Build Strong and Sexy Shoulders

Exercises to Add Shapely Muscle

Exercises to Add Shapely Muscle

By Ritch Finnegan

Based on the fact that Webster defines “sculpting” as the art of carving or shaping figures, it would be accurate to describe yourself as a sculptor of your body. If ever there was a body part that needed the eye of a sculptor to bring out its fully developed beauty, the shoulder is it. As I pondered the biomechanical complexities of the shoulder, I felt I needed to attack this lesson from an artistic, rather than a purely scientific angle. How to do it was the question.

Body as Art

The concept of “sculpting” stuck in my head. So, I called a friend of mine, Thomas Ladd, a local ceramic sculptor, to inquire about his frame of mind when he creates the human form out of clay. When creating “figurative art” as he calls it, Tom tries “to create pieces that contain visual symmetry, which is pleasing to the touch, the eye and the mind.” Now, this guy was talking my language. If only his description could be written into every fitness competition judging criteria.

Tom admits that the human anatomy, especially the female anatomy, is a strong influence in his work. He finds that even in non-figure sculpting, full and rounded shapes most often appeal to his clients and to him. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about calves, thighs, glutes, arms, chest or delts – from an aesthetics standpoint, this guy was on track. I was amazed at how his artist’s eye works like our body sculptor’s eye. I realized we are both physique artists working in different mediums.

The shoulder is an amazing and sexy muscle on its own, but when you consider what it does aesthetically to change a woman’s shape, it is an essential body part to understand. Wide shoulders give a woman overall body symmetry and balance. Shapely shoulders also make the upper arm – biceps and triceps – look complete. With these things in mind, let’s take an artistic journey to your Master of Arts degree in shoulder training.

Beginner Class: Clay-Mation 101

The first step is to understand the tools and raw materials. As a ceramic sculptor works with clay, water, a potter’s wheel and etching tools, we have our own essentials. We will work with the three heads of the deltoid muscle – the front, medial and rear. We will also use weights, exercise machines and of course, nutrients. You must understand that the most important thing you can do to change your body is maintain a proper eating plan. Simply stated, proper nutrients are as essential to muscle as water is to a slab of dry, raw clay.

Let’s start by explaining the first exercise, a seated or standing military press to the front. This movement hits the front head, the strongest of the three main deltoid muscles. Performing military presses to the front, with palms either forward or angled in, is the most effective and safest way to hit this muscle. Front delt work is achieved by performing a press motion with the hands higher than the elbows; this rotates the humerus back and places the weight of the dumbbell on the front delt.

The form key is this: Push the weights up from shoulder level in an upward, arching motion. Relax your hands and focus on the front delt contraction. Remember, these are easy to overdevelop, so don’t max out with heavy weight. You most likely have adequate front delts if you perform inclines and chest work. Bigger is definitely not better. It will only throw your shoulder symmetry off. Well, that’s the end of the beginner class. But wait a minute, you know that the beautiful shoulders you see online didn’t come from doing just military presses. It’s time to advance to the next level.

Intermediate Class: Three Heads Are Better than One

Here is where the artist’s eye is required. You must understand that the deltoids are made up of three distinct muscles – the front, medial and rear delts. These muscles are so distinct that they require three different ranges of motion. Having covered front delts in your beginner class, we can move on to medial and then the rear.

The medial delt is the real showpiece of the delts. Properly trained, it gives the width and fullness shoulder connoisseurs look for. Again, we look to the upper arm and/or humerus position to trigger the medial delt. Make sure your hand and elbow are on the same plane as you lift the weight. Too often, when the medial delt fatigues, people try to complete a target number of reps, only to use the front delts to do it.

Remember from the beginner class that as soon as your hand raises higher than the elbow and causes the humerus to rotate to the rear, the front delt kicks in. This is a huge point, so pay close attention. During a set, the only form change that should occur is a decrease in range of motion. As fatigue sets in and range of motion decreases, have your spotter give a gentle lift to complete the last few reps, if necessary. This puts maximum intensity on one group of fibers for maximum results.

