In bodybuilding, every muscle matters. But the first grouping of muscle fibers that catch most folks’ eyes is the shoulders. Also known as the deltoids, these muscles represent the widest point of a physique for most competitors. Broad shoulders draw the eyes up and create the V-shape that most athletes covet by flowing down into a tight waist.
Like any pro-level show, all competitors have large muscles and sharp conditioning. So what sets one pair of deltoids apart from another? Elite shoulders are both broad and defined. They flow seamlessly into the chest and back, presenting even roundness across the front, lateral, and rear heads.
What follows is a list of 10 competitive bodybuilders who are truly head and shoulders above the competition.
Coming from Venezuela, Yaxeni Oriquen was one of the most prominent female bodybuilders in the sport in the mid-2000’s. She would weigh in the 160-pound range onstage when she competed against the likes of Lenda Murray and Iris Kyle. Her best performance was when she won the 2005 Ms. Olympia title.
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When Oriquen faced the crowd, her side delts were the most prominent part of her physique. They looked even better when she performed any side pose. Her front and rear delts were great, but her width was Oriquen’s strongest asset. They even stood out at the 2020 Ms. Olympia when she returned to the stage after a three-year absence. She finished that contest in 13th place (Andrea Shaw won that year).
Lee Haney would display his width as soon as he took the stage at any show he entered. Whether he was standing to the front, side, or facing away from the judges, all three heads of the deltoids stood out. He would also slightly turn his physique so the fans on all sides could see what he brought to the stage.
Haney’s complete physique won him eight straight Mr. Olympia titles from 1984 to 1991. Many fans feel that Haney’s shoulders were his greatest attribute. His rear delts (and traps) resulted from his version of the behind-the-back barbell shrug, where he would bend the elbows to bring the bars even higher for a greater rear delt contraction.
Nasser El Sonbaty
The late Nasser El Sonbaty was one of the mass monsters of the 1990s and early 2000s. He was considered an annual threat to the Mr. Olympia title throughout his career. Many felt he should’ve been the champion in 1997 over six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. His shoulder development in particular overpowered every other competitor in the lineup. This fact holds true at the 1999 Arnold Classic.
The front delts on the man from Egypt could be seen in all of his front and side poses. To build his deltiods, El Sonbaty was a big advocate of seated dumbbell presses, sometimes going with heavy weight for as low as four reps. He also performed heavy lateral raises to maximize his width.
The man who followed in Yates’ footsteps as Mr. Olympia was Ronnie Coleman. The former Texas police officer may have had a pair of the biggest and strongest shoulders in the sport. His 2003 video The Cost of Redemption demonstrated this when he shoulder-pressed 160-pound dumbbells for six reps.
At 5’11”, Coleman weighed 295 pounds onstage at his peak. He would guest pose at over 300 pounds in the offseason. The width and fullness of his delts were too much for any competitor he faced in his prime. Coleman logged 26 pro wins and eight Olympia titles on his mantle by the end of his career.
“The Big Bad Wolf” hails from Germany, and even though he never won the Olympia, has had a very successful career. Wolf accumulated six pro wins and placed in the top five of the Olympia seven times. This was thanks in part to his most muscular shot, which prominently displayed all three heads of his delts astonshingly well. The German’s traps were great assets as well.
Wolf’s signature victory was the 2014 Arnold Classic, where he weighed around 260 pounds in pre-judging. Aside from his wide shoulders, he also had a tight waist at that contest, which made him appear even wider. Wolf retired in 2018 after undergoing neck surgery.
Coleman’s greatest rival was undoubtedly Jay Cutler, who would ultimately take the title of Mr. Olympia from him in 2006. Cutler couldn’t match Coleman’s overall size in his prime, but the shoulder development of the Massachusetts native compared well with Coleman in the later years of his eight-year run atop the sport.
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Once Cutler ascended to the throne of the sport, his width and thickness were unmatched. His rivals had to focus on other parts of their physiques to stand a chance against him. Cutler employed free weight movements at the beginning of his career, but he liked machine presses as his main shoulder builder in the second half of his career (mainly because machines are thought of as less stressful on your joints compared to barbells and dumbbells).
When it comes to non-heavyweight bodybuilders, Flex Lewis ranks as among the most successful in history. The seven-time Olympia 212 champion packed a lot of muscle on his 5’5” frame. Like Cutler, Lewis prefers machines for training. He and coach Neil Hill use different rep ranges to help him develop the 3D look that he presents in contests.
For reps, Lewis may go as low as six reps or as high as 20 in some cases. Fans wonder how big those delts will be when Lewis eventually competes in the Open division, which he pledged to do after his final Olympia 212 win in 2018. As of 2021, Lewis has yet to compete in the Men’s Open division.
Kuclo is one of the largest active pros in the sport. When he competed onstage at the 2021 Texas Pro, he weighed 290 pounds. He finished second to Iain Valliere at that contest. No part of his physique could be considered a “weakness,” but his delts are definitely among his strengths. Your eyes are drawn to him in stage shots as well as images from photoshoots.
Kuclo has won six pro shows in his career. His front lat spread, side chest, and hands-on-hips most muscular poses are among his best, and the delts serve him well in each of those.
Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay
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Working with training coach Dennis James, Elssbiay will use a lighter weight if it helps him target the muscle more effectively. This could be why his shoulders look so round when he stands on stage. It’s hard to argue with the results when two world titles are in the conversation.
Andrea Shaw has been considered the face of women’s bodybuilding since the Ms. Olympia returned in 2020, but “Marvelous” Margie Martin may have the best shoulders of any active competitor. Her front delts are clearly separated from the chest. Her side delts stand out when she hits any side shot, and her rear delts are prominently displayed when she showcases her back.
Those shoulders may have been a key to her two Rising Phoenix world titles in 2015 and 2016. They are also why the Georgia athlete has placed in the top three of the Ms. Olympia since its reemergence. Her detailed development makes her a threat in any contest she enters.
Featured Image: @jaycutler and @big_ramy on Instagram