Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
Do you need more mass, strength and power in your deltoids overall? Would you like to fill out that t-shirt and possess wide, commanding shoulders that convey a powerful physique without a word spoken? The more important question is: Do your shoulders suck?
Many trainers fall into the trap of not treating their shoulders with due respect when it comes to flowing a comprehensive program replete with a proper perspective of the right moves done the right way. Chest, back and arms are pummeled with big heavy and compound exercises while shoulders are thrown a few presses and lateral raises before heading out the door.
How your shoulders fit
Even though this article focuses on shoulder training, they’re part of a bigger picture. Strong, smartly-built shoulders aid in function as well. For example, overhead pressing movements, when done with proper form and technique, help stabilize the entire shoulder girdle and build balance into bench presses, rows and pull-ups. Think of your shoulders as the hinge to a door for all upper body movements. Without a strong essential joint, your shoulders could develop into a weak point if not already.
Another important factor to consider is how your shoulder routine fits into your overall program. You may think of your shoulder workouts as just another body part to train on its very own day or combined with another body part. To really improve on your entire shoulder complex you need to start thinking of your shoulder training in all aspects: range of motion, technique, power, strength, hypertrophy and efficiency.
Let’s dissect these aspects a little, delve into a few dos and don’ts and build a better set of shoulders.
Shoulder training don'ts
Don’t overhead press too much weight. This can spell certain injury and joint strain sidelining you from most, if not, all upper body work for a while. Use a weight you can handle with control on both the concentric (raising) and eccentric (lowering) parts of the movement. Too much weight may impress your buddies but the reality is that it won’t produce much in the way of bigger shoulders.
Don’t use a short or limited range of motion. Related to the above, presses seem to be a victim of this no-no as well. Short, choppy reps may allow you to lift more weight but won’t do much for building muscle. The less a muscle stretches the less it will contract.
Don’t cheat during any type of lateral raise. You’ve seen it plenty of times; someone is trying to perform a set of side laterals and start to rock their upper body back and forth, heaving the weight up. They may even lift up on their toes at the top of the movement.
Don’t overdo the presses. Barbell, dumbbell, Hammer, Smith and machine presses are all great exercises to stimulate overall growth in the shoulders but overdoing it will cause overtraining and reverse gains quickly. Too many presses in any single routine is a big don’t since your front delts get so much work from bench work to begin with.
Add in some dynamic moves. Everything from hang cleans, clean and presses, snatches to push presses can easily fit into any shoulder routine
Shoulder training dos
Do use a manageable weight. By now this is a no-brainer. Use a weight that you can control throughout the entire range of motion – not just after you lockout on a press, for example. Total control is also important to prevent injury and develop real stability not only in your shoulder joints but also throughout your body namely your midsection.
Do swallow your pride and use a full range of motion. Shoulder press from below your chin all the way overhead to near lockout, side laterals from either your side or from the front all the way up to shoulder level with control and perform upright rows without short and choppy bouncing reps. Full range of motion, controlled reps and complete contractions.
Do focus on posterior exercises. A big trend in training is to train the front (anterior) and middle (medial) deltoid heads ad nauseam. The rear (posterior) deltoids get neglected and forgotten. This not only weakens the strength of your posterior chain but will also pull your shoulders forward creating a convex, hollow chest rounding your back. Use posterior delt exercises to help pull your shoulders back and create a well-rounded and balanced shoulder area.
Do add in some dynamic moves. It’s easy to think of power as it relates to the bigger body parts such as chest, back and legs but shoulders seem to take a backseat. Everything from hang cleans, clean and presses, snatches to push presses can easily fit into any shoulder routine to add some full-body power and strength all the while adding performance to your overall physique. This spells more muscle too.
I would be remised if I didn’t list a typical shoulder routine. This may look a little familiar as you look over the brief routine below. If it does, pay close attention to the notes and see where you can do better so your shoulders suck no more.
Old shoulder training program
|Seated dumbbell shoulder press||3||6-8|
|Standing dumbbell side lateral raise||3||10|
|Seated reverse pec deck (rear delts)||2||10|
|Standing barbell or dumbbell shrug||3||6-8|
Old program notes: First off, the seated presses are most likely done in half rep style and the lateral raises are performed with atrocious form. Secondly, the delts aren’t challenged enough with either enough reps or with a technical power move such as clean and press. Also, there doesn’t seem to be enough posterior work for the rear delts. As mentioned earlier, this will create an imbalance over time. There lacks an overall diversity and variance in the program.
New shoulder training program
|Barbell clean and press||3-4||5|
|Dumbbell wide upright row||3||15-20|
|High rope face pull||4-5||10-15|
|Dumbbell or trap bar shrug (up and back)||3||8|
New program notes: The clean and press brings in some much-needed low rep power while the upright rows are high rep burners. The face pulls give not only the rear delts there due attention but also the upper traps as well. The shrugs are performed by lifting your shoulders up and back at roughly a 45 degree angle instead of straight up and down. This helps to contract the traps and stabilize the entire shoulder girdle. The program is balanced and has plenty of variety. Rest one minute between sets.
Intermediate non-sucky shoulder program
|Standing dumbbell lateral raise||3||20|
|Standing barbell push press||3||6|
|TRX high pull||4||15|
|Dumbbell bent-over lateral raise||2||8-12|
|Wide-grip barbell upright row||2||8-12|
Intermediate program notes: Take little to no rest during supersets and one minute after each superset. If the amount of sets is too much at first, simply reduce by one set for each move. The workout is challenging but give it time and your all-out effort and you will adapt. Perform either once or twice per week.