1. The human shoulder is capable of performing an incredible range of movement variations. As such, the musculature tarted with shoulder training is complex to say the least.
2. The prioritization of deliberate form and execution in your shoulder training will allow you to optimize the hypertrophic response of individual muscle heads. Simply put, these methods will get you big and strong in record time.
3. The muscles of the shoulder respond well to increased training density, so super and compound sets are valuable tools to up the intensity and blood flow to these often stubborn muscle groups.
Welcome To Shoulder Training 101
Ask and you shall receive! We appreciate the rave reviews on our Maximal Muscle Growth Series and are PUMPED to release Part IV which is focused on optimizing your shoulder training for hypertrophy.
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about general orthopedic health and well-being, or taking an already great physique to the elite level, a strong shoulder complex is absolutely essential. From preventing and correcting postural issues, to making sure you kill that back double biceps pose on stage, this article will help you turn those puny shoulders into legitimate boulders…with movement and anatomy based SCIENCE, of course!
In terms of complexity, you’d be hard pressed to find a joint that is more intimidating than the shoulder. And shoulder training? Yeah, it can get pretty complicated without a mastery level of movement anatomy and biomechanics.
Flexion, Extension, Abduction, Adduction, Rotation, it all happens here; and in multiple planes of motion. Use the lessons and tips below to make sure you are leaving no stone unturned every time you set foot in the gym. Plus, you can use them to prove your worth as a trainer or coach by truly understanding how the shoulder works (and doesn’t work).
Now before we jump in, I want to lay down a couple key points that I am literally going to drive into your skull in this article. Lets just debunk these myths before you even start asking yourself these questions on shoulder training because you heard it from your bro at the gym:
#1 Cables Are NOT Machines
They’re not going to make you puny and small, and they’re not just for chicks to do glute kickbacks on. Cables are infinitely more effective at creating and maintaining tension in your delts and traps when compared to dumbbells and barbells for most shoulder training movements. Tension translates to growth. Check your ego now and buy into this fact. Your gains depend on it.
#2 Don’t Waste Your Time With Direct Rotator Cuff Work
Direct rotator cuff work is completely unnecessary 99.9% of the time. Unless you are rehabbing an injury with Dr. John, stop wasting your time with countless sets of rotator cuff work and learn to set your scaps and pack your shoulders through ALL movements. This may be the single most important skill to develop if you want to go through hardcore shoulder training workouts and not pulverize your joints in the process.
#3 Strategically Add Novelty To Your Exercises
Old school methods are great, and they work for most muscle groups. However, new school is better in some cases, including shoulder training; so yes, training your shoulders is absolutely in need of a new school flare. Embrace the novelty introduced here and ditch the archaic movements that you keep holding onto, even though you have never felt them actually do anything.
Ok, so keeping those in mind, here we go!
Ah the delts, perhaps the most misunderstood muscles in the entire fitness industry. “What do you mean bro? Lateral raises, frontal raises, and some presses. Delts are easy!” Well, unfortunately that mindset is a load of bullshit. You’ll understand why by the end of the article.
The deltoids are made up of three heads, you already know this. The anterior, lateral, and posterior heads work in synergy to perform a myriad of actions about the shoulder joint. Posterior delts are up first, because it’s likely you need the most help there; but first, look at the picture above to get your bearings, plus, it lists the different aspects of the deltoid so I won’t have to bore you with that whole routine in this portion, score!
The Posterior Deltoid
The rear delts are best trained by introducing both of its actions into a single movement. That means external rotation and humeral extension.
Ever see the rear delts fly handles on the pec deck machine? Don’t use them. Use the handles that you use for pec flies. “But, but, but…the machine diagram thingy says I should use the rear delt ones…” Too bad, here’s why that approach is not optimal. We want to both extend AND externally rotate the humerus. To do so, your palms need to be facing each other, but not because of what happens at your elbows. Be sure that you don’t confuse supination of the forearm (about the elbow) with external rotation of the humerus (about the shoulder). The former will do nothing in terms of delt activation, while the latter will make you wonder what your shoulders would look like if you had known this 5 years ago.
When using cables, or dumbbells, you want to start each rep with your palms facing each other (think thumbs up). The posterior deltoid is basically doing the exact opposite of your pecs, PLUS that all important external rotation aspect.
Posterior Delt Tip: Set Your Shoulder Blades
If maximum tension in your posterior delts is the goal, you need to be damn sure that local synergists are turned off (locked in place). Pinch your scaps together hard, firing rhomboids and mid traps, and keep them that way throughout your rear delts work. You’ll notice a big difference while training them with this added static retraction.
The Medial Deltoid
These are sadly trained with all kinds of outdated and ass-backwards methods. And by ass-backwards I mean, “hey bro, do you even understand how gravity works?”
Gravity acts downwards, that’s it. You know those guys who bang out countless reps of lateral raises leaning away from something? Yeah, those don’t do what you think they do. Why? Gravity. We need a weight to move VERTICALLY for our muscles to be subjected to tension. So, can you see why a dumbbell lateral raise might not be your best option to maximize tension? For the first half of the movement, the dumbbell is basically moving sideways. If only there was a way to account for this…OH WAIT, THERE IS. Remember when I said cables are your shoulders’ best friends? Well there you go. By manipulating the force vectors associated with the external load, you can increase tension in your target muscle through the ENTIRE range of motion, especially the bottom half of any flexion/abduction around the shoulder joint. Booyah!
Lateral Delt Tip: Lead With Your Elbows
Focus on the distance your elbows travel when isolating lateral delts. They should be the highest point of your arms on lateral raises, upright rows, etc. Your delts affect your humerus, not your forearms, so act like it. When nearing the terminal portion of your ROM for lateral raises, focus on pushing your hands as far out as possible (spread the walls). This cue increases the moment arm with regards to the shoulder joint, thus subjecting the lateral delts to more torque. Torque=Tension. Tension=Growth. Simple stuff, eh?
