Despite the fact that muscle bellies will mostly determine what shape your shoulders (or any muscle group) take on as they get bigger, there are some things you can do to maximize your genetics and encourage the development of capped 3D delts.
Androgen Receptor Density In The Delts
Obviously, the first thing all the trolls will do is jump to the comments section and say something like “Trenbolone. That's all there is to it, it's the TREN!”
I'm not going to argue with the fact that androgen response is largely going to dictate whether or not you build ridiculously developed delts.
There is a popular hypothesis in the community that is often thrown around as fact that there is a greater density of androgen receptors in the delts than other muscle groups.
I've seen the science backing that up in in the traps.
However, I have yet to see definitive evidence proving this in the delts as well.
The only evidence I could find showing increased AR density in a specific body part was the following study that found that AR-containing myonuclei per fibre cross-section was higher in the trapezius [R].
Apparently, the study only compared the human vastus lateralis and trapezius muscles, so it is not disqualifying the possibility that there is an increased density in the delts as well, but I haven't seen a study yet that explicitly states it as fact either.
Even if a study doesn't exist, I think we can make an educated guess based on anecdotal logs and basic observation that there probably is greater density in the shoulders as well.
No sh*t right, of course steroids will help you grow muscle, thanks Sherlock.
Yes, we obviously all know that, but in regard to the literal 3D look of the muscle itself, it does appear as though enhanced individuals do have favorable growth in their delts relative to a natural athlete with the same amount of lean body mass on their frame.
In other words, in general (not applicable every time obviously) a natural athlete who is 200 pounds lean will have less developed delts than a guy on steroids who is also 200 pounds lean.
Does that mean that you should hop on the sauzule if you want 3D delts?
No, of course not, I'm just trying to be transparent in elaborating on exactly what I think led to my development.
My Training Approach For Building 3D Delts
One of the most common training mistakes I see that limits growth is adhering too strictly to either strength focused training, or high rep volume training.
At the end of the day, progressive overload and keeping a detailed logbook or app to record your sets, reps and weights is the thing that will make or break your progress.
However, focusing too heavily on low rep strength training with compound movements, or focusing too heavily on getting a pump with lower weight high rep volume/isolation work, can limit progression for many individuals.
Typically, my shoulder day would start with a heavy compound movement like a seated barbell shoulder press, dumbbell shoulder press, or a standing military press.
The anterior head of the delt I feel gets adequate stimulation during presses on chest day, so I would usually only do 1 exercise for the front delt during my shoulder workouts.
Afterwards, I would move onto some sort of lateral movement.
I like to work from the front to the back for delt training.
The exercise I noticed the most development from was dumbbell lateral raises.
After hitting failure on my last set of the exercise, I would follow up with a drop set, or surf the rack.
Surfing the rack is something you can do after you hit failure on your last set of dumbbell lateral raises where you literally “surf” the rack and use a lower weight and burn the muscle out to failure progressively until you are literally all way down to the 5-10 pound dumbbells and repping them out until failure.
For example, if my last set I hit failure using 35 pound dumbbells, I would then go grab 30's and rep them out until failure.
Then I would go down to 25's and rep them out until failure.
And then 20's.
And so on until you're down to the lightest weight.
Surfing the rack works well with other body parts too.
I got the idea from Rob Riches back when I was in high school and first started working out.
It's a great finisher exercise where you can drive an insane amount of blood into the muscle and focus on maximizing hypertrophy after finishing your heavy working sets.
After dumbbell lateral raises, I would hit a cable lateral movement, or a more isolated movement for the lateral head of the delt.
Finally, I would move on to the rear delts with cable face pulls, or a makeshift isolated rowing movement focused on the contraction of the rear delt rather than the back.
I also like reverse fly movements, although they are arguably less effective.
At the end of the day, my shoulder workouts essentially comprised of some heavy compound work, heavy laterals, progressive overload, and driving as much blood as possible into each head of the delt.
When I was building my physique up, my shoulder workouts took no more than an hour, and I felt were more than sufficient for gaining strength and size.
There is definitely something to be said about ensuring your workouts aren't too one dimensional and entirely strength or pump focused.
Check off all the boxes before you leave the gym every workout to ensure you maximize your growth opportunities both in strength and in an isolation work/pump context is what I suggest.
If you check off all the boxes before you leave the gym, you know you left no stone unturned and will maximize your opportunity to grow.
