Forget the clothes – it’s the shoulders that make the man!
In my line of work, I design a lot of specialization programs to address the weaker points of a given physique. Overall, I’d estimate two-thirds of these requests are from guys who want bigger arms or thicker chests, as well as the occasional wish to turn anemic calves into cows (picking better parents certainly helps with that one!).
On occasion, I do receive more open-ended requests, such as those from trainees who simply send pictures and ask for a routine that addresses what I judge to be their weak points. More often than not, what I send back to them isn’t the latest “pecs and biceps” routine but something to bring up lagging shoulders.
In contrast to today’s obsession with ripped abs, development of wide and full deltoids was priority one in the recent past, so much so that lifters spent more time training shoulders than any other muscle group.
The reason for this is that bodybuilding has always been a sport of illusion. It’s not the biggest knuckle-dragger on stage that wins the prize but the one showing the best balance of muscle size, proportion, and of course, conditioning. Interestingly, the physiques that have this balance often appear much bigger than they really are.
To create this illusion, bodybuilding coaches often talk about achieving an “X-frame.” The classic bodybuilding X-frame consists of a wide upper body that tapers to a tiny waist and widens again to sweeping thighs and (God-willing) thick calves.
Anne-Marie Swisher has beautifully capped shoulders and that X-frame sought by so many.
Bodybuilding legend Robbie Robinson has the archetypal X-frame, one so impressive that Joe Weider reportedly had his head superimposed onto Robbie’s body for a series of Weider supplement ads. Now that’s high praise!
What if you didn’t win the genetic lottery and instead have a wide waist or narrow clavicles? Although you can’t alter your overall structure, you can make every effort to make yourself appear wider. By emphasizing deltoid development, even “structurally challenged” men can present the illusion of superhero-like width.
Another reason why old-time bodybuilders put shoulder training at the top of their lists is that many also competed as Olympic lifters, so there was extra incentive to spend time pressing a heavy bar overhead. However, once the overhead press was dropped from Olympic competition, opinions changed. Shoulder work fell out of favor with the top bodybuilders, and the next generation of up-and-comers saw no reason to emphasize it.
Today, many coaches actually advocate avoidance of direct deltoid work. “The delts receive enough stimulation when training the chest and the back,” is the classic sound bite. At first glance, this makes sense. You can’t do any type of chest press without recruiting the anterior (front) deltoid, and any rowing or chin-up type movements will involve the posterior (rear) deltoids. That just leaves the medial (side) deltoids, which these coaches say require just a few sets of lateral raises. Logical? Sure. But is this effective?
For athletes or lifters who consider aesthetics of secondary importance, I’d say yes. The deltoids will get all the stimulation they need from pressing, rowing, chinning, and power cleans. However, bodybuilders seeking the elusive X-frame should reconsider. Big anterior delts give the shoulders the full, round “bowling ball” look, and these can’t be attained without some direct training–namely overhead work.
You are pretty much going to look tiny next to the shoulders of world’s strongest powerlifter Donnie Thompson (left) and man mountain Paul Childress (right).
Avoiding all overhead pressing also affects width. The medial deltoid contributes significantly to overhead pressing movements, and considering that much heavier loads can be used for presses than lateral raises, narrower bodybuilders seeking maximum width will compromise their potential by avoiding the heavy bar.
As for the posterior delts, the genetically blessed can usually get away with just doing rows and chins, but most mere mortals will need to give their rear delts some direct attention. Additionally, the combination of flat bench-presses and zero posterior delt work significantly increases the potential for shoulder injury or developing a posture reminiscent of the gym douchebag searching the gym floor for his missing cell phone.
So what’s the answer? Lots of shoulder pressing? Tons of lateral and rear delt raises? The answer is “all the above” but separately.
Shoulders Like Boulders
To maximize growth but minimize overtraining, break your shoulder training into blocks: heavy shoulder pressing in one block, lateral and rear raises in the other. Furthermore, during the shoulder pressing block, do not perform any bench presses or bench press variations. Instead, replace them with work for the external rotators. Don’t worry–you can return to bench pressing dominance during the lateral raise phases.
There are shoulders, and then there are Markus Ruhl BOULDERS!
Interestingly, upon returning to bench pressing, your poundages may initially be lower, but should then soar to new heights after a few weeks. This is due to the shoulder contribution to the bench press. A stronger shoulder press means a stronger bench press. The catch is that the inverse is NOT true.
Injury Side Note
Another cause for the untimely demise of the shoulder press is the myth that shoulder pressing hurts the shoulders. Let me be clear – it’s not the shoulder press (not even a properly performed behind the neck press) that hurts the shoulders. Piss-poor flexibility, imbalances between the external rotators of the humerus, and way too much bench pressing is what hurts the shoulders.
If you lack the flexibility to perform a decent shoulder press, consult a good Active Release Therapy practitioner. You should see results within a treatment or two.
A note on tempo:
I’ve borrowed (stolen?) this tempo prescription from strength coach Charles Poliquin. I highly recommend his excellent PICP courses for learning more about proper program design and exercise methodology.
Here’s how the four numbers work, using 3211 as an example:
• The first number is the eccentric tempo, or lowering phase. In this example, the lifter would take three full seconds to lower the weight.
