• Photo for Build bigger, better shoulders
    Photo Credit: Kevin Caudill

Build bigger, better shoulders

By Joseph Carman

Few sights stop you in your tracks faster than a man with an impressive pair of shoulders. Remember Brad Pitt as Achilles in the movie Troy, clad in leather and wielding a sword with his deltoids (among other things) bulging? Beyond the obvious allure of pleasing esthetics, though, well-developed shoulders provide an essential source of strength for arm movement and deliver the impetus necessary to ace at the tennis court, row the final leg, pitch a slider, or brace for the tough rock climb.

The shoulder is comprised of the three heads of the deltoid muscles, the trapezius muscle, and the rotator cuff. The deltoids act as abductors of the arm—that is, they raise the arm in various directions. The trapezius elevates and rotates the scapula (shoulder blade). The rotator cuff is a set of muscles and tendons that stabilizes the shoulder joints.

The anterior (front) deltoid originates on the outer clavicle (collar bone) and allows forward, upward movement and inward rotation of the arm. The middle deltoid starts on the bony ridge of the scapula and raises the arm to the side to 90 degrees. The posterior (rear) deltoid also originates on the scapula and raises the arm backward and upward and rotates it outward. Additionally, the front and rear deltoids move the arm horizontally forward and backward. All three heads attach in one junction on the upper arm bone (huerus).

Because the shoulder joint has so many muscles crossing and activating it, you need to do multiple exercises to keep shoulder muscle tissue strong, healthy and balanced. Follow this five-step workout plan to develop your delts, strengthen your traps and ensure strong and stable shoulders:

  1. Shoulder press with dumbbells (see Photo 1): A great exercise to begin with, to warm up and develop the overall strength of the deltoids. While seated, bring the dumbbells to ear level, press them straight overhead, and lower to starting point. Don’t lock the elbows at the top of the press, to avoid injury to the elbows and to maximize the shoulder power. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps at a moderate tempo. These can be done with barbells instead of dumbbells, but be aware that behind-the-neck barbell presses can overstrain the vertebrae and muscles of the neck.
  2. Lateral raises (see Photo 2): Standing with two dumbbells held in front you and palms facing each other, raise the dumbbells to the side. Keep the elbows slightly bent and raise the arms no higher than 90 degrees to fully work the middle deltoid. Do three sets, 10 to 12 reps each with a light to moderate weight at a slow pace.
  3. Front dumbbell raises (see Photo 3): Standing with your palms facing your body, raise each dumbbell alternately to the front, finishing the movement at the starting point before lifting the other arm. Keep the elbow slightly flexed and raise the weight to eye level. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps each, with a slow tempo and light to moderate weight.
  4. Rear deltoid extensions (see Photo 4): Lie on a bench on your left side, supported by your left elbow. Cross your right leg over your left leg, with the right foot on the floor. Take a light dumbbell in your right hand, palm facing toward you, with the weight dropped in front of you. Then very slowly, keeping the shoulders at a 90-degree angle to the bench, raise the arm up a full 180 degrees and back down. Repeat on the other side. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps each.
  5. Shoulder shrugs (see Photo 5): To finish off the routine, do shoulder shrugs to develop the trapezius, that triangular muscle you engage when holding a phone to your ear without your hands. Simply hold the dumbbells at your sides and lift the shoulders up and drop them down. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps each. Don’t overdo shrugs, though, or you’ll end up with disproportionate trapezius development.
Remember, strong, flexible shoulder muscles make for powerful, facile arm movement. And, like Brad Pitt’s, they’re ever so sexy.

Joseph Carman is a contributing editor for >Dance Magazine who writes for the New York Times and the Advocate, as well as other publications. A former professional dancer, he is now a bodybuilder and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions, 2004).