Shoulders make the man. Think that’s nothing more than a trite cliché? Why do businessmen buy suits with shoulder pads? And why is it that the most macho sport of all, professional football, requires players to wear massive shoulder pads that give them the illusion of being 5 feet wide? The mark of a masculine physique is the V-taper, wide shoulders tapering down to a small waist. Superheroes and action figures often have this characteristic exaggerated to enhance their aura of unbridled strength and virility. You can get away with having mediocre development in some body parts, but not the shoulders. All that will suffice are round, capped deltoids that radiate power and authority. Here’s how to get them.
The most important and basic exercise for the shoulders is the overhead press, which has many effective variations. They can be done seated or standing with a barbell or dumbbell, or on a wide variety of machines. Even with a bar, you have the options of pressing in front of your head or behind, though it is generally advised these days to avoid behind-neck presses for the potential damage to the rotator cuff structure of supportive muscles. If using free weights, probably the best choice is seated dumbbell presses, which allow your forearms to move in a perfectly vertical plane rather than tilted forward or backward when using a barbell. Whatever equipment you select, be sure to get a full range of motion, beginning with your upper arms parallel to the floor and pressing to full lockout. The overhead press allows for maximum loads and involves the entirety of the shoulder structure as well as the triceps and traps. It cannot be beaten as an overall mass builder.
Side Lateral Raises
The side or medial heads of the deltoids are responsible for width and roundness of the shoulders. They are particularly important to focus on because unlike the front and rear heads, they do not receive any ancillary work while training torso muscles like the chest and back. Side lateral raises are the best way to work them, and can be performed with dumbbells as is most commonly done, or machines or cables. Many lifters eventually gravitate toward cables or machines because tension is felt along the entire range of motion. This is in contrast to using dumbbells, when the first few inches from the bottom don’t involve the side delts at all. In all cases, make an effort to actually contract the side delts at the top of the rep for a second rather than merely flinging the weight up and down. Less weight will be able to be handled when you do this, but the rewards are well worth ditching your stupid ego.
Rear Lateral Raises
The posterior or rear deltoids are notorious for being ignored and undeveloped in an embarrassingly high percentage of weight trainers. If you know you fit into this very large group, it’s time to start concentrating on bringing your rear delts up to par. Rear lateral raises can be done with dumbbells, cables, or on machines that double as pec decks if you turned around on them and faced the weight stack. If you choose dumbbells, you may stand and lean forward, sit on a bench and do the same, or lay facedown on an incline bench for greater stability. Whether you use machines, dumbbells, or cables, make a conscious effort to feel the rear delts working. One thing to watch for is the contact of your shoulder blades. If they meet at any point, you are working the upper back and not the rear delts.
Front Lateral Raises
You may or may not need to work the front delts (see below), but if you do, front raises with a barbell, dumbbells, or a cable pulley will do the trick. This is typically the easiest part of the shoulders to build.
Finally, upright rows are an exercise that often seems to be forgotten, though it’s a very valuable movement for the side and rear delts. A bar is usually the best tool, though you may also use dumbbells or a cable attachment. With a grip of shoulder width or even a touch beyond, strive to pull the resistance up and over your shoulders. At the point of full contraction, your hands should be about level with your upper chest.
Do You Need to Work the Anterior Deltoids?
If you have been devoted to barbell bench presses since you got your first pimple, chances are your front delts are already quite well developed. An easy way to see if you fit this mold is to look at your reflection in the mirror while standing sideways. If your front delts dominate, you will see a definite forward hunch to your shoulders, which may also be negatively affecting your posture. In such a situation, no direct work for the front delts is either required or desired. The name of the game with shoulders is balance. Very few men ever achieve equal development in all three heads of the muscle, but when they do it is an impressive accomplishment.
Top 5 Tips for Shoulder Training
Like the hips, the shoulder is a ball-and-socket type joint capable of moving in many different directions and planes of motion. Because it is so flexible, it is also more susceptible to injury. Another factor to take into consideration is overuse, as any of you who have ever been a baseball pitcher or football quarterback know all too well. This makes it very important to treat the shoulders with caution and respect in the weight room. Always take the time to thoroughly warm up with several light weight and high-rep sets before even thinking about tackling a heavy weight. Stretching is also a wise precursor to the workout, and specific strengthening exercises for the rotator cuff muscles can often be a smart investment too. Should your rotators ever give out, training not only for the shoulders but the entire upper body is shot. Avoid ballistic lifting movements that can greatly amplify forces placed on the joints and connective tissues.
Beware of Overlap and Overtraining
Whether you are aware of it or not, the shoulders are involved in every single exercise for the upper body, and even act as a stabilizer in key lower-body movements such as the squat and stiff-leg deadlift as you grip the bar. Thus, it is easy to unknowingly expose the shoulders to more frequent work than they are capable of recovering from. If you don’t train chest and shoulders together, which wouldn’t be a good idea anyway unless your shoulders didn’t need much improvement, try to keep at least 48 hours between their individual training sessions. You may also want to either work rear delts with back or likewise put a couple of days in between them, since the posterior deltoids are very much involved in all back exercises.
Form Is More Important Than the Weight Used
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen guys doing what looked like a convulsion while swinging up heavy dumbbells for lateral movements. Luckily I learned early on that perfect form was far more important than how many plates were on the bar or dumbbell. A former childhood friend of mine named Patrick Maher was one of the first kids I knew who built big, round shoulders by the time we were only around 19 years old. He trained at the gym I worked at, so I saw his shoulder routine firsthand – three tri-sets of side laterals, front laterals, and rear laterals – all with the same pair of 12-pound dumbbells. Yes, all he used was 12 pounds, but his form was perfect and obviously he was properly stimulating growth. He had been your typical skinny kid but built two little melons for shoulders inside of a year. Never sacrifice form and feeling in the muscle just to use more weight. It’s a losing proposition.
Machines and Cables Aare Just as Good as Free Weights
A lot of gym rats and personal trainers will expound on the alleged superiority of free weights over any type of machine or cable, claiming that the balancing involved with barbells and dumbbells forces you to use “stabilizing muscles.” This might be important if you are an athlete who needs to be able to generate power from various directions, but for those of us who weight train for a cosmetic effect to improve our physiques, it couldn’t be less significant. Do you really think your shoulders have any idea whether they are pushing against a barbell or a machine? Either one will do the job; so don’t get hung up on any one type of equipment. Additionally, for heavy overhead pressing, machines are often a safer option when no spotter is available.
Consider Pre-exhaust for Side Delts
Because so many lifters have dominating front delts, a common problem that arises is that this segment of the shoulder muscle takes the majority of the stress on presses, with the side deltoids receiving little stimulation. The solution was actually found in the late 1960s by the late publisher Robert Kennedy, who was renowned throughout the bodybuilding industry, when he pioneered the “pre-exhaust” principle to overcome weak links such as this. In the case of the side delts, you perform a set of an isolation exercise for them, such as side laterals, then immediately move to a compound movement such as the press that involves the entire shoulder as well as the triceps. Now, the fresh front delts and triceps act to drive the already-fatigued side heads into a deeper state of exhaustion. If you have never tried this, you owe it to yourself to give it a go the next time you train shoulders.
Basic Shoulder Routines
Seated Dumbbell Press
3 x 8-12
Dumbbell Side Laterals
3 x 8-12
Machine Rear Laterals
3 x 8-12
Barbell Press to Front
4 x 8-12
4 x 8-12
Routine C (pre-exhaust)
Dumbbell Side Laterals
3 x 8-12
3 x 8-12
3 x 8-12