For the rear delts, you’ll need to put resistance on the back of the shoulder with an isolated pulling motion. Perform this in a seated position, leaning forward with your chest almost touching your thighs, and imagine that you’re rowing a boat with weights in your hands. When performing any rear delt exercise, it’s very important to have safe low back posture and to keep your elbows wide, hands and biceps relaxed. Try not to squeeze the scapulas together. 

The addition of the lateral and rear delt raises will balance the shoulders out, but do you know how to fill them out? It’s time for advanced course work.

Advanced Class: Connoisseur’s Secrets

Oh, if adding muscle were only as easy as pinching off or paddling on a little more clay. But, it is as easy as understanding the unique strength curve of the medial and rear delts. Let me explain.

Just as your strength drops off from the middle to the end of the range of motion (ROM) on a bench press, and you need a spotter to finish the last part of the rep, the same occurs with the medial and rear delts. With these muscles, however, it’s much more dramatic. As an example, if you need 8 pounds to feel proper resistance at the top of a lateral raise, you need at least double that amount to properly hit the bottom range of motion. For this reason, you need a good spotter for the top range, or a machine that decreases the resistance through the ROM – crucial to sculpted shoulders. If necessary for medial and rear delts, based on the equipment you have available, you’ll need to separate each movement into top half and bottom half to make sure you have proper resistance for each.

The advanced movements are utilized to put adequate resistance on the often-neglected bottom half of the range of motion. This can be done in many ways, but a few are the easiest and most effective. Those exercises include incline lateral raise, low cable laterals raise, seated lateral raise machine and high cable rear delt pulls.

Because the form requirements are very precise, please see the exercise descriptions for more details on these. Upon mastering them, you’ll understand why those who hit the bottom range have superior shoulder development.

So, now it’s up to you to take what you have learned and create your own masterpiece.  As Michelangelo looked at a block of marble and saw an image within it, see your body and its potential in the same way. With patience, consistent hard work and dedication, you, too, can carve your shoulders into a work of art that would make even a great sculptor proud.


Dumbbell Seated Military Press: Sit on the end of a flat bench with back in neutral position. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand and keep elbows in a 45-degree angle close to your side. Push the dumbbells upward using a wide circular motion and stop when they are directly above your shoulders. Focus on the anterior deltoid (front head of shoulder). Return to starting position and repeat.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise: Stand with feet about hip-width apart and knees slightly bent; keep abdominal tight to maintain good back position. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms hanging by your sides with palms facing thighs and elbows slightly bent. Raise dumbbells out and up to shoulder height, no higher. Return slowly to bottom range of motion while maintaining tension on the medial delt. (i.e, no rest).

Incline Lateral Raise: Set an incline bench at a 45-degree angle. Select an extremely light weight, maybe 3 to 5 pounds; hold it with your arm perpendicular to the floor (just slightly behind your back). Raise the weight until your arm is just past parallel to the floor. Slowly lower the weight and repeat.

Bent-Over, Seated Rear Delt Raise: Sit on the end of a flat bench and lean slightly   forward with your right elbow on your right knee and your right hand touching your left delt. Grasp a dumbbell with your left hand and leading with your elbow, lift the weight until your upper arm is parallel to the floor. Try doing this without contracting the middle part of your back (traps, rhomboids), focus on the rear deltoids (posterior deltoid) and repeat on the other side.

High Cable Rear Delt Pulls With Ropes: Stand with feet in a semi-lunge position. Keep abdominals tight to maintain good back position. Hold ropes with palms facing each other. Begin the exercise by leaning back with your elbows until you feel the contraction of the rear delts and not the upper back. If your upper back contracts, you’ve gone too far. Return to starting position while maintaining constant tension on the rear delts and repeat.

Low Cable Lateral Raise: Use the cross cable machine’s low pulley. Start with the right side, grasp pulley handle behind your back and stand sideways to the pulley with feet about hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Raise the handle slowly until it reaches shoulder level. Be sure to lead with your pinkie finger and not your thumb. Return to starting position and repeat on other side.


Seated Lateral Raise Machine: With elbows on pads and hands in proper position, raise arms up by pushing with your elbows. Keep hands relaxed and low on weight. Maintain tension on muscle through entire ROM. (i.e., no rest).

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