• The second number is the isometric pause at the end of the eccentric. In this example, the lifter would pause for two full seconds; a zero indicates no pause is taken.
• The third number is the return or concentric phase. This example has a one-second concentric; an X would indicate an explosive return, or pulling the weight back up as fast as proper technique allows.
• The fourth number is the isometric pause at the end of the concentric phase or before the start of the next rep. In this example, the lifter would pause one full second before lowering the weight again.
Don Howarth was once considered to have some of the best shoulders in the game.
Heavy Pressing Block
Do this routine every five days. I suggest pairing the shoulder pressing with a chin-up variation for the same number of sets and reps. Add weight to your chin-ups if possible. Your other workout days should be lower body specific and arms – no chest!
A1) Seated dumbbell press
Hold the dumbbells in a semi-supinated (palms facing each other) grip and lower until the ‘bells touch your shoulders. Press the dumbbells straight up overhead – resist the urge to bring them together. Think of that dumbbell clinking sound as the international mating call of the dork gym rat.
A2) Wide-grip pull up
Rest for 90 seconds between these lifts, during which you should stretch the pecs, lats, and deltoids.
B) Cuban press
Grab a LIGHT barbell and perform a wide-grip upright row until the bar is just below the clavicles. Next, externally rotate the bar as if you were trying to touch it to your forehead. Finish by pressing the bar overhead. Lower the weight along the same path.
A1) Seated barbell overhead press
Make sure that the index fingers are positioned just outside the medial deltoids in the start position. Start the exercise from the bottom position. The classic Bill Starr “5 sets of 5 reps” with 90% 1RM is perfect here. Perform near-perfect reps and resist the urge to hit failure. Rest for two minutes before performing an antagonistic exercise, such as medium-grip chin-ups.
A2) Medium-grip chin up
B) Low pulley external rotation
Set the low pulley handle at about knee height and stand with the nonworking side next to the weight stack. Grasp the handle with your working arm and pull it across your body until it’s at upper thigh level. This is the starting position.
Now, externally rotate the arm while trying to keep the elbow close to the body. Hold for a two-count at peak contraction and slowly reverse.
Perform six sets of this exercise: three sets of three, then three singles. . Start the exercise from the bottom position, and gradually increase the weight for each set. Rest for two minutes before doing the antagonistic exercise; rest another two minutes before returning to the original exercise. Be mindful not to lean back excessively, thus turning this into a standing incline bench press. Also, keep the legs out of the exercise – this is not a push press.
A2) Neutral-grip weighted pull-up
Reps: 2-4 (add weight if possible.)
B) Incline lying dumbbell abduction
Think of this one as a single-arm, half-lateral raise done while lying on an incline bench. Note the two-second pause at the top.
Mike Matarazzo was another bodybuilder known for his MASSIVE shoulders.
The Next Phase
Workouts 1-6: Supersets
Now you may return to bench-pressing glory! Your shoulder workouts should look like this:
A1) Seated lateral raise
Rest 10 seconds before A2
Maintain a slight bend in the arm and focus on using muscle, not momentum. Bring the arms up so that at the end of the movement the back end of the dumbbells is slightly higher than the front end. This places more stress on the lateral head of the deltoid.
A2) Cable upright row with rope attachment
The much-maligned upright row is problematic if performed with a barbell and pulled to the nose. Using a rope and only pulling to the clavicles avoids this. Rest two minutes between supersets.
B1) Bent over rear lateral raise
Rest 10 seconds before B2
Rest your forehead on an incline bench and bend the knees slightly. Bring the dumbbells slightly forward in line with the ears.
B2) Seated row to neck with rope
This exercise will hammer the rear deltoids, the upper and mid trapezius, and the rhomboid muscles. Set the pulley so that it is positioned in line with the top of the chest, and grasp the ends of the rope attachment with palms down. With the shoulders protracted, begin the exercise by retracting the shoulder blades, and immediately row the rope towards the neck by bending the elbows. Keep the elbows up at all times.
The trunk should remain stable in order to minimize lower back involvement. Be sure to pause at the top and bottom position.
C) Cable lateral burnout
Reps: to failure
* This is basically a high-volume variation of the rest/pause technique. Perform a set to failure (approximately 12 reps) of cable lateral raises. Upon reaching failure, switch hands and repeat. Keep switching from arm to arm until no more reps are possible, then reduce the weight and continue. Perform this three times.
Workouts 7-12: Tri-Sets
A1) Seated lateral raise
A2) Cable upright row with rope attachment
A3) Seated dumbbell press
Rest three minutes between tri-sets.
B1) Bent-over rear lateral raise
B2) Seated row to neck with wide bar
Use a straight bar attachment instead of a rope.
B3) Wide-grip barbell row to neck
Grab a light barbell and assume the classic barbell row position. Retract the shoulder blades and pull the barbell towards the neck, holding the contraction for one second.
Rest three minutes between tri-sets.
Make no mistake, the benefits of proper shoulder training go far beyond merely filling out your favorite bar-star T-shirt. Balanced shoulder development will make your entire physique look bigger while the extra power will pay big dividends on International Bench Press Monday. As for the improved shoulder integrity? Well, that health stuff is just an added bonus.
Give this routine an honest shot, and maybe your friends will start calling you X-Man!