Your shoulders are comprised of 3 main muscle known as the delts. There is a rear, middle, and front delt. In addition to shoulders, it’s good to train your trapezius muscles and your rhomboids. For now, however, we’re going to focus on just the methods of training the shoulders.
Front Delts: Responsible for Shoulder flexion (rotating it forward and up) and inward rotation (turning it towards the middle of your body).
Bench Press: The delts are a secondary muscle in the Bench Press, aiding in the stabilization of the shoulder along with contributing a small amount of force. Nonetheless, if you bench press a lot, your front delts will be getting a good amount of stimulus to grow from doing this alone.
Overhead Shoulder Press: The shoulder press is great for both the front and middle delts. The shoulder press, also known as overhead press or OHP, brings your shoulder through a large range of motion through shoulder flexion. The major benefit of OHP is that it will work both your middle and front delts simultaneously, and provide a great stimulus for both. Between the 3 exercises here, this should be your bread and butter for developing bigger shoulders, assuming you have no medical issues stopping you from doing the OHP.
Front Raises*: Quick honorable mention here. I don’t particularly ever do front raises due to doing both OHP and Bench 3-5x per week each, 4-6 sets per day. However, if you don’t bench or OHP with high frequency, it could be helpful to add some front raises. Here, you’re focusing purely on moving your arm from your side to directly in front of you. Don’t use any body english, pick a light weight, and aim for higher reps (12-30). The front delt is a small muscle and there is no purpose to loading with with low rep, high intensity weight.
Side Delts (Vertical abduction of the arm; starting with your arm at your side, raise it up like you were flapping your wings.)
OHP again. Like is said, this is a phenomenal shoulder building exercise.
Side Delt Flies: These are also known as “Lateral Raises” or, more confusingly, as “Lat Raises”. The latter name is unfortunate due to it accidentally suggesting that this is a lat workout. It is not. Side delt flies aim to perform the most basic function of the middle delt: raising the arm like a bird flapping its wings. Once again, this is a low intensity (read: weight), high rep exercise. The goal is somewhere between 12-30 reps with very close proximity to failure. Delts recover very, very quickly, so be ready to do some high frequency training with them (3-5x per week).
Rear Delts (Aids lats in shoulder extension; think of elbowing someone who is behind you. Your rear delt helps pull your arm back, rather than just to your side like your lat would do. Once your shoulder starts rotating backwards, your rear delts are at play.)
Face Pulls: Facepulls are great because they serve two purposes: they’re great at targeting your rear delts and rhomboids specifically, but they’re also great at providing a good stretch for your front delts and your rotator cuff in general. Do these at a weight that you can control well. You want to pull the handles to your face, hold it for a split second, then return to the start. Like the other delt exercises, it’s very easy to cheat and start using additional muscles to move the weight. Pick a weight that you can do 12-30 reps with (30 being the absolute most, and often an indicator that the weight should increase).
Rear Delt Flies: These can be done in a few ways.
1) Use the Pec Dec, but move the handles all the way in, face the machine, and pull away. There’s usually instructions on the machine showing how to do this, so I won’t go into detail.
2) Chest supported rear delt flies on a bench: This is fairly straight-forward. Angle one of those adjustable benches to 30 degrees or so, sit down with your chest against the seat (legs will be straddling the bench), and flap your wings. Very similar to the middle delt raises. The only different here is that, due to leaning over, gravity is pressing down and resisting the motion of your rear delts instead of your middle delts.
3) Bent over rear delt flies: Like option 2, you just do this without a bench. Make your torso as horizontal as possible, parallel with the ground, and flap your wings.
As with all these variations, and really any exercise, control the weight! If you’re doing your flies and using your hips, back, etc., to put a bit more “oomph” into the lift, you’re cheating yourself. Drop the weight, use good form, and reap the benefits of consistency.
Most pulling exercises: When it comes down to it, most pulling exercises will hit your rear delts at least a little bit. Rows, lat pulldowns, and pullups will all hit your rear delts to varying degrees. These are a good baseline for rear delt work, but doing some isolation exercises listed will really help them grow to their full potential.
(You will need to do some experimenting to figure out what’s right for you, this is just a general example to get you started)
Bench Press (Optional) – 3-5 sets, 8+ reps, 1-3 RIR
Shoulder Press – 3-5 sets, 8+ reps, 1-3 RIR
Pull Ups – 3-5 sets, 10+ reps, 1-2 RIR
Face Pulls 3-5 Sets, 15+ reps, failure
Side Delt Flies 3-5 Sets, 15+ reps, 0-1 RIR
Rear Delt Flies 3-5 Sets, 15+ reps, 0-1 RIR
Add this bit of shoulder work into your workouts 2-3x a week (or more for the delt flies), and watch your shoulders blow up.
Don’t know what RPE or RIR is? Check out my quick guide here.