by the Editors of T-Nation
So far in this series we’ve addressed ways to turn you into a pull-up maestro and build a set of perfect pillowy pectorals.
That brings us to the next topic for discussion, the “best in shoulders.”
In ancient times, had Mongol General asked Conan the Barbarian, “What is best in shoulder training?” the young Cimmerian likely would’ve answered “Heavy military pressing three times a week, plus upright rows and lateral raises until you hear the lamentation of the deltoid muscles.”
And such a plan can work, had you been dealt the winning hand to press heavy, hard, and frequently. Some of us, however, would be reduced to aching, moaning, poster children for ibuprofen if we tried such a system.
The body is enormously forgiving when it comes to putting up with abuse, but when it comes to shoulders its patience is surprisingly thin. Push it too far and your comeuppance will be a lifetime of lame workouts and a shoulder that clicks and creaks like your 80-year-old grampa’s trick knee.
Our coaches have plenty of creative ways to get bigger, stronger shoulders without compromising your long-term aspirations. Here are a few.
I almost decided to take a mulligan on this topic because I have a different perspective than most, taking more of a “tough love” viewpoint.
We work with a lot of overhead athletes at Cressey Performance, in particular baseball players. In addition we train “Regular Joes,” and we address, work around, and (hopefully) fix plenty of shoulder issues ranging from the acute problem like AC joint issues and external/internal impingement to the more “oh **** factor” scenarios like shoulder separations and post surgery situations.
Needless to say, we work with plenty of people who come in with shoulder pain, and it’s sometimes frustrating that some (not all) view it as a proverbial right of passage or badge of honor, as if living with daily pain comes with the territory for someone who lifts.
While there’s some semblance of “risk” involved in the gym and many will undoubtedly have a few bumps and bruises along the way (we’re lifting weights here, not doing origami), just “dealing” with pain and sucking it up isn’t an option in my book.
That said, not many things short of a heart attack or raging case of explosive diarrhea can derail one’s progress in the gym like a banged up shoulder. And it’s not a matter of just gritting your teeth and working through it.
While overhead pressing is the gold standard as far as shoulder development is concerned, the truth of the matter is many guys shouldn’t be overhead pressing in the first place.
Now relax. This isn’t to say that I’m against overhead pressing – far from it! It’s just as a coach, and as someone whose job it is to keep people healthy and performing optimally, you have to earn the right to overhead press.
Point blank, most guys move like crap. It’s just the nature of the beast, as we simply don’t move around as much as we used to. And while I’m not a fan of making gross generalizations, it’s fair to assume that many of you reading can’t extend your arms over your head without some form of compensation, and overhead pressing just doesn’t feel good.
And if that’s the case, well, it might be time to start implementing more “user friendly” overhead pressing into the mix, like the landmine press.
The landmine press serves a few advantages:
It’s a pseudo overhead press that doesn’t tax the joint nearly as much as a standard overhead press.
The exercise lends itself as a great core movement as the anterior core has to resist extension, and the offset loading also provides an anti-rotary component.
In the half-kneeling position you’re also eliciting a nice hip flexor stretch on the trailing leg.
There are a few minor technicalities that need to be addressed as well:
Make sure you’re bracing your core throughout and that you’re squeezing the glute of the trailing leg as hard as you can.
“Dig” the toes of the trailing leg into the ground – you shouldn’t be plantar flexed.
Don’t allow the elbow to go past the body during the eccentric portion. I could get all geeky here, but just know that it’s not a good idea.
While not as sexy as the standard overhead press, the landmine press is definitely a more viable option for those with pesky shoulders. Give it a try today!
The right approach to shoulder training for you is a lot like Hugh Jackman’s acting career: you either fall into the Wolverine-esque, bad ass, explosive, don’t-be-a-*****, hoist-some-heavy-weight-over-your-head camp, or you’re more suited to the sensitive, depends-on-acromion-type, the-shoulder-is-a-delicate-joint, I’m-just-going-to-stay-home-and-watch-Les Miserables-for-3-hours group.
