How to Check If You Have Bad Shoulder Genetics & The Exercise to Fix It

Workout Plans | Written by Nathan Petitpas | Updated on 22 June 2024

A man performs dumbbell flys under a bridge in an effort to overcome his poor shoulder genetics.

Learning how to check if you have bad shoulder genetics is half the battle in overcoming it, or at least mitigating it and tackling them that much harder.

Sure, genetics play a large role in anyone’s overall physique, but with the proper exercises, periodization, and volume, lifters can fix lagging delts and get the boulder shoulders they dream of.

How to Know if You Have Bad or Good Shoulder Genetics (Good vs Bad Shoulder Genetics)

Genetics control all aspects of our bodies and play a major role in determining progress made in the gym, but there are also several signs that can be noted in order to determine if you have bad or good shoulder genetics.

Here is what to look for to ascertain good shoulder genetics:

  • Long muscle belly— someone with a long muscle belly (muscle body) typically has good shoulder genetics. The muscle belly is the base of the muscle where all the tendons meet and attach; sometimes referred to as muscle insertion points.1
  • Broader, wide and symmetrical shoulders— having broader shoulders or wide clavicle width is usually an indication of good shoulder genetics.
  • Large skeletal size and bone density— individuals with large skeletal sizes, bones, and joints tend to easily gain muscle.

There is a notion that endomorph and mesomorph body types tend to gain muscle easily. This is a misconception.

Conversely, individuals with poor shoulder genetics typically show the following signs:

  • Short muscle belly—those with short muscle bellies will not have ample space for muscles to grow and will usually make small gains over an extensive period of working out.
  • Smaller shoulder muscles are an obvious sign that someone has poor shoulder genetics.
  • Uneven shoulder muscles— an indication of subpar shoulder genetics; this usually makes one shoulder prone to pains more than another.
  • Small skeletal size and bone density—someone who has a relatively smaller skeletal structure, bones, or joints may have difficulty packing on muscle.

On the other hand, ectomorph body types are believed to be inhibited by their anatomy when it comes to bodybuilding. This is also another fallacy.

There are, therefore, physical descriptors that can enable individuals to know to check if they have poor shoulder genetics although sometimes it can be difficult to tell if the individual has never trained with weights.

Regardless, this will establish a starting point to remedy the issue through exercises.

How to Build Massive Delts or “Boulder Shoulders” Despite Subpar Shoulder Genetics

Through specific target exercises that focus on the lacking or underdeveloped muscles of the shoulders, it is possible to build massive delts – also known as “boulder shoulders” – despite having poor shoulder genetics.

Obviously, genetics play a factor, but it’s common for the shoulders to be under stimulated in comparison with other parts of the body, such as the chest. In other words, a lack of volume or a misunderstanding of volume is a common reason why some people get frustrated when they’re gaining strength without increasing size. So with enough effort, lifters can bring up their lacking shoulders where the untrained eye would never be able to tell they had poor delt genetics.

Therefore, the best way to build massive delts is to address the complete shoulder muscle and perform exercises that would not only target each component of the shoulder—front delts, mid and rear delts but effectively do so, thus eliminating any weak link in the muscular armor.

Outside of genetics, many neglects the primary three training variables in order to gain size. They are:

MEV (Minimum Effective Volume)—the amount of volume that goes into a work-out is key to achieving muscle hypertrophy (growth). Volume is computed by multiplying the weight by the number of reps and sets. There needs to be a minimum effective volume to achieve hypertrophy.

MAV (Max Adaptive Volume)—this refers to the maximum effort that can go into a work-out with which the athlete would still be able to realize gains. It is not a constant and will vary between individuals. Working at full MRV will be counter-productive, as an athlete can end up performing junk volume (work-out sets that yield no growth).

MRV (Max Recoverable Volume)—when muscle groups are worked out, they require a recovery before being hit again. This creates a cycle. MRV is the maximum volume of work-outs between these cycles i.e., recovery.

These three landmarks can be manipulated for shoulders and bad ab genetics so they should be considered before embarking on the next weightlifting phase to ensure the best results.

Best Exercises to Focus on Front Delts (Anterior Deltoids)

The best exercise to focus on front delts (anterior deltoids) usually comes from overhead presses and triceps work-outs where they receive adequate stimulation. They are also very much employed during push exercises such as chest training and hence have a slower recovery time—hence 2X a week direct front delts training is ideal in the context of MRV or it may compromise chest training.

