I’m a petite person, but I have always had a rather big upper body. I used to absolutely hate my broad shoulders. I’d describe them as linebacker shoulders, in the most negative way possible. For as long as I can remember, I’ve carried myself with a slumped posture to make those big shoulders appear a bit smaller.
Even as I started dabbling in strength training and gaining some muscle on my small frame, I continued to back away from adding “too much” in the upper body department. With every program I tried, I’d skip or change some of the upper body work for fear of getting much bigger. “My upper body is already big and it grows so easily, I don’t want it to grow too much,” I’d say to myself. And when I first started working with a coach, I made sure to be explicitly clear about how I needed to prioritize building my legs instead of my arms and shoulders.
Luckily, that first coach knew what I really wanted better than I knew myself, and basically ignored my pleas. (Sounds like the worst coach ever, I know. But he knew what he was doing!) Ever the good student, I followed my training program to the letter, upper body work and all. I complained (read: whined like a toddler) in the beginning, lamenting the awkward and terrible imbalances of my linebacker shoulders.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I discovered the joys of arm and shoulder day.
Turns out, I’d spent a lot of time avoiding the stuff that was the most fun — and impactful. Before long, I found myself prioritizing upper body work over lower body work, and piling on more volume to build up my shoulders and arms.
Boulder shoulders? Yes, please! Upper body too big? No such thing!
Soon, I was busting out of all my shirts, sizing up in jackets, and wearing mostly sleeveless tops. And I loved it. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t self-conscious of the size of my shoulders in a negative way. Sure, I’d get compliments to the tune of, “I want your arms!” which is always flattering, but that wasn’t what it was all about for me. Their bigger size now made me feel confidence instead of shame.
Putting on the muscle and seeing the physique changes was great, but what really changed for me was that I found a certain power in embracing my body as-is, and choosing to work with it instead of against it. I had spent 30 years hating half of my body. The second I started loving it, everything changed.
I started from a familiar place, a place focused on aesthetics, and certainly a particular aesthetic – lean, round in the “right” places, flat in others, the perfect picture of a smiling model on a fitness magazine cover. What I learned along the way was that having a goal to train for aesthetics, for building and shaping your body, though seemingly shallow, is a worthy goal. It’s also one that will likely surprise you in its deeper meaning.
Pursuing this goal led me to a place of self-assuredness in all of my choices for myself and my body that I had never known before. Choosing for myself how I wanted my body to look, and being deliberate in my training led to purposefully taking control of my choices in other areas of life. If I wanted to stand up, I could. If I wanted to speak loudly and boldly, I could. All the while, holding my big shoulders tall.
Gaining muscle as a woman is often difficult. It takes a lot of effort and consistency over a long period of time. But your body will change – that’s the goal. As it does, so will you, because that same effort and consistency over time will translate to changes in how you move through life, too.
For me, the whole process became less about shaping my muscles, and more about shaping my life. When I eased up on the negative thoughts toward my big shoulders, I started to see them, and myself, very differently. Suddenly, my shoulders were beautiful. Big, round, shapely, strong, bold – a symbol and a statement of everything I had become as a woman.
Training specifically for increased muscle, especially where I had originally thought I wanted it the least, was a journey in self-exploration. Not only did I have to work harder than I ever had before in the gym, I also ended up working harder than I ever imagined on introspection and my emotional connections to both my physical body and how it was taking up space in the world. I went from accepting my place as a small person to creating my place as a bigger one.
And really, that’s been the biggest lesson that has shaped so much of my life for the past couple of years, and where my favorite saying — “Big arms, Big life!” — came from. Working hard to build muscle physically led to working hard to build strength mentally and emotionally, which led to building exactly what I wanted for myself in all aspects of life.
Boulder shoulders led to a bolder me.
Building boulder shoulders — or frankly, bolder any body part — is a deliberate exercise in diligence, patience, and hard work. My four favorite shoulder exercises will go a long way in building that boldness you’re after.
These four moves as a workout are meant to build the shoulders in an all-around fashion — overall development, width, and roundness. You can implement them as a standalone workout to really pump up the shoulders and encourage growth, or you can add one or two to an existing workout to give your shoulders a little extra attention.