Depending on your shoulder health and training history, both of these approaches are valid.
But given that the overhead press is my favorite lift, I own every X-Men on Blu-Ray, and I’m not that keen on watching a movie whose title roughly translates to “The Miserables,” I’m going to assume your shoulders are healthy and you want to get them bigger, stronger, and more explosive.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it’s hard to beat a pair of full, round shoulders. They not only help fill out your T-shirt, but also make your waist seem that much smaller by comparison.
As far as strength and performance go, you’d be hard pressed to find an upper body movement that doesn’t involve the shoulder joint in some way, so keeping your deltoids and rotator cuffs strong and healthy should be a top priority.
Shoulders tend to be composed of mixed muscle-fiber types, meaning they respond well to explosive power movements, exercises in the strength and hypertrophy ranges, as well as higher rep, strength-endurance protocols.
So when I’m in a training phase that uses body part splits, I’ll often use a variety of rep ranges and movements on my shoulder day to stimulate both strength and size gains. A typical program may look something like this:
Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Barbell Push Press 5 3 90 sec.
B1 Seated Neutral Grip Dumbbell Overhead Press 4 8 60 sec.
B2 90-degree Cable External Rotation 4 8 60 sec.
C1 Single-Arm Cable Lateral Raise 3 10-12* 60 sec.
C2 Bent-Over Reverse Dumbbell Fly 3 10-12 60 sec.
D1 Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise 1 15 none
D2 Standing Dumbbell Front Raise 1 15 none
D3 Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press 1 15
* per arm
The “D” exercises are to be done as a sort of mechanical drop set. You pick one set of dumbbells and move from one exercise into the next with no rest in between.
Give that routine a shot. If that doesn’t make your shoulders bigger and stronger, then maybe you’re one of Les Miserables.
If a 20-30 year-old dude with no significant issues came to me and said he wanted bigger and stronger shoulders, this is what I’d tell him to do:
Seated Dumbbell Military Press. This blasts the front and middle delts as well as the triceps. I like the seated version for two reasons. One, the weight lifted with most trainees when seated is equal to or even greater than when standing, and two, the seated is more forgiving of minor postural issues. I usually put the seat back one notch from fully upright, which still makes it all shoulders. Two to four warm-up sets, 1-3 work sets.
Lean-Away Lateral Raise. Grab something sturdy, lean away from it, and raise the dumbbell to the side. Most people go too high on this movement – just go to 90 degrees, but since you’re leaning 90 degrees it won’t seem as extreme as in a normal standing lateral raise.
This is also a significantly easier variation, so weight should be 5-15 pounds heavier for an equal number of reps. Start with your weaker arm and perform equal reps on each side for 3 work sets after 1 warm-up set.
Lateral Raise Machine. The classic machine, the elbows-bent position allows you to go heavier, which is good for size and strength. Machines often get the thumbs-down from coaches but the skill required for a lateral raise is minimal anyway, so it’s less of a negative than switching from a bench press to a chest press. Do 3 work sets after 1 optional warm-up set.
Power Rear Delt Raise. Perform a bent over rear delt raise with the palms facing each other and bend the elbows on the way up. I tell people to pretend they were smacking something with their elbows (not hands) as they rise up. This allows you to almost double your strict rear-delt-raise weight. Do 3 work sets after 1 optional warm-up set.
Perform the above workout once a week, assuming you’re hitting chest/back/arms etc., hard at least once a week as well. For the weekly weight and rep progression, follow the guide below (weights included for illustrative purposes only):
Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
Dumbbell Military Press 50lb 1×8 50lb 1×10 50lb 1×12 55lb 1×8 55lb 1×10 55lb 1×12
Dumbbell Leaning Lateral Raise 25lb 3×12 25lb 3×16 25lb 3×20 30lb 3×12 30lb 3×16 30lb 3×20
Lateral Raise Machine 80lb 3×12 80lb 3×16 80lb 3×20 90lb 3×12 90lb 3×16 90lb 3×20
Rear Delt Raise 35lb 3×12 35lb 3×16 35lb 3×20 40lb 3×12 40lb 3×16 40lb 3×20
The public can generally tell if someone lifts by looking at their shoulders. A physique that blocks a lot of sun typically requires big, broad shoulders, the type that inspire boys to take their vitamins and women to toss their panties.
