Strong, defined shoulders not only look good but also give you better posture and make certain everyday activities easier. But developing the boulder shoulders that are coveted by many gym-goers requires dedication, consistency, and hard work both in and out of the gym.
Six things you should focus on to get boulder shoulders are:
- Training all three heads of the deltoids
- Doing exercises that target your traps
- Increasing your training frequency and volume
- Lifting with proper form
- Eating enough calories
- Prioritizing your recovery
In this article, I’ll talk about why these 6 things are important for building boulder shoulders and how long it will take in order for you to see results. I’ll also share a list of the most effective shoulder exercises and provide sample boulder shoulder workouts.
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How Do You Get Boulder Shoulders (6 Things To Focus On)
1. Training all three heads of the deltoids
The shoulder muscles, or deltoids, are comprised of three heads: the anterior (front) deltoid, the lateral deltoid, and the posterior (rear) deltoid. In order to build shoulders that look good from all angles, you’ll need to do exercises that target all three deltoid heads.
2. Doing exercises that target your traps
The trapezius, or traps, is the muscle that runs along the back of your neck and extends down to the middle of your back. It’s an important muscle that helps stabilize your shoulders as you move your arms up and down and helps with your posture.
Even though they don’t directly work the deltoids, doing exercises that work the traps will help your upper body appear more well-rounded while reducing your risk of injury when you’re doing a lot of shoulder exercises.
3. Increasing your training frequency and volume
Training your shoulders once a week may be sufficient if you’re just trying to look a little better or make them stronger for everyday activities. But if you really want them to grow, you’ll need to increase the amount of time you spend doing shoulder exercises as well as the number of sets and reps you do.
Doing 16-20 sets per muscle group in the 8-15 rep range is ideal for building muscle. But it can be difficult to accumulate that much volume for one muscle group in a single training session.
Hitting your shoulders at least twice a week will allow you to accumulate more volume without becoming so fatigued that you’re sacrificing proper form in the exercises you perform later in your workout.
Related Article: How To Bulk Up Fast (10 Tips For Maximizing Muscle Growth)
4. Lifting with proper form
Performing each exercise with proper form is essential for building bigger shoulders. Aside from increasing your chances of injury, lifting with improper technique can cause other muscle groups to overcompensate, which means your shoulders are no longer doing most of the work.
5. Eating enough calories
In order to build muscle mass, you need to eat enough calories to support muscle growth. If you’re trying to get bigger shoulders, you’ll need to eat in a calorie surplus.
The exact amount of extra calories you should eat is different for everyone, but adding 200-250 additional calories each day to your maintenance calories is a good starting point. If you’re not seeing any progress after 2-3 weeks, you can bump them up again until you start to see better results.
You should also focus on getting enough protein and carbs to give you energy for your workouts and support muscle growth.
Related Article: Can You Eat Anything When Bulking? (Dirty Bulking Explained)
6. Prioritizing your recovery
Taking rest days and getting enough sleep is key to building muscle. Giving yourself time off from the gym allows your nervous system to recover, ensures your hormones continue to function properly, and allows you to keep your training intensity up during each workout. All of this is essential for muscle growth.
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How Long Does It Take To Get Boulder Shoulders?
While many websites and “fitness gurus” claim you can get bigger shoulders in just a few short weeks, that’s usually not the case.
Building muscle takes time. Exactly how much time depends on factors such as your training age, what kind of training you’re doing, your body fat percentage, how much you’re eating, and other things you do both in and out of the gym.
Someone who’s never lifted weights before and is following a bulking diet, isn’t doing a ton of extra cardio, and gets 7-8 hours of sleep per night may see more muscle growth within a couple of months than an advanced lifter who also does 60 minutes of cardio several days a week, isn’t eating in a calorie surplus, and only gets 5 hours of sleep per night.
It’s also worth noting that the time it takes to get boulder shoulders can be vastly different even between two people who follow the same training routine, eat the same way, and have similar lifestyles outside of the gym because their genetics will dictate how well they respond to their routines.
So while it’s possible that you can see a small amount of shoulder growth in as little as 2-3 months, it can take 6-12 months or more to develop the boulder shoulders you desire.
Best Exercises For Boulder Shoulders
Below are 7 of the best shoulder exercises that will help you develop boulder shoulders.
1. Overhead Press
The overhead press is a compound movement that works the anterior deltoids, side deltoids, and traps as well as the triceps, abs, and spinal erectors.