The Anterior Deltoid
The anterior delts get a whole lot of attention during most varieties of chest presses (unless you read Part III of this series), so I tend to avoid excessive volume when it comes to targeting them, especially with overhead press work. I recommend a few high intensity sets at THE END of your shoulder program, focused at fully shortening and driving blood into the muscle bellies. I like to pick one movement for each of the aforementioned goals. You will see videos for one of my favorite pairings in the sample program below.
Anterior Delt Tip: Work On Your Freaking Mobility!
If you can’t pass the standing wall-slide test for shoulder mobility, you need to get your shit together. Ok you’re right that was a little harsh. Let’s try that again… If you can’t pass the standing wall-slide test for shoulder mobility, you are putting yourself at an elevated risk for chronic shoulder issues while also missing out on a lot of potential for building muscle. Full external rotation of the shoulder girdle, while simultaneously maintaining a neutral spine is tough; especially if you haven’t paid much attention to it in the past.
Master this simple corrective below, and you will be able to reap the benefits of pain-free muscle Overhead pressing.
By protecting your rotator cuff complex, packing your shoulder, and establishing a firm foundation for force distribution, overhead presses go from an orthopedic surgeon’s main source of income, to an absolutely kick-ass mass builder. Lock and load!
All right, take everything you just learned and put it to the test with the following shoulder routine. Remember to use the cues and focus on the working muscle. SQUEEZE every rep!
1A. Asymetrical Ab/Adduction Band Pull Aparts 3×8
Coaching Notes: Set your scaps and perform a regular band pull apart, trying to touch the walls. Then, abduct one arm, and adduct the other, all while maintaining scapular retraction.
1B.Machine Rear Delt Flies 3×20
Coaching Notes: Using the pec fly handles (not the rear delt pegs) set your scaps and activate your posterior delts. Focus on a hard contraction on top, and do not relax your shoulders until after the set is complete.
2A.Lateral Delt Cable Fly to Open 3×12
Coaching Notes: Set cables at just below shoulder height. With criss-cross grip, set your scaps and raise your arms to form a nice wide V, squeezing your delts hard on top. Maintain tension throughout the entire set.
2B.Cable Lateral Raise 3×12 per arm
Coaching Notes: Leaning slightly out from the pulley system, relax your traps and initiate the movement with your lateral delts. Again, focus on reaching for the walls, while driving the movement with your elbow. Briefly pause each rep on top.
3A.Anterior Delt Shoulder Bombs 3×10
Coaching Notes: Set the cable cross at its lowest setting and place a shoulder press bench between the two. Start the movement with your arms elevated at your sides, forming a T. While keeping arms straight, and palms facing forward, touch cables above your head. Repeat, witha 1-2 second hold on top of each rep.
3B.Dumbbell V-Press 3×8 (no lockout+partial reps)
Coaching Notes: Just like a regular DB press, except you are not going to push them together. For the entire ROM the DBs should be moving away from one another. Go light here, and focus on using the delts, not the upper pecs and triceps. Pulse reps are preferred here to maintain constant but dynamic tension.
Now that we’ve covered the deltoid, it’s time to jump into another accessory “shoulder” muscle, which is the trapezius, and more specifically, the upper portion that plays a huge role in shoulder training and muscle development.
The Upper And Middle Trapezius
And before we say see you later for another week, we’re going to talk about the upper fibers of the trapezius. The upper fibers are responsible for scapular elevation (think shrug), and upward scapular rotation (think terminal point of an overhead press). The range of motion is small for these fibers, so hard contractions and maximizing time under tension should be your objectives. None of this five plate per side on a barbell, straps on, bouncing the bar up and down like a spazz bullshit.
Select a weight that allows you to maintain constant tension throughout the entire repetition, and squeeze everything for 3-seconds on top. Remember that ultimately your traps are 1 muscle, and working adjacent fiber orientations (i.e. mid and upper fibers) together is a killer method for maximizing hypertrophy. Check out two of my all-time favorite shrug variations in the program below.
Traps Tip: Occasionally Shrug Up AND Back
By shrugging the weight up and back, you can recruit more fibers in the middle traps. To do so, focus on retracting your shoulder blades, and then shrugging. Free weights aren’t a great option here, so hit the cable variation found below. Stick to the dumbbells and barbells for the strictly vertical shrug work.
1A.Cable Shrug+ Scap Squeeze 4×12 (231 tempo)
Coaching Notes: Stand between and away from narow cable cross setup. Retract scaps and elevate your shoulders as high as possible. Hold for 3 seconds, repeat.
1B.Behind The Back Shrugs 4×12 (231 tempo)
Coaching Notes: With arms slightly behind the body (you’ll have to step away from the bar) use your traps to pull the bar up, maintaining scapular retraction throughout. Hit a 3 second iso on top and repeat.
Well, that’s it for Part IV on shoulder training. Let us know what you think and keep the questions and comments coming! Part V on training the Gunz, AKA the biceps and triceps, will be released next week, in addition to a very exciting announcement, which may or may not include a kick-ass program designed to fine-tune your movement patterns with functional anatomy know-how. Oh how exciting!
About The Author
Ian Padron is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s Exercise Science Program and an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, currently residing in Seattle, WA. Ian’s mission is to revolutionize the health and fitness industry by combining science and education to evoke sustainable change in his clients and readers. He preaches the importance of a holistic approach to training, taking into account the mind AND the body. Ian also walks the walk as a natural competitive bodybuilder.