Betty and I are back. She’s a $12,000 science machine that’ll help us determine which of these 17 shoulder exercises are the best and which are the worst for building big shoulders. I tested these best shoulder exercises on 3 subjects, averaged the data, and found some very interesting insights that align with other research out there. With the results from this experiment, you’ll be able to save literally years of wasted time doing the wrong movements for your body—and finally get those bigger, wider shoulders you’ve been dreaming of. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in and find out what the best shoulder exercises (really) are and then talk about how to use them in your shoulder workouts.
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Let’s explain what and then who we’ll be measuring to find out what the best shoulder exercises are. We’re putting sensors on the front, side, and rear delts. But we’re also putting one sensor on the upper traps, you’ll find out why later. As for who we’ll be testing, it’ll be me, Alex, and Raza (yes, again!) What about the wager? Well, we ordered the world’s hottest bowl of noodles. We also got the world’s hottest chip made with the Carolina reaper. And a gummy bear, which comes in at 9,000,000 Scoville. Each of us is going to write down on a piece of paper what we think the top 2 shoulder exercises will end up being for the front, side, and rear parts of the shoulder. The person who gets the most exercises correct still suffers, just not as much. They get to choose who has to eat what. Before testing what’ll give us big shoulders, we had to prep 3 things. First, our estimated “1 rep max” for each exercise.
Next, we needed a clean shave to make sure the electrodes stick. Finally, before we could start the first exercise, we had to take our maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) measurements.During the experiment, we did 1 set of 5 reps and then taking at least a 5 minute rest before moving to the next exercise. We also rotated between front delt, side delt, and rear delt exercises to avoid overly fatiguing one region.
So, what are the exercises that’ll give us bigger, wider shoulders? Let’s start with the front delts. Both winners were overhead shoulder presses, just different variations of them. We tested the seated dumbbell press, standing dumbbell press, seated barbell press, and the standing barbell press. But for the seated variations, we were actually able to use slightly heavier weight than the standing variations because of the extra stability provided by the bench. The seated versions performed the best. One more thing for the front delts. Although the overhead presses we just talked about will provide significantly more activation on the front delts (71% for me), it’s likely that you’re already working this muscle quite a bit whenever you perform chest exercises. So my recommendation would be to do overhead presses once, maybe twice a week depending on your goals.
Now the side delts (i.e., what’ll give us wider shoulders). This took me by complete surprise. The winners ended up being the two standing shoulder presses we tested. But this is all simply because the side delts are helping stabilize the weight up at the chest, which isn’t a powerful stimulus for growth. It’s a case where more activation doesn’t necessarily lead to more growth, one of the limitations of Betty. Taking this into consideration, I’d remove shoulder presses from the top which would now bring the lateral raises to the top of this list. In this experiment, the standard dumbbell lateral raise and the lying incline lateral raise came out on top, with cable lateral raises following closely behind. All of those are great options.
Last but not least, the rear delts. The top exercise was the double arm reverse cable fly. With this exercise, by setting the cables high and pulling the arms down and back at a 45 degree angle from the body, it lines up the constant tension from the cable almost perfectly with the rear delts. As for the other rear delt winner, it’s the reverse cable fly, but with one arm and the body positioned sideways to the cable. Now although these two exercises look very similar, they actually both challenge the rear delts in a different way. The double arm challenges your rear delts most in the middle of the movement. Whereas the single arm challenges your rear delts most in the beginning of the movement which recent research has shown to be arguably the most important part of the movement for growth.