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TEN SECRETS OF SHOULDER TRAINING

I’ve always said that “deltoids make the physique”. Anybody who has round, capped delts and is fairly lean will look good. But even someone with a lot of mass will not look awesome with lagging, sloppy deltoids.

There is no doubt that putting an emphasis on deltoid development is important, but the problem is that most people fail to train their deltoids properly. While they may put in the effort, they either use workouts that are suboptimal or form that is not conducive to stimulating the deltoids exclusively.

Best case scenario, this will lead to poor shoulder development, but worst case scenario, to injuries that will stall your training and progression.

In this article, I discuss my 10 best training tips for building bulging deltoids while keeping the shoulders healthy.

1. At the most, 20-25% of your shoulder workload should be pressing work

 That is one rule I didn’t respect due to my love for heavy compound lifting. I love the military press, push press and their variations, and for a while it did me well to train shoulders using mostly these lifts. But eventually it caught up to me and I started to have shoulder issues. I also built an imbalance between my anterior and medial/posterior deltoids, my anterior deltoid being way overpowering. This led to a bad posture and faulty bench pressing mechanics.

If you are already doing plenty of pressing work in the form of bench pressing or incline pressing (dumbbells, barbell or machine), you don’t need to perform a lot of overhead pressing work. At the most, overhead pressing should account for about 20-25% of your shoulder training volume. But let’s not micromanage and count reps to establish volume, let’s keep it simple with sets or even exercises: A deltoid workout should have 1 pressing exercise and 3-4 other deltoid movements. And since the anterior deltoid is already heavily hit with the pressing movement, the “other” exercises should focus more on the other portions of the deltoids or shoulder functions.

2. With the rear delts, redundancy is a good thing

I wrote about rear delts in my “back tip article” and I will also talk about them in this shoulder one! That’s why I mention that redundancy is a good thing: the rear delts should be trained when you train your back and your deltoids. Simply put, if there is one muscle that you can’t train too much it’s the rear deltoid.

I do not always use the same training split. When I train for performance, I tend to use an upper/lower split (or even sometimes whole body training), and when I train to maximize muscle growth I normally use a push/pull/leg split. In any case, I will hit the rear delts at least 3 days a week and normally 4-5.

When I train back (pulling), the rear delts constitute a good portion of the volume, 20%+. When I train shoulders (pushing, focusing on overhead pattern), I will have 1 or 2 rear deltoid exercises (often as a superset), and when I train the bench press (pushing focused on the bench press) I do pull aparts between sets of pressing.

I sometimes even add pull aparts at home. I do not always train the rear delts hard, but I like to practice recruiting them as often as possible. I feel that this is one of the keys to healthy shoulders and it also gives a great 3D look to the upper body. This is even more important in my case because I’m traps/rhomboids dominant and they can easily take over the rear delts. I have to work hard to improve the mind-muscle connection with my rear deltoids and this is best done via a high frequency of training. Since they are very low stress, rear delt exercises can be done very frequently without impairing recovery or growth.

3. To properly recruit and stimulate the rear delts, remember the law of first tension and try to reduce rhomboid involvement

The law of first tension means that the muscle firing first during an exercise will be the one that will be recruited the most and receive the greatest growth stimulus.

When talking about the typical “rear delts” exercises like bent over lateral raises, chest-supported lateral raises, rear delts machine (reverse pec deck) and cable reverse flies, most people are actually working their rhomboids because they focus mostly on bringing the shoulder blades together (“squeeze the upper back”… “try to squeeze a pencil between both shoulder blades”, etc.).  Doing “rear delts” exercises this way is a great way to NOT to stimulate the rear delts!

If you want to isolate the rear deltoids, you need to keep the scapula (shoulder blades) as neutral as possible throughout the range of motion. The best cue to do this is to try to push the weight (dumbbell, machine or pulley handle) away instead of back. Your arms are moving away and back but your shoulder blades should stay as stable as possible.

In the following video the first two reps are done to focus on the rear delts, the last three to involve the rhomboids more.

I really like lying dual cable reverse flies because by lying down on the bench you can “trap” your shoulder blades and prevent them from being squeezed in, forcing the rear delts to do most of the work.

4. Don’t neglect the eccentric phase when doing raises

I will go out on a limb and say that shoulder raises (lateral, front and bent over) are the most butchered exercises you see in most gyms. From using the wrong angle to swinging the weight up to using mostly traps to do the work, it seems like nobody is doing them properly.

But the number one mistake that makes lateral raises ineffective is that people never control the weight on the way down. The real reason is that people use more weight than they should be using, period.

Here’s the deal. We are stronger eccentrically (lowering) than concentrically (lifting). While the difference between both can vary from one person to the next, the eccentric phase should be 10 to 40% stronger than the concentric one. In some people, it’s even higher than that.  If you are stronger eccentrically you should easily be able to control the weight on the way down. After all, you lifted it supposedly in good form; and you are stronger on the way down. So, brining it back down slowly should not be an issue at all. Yet most people can’t do the eccentric phase of a lateral (or front or bent over) raise under control, much less slowly.

