 1 minute in between sets.

      Advanced Bodybuilding Shoulder Routine

      After 12-16 weeks on an Intermediate Program, it is time to graduate into more Advanced Bodybuilding Routines. This does not necessarily mean more time in the gym, though for those few of you whose ultimate goal is bodybuilding competition, then more time in the gym will be the case.

      The main difference between Advanced Training and Intermediate Training is that in Advanced Training, you'll need to change your program every 3 weeks to keep the gains coming. Therefore, the use of periodization is key, which is the orderly manipulation of sets, repetitions and rest in between sets. If competition is your goal, then you may need to increase your weight training days to 6 in order to accomodate a larger number of exercises.

      There are many splits that one can use as an advanced athlete:

      1. Bodybuilding Antagonistic Muscles Workout Split: In this bodybuilding workout split, the body is divided over three or four days and antagonistic muscles (opposing muscle groups), are paired together in each bodybuilding workout.

      2. One Major Muscle With Two Smaller Muscle Groups Bodybuilding Workout Split: In this bodybuilding workout split, the body is divided over three days and one major muscle group (such as the chest, thighs and back) is paired together with two smaller muscle groups (such as biceps, triceps, hamstrings, calves, abs and shoulders) in each bodybuilding workout.
      1. One Major Muscle Group Per Day Advanced Bodybuilding Workout Split: In this bodybuilding workout split, the body is divided over six days and one major muscle group is targeted in each bodybuilding workout.

      Now that you have an idea of the training splits that can be used at this level, the next step here are some sample periodized advanced bodybuilding workout routines for the shoulders:

      Shoulder Workout #1 (Weeks 1-3)

      • Dumbbell Shoulder Press 4 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Incline Lateral Raises 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Wide Grip Upright Rows 4 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Rear Delt Machine 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Dumbbell Shrugs 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      Shoulder Workout #2 (Weeks 4-6)

      Modified Giant-set
      • Military Press 3 sets of 10, 8, 6 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Medium Grip Upright Rows 3 sets of 10, 8, 6 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Rear Delt Rows on T-Bar 3 sets of 10, 8, 6 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      • Barbell Shrugs to Front 3 sets of 15, 13, 10 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      Note: In a modified giant-set you get to perform an exercise, rest for the prescribed period of time, go to the next one rest, and continue to the next one up until all exercises have been performed for the required amount of sets. In the case above, the weight needs to be increased on each subsequent set.

      Next Page: Competitive Bodybuilding Shoulder Routine. Competitive Bodybuilding Shoulder Routine

      For competitive bodybuilding, the goal is to stimulate the muscle from multiple angles in order to ensure full development. At this stage of the game, not only will you be using compound basic movements to keep stimulating growth but also a variety of isolation movements to really target the muscle in specific areas.

      The shoulder routine below is an example of how a competitive bodybuilding shoulder routine may look like. At this stage of the game, the bodybuilder should know what their weak points are and thus change exercise order and choice accordingly. For instance, if rear delts are a weak point, then it would be best to start the routine with rear delt exercises and include several isolated movements that target the area (see the sample routine below). Also, the use of set extension techniques, such as drop sets and supersets is encouraged.

      Superset 1:
      Rear Delt Raise Machine 3 sets of 13-15 repetitions (Rest: none)
      Dumbbell Rear Delt Rows 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      Superset 2:
      Lateral Raises 3 sets of 13-15 reps (Rest: none)
      Dumbbell Upright Rows 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute

      Superset 3:
      Bent Over Laterals 3 sets of 15-20 reps (Rest: none)
      Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 sets of 10-12 reps (Rest: none)
      One Arm Cable Laterals 3 sets of 15-20 reps (Rest: 1 minute)

      Superset 4:
      Front Raises 3 sets of 13-15 reps (Rest: none)
      Dumbbell Shrugs 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions (Rest: 1 minute)

      The best training split to use for a routine like this is the One Major Muscle Group Per Day Advanced Bodybuilding Workout Split.

      More Advanced Shoulder Workout Routines From Other Figure Athletes and Bodybuilders

      In the following pages, there are more advanced routines from a couple of people who I feel have great deltoid development. One is Samuel Santos, NPC competitor and fitness expert who recently qualified for the NPC Nationals. The other one is beautiful IFBB Figure Pro Mercedes Khani who is getting ready for her first pro competition. I asked them both to please give me their favorite shoulder routines so that you could benefit from them.

      Next Page: Samuel Santos' Advanced Bodybuilding Shoulder Routine. Samuel Santos's Advanced Bodybuilding Shoulder Workout Routine

      Exercise #1: Lateral Raises 4 sets of 25/20/18/15 reps.

      Samuel says: "I usually start warming up with Lateral Raises as I like to emphasize the side delts. Because I have shoulder problems that have developed from years of heavy bench presses, I start my first set with 25 repetitions and then increase the weight every set thereafter. So I end up doing four sets of 25, then 20, then 18, and finally 15 reps.

      Exercise #2: Seated Dumbbell Press 4 sets of 15/15/12/10 reps.