All that being said, the shoulders are a very complex part of the body, consisting of many muscles, and joints that move in many ways. The shoulder complex can be a common place for injuries, so be mindful of your movement when adding in new shoulder work, or increasing volume. Start lighter than you think, always use control, and never work through pain.
Speaking of the many muscles of the shoulder complex, training shoulders is unique in that there are multiple ways in which we can shape them. The main muscles that create that big, round, boulder shoulder look are the deltoids, which consist of the front, side, and rear heads. Everyone’s anatomy is a little different, but in general, making sure to hit each of the heads of the deltoid specifically is a good way to train this part of the body.
The Arnold Press
The Arnold Press — yes, named after that famous Arnold — is a great move for overall shoulder development, especially targeting the front and side heads of the deltoids, with a great range of motion. In this workout, we’ll use the Arnold Press as a movement to create a bit more strength and power in the shoulders before moving on to some higher repetition, “pump” style training to encourage size and shape. We’ll do this exercise seated to allow for heavy focus on the shoulders with little room for cheating.
How to do it:
Sit on a chair or bench, preferably with your back supported. Grab your dumbbells, and lift them onto your knees. Start by bringing the dumbbells up to a curl position in front of your shoulders, with palms facing in. From there, start to press the dumbbells overhead, while rotating your palms around and out. When you reach the top of your overhead press, your palms should be facing away from you. Reverse the movement, rotating your palms back in as you lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position.
The Lateral Raise is a classic shoulder exercise that targets the side delts intensely, with some front delt action as well. And it’s great for building shoulder width. Sometimes you’ll see this movement with a slightly heavier weight and a good bit of “body English,” but I like it with a weight you can handle under total control.
How to do it:
Standing in a strong athletic position, with feet about hip distance apart, core tight, and knees slightly bent, grab your dumbbells and hold them at your sides. With a slight bend in the elbow, raise the dumbbells out to your sides, just slightly in front of your body. Stop when the dumbbells get to shoulder height, then slowly lower back down to the starting position.
Rear Delt Raise
The Rear Delt Raise is a laser focus on the rear deltoid, which tends to get a little less attention in shoulder workouts, many times leaving it smaller and weaker than the other muscles of the shoulder and deltoids. And we want to give the rear delt some more attention because while we often think of the shoulder from the front, or maybe side, of the body, having a fully developed rear delt rounds out the look of the shoulders, and solidifies their shape all the way around your body.
How to do it:
Set up standing in a bent over position, hinged at the hips with a strong core and flat back. Start by holding your dumbbells in both hands with arms relaxed in front of you and palms facing your body, thumbs touching each other. Initiate the movement with your rear delt, keeping a slight bend in the elbow, raising the dumbbells as far as you can without engaging the upper back muscles – you do not want to squeeze the shoulder blades together. Think about a string pulling the dumbbells up. Slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position under control, keeping the thumbs pointed toward each other throughout the movement.
The Front Raise is *ahem* a movement that targets the front delts, giving the shoulders size and shape as soon as you lay eyes on them. There are many ways to do it, but I like to do it seated, all reps on one arm, to really isolate one side at a time without any swinging whatsoever. The seated position itself helps with that isolation too.
How to do it:
Sit on a chair or bench, preferably with your back supported. Start by holding your dumbbells down at your sides, palms facing behind you. With a slight bend in the elbow, raise one arm up until the dumbbell reaches shoulder height. Slowly lower it back down to the starting position under control, repeating all reps on that side before switching to the other side.
I recommend completing this workout one to three times per week, as follows. You’ll only need dumbbells and a place to sit!
1A. Seated Arnold Press
Perform 4 sets of 6-8 repetitions, with a two-second eccentric. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
Followed by a triset of these three exercises:
*Note: In a triset you perform one set of each exercise, one after the other, before taking a rest.
2A. Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise
2B. Standing Bent Over Rear Delt Raise
2C. Seated Single Arm Front Raise
Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions, with a 2-second eccentric, moving directly from one exercise to the next. Rest 60-90 seconds after each triset.
Looking around in today’s climate, a big upper body and a big presence are something women often notice about other women. It’s still not the majority or the norm, so it’s usually pretty eye-catching. Some may consider it a bit masculine for personal tastes, others get all hearts-and-googly-eyes about it. But what many can agree on is that boulder shoulders are a badge of a bolder woman.
And that is a badge you can always wear proudly.
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