“Yeah but I can lift it up so it’s not too heavy”.

Do the biomechanical laws stop working with the lateral raise? NO! The reason why you can’t control the weight on the way down is that you are using too much weight.  If you can lift it up without cheating or using momentum you should have no problem lowering it under control, period.  If you can’t, it means that you lifted the weight using momentum (cheating) or compensation by using other muscles (traps) to do the deltoid’s work. While that allows you to use more weight, it is not overloading the deltoids more and it will not lead to more growth, in fact it will lead to less growth.

Here’s the simple truth: if you can’t do the eccentric portion of your raises under control, or even slowly, that exercise will not work for building the delts.

5. Deltoids, especially posterior and medial deltoids respond well to long time under tension

I mentioned that about 20-25% (at the most) of your shoulder training time should be spent on pressing exercises. The rest of your session should focus more on isolation exercises. I personally like to use what I call “growth factor sets” for this purpose:

Growth factor sets are basically supersets of isolation exercises that put the deltoids under constant tension for 1 to 2 minutes non-stop. Using 2-4 different exercises that hit the same muscle but with different angles allows you to sustain the effort for that long. If you tried to perform lateral raises for 90 seconds, you would have to use 5lbs DBs! But when using several different movements, you can actually use more weight while also hitting different muscle fibers. Since the shoulder is the joint with the most freedom of movement, it is even more important to strengthen all those angles.

Here are some examples:

1)

2)

3)

 4)

5)

6. Include external rotation work in all your shoulder sessions

Most ironheads have external rotators that are way too weak for their internal rotators. Understand that right off the bat the external rotators are at a huge disadvantage simply because of the size of the muscles they are pitted against. The internal rotators include: the pectoral (sternal and clavicular), latissimus dorsi, anterior deltoid, teres major and subscapularis. On the other hand, the external rotors are made up of the: teres minor, infraspinatus and posterior deltoid. As you can see, you basically have three small muscles fighting against two big muscles and three smaller ones. Not a fair fight from the start!

Our average gym rat does a lot of bench pressing, overhead pressing and other pectoral work, which strengthens internal rotators. They think that they can compensate by doing pulling work, but the exercises selected typically strengthen the lats, which are also internal rotators! This is especially true if you do a lot of pulling with a pronated grip, which puts you in an internally rotated position. For that reason, I recommend not doing much (if any) vertical pulling with a pronated grip (go with supinated, neutral or better yet, using rings on independent dual handles). And even with horizontal rowing you should focus on neutral and supinated.

As you can see the external rotators get a lot less stimulation and they are weaker to start with, which is why I include at least one external shoulder rotator exercise in my shoulder workout. In fact, I include external rotation work in all upper body sessions. During my bench pressing sessions, it is part of the warm-up, and during back and shoulder workouts, it is a training exercise often supersetted with a rear delt or rhomboid movement.

Here is one of my favorite combos: the DB seated clean plus bent over raise.

7. Overhead pressing work needs to be done in a backward arc to hit the whole deltoid

This is likely the main technical issue we see with “bodybuilders” and most people using the overhead press to build muscle They press the barbell up in a straight line from the shoulders to the extended arms position, leaving the barbell in front of the body.

This is not only bad from a muscle-building perspective (it shifts all the training stimulus to the anterior deltoid) but it also creates a lot of strain on the shoulder joint. Bodybuilders often press like this because they lack the mobility to do a proper overhead press and because they can use a bit more weight this way (especially if they use a slight cheat with the legs at the start). However, it is not an effective way to press to build the entire deltoid. The proper way to press is to push the barbell in a slight backward arc. Specifically, you start to press in a straight line to the forehead, and then finish in a backward arc so that the barbell finishes slightly behind the ear line in the overhead position.

The backward arc portion involves the medial and posterior heads of the deltoid, as well as the rhomboids, making it a much more complete shoulder movement.

8. The deltoids respond amazingly from constant tension on pressing exercises

I believe that generally, full range of motion should be used on most exercises.  However, I also like to use partial repetitions in a set to keep the target muscle under constant tension, maximizing the release of growth factors to stimulate muscle growth.

There are three strategies focusing on constant tension that I like to use for pressing exercises:

a) Doing a combination of partial and full reps in a set. One method that I really like is doing 3 bottom partial reps on the overhead/shoulder press (from the bottom position up to just above the head) followed by 1 full rep and I go through this 3-5 times in a set. For example one set could look like: partial/partial/partial/full/partial/partial/partial/full/partial/partial/partial/full.

b) Doing constant controlled ¾ reps. Stop the overhead press 1” short of lockout to keep the delts under constant tension and also use a fairly slow movement both on the way up and on the way down, doing both in around 3 seconds.

c) The Bradford press. On this movement you start with the barbell like in a regular military press. You press the bar slowly, just high enough to clear the head and you slowly lower it back down behind the neck. You press it back up again just high enough to clear the head and bring it back down to the starting position. This is one rep. I like sets of 6-8 reps on this. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do the reps slowly. You must keep tension on the delts and going fast will create momentum that will release the deltoid tension.