      My second exercise would be Seated Dumbbell Press as now my shoulders are properly warmed up to hit this exercise. Again, when it comes to shoulders my mission is to stimulate without causing further damage so I start with 15 repetitions and work my way up.

      Exercise #3: Medium Grip Upright Rows 3 sets 12 reps.

      For my third exercise, I like to choose medium grip upright rows as I get to target the side and front delts, as well as the traps. I choose a weight that I can use for perfect form and do 12 reps. Upright rows is the sort of exercise that if you do with bad form, can cause rotator cuff damage.

      Exercise #4: Bent Over Lateral Raises 3 sets 20 reps.

      After the front and side heads have been properly stimulated, I move on to bent over laterals. I leave this exercise for next to last as I have pretty good rear delt development already. When this was not the case, I used to do it earlier on the routine.

      Exercise #5: Barbell Military Presses 3 sets 40 reps.

      Once the rear delts have been stimulated, I move on to light barbell military presses for 40 reps. After 15 years of training, the body benefits greatly from high repetition sets as well since these not only hit slow twitch muscle fibers which can also grow but also enhance capillarization that results in more nutrients being delivered to the muscle.

      Exercise #6: One Arm Incline Lateral Raises 3 sets 15 reps.

      This last one I may perform with dumbbells or cables, holding on to a sturdy object and keeping myself at an incline (around 70 degrees in relation to the floor). Since I want to really emphasize the side delts, I like to start and finish my routine with a side delt movement.

      Samuel's Tips For Shoulder Training

      • Remember, a good way to work Lateral or Bent Over Laterals are by using the cables. So you can do one week dumbbells and the next one cables.

      • If you wonder how come I don’t work my front delts with front raises, this is because whenever you do any type of pressing movement you are exercising them, so I don’t tend to do train them with isolation exercises such as the front delts.

      • The reason why I work so much my middle delts is because that muscle specifically gives the round looking delts and also makes me look wider."

      Next Page: Mercedes Khani's Advanced Bodybuilding Shoulder Routine. Mercedes Khani Advanced Bodybuilding Shoulder Workout Routine

      Suggested Shoulder Workout Routine Exercises

      • Dumbbell or barbell military press (about 15 reps)

      • Front lateral raises (about 15-20 reps)

      • Side lateral raises (about 15-20 reps)

      • Narrow or regular grip machine shoulder press (about 15 reps)

      • Seated bent over rear delt dumbbell flyes (about 20 reps)

      • Rear delt machine (about 20 reps)


    1. Choose 3-4 exercises from the list above and perform for 3-4 sets each.

    2. The following week, choose different 3-4 exercises than the ones used on the week prior to add variety into the routine. Make sure that you choose one exercise for each head of the deltoids and a fourth one to target the head that needs the most work.

    3. We are going to do one superset (one exercise performed after the other with no rest) in each shoulder routine. For example, let's say you are doing the barbell military press and the rear delt machine in a superset. If you are to do 3 sets of each, for the first set, you do about 15 reps of military press. Once done with those then you will immediately do the rear delt machine for about 20 reps. Now you have completed one superset. You will do two more of those.

    4. I'd also like you to do drop sets on the last set of the last exercise of the shoulder routine. A dropset is when, after doing the repetitions you are supposed to do with the proper weight to have difficulty doing the last few reps at the end, you lower the weight and continue. If you can't go on anymore, you lower the weight again, and continue. And so on until you lowered it 3-4 times and really can't continue anymore.
      Mercedes' Tips To Women For Shoulder Training

      The Importance Of Training Heavy

      You will be training with weights heavy enough to do the suggested amount of repetitions, and to have difficulty completing them. If you can do more, continue and squeeze a few more out and increase the weight next time.

      We are going to try to build up your strength so you will be able to lift heavier in time to keep shocking your body, making sure it doesn't get accustomed to the weight. You don't have to look calm and pretty while lifting weights so don't be afraid to give it all you've got and squeeze out more reps if you can. Go heavy, and don't be afraid to sweat and work hard for it. That is the only way to achieve your goals.

      Many times, however, I have seen people lifting very light weight, to take an example, while doing front laterals for the shoulders. They would slowly lift the weight up, and slowly bring it down, in about 10 seconds for the entire movement. And they would do a set of about 30 of those. This is a total waste of time.

      There will barely be results from this light level of exercise. If you have been training for a while and haven't seen much result, this could be one of the reasons why.

      How Heavy Is Heavy?

      Use a weight heavy enough for you to have to work as hard as you can to lift it properly for the amount of repetitions you want to do. Let's say you're doing 15 repetitions. Then your weight must be heavy enough to do 15 reps in the first set, have difficulty doing 15 reps in the second set and barely make it to do another 15 reps in the third set.

      Then you try to increase the weight. For your last set (3 or 4 sets per exercise) you're using a heavier weight, with which you cannot do 15 reps and have to do a few less repetitions, or use a lower weight to squeeze a few more repetitions out. You focus on really squeezing the muscle going up, and holding back the weight going down.