How To Do It:
- Adjust a squat rack so the bar is about even with your armpit.
- Grab the bar with your hands just outside your shoulders, unrack the bar, and take 2-3 steps backward.
- Keeping your feet shoulder-width apart, squeeze your glutes and brace your core.
- Tuck your chin and push the bar up. As the bar moves past the top of your head, push your head through your arms.
- As you get closer to locking out your arms, push the bar back so it’s in line with your wrists, shoulders, hips, and legs.
- Once the bar is overhead, slowly lower it to the starting position, making sure not to let it come crashing down on your shoulders.
- Take a deep breath, brace your core again, and repeat.
Flaring the elbows and overarching the back — which is also called layback — are two common faults with the overhead press. Doing either in small amounts is okay, but excessive flaring of the elbows and an exaggerated layback can result in a less than optimal bar path and put a lot of pressure on your lower back.
Many people also struggle with the lockout of the overhead press. While there are many ways you can overcome this, strengthening your triceps and working on your overhead mobility are particularly helpful.
Related Article: 7 Tips To Improve Your Overhead Press (In 3 Months Or Less)
2. Lateral Raise
The lateral raise works the middle of the deltoid, which is what most people think of when they imagine well-defined, broad shoulders. The traps also play a small role in helping you raise your arms out to the side.
This isn’t a movement with which you can lift a lot of weight, but it will still help your shoulders appear more shapely and defined.
How To Do It
- Hold a pair of dumbbells slightly out in front of you with a neutral grip and your feet anywhere between shoulder- and hip-width apart.
- Keeping a slight bend in your elbows and your palms facing the floor, raise your arms up and out to the side at about a 30-45° angle.
- Stop when your arms are parallel to the floor.
- Pause for a second at the top so you can feel the tension in the middle of your shoulder.
- Slowly bring your arms back down to the starting position and repeat.
As you lift the weight, your wrists should be aligned with the rest of your arms. Letting them curl down to the floor puts them in a compromised position and can cause muscle strains.
You’ll also want to avoid turning your thumbs towards the ceiling or bringing your arms out so they’re perpendicular to your torso, which will work more of the front delts than the middle delts.
Furthermore, you should avoid using any momentum to lift the weight and bring your arms back down too quickly as it reduces the amount of load on the delts and makes the movement ineffective.
3. Bentover Lateral Raise
The reverse lateral raise is similar to the lateral raise described except you bend forward at the waist instead of standing upright. It works the rear deltoids as well as the rhomboid muscles in your upper back.
How To Do It
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and hinge forward at the waist so your chest is anywhere from a 45° angle to parallel to the floor.
- Let your arms hang down in front of you with your palms facing the wall behind you and a slight bend in your elbows.
- Think about leading with your pinkies and raise your arms until they’re parallel to the floor.
- Pause for a second, then bring your arms back to the starting position in a controlled manner and repeat.
Like the regular lateral raise, you’ll want to avoid swinging your upper body too much when lifting and lowering your arms. Your torso should hardly move as you complete each rep.
If you’re having trouble controlling the momentum, you likely need to lower the weight. You may also find it easier to the excess motions by lying face-down on an incline bench. By focusing on not lifting your chest off the bench, you’ll be able to keep the movement strict and isolate the rear delts more.
4. Dumbbell Shrugs
As I mentioned earlier, training the traps while you work on building your shoulders can help give your upper body a well-balanced appearance while preventing injuries. The traps are difficult muscles to develop, but one way to train them effectively is to do shrugs.
How To Do It
- Hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides with a neutral grip.
- Roll your shoulders back and focus on keeping your shoulder blades down and back.
- Without bending your elbows or swinging your arms forward or back, shrug your shoulders up towards your ears.
- Pause for a moment, then lower your shoulders and repeat.
When you’re doing shrugs, it shouldn’t look like you’re jerking your shoulders up and down with each rep. Control the movement by keeping your arms straight and your scaps engaged so you can feel tension in your traps with each rep.
5. Barbell Upright Rows
The barbell upright row works the traps and all three heads of the deltoids as well as the biceps, upper, back, and core.
Many people shy away from this exercise because it can cause shoulder impingement, which occurs when the top of your shoulder blade pinches the rotator cuff. But when performed correctly, it’s an excellent movement for building mass in the upper body.
