The foundation of your workouts should be multi-joint movements such as squats, deadlifts, pullups, bench press (dumbbells or barbell) at various angles, and bent-over rows. The upper-body multi-joint exercises work the shoulders as well as the larger muscles of the chest or back.
However, if you want to bring your shoulders up to a higher level of muscularity, it’s worth doing an hour’s workout devoted to shoulders once a fortnight. The rest of your shoulder workouts can be squeezed in at the end of a chest or back workout.
ANATOMY OF THE SHOULDER COMPLEX
To build well-developed shoulders, you need to understand their structure and function. The shoulders are the most complex joint structure in the human body. The muscles of the shoulder attach to three bones: the scapula (shoulder blade), the clavicle (collar bone), and the humerus (bone of the upper arm).
There are four shoulder joints:
The ST enables four movements: elevation, depression, protraction and retraction.
The SC enables the same movements as the ST. It’s the joint that links your sternum (breastbone) and clavicles.
This joins the acromium of the scapula to the lateral portion of the clavicle, and allows the moving scapula to stay in line with the curvature of your ribcage during arm movements.
This is the main shoulder joint for movement of the arm, enabling flexion, extension and abduction/adduction. This joint connects the head of the humerus to the glenoid fossa of the scapula. It’s the joint that gets injured the most. The muscles of the rotator cuff stabilise the GH joint, and these muscles are prone to injury too.
There are three main shoulder muscles, or three main ‘heads’ (excluding the rotator cuff muscles):
This muscle is developed by pressing exercises, and lateral raises.
The front delts are developed by front-raises, and incline bench press for upper chest. Pushups are another great way to build your front delts.
The most neglected muscle, worked by exercises which squeeze the shoulders back, or which raise your arms in any position where you are lying on your front on a bench, or bent over. I had a personal trainer in north London who had the best rear delt development I’ve ever seen in the flesh. He was a Russian bodybuilder, and he devoted a lot of time to rear-delt exercises. It gave his shoulders a real thickness when seen from the side and rear.
SHOULDER PRESS (MILITARY PRESS)
This compound movement can be performed seated (stricter) or standing, using dumbbells or a barbell. Seated incline shoulder press at 60-75 degrees angle will hit the upper chest and medial delts. You can either keep palms facing forward, or for more of a challenge try this exercise with palms facing each other and elbows tucked into your sides.
This exercise is a must-do if you want big shoulders. The whole shoulder musculature gets worked, as well as your upper chest and triceps. That’s a big bang for your buck!
Don’t lock out the joint at the top of the movement, push up to just short of lockout, to keep constant tension on the muscle, and to protect the joint. At the bottom of the rep, tilt the inner plate of each dumbbell down slightly.
To really feel the burn and get the most out of your shoulder presses, control the weights down slowly in the negative (downwards) phase, to engage the muscles for as long as possible each rep.
To completely exhaust the mid delts, do a drop-superset, where you perform one reasonably heavy set, followed immediately by a set with light weights for as many reps as possible, until you feel the burn and can’t do any more.
This is an isolation movement. Seated is stricter, as it cuts out any swinging motion. Pause briefly at the top of the movement (known as ‘peak contraction’), and resist gravity on the way down. Don’t rest at the bottom, but commence your next rep immediately.
REAR-DELT LATERAL RAISE
Another isolation movement. Resist the temptation to jerk the dumbbells up, rather focus on smoothly bringing the weights out to the sides and squeeze the shoulder blades at the top of each rep. Keep the elbows high, but don’t bend the elbows too much, or the effect is transferred from the rear delts to the upper back muscles.
You can also use the cable-crossover machine for this exercise, with bent-over cable lateral raises, with the cables fixed at the bottom of the stacks. Bend your knees and hips, and bend over while keeping a dip in your lower back. Keep your elbows slightly bent throughout each rep, to protect the elbow joint. Squeeze the shoulder blades at the top of each rep.
An alternative is the high-pulley reverse fly. With the cables fixed at the top of the stacks, stand a foot or so back from the machine, facing it, with arms bent and raised above your head, holding the handles with the cables criss-crossed. Then pull the handles down to horizontal, straightening your arms but not locking out the elbow joint. Squeeze the shoulder blades and rear delts, then return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
The stronger you can make your rear delts, the less prone to injury your shoulders will be when you perform heavier lifts. Well developed rear delts prevents that lop-sided look many gym-goers suffer from. Rear delt exercises are a good way to finish a back workout, as the rear delts will have been nicely warmed up.
You can use dumbbells, a barbell, or a barbell plate. Just make sure you don’t swing your body to get the weight up, or you risk injury to your back. Keep it strict and slow, to get maximum impact on the front delts.
A more unusual front raise is to use just one dumbbell gripped vertically in both hands. This will feel different to the usual front raises, and stimulate new muscle fibres.
For a real burn, you can superset several shoulder workouts, for example perform a set of front raises, followed immediately by a set of lateral raises. You could even go one step further and do a tri-set: a set of shoulder press, a set of front raises, and a set of lateral raises, without any rest in between. I recommend you use a lighter pair of dumbbells for this. An evil twist is to raise the dumbbbells above your head at the end of the tri-set, and hold for 20 seconds. Aaaargh!
PARTIAL REP RANGE
Another variation is to perform a set of 15 reps, but vary the rep range. So for example perform a seated military press in the mid 1/3 of the rep range for the first 5 reps, the upper 1/3 of the range in the next 5 reps, and the lower 1/3 of the range in the final 5 reps.
WHEN TO EXERCISE SHOULDERS AND HOW TO CONSTRUCT A SHOULDER WORKOUT
How often should you train your shoulders? My personal trainer in north London recommended hitting each head of the shoulders once a week. You could devote a whole workout to shoulders, hitting all the angles. Or you could split your shoulder routine, doing medial and front delts one day, and rear delts a few days later, combining shoulders with another body part in each workout.
Most people train shoulders straight after chest, which makes sense as your front delts are already warmed up. Alternatively, you can train medial and front delts after chest, then train rear delts on a separate day, straight after your back exercises. Avoid training shoulders the day after a chest or back workout, as they won’t have recovered sufficiently.
Rotate the order in which you perform your shoulder exercises. Most people leave rear delts till last, and this part of your shoulders often lags behind because it gets rushed at the end. So from time to time, start with rear delts, when you’re fresh, and really work them hard. Never let the order of your exercises get into a comfortable rut, or you’ll stop making gains as fast as you otherwise could.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and author of the Fitness4London.com blog.