written by sean hyson
I wanted to talk shoulder training this time, but I had to resist titling this post “Bolder Shoulders”, “Shoulders Like Boulders”, “Dynamic Delts”, or any other such cheesy and overused fitness magazine names for a shoulder article. We’ll just keep it simple and call it “Big Shoulders”. No need to thank me.
If you’re going to zero in on any muscle group in the fall, it might as well be shoulders. Your arms are going to be covered by long sleeves, no one can see your abs, and your chest will likely be too shrouded to get credit either. But big delts don’t hide. You can still look wide and powerful in or out of a jacket or sweater.
Here are some things you should know about training the shoulders.
1) Lateral raises with dumbbells kinda blow
The range of motion isn’t very big. In fact, your arms have to come up about six inches or so before your deltoids even kick in. Before then, it’s your supraspinatus, a rotator cuff muscle, that’s doing the work. If you’re always doing dumbbell raises and always working the supraspinatus, it’s going to get bigger, and that can lead to shoulder pain. The rotator cuff is made up of small muscles that aren’t meant to hypertrophy to a great degree. Making them bigger knocks things out of whack—the supraspinatus will grow and squeeze against the acromion (the top of the shoulder joint), and this can even lead to a tear.
Apart from that, there’s little stretch on the deltoid in the down position of dumbbell raises when the weight is by your side. You can’t fully activate a muscle unless you can put stretch on it, so dumbbell raises aren’t as effective as cables. With a pulley, you get that stretch because the resistance comes from the side, rather than up. You feel the exercise immediately in the bottom position.
HOWEVER, the position of the pulley is key. If it’s too low (close to the floor), the effect will be almost the same as using dumbbells. Set the cable to knee height if possible.
2) 100-rep sets bring up weak areas fast
I like Frederic Delavier’s method of doing these. He’s a bodybuilder and the author of the popular Strength Training Anatomy book series. He recommends:
Choosing a weight you can do 30 or so reps with and going for it. Then rest until you think you can get 50 reps and go for that. At that point, you can reduce the weight if the set feels particularly brutal, or stick with it, but keep grinding out a handful of reps at a time until you get to 100 total reps. There’s no better way to flush a lot of blood into a weak muscle (or, in this case, just one you want to prioritize), and such an incredible pump is usually a predictor of growth. This is also a harsh way to help you establish the mind-muscle connection in an area, helping you to feel it and focus on it in order to bring it up.
Try the 100-rep method on rear delts—a weak point for almost everyone. It should work well on bent-over cable lateral raises. Just make sure you’re not training shoulders in any way the next day. That means you shouldn’t even squat or deadlift for more than 24 hours, as those exercises work the shoulders more than people realize.
3) Pre-exhaustion is perfect
I think performing an isolation exercise before a compound one is usually a mistake, but for weak areas like the rear delts, it’s right on the money. Delavier articulates pre-exhaustion well, and I discussed it in an earlier post that you can check out HERE.
4) You don’t need a big range on presses
That is, if you have long arms. A big reach like mine is a disadvantage in most aspects of lifting, but it can be dangerous and counterproductive on overhead presses. Don’t lower the bar below your ears. This will prevent the delts from getting overstretched, which apart from causing potential injury will also prevent them from activating muscle fibers and performing a powerful concentric contraction.
Of course, using a slightly smaller range of motion means you can use heavier weights, so let that make up the difference.
5) A neutral grip for front raises works better
If for some reason your front delts are lacking—and most people who do bench and overhead presses don’t have this problem—do front raises with your thumbs facing the ceiling rather than with your palms facing down. This helps better isolate the front delt head and it lets you use a heavier weight. If you have an elbow injury or otherwise can’t do presses, front raises can allow you to keep meat on your front delts.
6) Always follow the same steps for bringing up any lagging area
These include putting the muscle first in your workout (the ol’ Weider “Priority Principle”), training one side at a time, increasing the frequency, developing the mind-muscle connection, and pre-exhaustion.
Most of these I’ve discussed already, and the others are pretty obvious. Training unilaterally lets you focus better on just one side at a time. This usually means you can use a heavier weight, too. As far as frequency, working a muscle three or more times a week is always a good idea if you can recover from it, so heavy, light, and medium days that are appropriately spaced out should be part of the plan. (Chad Waterbury has a good system for doing this, which I touched on in my last post.) Another idea is to do your presses and raises while seated. This will ensure stricter form and more tension on the delts.
Final training tip: If your delts are burning after a long set, raise your arms overhead or knock out a set of pullups. This clears the acid much better than just letting your arms dangle at your sides while you grimace and curse.