I progressed the most once I stopped focusing entirely on just increasing my compound movement numbers and also started focusing on really stretching, contracting and driving blood into the muscle each workout.
How Important Is Mind-Muscle Connection For Deltoid Development?
Once you leave your ego at the door, that's when you will really maximize your opportunity to grow.
I used to move weight for the sake of moving it.
I wanted a strong bench press, squat and deadlift, and I achieved that within a couple years.
However, I wasn't growing nearly as much as I should have been based on my numbers, and this was largely due to the lack of mind-muscle connection.
Once I dropped my weights by 50% and started working my way back up, that's when I started really progressing in a size context.
2 years into lifting I had worked my way up to a 5 and a half plate deadlift for a few reps, but my back barely looked like I lifted.
After leaving my ego at the door and dropping down to a 3 plate deadlift, I started progressing MUCH faster, because I could actually slow down and focus on stretching and contracting on each rep.
There's a huge difference between form that looks good, and actually feeling what you're doing.
This sounds counter intuitive because you would assume that if your form looks good, then you would be maximizing your outcomes in a hypertrophy context.
This is not the case though in my experience.
Even once you get down to a reasonable weight, if you aren't really focusing on the eccentric stretch, and the concentric contraction with each rep, you will not get as much out of the movement, and this will be blatantly obvious by the lack of sufficient blood flow.
I can do a curl that looks almost exactly the same, with the exact same weight, in a way that will elicit more growth than me simply moving the weight up and down simply by focusing on the stretch and contraction.
This is what mind-muscle connection boils down to.
I can do a barbell row where the top of the rep I either contract hard, or I simply drop back down into my next rep.
To the untrained eye, the rep would look almost exactly the same, both performed with good form, however, the difference between actually achieving an adequate stretch and a hard contraction at the top of each rep is night and day in a hypertrophy context.
If you can't feel the stretch and contraction, you are probably using too heavy of a weight.
Once I dropped my weights down by 50%, I noticed that I was actually starting to get a good pump every workout.
Something that was almost completely absent from my workouts prior where I was just focused on getting the weight from point A to point B with reasonable form.
Don't be in the gym for the sake of being there to move sh*t around.
If you aren't fully stretching the muscle at the bottom of each rep, and contracting hard at the top of each rep, you are either using too heavy of a weight, or selling yourself short on each rep.
I believe this is partially why powerlifters don't have the same muscular development as bodybuilders, despite being way stronger.
A powerlifter's goal is getting the weight from point A to point B without getting injured, whereas a bodybuilder's goal is to make the weight feel as heavy as possible and elicit as much of a growth response as possible.
Should You Have A Dedicated Shoulder Workout Each Week?
If delts are a lagging body part for you, then it would be a good idea to have a dedicated shoulder workout each week.
I would even advise hitting a pump focused lateral movement and rear movement at the end of each chest day too.
However, this only applies if they are genetically lagging.
If they respond well to training (and AAS if applicable), then hitting them after your chest movements should be sufficient.
With that being said, I always had a dedicated shoulder day and they clearly weren't a genetic weak point for me.
I probably didn't need one, and I would have a more balanced physique now if I had trained them less.
However, if that is a look that you are chasing, then by all means I would definitely advise having a dedicated shoulder workout each week.
Neglecting Rear Delts Results In Subpar Growth
One of the biggest mistakes is neglecting the rear delts.
There are three heads of the delt.
The front, the side, and the rear.
The problem is that most guys will just focus on heavy presses and lateral raises, and then completely overlook the fact that they will not get complete looking 3D delts without sufficiently hitting the rear head as well.
Make sure you do at least one exercise that targets your rear delts before you leave the gym on your shoulder day (or your chest day if you hit shoulders after chest).
What It Comes Down To
As I mentioned previously, androgen response is going to be a big factor that determines what your delts look like.
I don't see natural athletes who have crazy delts very often.
With that being said, I don't see a lot of guys on gear with insane capped 3D delts either.
Expectedly, there are more of them proportionally relative to naturals though.
Everyone has their gifted body parts.
When it comes to delts in particular, I do believe it largely boils down to genetic muscle inserts and androgen response (keep in mind, that can include endogenous androgen response too).
The principles I outlined above are exactly what I used in conjunction with exogenous androgens to build up my physique and can be implemented with or without androgens to get your closer to your goals too.