The Essentials of Building Powerful Shoulders

Everyone wants bigger, stronger shoulders. Those boulders that sit atop your arms looking like to engorged melons with stylistic striations.

There’s a common obstacle to building shoulders up and it’s this:

Everyone seems to have shoulder problems

The causes for these shoulder problems are as numerous as they are preventable. One of the most common problems is that the shoulder is constantly “rolled” forward into the arm pit due to constriction of the chest and a lack of back muscle engagement. Another common problem is ignorance of how the shoulder should operate: watch any newbie at the gym start a military press and you’ll see what I mean. They throw the weight over their head and as long as they continue to press upwards they feel golden. Despite their “successful” lifts they still develop shoulder pain.

Let’s look at each of these issues and their respective solutions in turn.

The Movements of the Shoulder

The first thing we need to realize is that the shoulder doesn’t push or pull, it rotates. Subtle rotations in the shoulder manifest in much larger movements of the arms. Common movements are flexion, extension, and abduction.

Shown here are archetypal dramatic displays of the basic movements of the shoulder. Next we need to understand how rotation comes into play.

As the shoulder moves into flexion the associated rotation action of the shoulder is external rotation. You can picture this by holding your right thumb straight up in front of you, as you flex the shoulder your thumb should rotate clockwise. The contraction of the anterior deltoid is the primary mechanism of this rotation and of the flexion movement.

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Similarly, abduction relies on the middle deltoid head.  While there is some debate on whether your shoulder should be internally or externally rotated as you engage in this movement, I suggest experimenting with both and going with what feels best to you.  Personally, abduction works best for me when I focus on having a small amount of internal rotation at the shoulder.

Lastly let’s talk about extension which relies on the contraction of that posterior deltoid head. Acting antagonistically to the anterior head the posterior head is responsible for the external rotation capabilities of the shoulder when in a neutral position. You can picture this by holding your right hand by your side with your thumb pointing forward. Try to rotate your shoulder so that your thumb moves clockwise. This is external rotation and hopefully you can now see how if you have overly tight chest muscles your ability to externally rotate your shoulders is limited.

Internal and external rotation and their relations to the deltoids are not a perfectly opposing relationship.   Although the posterior deltoid plays a role in external rotation it’s capabilities can be limited by your ability to internally rotate the shoulder.  Go ahead and replicate my image above of shoulder extension.  Notice that as we engage in extension the posterior deltoid contracts and the shoulder becomes internally rotated. This exemplifies the complex relationship of the rotational movement nature of the deltoids and emphasizes the importance of building shoulder strength on top of already supple movement: if you have a tight chest the answer is not to strengthen your rear delts to “balance” out the tension forces acting on the shoulder. Essentially this is trying to fix a broken system by building on it. This only results in muscle built on a shaky foundation.

To effectively build muscle and strength on a solid foundation we need to fix the problem of the tight chest and correct our training movements in such a way that we don’t favor the chest and anterior deltoids.

Limited Mobility

It’s not uncommon to meet a very strong weightlifter that looks like they’re constantly being pulled forward by their shoulders. As a community we tend to focus on building big powerful chests and despise mobility work. The result is that the muscles of the chest get tighter and tighter which pulls that head of the humerus forward in a “rolling” fashion.

However we are not just seeing this trend with weightlifters. Thanks to long hours at a desk followed by more time craned over mobile devices regular people are developing this same movement pattern and experiencing extremely limited shoulder mobility. This isn’t a new phenomenon but has recently been brought into the limelight by books such as Kelly Starrett’s Deskbound.

This consistently constricted chest pulling at the head of the humerus makes it nearly impossible for the shoulder to move correctly. This manifests in a general loathing of raising your arms overhead. We can make this movement much less painful by restoring the ability for the shoulder to move through it’s entire range of rotation. We do this by employing self-myofascial release.

My favorite tool for working on the shoulder and surrounding areas is a common lacrosse ball, if you don’t have one in your gym bag get one. They’re cheap, portable, and highly effective.

To loosen up tension acting on the shoulder from the chest we are going to focus on the pectoralis major (specifically near the clavicle), the pectoralis minor, and lastly the anterior deltoid.  Below is a set of videos I believe to be extremely effective for mobilizing the shoulder.




Building Powerful Shoulders | The Overhead Press

Provided you have a healthy starting point and are only dealing with mobility issues your next step should be to master the overhead press. The overhead press is my favorite shoulder exercise because it works all three heads of the deltoid.  If you think that the overhead press only works the two forward heads of the deltoids and excludes the posterior head you may want to reconsider your form.

I’m not saying you can’t do any accessory work to build your shoulders but unless you have a serious shoulder problem the overhead press should be the central exercise to strengthening your shoulders.

Below is a video by Bret Contreras explaining some of the mechanics of the overhead press as well as proper set up.  It’s not the most exciting video but it is as high quality of instruction as you can get online.