The most effective way to overhaul your physique is by creating width. Wide shoulders with upper back muscles and a lean waist are how a powerful figure looks. But how do you get wider shoulders, and what are the best exercises?
To maximize the size of the shoulders, you need to target all three muscles. These are:
Each muscle supports a different movement of the shoulder. The anterior or front deltoid is primarily responsible for shoulder flexion and horizontal adduction. That is raising your arm in front of you (e.g., front raise) and performing a chest fly motion [1,2].
The side delts are responsible for shoulder abduction, which is the arm raised to the body's side . This muscle creates a broader look of the upper body and is the main focus for wide shoulders.
The rear deltoid provides a 3D look and will make your physique pop when looking from the side. Rear delts are responsible for shoulder extension and horizontal abduction .
5 Tips To Get Wider Shoulders
Specialize On The Side Delts
Popping side delts creates the wide-shoulder look. But they are often undercooked in muscle-building programs with the front delts over-emphasized. Instead, start your upper body sessions by hitting the side and rear delts.
This means you hit them when fresh providing the greatest muscle-building stimulus. For example, lateral raises and rear delt fly before overhead pressing. It also acts as a perfect shoulder warm-up before heavy pressing.
Lose Body Fat To Thin Your Waist
Using this trick can give the illusion of having wide shoulders. It’s also known as the V taper, X body shape, or mesomorph somatotype. A thinner waist makes the shoulders look wider because of the drastic angle from your shoulders to your waist.
If you’re already skinny, don’t focus on this. You need to build upper body muscle. But if you’re larger, this can be a simple and effective way to create the illusion of wide shoulders.
Target Your Lats
Capped delts are part of the equation for broad shoulders. But having wings will widen your physique, especially from behind. This will fill out your V taper, creating a powerful wide look. You want to target the upper portion of your lats through pulldowns and pull-ups.
Smash Your Upper Back
Like the lats, your upper back will round out the wide powerful look. Capped wide delts with no meat surrounding them make you look skinny and weak. Slabs of muscle around the traps, upper back, and lats with the shoulders will make the wide shoulder physique more prominent even without a tiny waist.
Wish For Different Parents
I jest. But it serves the point there are genetic factors at play. Some people are blessed with wide bone structures giving them broad shoulders with no training. Add training with those physiques, and it becomes accentuated.
Best Exercises For Wide Shoulders
The staple side delt exercise is the lateral raise. The dumbbell lateral raise is the most common and accessible exercise that will light your side delts up, giving you shoulders so wide you need to walk through doors sideways.
You’re loading the exact movement the side delts are responsible for. Due to the strength curve, the hardest part of the exercise is when your arms are raised to 90°.
When we dive into the research, we see the most significant activation of the side delts is during the lateral raise exercise compared to any other exercise [1,2].
Here is how to do the perfect lateral raise:
When lateral raising, one big mistake is focusing on the hands above the elbows. This won’t give you the same feeling.
One of the most popular Chinese Olympic Weightlifters, Lu Xiaojun, made these famous a few years ago. You can see why by his massive shoulders. These are full range of motion lateral raises where the dumbbells or plates finish overhead.
You’ve probably heard the argument not to go past horizontal because the upper traps take over. But who cares. You probably want big traps too, to go along with your wide shoulders! So, nail them both with this exercise. The execution of the Lu raise is quite different from the traditional lateral raise, so here’s how to do it:
The upright row makes a terrific lateral raise alternative to trash the side delts. In fact, using a clean grip width reduces the involvement of the biceps and increases the muscle activation of the side delts .
While the barbell is the obvious equipment choice, it can cause pain in the front of the shoulder for some lifters. Using dumbbells, kettlebells, or an EZ bar are better equipment alternatives to reduce this sensation.
Here’s how to do the upright row:
Seated Bent Over Reverse Fly
The seated bent-over reverse fly is a rear delt exercise to target the mid and upper traps. This will build the upper back shelf to add some beef to your wide shoulders. This version is lower back-friendly if you have lower back problems that prevent you from doing the bent-over variation.
Here’s how to do it:
This is a hard exercise to get wrong, so it is excellent for beginners to get extra upper back volume.
The overhead press is also known as the press, military press, or shoulder press and is a staple exercise for big shoulders. The front and side delts are the main shoulder muscles worked during the overhead press  and elicit the highest front delt activation among compound exercises .
Often you won’t find this exercise within a typical bodybuilding program. You may find seated variations as the load is lighter and targeted to your shoulders. But overall, bodybuilders prefer isolation exercises that target certain heads of the shoulder and don’t cause as much fatigue.
Here’s how to do the overhead press:
1-Arm DB Press
For overall shoulder development, this is one of my favorites. The 1-arm DB press feels better on the shoulders than the 2-arm variation, in my experience. You can also load it much heavier because you're limited to how much load you can get to your shoulders, whereas you can use 2 hands on 1 DB with this version. Here’s how to do it:
Pull-ups are a staple mass builder for the lats for a good reason. They elicit the greatest activation of the lats compared to any other back exercise . When you can pump out 10 bodyweight reps, add weight and watch your wings grow!
Regarding pull-up grip width, a medium grip width is the best grip width for maximizing back development as it allows you to lift the most weight and is the perfect trade-off between weight lifted and lat range of motion . Here’s how to do them:
If you can’t do many pull-ups or you need to add more volume, the pulldown is the choice. For sets over 10 reps, you’ll also need to use the pulldown. To blast the lats, I prefer the neutral grip handle. It puts the largest stretch on the lats, and you can squeeze them at the bottom. Here’s how to do it:
Snatch Grip High Pull From Blocks
This is the upright row on steroids. In my experience, nothing will grow your upper back like the snatch grip high pull from the blocks. This will give you a powerful wide-shoulder look.
Even if you train your traps regularly and heavily with shrugs and deadlifts, one session of these and you’ll have sore traps for days. The stimulus is like no other. Here’s how to do it:
Clean pulls are the meat and potatoes for upper back development. You get heavier loading than a snatch grip with a violent shrug to stress the traps further. Here’s how to do it:
Best Wide Shoulder Workout
A1) Snatch Grip High Pull
3 x 4
B1) 1-Arm DB Press
3 x 8
C1) Lateral Raise
4 x 12
D1) Seated Bent Over Reverse Fly
3 x 15
E1) Lat Pulldown
4 x 10
Lifting to get wider shoulders requires attacking the side delts. But don’t become short-sighted on one body part. The broad physique is a combination of a large upper back and lats with a smaller waist through reduced body fat.
1. Campos, Y. A., Vianna, J. M., Guimarães, M. P., Oliveira, J. L., Hernández-Mosqueira, C., da Silva, S. F., & Marchetti, P. H. (2020). Different shoulder exercises affect the activation of deltoid portions in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of Human Kinetics, 75(1), 5-14.
2. Franke, A. R., Botton, C. E., Rodrigues, R., Pinto, R., & Lima, C. (2015). Analysis of anterior, middle, and posterior deltoid activation during single and multijoint exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 55, 714-721.
3. McAllister, M. J., Schilling, B. K., Hammond, K. G., Weiss, L. W., & Farney, T. M. (2013). Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(1), 181-187.
4. Kroell, J., & Mike, J. (2017). Exploring the standing barbell overhead press. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 39(6), 70-75.
5. Hewit, J. K., Jaffe, D. A., & Crowder, T. (2018). A comparison of muscle activation during the pull-up and three alternative pulling exercises. J. Phys. Fitness, Med. Treat. Sport, 5(4), 1-7.
6. Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2014). Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pulldown. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(4), 1135-1142.