Adjustments can be made to volume varying on individuals, and since the front delts are stimulated during chest training, someone may choose to stay within the 5-10 rep range over 3-4 sets. The front delts should be hit 1-2 times a week.

Cable Underhand Front Raise

This is performed using a cable pulley with a bar. Select a grip width that is comfortable and the elbows need to be slightly bent and raise the bar under control with palms facing upwards.

Dumbbell Front Raise

This exercise uses dumbbells which should be gripped palms facing inwards and raising the dumbbells slightly over 90 degrees and lowering it in a controlled manner—no swinging.

EZ Bar Underhand Front Raise

Hold the bar with palms facing upwards and a slight bend at the elbows to take tension off of the biceps. Raise the bar and lower it in a controlled motion downwards.

Machine Shoulder Press

A machine that allows the user to press back slightly would be ideal. To perform the exercise, press all the way up and down. The machine takes away from the need to stabilize the weight, hence stabilizing muscles are not employed here.

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

This exercise involved pressing the dumbbells whilst in a sitting position. It targets the front delts very well since the core and the back are supported by the bench. The arms should be completely straight at the top.

Seated Barbell Shoulder Press

This exercise involves a barbell and pressing the weight while sitting on a bench. The core should be braced while performing this exercise. Ensure the bar reaches down to the shoulder clavicles.

Smith Machine Seated Shoulder Press

Using the smith machine, the bench would need to be set up to allow the bar to be as close to the face as possible. This ensures proper form and reduces risk of injury.

Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

This exercise involves pressing the dumbbells while in a standing position. This exercise engages the stabilizing muscles as well which may assist the front delts.

A man in a grey shirt performing dumbbell overhead presses with silver colored dumbbells and a dumbbell rack in front of him.

Source: Ian Samkov via Canva.com6

Standing Barbell Shoulder Press

This exercise involves a barbell and pressing the weight while standing; it does stimulate the front delts but the delts receive some training during chest presses. The bar should be taken down to the clavicles when doing front presses.

Barbell Front Raise

In this exercise, the barbell is raised slightly under the chin and then lowered in a controlled manner without swinging.

Exercises to Work on Mid Delts (Medial Deltoids)

There are a number of exercises to work on the mid delts to achieve hypertrophy and to mitigate poor shoulder genetics— the lateral raise and overhead shoulder press. The Maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) is a measure of muscle strength and these two exercises represent 30.3% and 27.9% MVIC, respectively.2

The mid delts have lower MVIC numbers in the bench press and dumbbell fly at 5% and 3.4%, respectively— clearly, these two exercises do not adequately stimulate the medial deltoids. Lateral raises, while an excellent exercise to hit the mid delts, end up hitting the front delts as well—even with the best attempt at raising the dumbbell to the side. The key is to isolate the mid delts completely.

The resistance profile is poor when doing lateral raises—there is little tension at the bottom of the rep and a high amount of tension after about 30-90 degrees of abduction, implying that the muscle is being targeted in its shortened range rather than lengthened range.

To overcome these issues, a modification is required thus:

Chest Supported Lateral Raises

Lean forward against a bench on a slight incline that supports the chest. This will allow the raise to focus on the mid delts and provide a stable platform. Abduction should not exceed 90 degrees to exclude the front delt and should be performed anteriorly away from the body.

Egyptian Lateral Raises

This is done using cable pulleys. To initiate this exercise, place the pulley at the bottom, then place the leg of the training side ahead of the other, allowing the cable to pass through. Lean away from the machine with legs close to the pulley.

In addition to raises, the following can stimulate the mid delts. These can be performed in 3-4 sets consisting of 5-12 reps. The mid delts should be hit 2-3 times a week.

Wide Grip Upright Row

This involves using a barbell with weights that your mid delts can handle. The exercise is excellent due to the degree of shoulder abduction that takes place. The bar and elbows must be raised to 90 degrees or slightly below.

Barbell Upright Row

This is performed using a barbell by lifting the barbell up and pointing the elbows upwards with a comfortable slightly narrow grip as is comfortable. The bar should not be raised too high to compromise the safety of the shoulders.

Cable Cross Body Lateral Raise

This uses cable pulleys by crossing hands and taking the handle that is opposite to each hand then pulling upwards away from the side of the body. This exercise allows constant tension due to the cable and the movement should be controlled.

Dumbbell Upright Row

The dumbbells should be close to the body and raised pulling them apart. The palm grip is inwards towards the body.

