Phil Heath On Shoulders

By Greg Merritt Flex

Let’s say you’re Mr. Olympia. Just dream for a minute. Your life is a whirlwind of airports and interviews and strange gyms in stranger places. And all the while, you’re a marked man. You’ve got the title everyone wants, so the world’s other best bodybuilders are gunning for you workout after workout, meal after meal. What do you do? How did you stay on top for three years, and how do you stay there for at least one more? Two ways. You eliminate, as best you can, your weaknesses—those areas your closest competition could possibly exploit. And you enhance your strengths—those areas you can exploit over those same top contenders.

This brings us to Phil Heath’s shoulders. What was once a deficit is now a surplus. We should also mention the head on those shoulders, because the changes happened and continue to happen only because of meticulous planning and methodical execution.

The Gift uses the following 10 techniques to both overcome a narrow structure and enhance the 3-D density his delts’ and traps’. Eliminate weaknesses, expand strengths, rinse, repeat, over and over. For Heath, this approach wins poses. And, ultimately—three times and counting—it wins Sandows.

During Phil Heath’s first two years in the Pro League—his undefeated freshman season of 2006 and his disappointing Arnold Classic debut the following spring—the consensus was that he was a force to be reckoned with, but his narrow clavicles would prevent him from joining the likes of Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler in the Olympia pantheon. Then 2009 happened. The Gift 2.0 was 15 pounds heavier than the previous version, and a great many of those pounds were packed around his clavicles. Suddenly, the old consensus was replaced with a new one: Heath is going to contend for the ultimate title, starting now. Five years later, he has three Sandows, and he goes for No. 4 on Sept. 19–20.

No amount of training will lengthen clavicles, but Heath still widened his shoulders significantly by expanding his deltoids. The medial delts are of primary importance in breadth, but at least one of the three delt heads (anterior, medial, posterior) plays a substantial role in every mandatory pose except for abs and thigh. Colossal traps can also provide crucial depth in many poses. The Gift is fully aware that delts and traps aren’t strong points for his chief *****, Kai Greene. “I want to maintain my advantage there,” the reigning Mr. O says. “Or expand it. Delts and traps are always going to be a big focus for me.” You can’t lengthen your bones, but, like Heath, you can give the appearance of doing so by making strategic additions.

The more you win, the more you have to lose. As a former collegiate basketball player, the Gift knows this rule applies to all sports. Look at Derrick Rose. After the 2010–11 season, the Chicago Bulls guard became, at 22, the youngest-ever NBA MVP. But a blown-out left knee kept him of the hardwood in 2012–13, and a blown-out right knee did the same for almost all of this season. Injuries have dramatically slowed Rose’s career trajectory in a way no opponent could. Likewise, Heath’s greatest potential obstacle moving forward is not Kai Greene or Dennis Wolf or Shawn Rhoden. It’s a torn tendon. Even just a strain that keeps him riding the brakes for weeks when he should be accelerating could cost him first place and forever alter his legacy.

That’s why if you happen into Armbrust Gym in Wheat Ridge, CO, during the first 10 minutes of Mr. Olympia’s shoulder workout, you’ll see him repping out various types of raises with diminutive dumbbells. He knows the importance of warming up for injury prevention, especially in regards to the vulnerable deltoid muscles and the ball-and-socket joints that lie beneath. Strain any component in that complex architecture and it can derail shoulder, chest, and back workouts for weeks or months. Follow the gift’s protocol, and make certain your delts are lightly pumped and ready to rock before your first working set on shoulder day.

Ten is the magic number. Heath has said he’s aiming for 10 Sandows, which wouldn’t just break the current record of eight held by both Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman, but would tack an extra on top of it. But 10 is also his typical rep target. He aims for 12 on side laterals, but chooses a weight that allows him to get only 10 strict reps on his other delt exercises. This keeps him in the middle of the 8–12 range, which has been scientifically proven to best build muscle.

For seated shoulder presses, he uses either dumbbells or a machine. And when he chooses a pressing machine, it’s usually one that allows his left and right arms to move unilaterally, thus replicating the freedom of dumbbells. Likewise, his side and rear laterals and his front raises are all done with dumbbells or independent-arm machines.