9. Lateral raises are important to build full shoulders, but nobody does them right (contribution by Dr. John Rusin of www.drjohnrusin.com)

 If you want big and healthy shoulders, there’s no getting around perfecting the dumbbell lateral raise as a staple movement. But here’s the deal, you must master the setup and tempo of this movement in order to elicit a pain-free training effect as this one can quickly turn into a compensated debauchery. Utilizing the slightly bent over position aka the athletic stance with your hips hinged back 10-20 degrees will open up the shoulders to hitting a slight angle between the middle and posterior delts which is a common lagging weak point in the shoulder complex. When driving the weights up, think about being smooth and dynamic and flex the top of the range of motion hard on every single rep. No pause is necessary, but a volitional squeeze is. Cueing the pinkie finger up at the top of the range around forearms parallel to the ground is a good place to start. Finally, and most importantly, you must accentuate the eccentric moment in the lateral raise. Think about flexing your shoulders and letting the weight down slowly to maximize tension and create a constant tension occlusion effect in the shoulders that is one of the primary mechanisms of eliciting shoulder growth. Train it in the hypertrophy or metabolic stress set and rep ranges and enjoy the cleanest dumbbell lateral raises of your lifting career.

10. Focus on getting strong on pressing exercises … without lifting more weight

While lifting more weight does indicate that you are getting stronger, so does doing the same weight under more difficult conditions.

For example, if on week 1 you do 135lbs for 5 reps in the military press using a “normal” tempo (about 1 second to lift the weight and 2 seconds to lower it back down) and on week 2 you do the same 135 x 5 but this time you lower the weight back down slowly (4-5 seconds), you are getting stronger and you are challenging the muscles more.

There are many ways to get stronger and make the muscles work harder without adding weight to the bar.

– Do the eccentric (lowering) more slowly while contracting the target muscles hard

– Include isometric pauses (2-3 seconds) during the execution of the reps. Doing the pause during the concentric (mid range for example) is harder that doing the pause at the same position during the eccentric.

– Use a pre-set hold. For example, hold the barbell at the mid-range position in a shoulder press for 10-20 seconds then do your reps.

– Use a post-set hold. Once you’ve completed your reps, hold the mid-range position (or just short of lockout) for as long as you can.

– Perform the concentric phase with more speed. Still lower it under control, but if you can accelerate the barbell more you are producing more force (Force = Mass x Acceleration).

– Lift the weight more slowly on purpose (about 3 seconds up… try NOT to accelerate it at all). This might seem to be contradictory to the preceding point, but both approaches can work. If you try to accelerate more your initial force production is higher, but is then decreased during the rest of the range of motion because you are using momentum to lift the weight. If you go slow on purpose you kill the momentum and have to use all muscle force at every inch of the range of motion. We could say that exploding increases peak force production, specifically at the beginning of the movement while lifting slowly on purpose increase average muscle tension and strength in the middle and end range of the movement.

You should still try to use more weight on the barbell over time, but by focusing solely on lifting more weight people increase the load too soon. The main muscles (prime movers) involved in the lift might be able to handle the extra weight but the supportive muscles involved in stabilization and fixation might not be. Your structures might not be ready for the extra weight either and you might develop compensatory mechanisms. So yes, you used more weight, but if you continue with that approach you will eventually get injured, or at least hit a roadblock in your progression when your compensatory mechanisms aren’t strong enough to allow you to move the weight.

That’s why I like to stick with the same weight for as long as I can get some gains out of it. I do so by making the sets harder with some of the methods mentioned above. Once a certain weight (135 for 5 in our example) is simply too easy regardless of the method used, it can be increased.

I use a fixed weight progression with overhead pressing exercises. For example (and this is only one example):

Week 1: 4 sets of 4-6 with a normal tempo

Week 2: Same weight, 4 sets of 4-6 with a slow eccentric (4-5 seconds)

Week 3: Same weight, 4 sets of 4-6 with a 3 sec pause at mid range during the eccentric

Week 4:  Same weight, 4 sets of 4-6 with a 3 sec pause at mid range during the concentric

Week 5: Same weight, 4 sets of 4-6 with 3 second pauses at mid range during both the eccentric and concentric

Week 6: Add weight

NOTE: this is the planned progression. If you can’t complete all of the planned reps on a given week (if you can’t get at least 4 reps per set) then you repeat the same workout the next week. Only go up to the next step when you can get the proper reps in.

— CT

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…