Leaning Cable Lateral Raise

This exercise is performed using cable pulleys by leaning slightly away from the machine and pulling on the handle away from the body to slightly above ear level. Again, the movement should be controlled while engaging the core.

Machine Lateral Raise

Performed using a machine, raising the handles up and ensuring full range of motion. Slow down the eccentric i.e. slow down the motion to ensure mid delts are hit correctly.

Smith Machine Upright Row

Performed using a smith machine, the individual should stand as close to the bar as possible and pull the bar high as is comfortable. Take advantage of the smith machine and slow down the eccentric on the way down.

Thumbs Down Lateral Raise

Grip the dumbbells with palms facing the body and bend the body forward at roughly 15 degrees and thumbs stay up while pinky stays down while raising the dumbbells. This ensures that the back and side of the delts are felt which means they are being hit.

Top Hold Lateral Raise

Grip the dumbbells with palms facing each other and raise the dumbbells apart and pause for 1-2 seconds at the top. This pause should allow someone to feel the delts engaged and lower the weights back to the starting position.

Fix Bad Shoulder Genetics With Rear Delts (Posterior Deltoids) Exercises

A number of exercises work on rear delts isolating their use and thus ensuring maximum gains. The bench press and dumbbell fly have little impact on posterior deltoids activating at 3.5% and 2.5% MVIC, respectively. The lateral raise, on the other hand, has more effect on this muscle group activating at 24% MVIC, with the shoulder press activating at 11.4% MVIC.

The following exercises should be used to target the rear delts and can help overcome bad shoulder genetics. These can be performed in 3-4 sets consisting of 5-12 reps. The rear delts should be hit 2-3 times a week.

Bent Over Rear Delt Lateral

This exercise is performed using a bench and dumbbells. The forehead is rested on the bench and dumbbells are gripped horizontally with palms facing inward. A breath should be taken in, elbows slightly bent, and shoulder blades squeezed together—pausing at the top. Then bring the dumbbells back down.

Cable Rope Face Pulls

This exercise incorporates the use of cable pulleys. The palms should face inward when holding the pulley, and a step should be taken back, always engaging the core and glutes to provide a stable platform. The pull is done by retracting the scapula and squeezing it in a double bicep pose.

Machine Reverse Fly

When performing this exercise on a machine, the shoulder blade has to be stabilized and maintained in one place. The motion has to be completed independent of the scapula moving. As it is a seated exercise, an adjustment can be made to the seat to allow the chest to align close to the handles to ensure stability.

Bent Lateral Raise

Hold the dumbbells with palms facing each other and torso bent at an almost 45 degrees angle. Raise the weights slightly rotating outward with thumbs always facing down. Weight should be light and movement always controlled.

Cable Cross Body Bent Lateral Raise

This uses cable pulleys by crossing hands and taking the handle that is opposite to each hand then pulling upwards away from the side of the body. Torso should be bent at a 45-degree angle and weights should be light focusing on contracting through the range of motion.

Cable Single Arm Rear Delt Raise

Bend at an almost 90 degrees angle with one hand resting on the cable machine and pull the handle away in a slow controlled motion. The thumbs should be facing down and pinky up to ensure maximum engagement of the rear delt.

Incline Dumbbell Face Pull

Hold the dumbbells with palms facing the body and while resting on an inclined bench. Lift the weights by pulling on the elbows to the top. There should be a pause at the top of the movement.

Incline Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Hold the dumbbells with palms to each other while resting on an inclined bench. The bench prevents any ‘cheating’ so there should be no swinging. Raise the weights up to the top away from the body.

Kneeling Cable Face Pull

Done in a kneeling position by the cable machine, it is similar to a lat pulldown. However, pull on the tricep rope by pulling on the elbows back as possible thus engaging the rear delts.

Barbell Face Pull

This is performed by bending the torso at about a 45-degree angle and holding the bar with palms facing the body. The back should be kept straight and in a neutral position and the barbell is pulled up to eye level and lowered in a controlled motion.

It is not about bad vs good genetics, rather putting in the correct exercises to address weak shoulders thus making for bad delt genetics that often hinders bodybuilders.

A woman flexing her rear delts or posterior delts in a front double bicep pose as seen from the back.