Consisting of three-headed muscles and ball-and-socket joints, your two shoulders have wide ranges of motion. Therefore, it makes sense to give each side as much freedom as possible. By choosing unilateral training tools, each arm can find its own groove. Also, on shoulder presses, additional muscle cells can be activated just to keep left and right in balance. Heath will do some bilateral overhead pressing and upright rowing, but in most workouts all of his delt and trap exercises are performed with either dumbbells or machines that let him move his arms independently.

Only two of the 13 Mr. Olympia’s were born after 1970, Heath and Jay Cutler. And the Gift arrived only 13 days before the launch of the ’80s. He grew up in the hometown of Microsoft (Seattle, WA) during the computer revolution. throughout his career as a bodybuilder/businessman, he’s eagerly adopted the latest high-technology. So maybe it’s no surprise that he also embraces the latest gym innovations, whether it’s the FST-7 training method or a new device.

He favors the Hammer Strength unilateral station for overhead pressing. He sometimes hits traps with a shrugging machine. And he often uses two devices for rear delts. One is a reverse pec deck. The other is a plate loaded, rear lateral machine, with which he lies facedown on a bench and pulls his elbows up against pads pressing against his triceps. Most gyms don’t have such a contraption. Armbrust Gym does. And the day it was delivered Mr. Olympia couldn’t wait to try it.

The most unique thing about Heath’s shoulder routine is the fact that he does two exercises for rear delts, hitting an area that many bodybuilders overlook with a barrage of eight sets. “I do extra rear delts to accentuate the flow from delts to arms in the rear double bi,” he explains. “[Big rear delts] also help you from the side. It adds that little extra.” He further explains that his chief *****, Kai Greene, “doesn’t have rear delts.” When his closest competitors have a weakness, it’s something he’ll emphasize more. Rear delts tend to lag front and side delts, so most bodybuilders would benefit from prioritizing this area to keep their three deltoid heads in balance.

Astute observers will note that Heath used to work his traps at the end of his back routine, but he now does so at the end of his shoulder routine. Either way works. The trapezius is a relatively large muscle. Upper traps (worked mostly with shrugs) are located above the clavicles, and mid and lower traps (worked more with back exercises) are located in the upper center of your back. The argument for shrugging on back day is that your upper traps are already getting some work then—especially if you do deadlifts. The case for shrugging on shoulder day is that your upper traps are more properly part of your shoulder region, and they will get stressed with medial delt exercises, like side laterals and wide-grip upright rows.

Which workout you choose is largely a matter of personal preference. “I’ve done it both ways, and I like both ways,” Heath says. “But I just feel like I have a little more energy at the end of my workout on shoulder day. Doing lots of rows and pulldowns takes more out of you than doing shoulder presses and laterals. But other than that, I wouldn’t say one way is better than the other.”

As mentioned, the Gift sticks to the 10–12 rep range for delts. However, he goes as high as 20 on shrugs. Unlike many bodybuilders, he’s not trying to impress anyone by humping up dumbbells the size of fire hydrants. Shrugs are one exercise most anyone can go heavy on—if they shorten their ranges-of- motion and time-under-tension and unrack and rerack monsters that can potentially wrench their spinal erectors. Heath’s not going for that. He uses dumbbells he can safely manage for strict, full reps, squeezing at the contractions. “Too many people don’t really feel these,” he says. “I want to get those strong contractions. And the higher reps let me really work the muscle.”

The Gift no longer makes FST-7 the foundation of his training. Instead, he generally ends his workouts with higher-rep sets. However, sevens (seven sets of an exercise performed with 20–30 seconds rest) remain an arrow in his arsenal. He can fire them of at any time, whether for variety or to up the intensity. If he feels his last shoulder workout was lacking, he may do sevens with side laterals, rear laterals, or shrugs next time.

Phil Heath was never a powerlifter, and he came to bodybuilding relatively late, after playing collegiate basketball. Therefore, he avoided the pit that too many bodybuilders stumble into— obsessing over moving even heavier metal. Such a mindset benefits you when it’s time to deadlift or power clean, but it generally only hinders you on shoulder day. Like Heath, work the muscle, not the weight. Focus on the targeted area from stretch to contraction of every rep of every set. You can miss hitting the deltoids entirely on exercises like side laterals if you allow momentum to propel your arms up. Use a weight you can control in strict form for 10 reps. Then forget about the metal, and focus on only the muscle. That’s the way Heath does it, and he has three Sandows—and counting—as proof his method works best.

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