You need these barbell shoulder exercises as the shoulders can seriously make or break a man’s physique. Having a set of boulders sitting on the top of your arms can have a massive impact on that yoked look so many guys are looking for. In fact, one of the first features of an attractive man are broad shoulders. However, the same goes the other way. A guy with no shoulders can look significantly less dominant than he is if he had some developed shoulders.
That being said, many guys actually fail to create any resemblance of strong shoulders let alone a set of boulder shoulders. One of the reasons is that too many guys only focus on little isolation movements with dumbbells or cable machines. Those can definitely add some pop but to really create a set of huge shoulders, you need to use the barbell.
This article will go over all you need to know about how to use the barbell to blow up your shoulders.
- Basic anatomy of the shoulders
- Benefits to training the shoulders with the barbell
- Best barbell exercises for the shoulders
- The best variables to use to create massive shoulders
- Training shoulders for strength AND mass
Basic Anatomy Of The Shoulders
The shoulder muscles are actually known as the deltoids which are a very important set of three different muscle heads that sit on top of the arm. These three shoulder muscle heads are vital as they are responsible for manipulating the arm to push, pull, move in circles, lift up….literally everything. Shoulders have this ability to maneuver in so many directions because the shoulder joint is what’s known as a ball-in-socket.
Basically, the top of the humerus (arm bone) is shaped like a ball which sits inside of a socket formed by the scapula. What this does is allows the humerus to rotate freely in just about any direction. In order to move in so many directions, it requires the three muscle heads spoken about above. These three heads are known as:
- Anterior (front) Deltoid: The anterior deltoid is the muscle head that sits on the front of the body. It’s responsible for bringing the arm medially during horizontal adduction (as in during the bench press) and forward flexion (bring the arm up in front of the body).
- Lateral Deltoid: The lateral deltoid is the muscle head that sits on the side of the arm. It’s role is bringing the arm out to the side during shoulder abduction. The most common exercise associated with the lateral deltoid is the lateral raise. That being said, the lateral delt is crucial to develop as it’s what gives your shoulder that round “capped” look.
- Posterior (Rear) Deltoid: The posterior deltoids, or rear deltoids, sit on the back of the arm. They’re main function is to pull the arm backward and are used in a ton of back exercises such as rowing. In fact, the rear delt is generally developed in most people due to its extensive use in every pulling exercise.
Together, the three heads can also contract together to help lift an object overhead as well as provide general stability. Think about a new tree planted and the gardener will put up rope in all directions to keep it stable. This is the same idea except your muscles stabilize your arm, not a tree.
Benefits Of Barbell Training For The Shoulders
As mentioned, most people tend to think of dumbbells or isolation exercises for “best shoulder exercises”. While there certainly are great dumbbell shoulder exercises, if you’re not using the barbell to forge your delts, they’ll probably never see their true potential. Here are the best reasons to use the barbell to train the shoulders.
1) You Can Use A Heavy Load For Strength Training:
The first main benefit is that you’re able to use a bigger load with the barbell when compared with any other implement. This makes it vital if you’re wanting to build strong shoulders. As mentioned above, even if you’re only concerned with bodybuilding, you still need strong shoulders to build more volume and protect your joints from injury.
2) Build Foundational Strength:
The barbell is the most important piece of equipment in the gym to build foundational strength. Dumbbells and cable machines are great but use of those should always come after your barbell training. Using the barbell will build the foundation you need in the shoulders for a lifetime of lifting.
3) Hit All Of Delts (And More):
The barbell is going to not only stimulate every single deltoid, you’ll also train your upper back, core, and upper back (specifically the traps). Due to the bigger load and stabilization needed, every muscle will get hit. Plus, there are even exercises to specifically target the delts individually.
The 9 Best Barbell Shoulder Exercises
Here are the 9 best barbell exercises you need to include in your shoulder training.
1. Push Press:
First up on the list is the push press. The push press is the only power movement on this list and while some may argue that power exercises aren’t the best for building muscle mass, due to limited mechanical tension as the laid is moving quickly due to momentum.
While there’s some truth to this, with the push press, you still must catch the weight above your head and hold it in an isometric hold. This not only requires your deltoids to carry this load, you must also stabilize it as well. Still, unless you’re dropping the bar to the ground (which we really hope your not unless you’re working in a professional environment), you must still perform the eccentric portion as well.
Either way, the push press will definitely improve the strength of your deltoids while also acclimating them to a heavier load. In theory, this can make a lighter weight feel lighter than normal and allow more reps.
2. Seated Military Press:
The military press is the king of exercises for pure shoulder strength. It’s one of the primary barbell movements to develop raw strength. Unlike the push press, the military press is done with strict body control which means no bouncing or movement from the body. This means that you purely rely on your delts and triceps to move the weight.
That being said, the military press is notoriously hard so too many guys choose not to do it. Guess what. Those guys probably have small shoulders. Together with the push press, the military press lays the foundation for your shoulder musculature. Further, it’s perhaps the best exercise to increase shoulder strength which plays an intricate role in creating muscle mass
That being said, you’re going to want to do the seated variation for even bigger gains. That’s because the vast majority of people are able to press more weight during that seated variation due to being more stable. While we also love the standing variation, you’re already doing the push press and overhead carry for added stability training so you might as well and take a seat on for this one and press more weight.
