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June 17, 2016

Build Knockout Shoulders to Rock your Tank Tops

beautiful to the core

Build Knockout Shoulders

Take a glimpse into what my typical shoulder day workout looked like five years ago: I would sit at a bench and start with a standard dumbbell overhead shoulder press. Next I would grab my “baby” dumbbells for some front raises, lateral raises, and bent over rear delt raises. Yawn. Finally I would finish with my hour on the elliptical as a cardio bunny (but that’s a story for another day).

Sure, I did well by working the shoulders from every angle. However, not only was my workout boring, but it was also doing nothing for my physique. I still had the same size shoulders as I did a year prior due to poor programming and execution. I liked to call them my “indents” because they were basically the opposite of rounded. Working with my arms reaching in front of me all day did not help the situation. I am sure many of you can relate if you have an office job involving being a computer hermit most of the day.

beautiful to the core

Another mistake I made was not in just my exercise selection but also my form. I would use my back muscles (mid traps) to do my rear delt raises instead of my rear delts! The result was zero rear delt recruitment or growth. Sorry shoulders, today is not your day.

Great programming and proper execution is mandatory if you want to succeed at building some boulders.

Are those shoulder presses just not cutting it anymore? Or even worse, are you having pain with them? Say no more. We will teach you the basic anatomy of the shoulder and then advance into new ways to build those boulders. Learn how to think outside the box and have more shoulder exercises in your toolbox for improved results. Welcome to the world of deltoid diversity!

Say hello to your tank tops & goodbye to your old, yawn-maker shoulder day exercises. I’m going to transform your shoulders with some awesomely creative workout programming.  

These exercises for bigger shoulders will change the way you feel about shoulder day forever.

Shoulder Anatomy

To properly execute exercises, you must know what muscles you are targeting and what their actions are. While there are many other muscles that attach near or around the shoulder joint,we will strictly cover the deltoid muscles. If you desire to learn about the rotator cuff muscles and strengthening exercises for them, see our Throwers Ten exercise cheat sheet here (insert link). If you learn each deltoid muscle’s action, then you’ll be able to engage the muscles properly prior to execution of any exercise. One way to engage the deltoid better is to initiate the movement with the elbow and not the wrist or hand.

The Important Facts About the Deltoids

  • Origin: the clavicle (collarbone) and acromion (shoulder bone).
  • Insertion: the lateral humerus (upper arm bone).
  • Fibers: there are three different sections of the deltoid (anterior fibers, medial fibers, and posterior fibers).
  • Nicknames: anterior = front delts, medial = lateral delts, posterior = rear delts.
  • Main Action: abduction of the arm (which means raising it out to the side in a “T”).
  • Additional Actions by the anterior fibers: Flexion & internal rotation of the shoulder.
  • Additional Actions by the posterior fibers: Extension & external rotation of the shoulder.

Now that you understand the three sections of the deltoid and how their actions differ we can choose exercises to target each for well-rounded deltoids (pun intended).

shoulder actions

Equipment Variety

To help you break free of shoulder workout boredom, I’ve linked some videos below to spark some creative juices in your mind. There are many different ways to work your front, lateral, and rear delts during your next workout. Don’t get trapped in the “dumbbells only” zone. Go beyond dumbbells and experiment with other equipment like bands, cables, machines, plates, barbells, landmines, plates, barbells, ropes & other pairings. Have fun with it! These are key players in answering how to get bigger shoulders.

To see all the exercises listed below in action, look at our YouTube shoulder exercises playlist.

Variety for the overhead press

  • Cable Overhead Press
  • Smith Machine Overhead Press
  • Overhead Press Machine
  • Dumbbell & Banded Overhead Press
  • Barbell Overhead Press aka Military Press

Variety for the front raise

  • Plate Bus Drivers
  • Barbell Front Raise
  • Cable Rope Front Raise
  • Battling Ropes
  • Band Front Raise
  • Cable Single Arm Front Raise
  • Supine Cable Rope Front Raise
  • Dumbbell Incline Front Raise
  • Band Front Raise

Variety for the lateral raise

  • Cable Lateral Raise
  • Band Lateral Raise
  • Landmine Diagonal Raise
  • Rope Jumping Jacks
  • Leaning Dumbbell Lateral Raise
  • Lateral Raise Machine

Variety for the rear delt raise

  • Cable Rope Face Pull
  • Sidelying Rear Delt Dumbbell Raise
  • Bent Over Banded Rear Delt Pull Aparts
  • Bent Over Banded Rear Delt Raise
  • Cable Rear Delt Raise
  • Cable Kneeling Bent Reverse Fly
  • Prone Dumbbell IYTs
  • Reverse Fly Machine
  • Band Reverse Fly
  • Cable Reverse Fly

Shoulder Exercise Caution

Strengthening the shoulders comes with a dangerous predator called impingement. Shoulder impingement is a condition that occurs when the rotator cuff tendons become pinched and/or inflamed as they pass through the shoulder joint. This commonly occurs when you raise your arm overhead and the acromion bone rubs on the tendons causing irritation. Below are four exercises you should avoid if you have a history of shoulder pain yet be cautious with if you don’t.

#1 Upright Row

#2 Front Raise with internal rotation (thumbs down)

#3 Overhead Press (take caution with bringing the bar or weights behind your head and use less weight if you do)

Example: Big Shoulders Workout

When programming a shoulder workout, I recommend you pick one overhead press, one for the front delts, one for the lateral delts, and two for the rear delts. Here is an example workout to demolish your deltoids:

  • Cable Overhead Press
  • Plate Bus Drivers
  • Cable Lateral Raise
  • Bent Over Banded Rear Delt Raise
  • Cable Rope Face Pull

Rep Ranges

Reps (repetitions) for each exercise are never set in stone. Repetitions should be varied at each workout. One way to do so is by practicing Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP). It involves alternating high rep, medium rep, and low rep days. Therefore, on low rep days you are lifting heavy and setting personal records (PRs) whereas on high rep days you are lifting lighter weight while still challenging yourself. It allows you to progress over time without hitting a plateau. 1

The goal of DUP is to increase the working volume at each workout if possible. For example, week one on your high rep day you may be able to do 4 sets of 30lb for your cable rope face pull exercise. Your volume is your reps x weight which would be 120. So by week two when you are back around to another high rep days, your goal should be to pass your last record of 120. So either increase your reps or increase your weight slightly, as tolerated.

A DUP Weekly Workout Example












(high reps: 4 sets of 7-10)



(medium reps: 4 sets of 4-6)



(low reps: 4 sets of 1-3)




(See Related: DUP Step)

Let's Wrap This Party Up

If you learn to combine great workout programming with proper execution, mind-muscle connection, and DUP reps you will notice monumental changes in the shape of your arms. This will allow you to find confidence in yourself and step to the front of the girly picture pack instead of hiding behind the rest of your girlfriends. Did I mention it will also show the guys who is boss? Flash those guns and be proud girl. You worked hard!


  • The deltoid muscle has three sections: anterior, lateral, and posterior.
  • The deltoid muscles have different muscle actions which allows us to isolate them through different exercises.
  • Vary your shoulder workouts by choosing different equipment often.
  • Program your shoulder workouts using DUP for maximal muscle growth.


Schoenfeld, B. (2016). Strong & Sculpted. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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