The downside of shoulder training, however, is that a lot of stuff has to happen behind the scenes to get the best benefits.
When the delts contract, their job is to essentially rotate and pull the humerus out of the socket, while the rotator cuff works in opposition to keep it in place and provide a counter-force instead of just letting the humerus glide all over the place.
Since most trainees have rotator cuffs that are woefully ineffective, the average lifter will do a better job at developing impingement instead of building a set of boulders.
I talked about the requirements and progressions to use to get solid and strong for overhead pressing in this article – give it a read to see some of the big stuff necessary to get the ball rolling before diving into the rest of what I’m talking about.
One of the best lessons I ever learned training shoulders is that full range of motion and effective range of motion aren’t the same.
Take the classic lateral dumbbell raise, for example. Full range of motion would involve bringing the weights all the way up so that the back of your hands almost touch above your head with straight elbows. While it would be politically incorrect to point and laugh were you to see that in action, you certainly would be justified.
Instead, try bringing the weights up so that the hands are slightly beneath the height of the shoulder. The deltoids are still stimulated, but the scapula isn’t being subjected to an additional range of motion that leads to more activation of the upper trapezius, and it also limits the chance of rubbing down the supraspinatus tendon between the humerus and acromion process. This essentially helps limit impingement.
Another big-bang tip for training shoulders was that eccentric action is much harder on the shoulder than concentric. Every client I’ve ever trained has said that pressing the weight up is always less of an issue with regard to pain as bringing the weight back down, lending to my belief that eccentric action takes a lot more force and power production to do than concentric – which means a lot of people will burn out their ability to control and stabilize the weight on the eccentric and wind up scraping something important in the stabilizing soft tissues.
As a result, I’m a big proponent of jerk-pressing or even military pressing (when appropriate to do so), but using either a drop-catch to the shoulders or simply dropping the weight if bumper plates are available to limit the eccentric stress on the shoulder.
You can use any tool you want to get the job done – barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, elastics, whatever you like – as long as you do them with enough stability through the spine, mobility of the shoulder joint, and enough control through the rotator cuff to hold it all together. If you can say that, you can build some gi-normous delts that will make your tailor cringe.
I’ll throw myself under the bus a little bit and admit that I hopped aboard the “anti-isolation” bandwagon for a couple of years and skipped all direct shoulder training, thinking my bench press variations, push-ups, rows, and chin-ups were all I needed to build impressive delts.
Chalk it up to being young and dumb, I guess.
Not surprisingly, my shoulders are somewhat of a weak point for me now and I’m left playing catch up. Go figure.
It should really be common sense, but if you want to build impressive delts, you really need to work your delts. Groundbreaking, I know.
Horizontal pressing, rows, chin-ups and the like will give you decent shoulder development, but come on, who wants to be just decent?
For optimal shoulder development from both a strength and muscle-building standpoint, you need to be doing some kind of overhead pressing. You may be worried that overhead pressing will shred your shoulders, but if you’re smart with your programming and exercise selection, and you’re also including plenty of pulling in your repertoire to balance out the pressing, it isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as a lot of people make it out to be.
The good old-fashioned overhead press is a great place to start if your shoulders and lower back are okay to do it. If not, a more joint-friendly option may be more appropriate.
My favorite choices in this regard are neutral grip presses with the Dead-Squat? Bar or football bar, angled presses with the landmine, or overhead presses with dumbbells and/or kettlebells.
You don’t have to go crazy on the volume – 3-4 sets of 5-8 should do the trick. If training shoulders twice a week (a good starting place) – doing the overhead press one day and a more joint-friendly press the other would be a good place to start.