Source: RODNAE Productions via Canva.com7

Other Methods & Techniques to Grow Your Shoulders

There are methods and techniques to grow your shoulders rather than ascribing it to bad vs good genetics, and these can be found below:

  • Range of motion—Range of motion implies the muscle’s capable field of motion. A movement such as a lateral raise should not be taken so high as to cause pain. Most exercises typically have no tension at the bottom so it may not be necessary to go all the way down. Conversely, pausing at the top aids mind-muscle coordination to prevent other muscles from helping the delts.
  • Low volume—Lack of volume targeting medial deltoids can be attributed to underdeveloped mid delts.3
  • Periodate loads—Altering the loads, reps, and sets of the workout will aid hypertrophy.
  • Higher frequency—In a majority of MEV and MRV training volumes, muscles will cease to fatigue after 1-2 days. Delts are crucial to chest training and this is especially true for those with bad chest genetics on top of poor shoulder genes. All of which also has their own MEV and MRV where most individuals will be able to hit their delts 2-3 times a week in tandem with chest training. A higher frequency of workouts will aid hypertrophy in the delts.
  • Modalities—Incorporating different training modalities such as straight sets, down sets—sets with less weight, controlled eccentric pauses, and giant sets which involve lighter weights to reach a high rep count. Include myositis where the first set is usually a high count, say 10-20 reps, and the next sets are done with short rest to get in a low rep count. A great addition is drop sets which are similar to myositis but the weights are lowered by 10-15%.
  • Rest times—Typically, it takes about 1-2 minutes for muscles to rest to 90%. Forty-five seconds rest periods would be the average time needed before attempting the next set. However, this may also vary between individuals. Therefore it is important to take rest as needed and find balance beyond not going over that time.

The key is not on how to check if you have poor shoulder genetics but rather fixing the techniques and training habits to be the best bodybuilder to make up for bad delt genetics.

How to Overcome Poor Shoulder Genetics

You can overcome poor shoulder genetics by modifying training techniques, using different modalities, and understanding key training landmarks. While having broad shoulder genetics may place a bodybuilder at an advantage, it should not discourage those with bad delt genetics. The key is finding a neuromuscular connection with the said exercises and identifying what combinations work best for someone.

Both rear and mid delts can be worked out almost every day as they recover quickly from workouts—MRV. The front delts will usually get adequate training in compound movements such as bench and overhead pressing and will not typically be the culprits of a weak shoulder.

To ensure maximum hypertrophy, periodization should be included in the regimen.4 This involves changing the workout by altering the load, reps, and sets of the workout. Moderate, higher, and strength volumes that re-sensitize the muscle for growth will aid hypertrophy and prevent over-training.

MEV mentioned earlier is vital as well. Training volume and muscle growth have a dose-response relationship— the more training a muscle receives, the higher the hypertrophy rates.5 Therefore, it is essential that the muscles in the shoulder that are lacking, specifically the rear and mid delts, receive sufficient stimulation with the aforementioned exercises to achieve hypertrophy.

The bodybuilder with bad delt genetics should pay much attention to periodization and MEV and compensate for the bad genetics for bodybuilding that they possess.

While genetics do play a factor in bodybuilding, someone contemplating how to check if you have bad shoulder genetics should be stopped in their tracks and exercise out of the quandary thus overcoming bad delt genetics.


References

1Modules, N. C.-S. (2022). Structure of Skeletal Muscle. Retrieved 2022, from <training.seer.cancer.gov: https://training.seer.cancer.gov/anatomy/muscular/structure.html>

2Medicine, N. L. (2020, October 31). Different Shoulder Exercises Affect the Activation of Deltoid Portions in Resistance-Trained Individuals. Retrieved 2022, from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7706677/>

3Medicine, N. L. (2022). The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required to Increase 1RM Strength in Resistance. Retrieved 2022, from pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31797219/>

4Medicine, N. L. (2015, November). CURRENT CONCEPTS IN PERIODIZATION OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING FOR THE SPORTS PHYSICAL THERAPIST. Retrieved from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4637911/>

5Medicine, N. L. (2016, July 19). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Retrieved 2022, from www.pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27433992/>

6Samkov, Ian. “Man Exercising with Dumbbells.” Canva. Accessed 7 April 2023. <https://www.canva.com/photos/MAD8EAHNfVw-man-exercising-with-dumbbells/>

7RODNAE Productions. “A Woman in Pink Top Flexing.” Canva. Accessed 7 April 2023. <https://www.canva.com/photos/MAEh2yIVoPw-a-woman-in-pink-top-flexing/>

About the Author

Nathan Petitpas

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.