You could make an argument for almost any muscle group being the ‘most important’ in the quest for the ideal physique. Thick arms accentuated by a softball-size biceps peak are the quintessential element of a developed body. Six-pack abs have been the aspiration of men since ancient Roman and Greek sculptors plied their trade. And even with those traits, the most amazing upper body appears absurd when perched atop a reedy set of legs.
So we won’t try to contend that shoulders may be the ultimate key to achieve the powerful, bodybuilder archetype you’re seeking. Sure, protruding shoulders can give someone who’s naturally wider waisted a more classic V-shape. Also, well- rounded three-dimensional deltoids help tie together the back, chest and arms, providing a focal point and an aesthetic flow that unmistakably identifies you as a serious bodybuilding devotee. And, of course, it’s not even necessary to bring up the multifunctional nature of the shoulder complex, which when trained provides you athletic power in multiple planes of motion. No, there’s no need for that debate at all, is there?
Well, just in case you tend to agree with our assessment, we’ve put together a complete, fully balanced shoulder routine that can help just about anyone make newfound gains in their delt development from someone who’s been training for a few months to a seasoned vet who’s been in the iron game for years.
The Workout: Step by Step
Your training session will begin with a powerful movement, the standing barbell press. Similar to the seated press in that you lift a loaded barbell overhead, thus engaging all three delt heads (anterior, middle and posterior) to some degree, there is a notable difference that you can take advantage of while standing: A touch of well-timed momentum.
Normally, momentum isn’t a good thing when lifting — take a good look around a busy gym and you’ll see plenty of examples of people twisting, contorting and otherwise breaking form to lift a weight that’s obviously too heavy for them to handle. However, when used judiciously, momentum can help you squeeze out an extra growth-producing rep or two at the end of a set. During the standing press, try a small bounce at the knees when you reach a sticking point to keep the bar moving; you’ll find you can extend a set just a bit further than you could if you were seated.
Next, you’ll grab a set of dumbbells for upright rows. This exercise can also be performed with a barbell, EZ-bar or at a cable station. Over time, you’ll be well-served by rotating through all those variations on a relatively regular basis in your training. In addition, you can also consider sometimes shifting this exercise to the end of your workout, using it as a final “finishing” move, bumping up the reps as high as 25 to ensure every last muscle fiber in your front and middle deltoids is taxed to its limit.
The last three exercises in this workout consist of raises, each of which targets a specific head of the delt: leaning lateral raises for the middle head, one-arm bent- over raises for the posterior head, and alternating front raises for the anterior head. Unless you have a specific head you think needs extra attention (and thus should be hit early, when your strength isn’t as compromised by fatigue), you’ll want to switch which of these you lead with workout to workout.
Here are two options for dividing your shoulder training in the scope of a typical training week. The first is a standard intermediate-level split, while the second is an option if your posterior delts need extra attention (a common issue among bodybuilders); for that workout, perform one or two rear-delt focused exercises for two to three sets, eight to 12 reps each.
Standing Barbell Press
Targets: All three delt heads
Start: Load a barbell set just below shoulder height in a power rack and stand in front of it. Grasping the bar with both hands just outside shoulder width, dip at the knees and step forward so the bar rests across your upper chest. Extend your knees to clear the bar of the supports and step back into a sturdy upright position, feet placed shoulder-width apart.
Action: Keeping your lower back slightly arched, in a smooth, strong motion, press the bar straight up to just short of elbow lockout. Squeeze, then lower the bar under control to the top of your chest. Repeat for reps.
Dumbbell Upright Row
Targets: Anterior (front) and middle delts
Start: With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand erect holding the dumbbells in front of your thighs with a pronated (overhand) grip. Maintain a slight bend in your knees. Keep your head straight and abs tight.
Action: Flex your shoulders and pull the dumbbells straight up toward your chin, bringing your elbows high. Be sure to hold the weights close to your body, keep your torso erect, and maintain the natural curve in your spine during the entire movement. In the top position, your elbows will be high and pointing out to your sides. Pause there for a second before slowly lowering the bar to the start position.
One-Arm Bent-Over Lateral Raise
Targets: Posterior (rear) delts
Start: With a dumbbell in one hand, stand sideways to a flat bench. With your chest up, back flat and knees slightly bent, bend over at the waist until your torso is just about parallel with the floor, placing your nonworking hand on the bench for balance. Let the working arm hang directly beneath you with your arm slightly bent.
Action: Keeping your arm slightly bent, powerfully raise the weight up and out to your side until your upper arm is about parallel with your torso. Squeeze, then slowly lower your arm back to the start position and repeat.
Leaning Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Targets: Middle delts
Start: Grasp a sturdy object, such as a support pole or a power rack, with a dumbbell in your free hand. Step up close to the base of the support, feet together, so your torso is at an angle to it. Let the dumbbell hang straight down toward the floor.
Action: Holding a slight bend in your arm throughout, raise the dumbbell up and out to your side, squeezing your delt at the top. Slowly lower the weight to a point just before the start position (thus maintaining some tension in the working muscle) and repeat. When you complete all reps with one arm, switch and do all reps for the other arm. That’s one set.
Alternating Dumbbell Front Raise
Targets: Anterior delts
Start: Stand holding dumbbells in each hand directly in front of your thighs. Keep your abs tight and chest up.
Action: With your elbows just slightly bent throughout, raise one dumbbell in front of you just above parallel to the floor. Pause, then lower it to the start and repeat the movement with the other arm. Once each side equals one full repetition.
Shoulder Training Tips
- Warm Up. An especially vulnerable joint to injury (because of its extreme range of motion, and the fact that the muscles of the shoulder are relatively small), you don’t want to engage in heavy lifting until the area is filled with blood. In addition to the light-weight 15-rep set of the first exercise in the accompanying workout, consider adding 2-3 light sets of raises and presses.
- Press for Success. Raises and upright rows are helpful and necessary for optimal gains, but the one key attribute any delt routine must include is a press. Pressing is multifunctional in that it engages the entire deltoid muscle, and it’s the only way to challenge the muscle with significant resistance. Without presses, you won’t reach the level of development you’re capable of genetically.
- Run the Rack. One top intensity technique for delts is running the rack during lateral raises. Basically, it’s an extended set in which you do a set of reps (say, 10), then immediately grab the next-lightest pair of dumbbells and do another 10 repetitions. Continue this pattern, “running down the rack” of dumbbells until the burn is so intense you can’t go on while maintaining good form.
- Experiment. The body is very adaptable, in that it will adjust to repeated activity — if you ask it to do the same workout time after time, it will change to meet that challenge but then stop. You need to push yourself to new levels of strength, switch exercises and the order in which you do them, plus tweak your set and rep schemes, all in an effort to keep your body wondering what’s next.
*To maximize the long-term value of this workout, substitute seated dumbbell and barbell presses, as well as machine presses, from time to time in this leadoff position.