If size is your goal, it’s also wise to include some lateral raises into the mix. I’ve started doing them with the landmine and I absolutely love them, much more so than dumbbells or cables. Once you try them you’ll see where I’m coming from. Three sets of 12 of these will have your shoulders begging for mercy.
If your goals are more strength-oriented, then laterals aren’t as important, but they certainly won’t hurt your cause.
Be sure to include some sort of rear delt work, too. If the thought of doing rear delt work is too bodybuildery for you, think of it as “shoulder pre-hab” if that makes you feel better about it. Same **** really.
Either way, it’s good to include some of it for optimal shoulder health and development. You don’t have to go crazy with it, but 3 sets of 10-12 of one of the following exercises would be a good way to finish up an upper body workout:
Dumbbell External Rotation
Rear Delt Fly
The 3-way ring finisher, my personal favorite.
Following those guidelines should have you well on your way to big and healthy shoulders.
Shoulders are a fickle beast. If you’re one of the blessed few born of the right genetic stock, your shoulders will grow just fine as you chase bench press and barbell row PRs. At worst all you’ll require is some additional work for the posterior and lateral head – and some bodybuilders don’t even need much of that.
But you’re likely mortal. You don’t wear a cape and punch out villains for a living – you wear khakis and punch a keyboard. What works for the gifted few isn’t suited for you.
In my experience, the first variable to manipulate to shock new shoulder growth is frequency. So if you’re currently hammering your shoulders like a good boy once a week, then double that to twice a week.
However, the shoulders are still relatively delicate, so I wouldn’t shoulder press twice a week – only once a week at most, and only if you’re cleared to do it.
Dean Somerset had some excellent variations to get you primed for shoulder pressing here – start at step one and move to the next variation after four workouts. Performing these presses after chest work, when the shoulders are warm and full of blood, is another wise idea and is the hallmark of training economy.
The other shoulder day is when you strap on your fanny pack and break out the old-school bodybuilding techniques. Perform lateral raises and rear delt raises for drop sets, strip-sets, or pair different lateral raise variations together into a superset or giant set like this one:
Exercise Reps Rest
A1 Seated Dumbbell Lateral Raise 6-8 10 sec.
A2 Standing Lateral Raise 8-10* 10 sec.
A3 Heavy Partial Lateral Raise AMRAP** none
A4 Band Pull-Apart ***
* You’ll probably have to drop the weight by about 10%.
** As many reps as possible. Use heavy dumbbells and crank the “reps” to 20 or so. Perform just partial reps; you might start with half-reps and finish with the weight barely moving (and in excruciating pain). The key is maximum tension (and pain tolerance).
*** 2 minutes and repeat twice.
Another great variation for this second workout is Dr. Clay Hyght’s Infamous Delt Triad, originally published here. To save you the trouble it looks like this:
The Infamous Delt Triad
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Lateral Raise 3 12-15
A2 Front Raise 3 12-15
A3 Overhead Dumbbell Press 3 12-15
Rest about 90 seconds between each round (superset).
Sure, there’s still some shoulder pressing, but as the third exercise in a superset your training loads will be decidedly anemic and won’t cause your rotator cuff to rip through your skin and splat against the mirror like a scene from the next reboot to the Alien franchise.
As for rear delts, perform those on back day and simply do whatever John Meadows says here. Actually, doing whatever Meadows says is fine advice in most cases in life, whether it’s bodybuilding, making babies, or growing facial hair that scares your mama.
Get Your Width On
The saying goes, the shoulders make the man. Or was it the clothes makes the man? Perhaps it was manly shoulders make buying clothes a pain in the ass? Let’s run with that one.
Just remember, the best system is the one that works for your specific needs and goals. If you have a bum shoulder or participate in a sport with a lot of shoulder activity, then you want to exercise caution when choosing a routine; those who are healthy and just want to grow some delts can afford to be a bit more cavalier.
Respect your body, stick to your goals, and train with passion. The results will soon follow.