3. Barbell Bench Press:
Isn’t the barbell bench press a chest exercise? Meh. It is but it’s also an amazing exercise for the triceps as well as the deltoids, specifically the anterior deltoids. In fact, you won’t find a guy with a big bench press and small anterior delts (or triceps). As you’re likely already performing the barbell bench press, next time, try to think about your shoulders and use a mind-muscle connection to train the delts.
4. Incline Barbell Bench Press:
The incline barbell bench press is yet another great “chest” exercise that’s going to train the shoulders as well. In fact, when we look at the bench press, incline bench press, and military press; we see that they are actually similar movements ranging from completely flat to vertical. It’s performed exactly like the flat bench barbell press except you sit on an angled bench. Also, the barbell will be brought down further up on the chest by a couple inches.
The Z-Press is the most challenging shoulder exercise you haven’t tried before. Predominantly seen in the strength community, the Z-press is basically a military press but sitting down. On the ground. The Z-press is performed by sitting on the floor with your legs out in front of you. What this does is require excessive mobility in the posterior and thoracic spine as well as the shoulder structure. Other than that, the movement is performed the exact same way as a normal overhead press.
6. Overhead Carry:
The overhead carry with the barbell is an awesome exercise to train the shoulders isometrically. It differs from holding the barbell overhead after a military press or push press overhead as you are going to hold the load locked out overhead for a longer period of time. This is an absolutely brutal movement that will apply a stimulus to your shoulders that you can’t get anywhere else.
The easiest way to perform the overhead carry is to set up a barbell on a rack. Next, just perform an overhead press until your arms are fully locked out. From there, keep your arms locked out and walk for the prescribed distance.
Be aware that you’ll need some room to perform this exercise.
7. Upright Row:
The upright row has gotten a lot of flack for being “bad for the shoulders”. This is generally thrown around blatantly by those who don’t read any context. The upright row is perfectly safe as long as you follow two rules.
- Use a wider grip. Further, studies have shown that a wider grip will create greater activation in the delts and traps1.
- Don’t pull the elbows higher than shoulder height (in fact, just stay a couple inches lower). Studies have shown this can greatly mitigate the risk of impingement2.
That’s it. Follow these two guidelines and you’re going to be fine with the upright row.
More importantly, the upright row is the only compound movement that targets the middle deltoids so if you want the “pop”, you need to do this.
Have shoulder pain when doing upright rows? Here’s the fix.
8. Kneeling Landmine Press:
The landmine press is one of the most underused exercises for shoulders. It works on a pivot making it a great choice for anyone dealing with any type of shoulder issues as you press out in front of you at an angle rather than above your head. We specifically like to use the landmine for hypertrophy work with higher reps.
The landmine press is incredibly easy to perform. All you need to do is set up a landmine and load the barbell. Kneel down at the end of the barbell and pick it up. Bring the load to your chest and then press away by extending your arms.
You can also perform single arm presses by bringing the barbell to whatever hand you’re holding it with. From there, just press away.
9. Barbell Face Pull:
The face pull is perhaps one of the more common exercises performed for the posterior delts and upper back. Performing the face pull is an awesome way to help strengthen the entire scapula musculature as well as the delts. Plus, it’s a great way to improve shoulder mobility. That being said, most people perform this movement using a rope attachment on the pulley system. What many people don’t know is that you can easily perform a variation with the barbell.
To perform the face pull with a barbell, you’ll take a wider grip with your arms slightly wider than shoulder width apart with an overhand grip. You then bend over as in a bent over row and pull the bar up towards your face. Concentrate on trying to keep your elbows high. Start light with this exercise until you develop good technique.
Best Way To Train The Delts
In order to really elicit noticeable change in the delts, you’ll want to include some shoulder specific training twice a week. This has been shown to be the ideal training frequency for optimal strength and muscle growth. At the same time, you’ll want to train the entire rep range for both strength and muscle hypertrophy.
For strength, use loads of 85-95%1RM with a rep range of 2-5. Below are some exercises that are ideal for strength training.
- Push Press
- Seated Military Press
- Bench Press
- Incline Bench Press
(You can also use these for hypertrophy work as well)
For hypertrophy, use lighter loads of 80-70% with a rep scheme of 8-12+. Below are some of the best exercises for hypertrophy work.
- Upright Row
- Face Pull
- Landmine Press
The Z-Press is a bit different as it’s a blend of strength and hypertrophy training but its real purpose is more to build stability in the shoulder joint. That being said, use lighter loads similar to the hypertrophy work.
For the Overhead Carry, your best option is to use either distance instead of rep range. For example, walk 3 X 10m one week. Then the next week, increase the load.
For all of these, all you need to do is apply progressive overload and add weight or reps every week. If you do that, all you need to do is sit back and let physiology take over.
Perfect Your Physique With Barbell Shoulder Exercises
Never worry about having puny shoulders again. These barbell shoulder exercises are going to create the mass and strength you need to look like you actually lift. That being said, in order to optimize your shoulder training, you should still add in a few isolation exercises. Our favorites are:
- Reverse fly
- Lateral raise
- Lateral partials (with heavy weight)
- Front raises
Add those on top of the above barbell shoulder exercises and you’ll reach your perfect physique soon enough.
- McAllister MJ, Schilling BK, Hammond KG, Weiss LW, Farney TM. Effect of Grip Width on Electromyographic Activity During the Upright Row. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2013;27(1):181-187. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f23ad
- Schoenfeld B, Kolber MJ, Haimes JE. The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2011;33(5):25-28. doi:10.1519/ssc.0b013e31822ec3e3