How To Do It
- Hold a barbell with your arms straight down in front of you and your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your elbows and pull your arms up, keeping your knuckles pointed towards the ground and the bar close to your body.
- Keep pulling the weight until it’s at chest height.
- Slowly return the weight to the starting position and repeat.
Standing tall, bracing your core, squeezing your glutes, and keeping your shoulder blades down and back are all ways you can protect the health of your shoulders when doing upright rows.
If you feel any pain in your shoulders, you can also try dumbbell upright rows. Using dumbbells allows your arms to move more freely since they’re not locked into a fixed position with the barbell.
6. Front Raises
As the name suggests, front raises target the front of the shoulder as well as the lateral delts and traps. It’s a deceivingly difficult movement, so it’s best to start with a light weight at first.
How To Do It
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells in front of you with your palms facing back.
- Keep a slight bend in your elbows and lift your arms straight up in front of you until they’re parallel to the floor.
- Slowly lower the weights back down to your thighs, then repeat.
It’s easy to overarch your back and lift your arms with a swinging motion when doing front raises. To prevent this, don’t pick a weight that’s too heavy, and keep your core and glutes engaged.
Lifting your arms too high is another common flaw. You’ll want to make sure you stop when your arms are horizontal to the floor to prevent shoulder pain and keep the emphasis on the front delts.
7. Arnold Press
The Arnold press was named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, who created the movement. It’s an effective shoulder exercise that targets all three of the deltoid heads.
How To Do It
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Start with the dumbbells at your shoulders and your palms facing away from you as if you were at the top of a bicep curl.
- Push your arms up and begin to turn your elbows out so your palms start rotating towards the front.
- Keep pushing the weight overhead until your biceps are by your ears.
- Pause at the top, then slowly lower the weights, turning your thumbs in and rotating your arms until your hands are once again at about shoulder height and your palms are facing away from you.
When doing the Arnold press, many people tend to lower the dumbbells too much so the elbows come closer to the stomach. This removes a lot of tension from the shoulders and places more emphasis on the chest and biceps, so you’ll want to keep your elbows high to ensure the shoulders stay engaged the entire time.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
3 Boulder Shoulder Workouts
Boulder Shoulder Workout with Straight Sets
This is a straightforward shoulder workout that hits all of the deltoid heads as well as the traps. Because there’s a lot of volume in this workout, it’s best to avoid adding any other upper body exercises to this routine.
- Overhead press – 4 x 8
- Arnold press – 4 x 10
- Lateral raises – 4 x 10-12
- Front raises – 4 x 10-12
- Dumbbell shrugs – 4 x 15-20
Boulder Shoulder Workout with Supersets
Some research suggests that supersets — in which you do two movements back to back with no rest in between — aren’t any better for hypertrophy than straight sets. But incorporating supersets can help prevent boredom and make your workout go by faster when you’re focusing only on one muscle group at a time.
- 1A: Seated dumbbell press
- 1B: Bentover lateral raise
- Do 4 sets of 8-10 reps for each movement, alternating each exercise after you complete each set without any rest in between.
- Rest for anywhere from 90 seconds to 2 minutes after you’ve completed all reps in the second movement.
- Rest for 2-3 minutes after you complete all 4 sets, then move on to the next superset.
- 2A: Arnold press
- 2B: Upright rows
- Do 4 sets of 8-10 reps for each movement, alternating each exercise after you complete each rep without any rest in between.
- Rest for anywhere from 90 seconds to 2 minutes after you’ve completed all reps in the second movement.
Boulder Shoulder Workout with Descending Reps
Like supersets, this style of routine isn’t necessarily any better for building muscle mass, but it’s a good way to keep your workouts interesting by training with different rep schemes at various weights.
For each of the movements below, you’ll perform one set each of 15, 12, 9, and 6 reps, starting with a light weight and increasing it after each set as the reps get lower.
- Seated dumbbell press
- Lateral raise
- Front raise
- Upright rows
For even more workout ideas, check out the Fitbod app. You can customize your routine based on your experience level, available equipment, how many days you can work out each week, and the body parts you want to focus on. Download the Fitbod app today — your first 3 workouts are free!
Boulder shoulders are a goal for many people who want to improve their physique, but it’s not something you can achieve overnight. It can take several months or years to get the results you want.
However, choosing the right exercises, eating properly, getting enough rest, and increasing your training volume and frequency can all help you reach your goals faster.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.