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How many exercises do you need to build your shoulders?

Having a balanced body by working out all your muscle groups is very important, however, different body parts have different effects on your overall physique. There is one particular group of muscles that can visually change the entire aesthetics of your body, shoulders. This applies for both men and women. For men, it gives them the V shape look as well as wider look that most men want. For women, wider shoulders makes waist look thinner and helps to create that hourglass look.

So now that we have identified an important muscle group, lets see what can we do to improve it, especially if that is your stubborn area that will not grow.

Shoulder anatomy and biomachanics

Shoulder muscles have three heads: the front delts, the lateral delts, and the rear delts. They all serve a different function, and move your hand in a different way.

Front deltoid

Front deltoids have their origin on clavicle bone and inserts into humerus bone (your arm).

Front delt is a weak horizontal adductor but powerful horizontal flexor. The primary function of the front delt, however, is shoulder flexion, as illustrated in the image in the middle. Lateral deltoids can also contribute, especially when the shoulder is internally rotated.

Lateral delts

Lateral deltoids have one function only, shoulder abduction. Front deltoids also contribute to this move, especially when the shoulder is externally rotated.

Rear delts

Main functions are transverse abduction, shoulder extension and hyper-extension, and external rotation as illustrated in the images below.

Now that we know the bio-mechanics of our shoulder muscles, we can take a look at how to activate them for muscle growth.

Exercise variety

We know that we have three different heads for our shoulder muscles, but can the same muscle, for example lateral deltoids, be regionally activated with different exercises? The answer is yes, it is called neuromuscular compartments. Every muscle has different regions which are controlled by individual nerve branches. Depending on the task, only a specific region of the muscle can be activated.

Lets look at what the research says about the extent of regional muscle activation.

Shoenfeld et al. 2015 studied muscle activation in hamstrings during stiff-legged dead-lift, and leg curls. Leg curls activated all four heads of the hamstrings quite well, while dead-lifts activated the upper parts more. The difference in muscle activity was from 60% to 170%.

We also know that muscle damage occurs regionally as Kubota et al. 2007 found regional muscle damage in hamstrings after eccentric knee flexion exercise.

Mendiguchia et al. 2013 showed that lunges and leg curls damage different parts of hamstrings.

To summarize, it is clear that different heads of the muscle can be preferentially activated in line with their muscle function. Furthermore, you can even activate different muscle fibers within the same muscle, suggesting that more than one exercise per muscle group is definitely required.

Recommended exercise selection

Most men have no issues with the front deltoid as it gets a lot of stimulus from all pushing exercises for the chest. To get wider shoulder I would recommend having one overhead press movement with either dumbbell or barbell, one or two isolation exercises for lateral deltoid, and one isolation exercise for rear deltoid.

To achieve maximum growth, you will have to use both heavy compound exercises in combination with isolation exercises with lower intensity and higher rep range.

Military press

Primary muscle: Front deltoid

Secondary muscle: Lateral deltoid

This is a great exercise that is easily micro-loadable, enabling you to progressively overload it each workout. We know that mechanical tension is the main driver of muscle growth, and getting stronger to lift more weight should be your primary goal to achieve muscle hypertrophy. For a detailed guide on how to perform the exercise, check out the video below made by Jeff Nippard.


As this is a compound exercise, involving multiple muscle groups, the intensity should be high, 80 - 85% 1RM in most cases unless you are a beginner, which in that case a lower intensity should be used, 60 - 70%. This correlates to a rep range of 6 - 8 for intermediates and advanced, and 10 - 12 rep range for beginners.


Rep range progression is ideal for this exercise, where you set your rep target as a goal. Once you achieve the desired rep target, you simply increase the weight by the smallest increment that you have available in your gym, and repeat the same process. For example, lets say you start off your first workout with 40 kg and you set your rep target of 6. If you achieve 6 reps in your first set (the benchmark set) that means its time to increase the weight for the next workout. Usually the smallest increment is 1.25 on each side, meaning your next workout weight is 42.5 kg. If you fail to achieve 6 reps, you just stay with that weight until you manage to do 6 reps.


Once you reach a plateau, which happens when you are unable to increase your reps for 2 consecutive workouts, you can implement a plateau breaker, meaning the next session you deliberately increase the weight and do as many reps as possible that workout. The workout after that you go back to the previous weight were you were stuck and try to go for more reps this time and progress from there again.

After this technique stops working, its time for periodization. Undulating periodization proved to be the most efficient when it comes to building strength where you have 2 different rep ranges, 4 reps apart at least, that you perform for the same exercise on two separate workouts during the same week.

Military press guidelines

Lateral rise

Primary muscle: Lateral deltoid

Secondary muscle: Front deltoid

This is an isolation exercise that directly targets your lateral deltoids, that is usually hard to activate with any other compound shoulder exercise. Lateral deltoids can be activated as a dynamic stabilizer during a standing overhead press, but as we have learned from the studies on regional muscle activation, it is not nearly enough to fully stimulate muscle growth in that area. Check out the video below for the correct form.


For this specific exercise, intensity should be low ( 60 - 70% 1RM) with a higher rep range. This correlates to 12 - 15 rep range for most people. Focusing on keeping the perfect form should be your main goal and mind muscle connection can help you achieve that.


The only way to progressively overload on this exercise is to, again, use rep range progression as described above. The key is to maintain the perfect form while increasing the amount of repetitions you do each workout. Once you reach a plateau, just implement a plateau breaker and continue with your progression.

Lateral rise guidelines

Reverse Bayesian Fly

Primary muscle: Rear deltoids

Secondary muscle: lateral deltoids

You will get a lot of work for your rear deltoids with your pulling movements when you exercise your back, however most of the pulling exercises do not provide the entire range of motion for the rear deltoid. Instead, an isolation exercise is required to complete your shoulder look and to balance the look of your shoulders from all angles. The most common problem for many men in general is an overdeveloped front delt and underdeveloped rear delt. To fix this, implementing at least one isolation exercise 2 times a week is recommended.


Same as for lateral rises, you need to lower the intensity on this one to 60 - 70% 1RM. Mind muscle connection is very important on this one as your mid and lower traps can take over most of the work and you end up not stimulating your rear deltoids.


Again, you should use rep range progression with plateau breakers when you are stuck. Going heavy on this exercise is not going to work so focus on high rep range, even up to 20 before you increase the weight.

Bayesian reverse fly guidelines

By performing all of the exercises mentioned above, you will develop all three heads of your shoulders which is so important for an overall balanced look from all angles. If you have a lagging deltoid, make sure you increase the frequency of that muscle, and also perform it earlier in the workout. This can help you achieve more volume which in turn helps you build more muscle on that specific area.

I hope this article gave you some new ideas on how to structure your shoulder workouts, but also inspire you to try and test new things for yourself and what works best for you. After all, it boils down to a few basic principles that need to be followed and you can achieve a stunning transformation.

If you are interested in online coaching with a detailed and customized plan for maximum strength and muscle growth progression check out the link below to find out more about my flagship Be Fit and Strong program.

Investing 20 minutes of your time for a free assessment / consultation call could be potentially life changing!


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