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Well-developed shoulders are key to building a powerful athletic physique. One of the biggest missed opportunities when creating a shoulder workout is neglecting to train all three heads of the deltoid muscle. Balanced development is what gives the shoulders definition and shape.

The deltoid is the main muscle contributing to powerful, well-defined shoulders. It consists of three heads: anterior, lateral, and posterior. Each head manages a different movement at the shoulder.

  • Anterior deltoid: Found at the front of the shoulder, allows for flexion of the arm and internal rotation at the shoulder
  • Lateral, or medial deltoid: Middle part of the deltoid muscle, attaches to the shoulder blade and aids in lifting the arms out and away from the body
  • Posterior deltoid: Located on the back of the shoulder, allows for extension of the arms and external rotation at the shoulder. 

Shoulder Exercises for Mass

So, which exercises should you include when clients are looking to build muscle mass? What exercises engage all three portions of the deltoid muscle? 

Most shoulder exercises activate all three heads to a certain extent. However, specific exercises can be used to emphasize each portion of the muscle. The following five exercises incorporate the different portions of the deltoid muscle in varying degrees. These are great movements to include in your clients’ shoulder workouts.

Front Arm Raises

Front arm raises are a great exercise. They target the anterior and lateral deltoid but also slightly engage the posterior deltoid as well. 

  1. Begin standing with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grip a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing your thighs.
  3. Slowly raise the arm to forehead height, keeping elbows slightly bent.
  4. Continue to lift dumbbells until your arms are parallel with the floor.
  5. Slowly lower the arms to your starting position.

Your clients can perform this exercise one arm at a time or with both dumbbells at the same time. Also, if free weights are not available, use a cable machine.

Seated Dumbbell Arnold Press

This movement is a fundamental mass building exercise that targets the anterior and lateral deltoids

  1. Begin sitting on a bench with your back straight.
  2. Grip a dumbbell in each hand and hold them at chest level. Keep the elbows bent with palms facing the body.
  3. Push the weight up off your chest while rotating the weights so that the palms face forward.
  4. Continue to push the dumbbells up until arms extend and elbows lock overhead.
  5. Pause for a second at the top, then slowly lower the dumbbells back to your chest.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise

This exercise puts focus directly on the lateral deltoids.

  1. Begin standing with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip so that your palms face your side.
  3. Keeping a slight bend in the elbow, bring the dumbbells up and away from the body.
  4. Maintain a tight core and torso to stay upright when raising your arms out to the side.
  5. Lift the weights until your arms are parallel with the floor.
  6. Slowly lower the dumbbells to your starting position.
Rear Military Barbell Press

The rear overhead press is a great mass building exercise that focuses on the lateral and posterior deltoids.

  1. Start seated with a barbell resting on your neck and upper back.
  2. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  3. Keeping the torso tight and back straight, press the weight up off your shoulders.
  4. Keep fists pointed up to prevent strain on the wrists in the overhead position.
  5. Continue to push the barbell up until elbows lockout overhead.
  6. Pause at the top of the press before lowering the barbell back down to your starting position.
Barbell Overhead Press

This press is an excellent mass building exercise. It focuses heavily on the anterior and lateral deltoids.

  1. Begin standing with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grasp the barbell with palms facing forward, hands slightly outside the shoulders. 
  3. This movement will begin with the barbell resting on the front of your shoulders at chest level
  4. Keeping the core tight, press the barbell up until the arms extend overhead.
  5. Slowly lower the barbell back down to chest level.

Building Strong Shoulders with the Right Workout Routine

Just as important as knowing the right exercises to perform, is knowing how to perform them to see the best results. Muscle growth is all about breakage and repair. When we lift a heavy weight, our muscles need to generate a force greater than the weight we are trying to move. This force results in structural damage to the muscle fibers. This damage stimulates a repair response within the body. 

When creating shoulder workouts for mass development, it’s important to lift heavy loads to inflict this targeted damage to the muscle fibers. The body’s repair response can then lay down new muscle fibers. It is the laying down of these new muscle fibers that results in muscle growth. 

Key Training Variables

There are two important training variables to keep in mind when developing a shoulder workout routine. A review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discusses these variables as well as the underlying mechanisms and optimal protocol for muscle growth. To maximize muscle growth in your workout routine, manipulation of these two training variables is essential. 

1. Intensity

Intensity has arguably been claimed as the most important variable for muscle growth. It refers to the energy or physical power needed when performing an activity. Intensity can be equated to the number of repetitions performed in a workout. Low (1-5) to moderate (6-12) repetition ranges have proven to trigger more of a muscular growth response in comparison to higher (15+) repetition ranges. 

2. Volume

Volume is a measurement of the total weight lifted over the duration of a workout.

Volume = Sets x Repetitions x Weight

The formula for calculating volume is simple. It includes three variables—sets, repetitions, and weight. Alter these variables to increase or decrease total workout volume. Developing workouts with progressively increasing volume will promote greater muscle growth in your clients and will ensure they do not plateau over time.

When creating a shoulder workout, keep intensity and volume in mind. Combining ideal intensity (low to moderate repetition ranges) with progressively increasing volume will have you building stronger shoulders in no time!

Building Strength Upon a Solid Foundation

To maximize your efforts, be sure they’re building their newfound strength upon a solid foundation. Two key foundational pieces to healthy muscle development are stability and nutrition. 


The shoulder has almost 360 degrees range of motion. This makes it one of the most mobile and functional muscle groups of the body. However, with this degree of motion comes an increased risk of injury. Therefore, your clients need to develop strength in the smaller stabilizing muscles of the shoulder before moving heavy loads. Developing sound stability of the shoulder is key to reducing risk of injury. 

Training for shoulder stability involves strengthening the rotator cuff muscle group. The rotator cuff consists of four smaller muscles. These muscles serve to stabilize and maintain integrity of the shoulder. A great way to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles is by using isolation exercises. You can perform many stabilizing exercises with resistance bands, which is a great way to ensure a solid foundation for building shoulder strength safely. 


If your  are serious about gaining muscle mass, they need to get serious about your nutrition. People looking to build muscle mass want to know what they can do to maximize their time in the gym. Yet, just as important is knowing what to do outside the gym. More specifically, knowing what to eat to support muscle growth. 

It’s important to make sure you are consuming adequate calories and including all three macronutrients to support their stronger shoulder journey. To build muscle, the body needs to be in a positive caloric balance (calories consumed > calories burned). If you are not consuming enough calories, you will find yourselves in a negative caloric balance (calories consumed < calories burned). This will place the body in conservation mode which does not support new muscle growth.  

Shoulder stability and solid nutrition will provide a firm foundation for people looking to build muscle mass. Remember to incorporate movements that target all three portions of the deltoid muscle to give you shoulders the definition and shape they want. Strive to optimize workout intensity (low to moderate repetition ranges) and seek progressive workout volume.