Complete Guide for Shoulder Training
- The most ordinary problem among the gym-goers is having good front delts, okay middle delts, and weak rear delts.
- You know you have a disproportionate development if your palms face more to the rear as an opposed to your side when you are standing relaxed.
- When doing you are doing front raises, raise the weight to about 110 degrees instead of 90 degrees, which is where most people stop.
- Maximize the work of the rear delt by keeping your shoulder an abducted – away from your side – about 30-45 degrees.
- Most lifters do lateral raises incorrectly. Your wrist, elbow, and the shoulder should all be level at the top and the pointed part of your elbow must be pointing straight backward.
- People who have overactive upper traps shrug the dumbbells when they do the lateral raises. To avoid this, think about pushing dumbbell away from you.
The key to developing delts that have a round, a three-dimensional look is to proportionally develop all three heads. That way your delts look full whether viewed from the front, rear, or the side.
Cosmetically, the most common maldevelopment pattern among the gym-goers is having well-developed front delts, reasonably developed middle delts, and a seriously lagging rear delts.
This will typically manifest itself by the significant internal rotation of the shoulder. In other words, your palms face more to the rear as opposed to your side when you’re standing relaxed.
This probably has to do with
1) your love for the bench press and chest training in general and
2) your propensity for giving more love and attention to the muscles you can see in the mirror, you vain bastard.
On the other hand, there are people who shun direct anterior delt work while prioritizing the medial delt development to the point where the middle delts are thick while the anterior delts remain shallow and underdeveloped, especially when viewed from the side.
Assess Your Selfie
Before you embark on a journey to develop well-rounded delts, you are going to first have to figure out whether you are currently in your delt development are not. That way you can prioritize accordingly.
Take pics of yourself with your arms to your sides and palms facing your sides. Take additional pics from the front, rear, and a side.
Let’s say that when viewed from the front, your shoulders should have some roundness to them. In bodybuilding circles, we call this as “capped” delts. If your shoulders are not capped, your shoulders will look narrow, regardless of your biacromial width.
If your shoulders have the narrow bone structure (think Phil Heath) and/or you have a wide hip structure (like Jay Cutler), capping your delts off nicely. You will do this by emphasizing your middle delts via lateral raise variations.
On the other hand, if, when viewed from the side (relaxed or in the side chest pose), the front of your shoulders lack fullness, then you will obviously want to focus on your anterior delts. You’ll do that primarily via front raise variations and overhead press variations.
likewise, if it’s the rear aspect that lacks fullness, you will emphasize your posterior delts via shoulder extension and to the external rotation movements.
Keep in mind, though, when assessing your posterior delts, that it is typically a shorter muscle with a very different look than anterior delt. As such, do not expect them to look just like your anterior delts. To help you further assess your rear delts, use the rear double biceps pose.
Constructing a Plan
Let’s go over a few shoulder-training basics before the diving into specifics.
We could talk about the pros and cons of pairing the various body parts together, but for now, I just want to point out that if your shoulders are lagging, do not train them after chest. Instead, separate your chest and the shoulder workouts by two or three days. That way you can begin your training day with shoulders while you are fresh and chock full of energy substrates.
Additionally, while it is certainly valid to train posterior deltoids on “shoulder day,” I think it makes more sense to train them with a back. That’s because the rear delts function like a back muscle. In other words, they help pull your arms down and/ or back.
So when you are doing shoulder adduction (pull-ups), shoulder extension (dumbbell rows), horizontal abduction (overhand rows), or a pretty much any combination thereof, your rear delts are going to be the heavily involved whether you like it or not.
Exercises, Sets, & Reps
1 – Posterior Delts
Usually speaking, three or four good work sets of one rear-delt isolating movement should be sufficient. Work sets are simply set that are not warm-up sets, thus they are taken to concentric failure, or within a rep or two of concentric failure.
One direct exercise might not seem like much, but remember that one of the functions of rear delts is to externally rotate the humerus. So, if you are doing some sort of shoulder external rotation exercise each week (like you should be), along with your back training, a few sets of one exercise will probably be enough.
Though, if your rear delts are seriously lagging in development, then do two rear-delt isolation exercises. Keep each of them to just three sets. Here are three effective exercises to choose from:
- Prone rear-delt kickbacks (on an incline bench)
- Rear-delt cable extensions (aka kickbacks)
- Incline kickbacks with external rotation
Be aware that these are not triceps kickbacks. These are more of a reverse fly movement where you don’t bend your elbow and you kick your arm back using only your rear delts, which is why I call them as rear delt kickbacks.
Avoid retracting your shoulder blades so that you are isolate the rear delt. Keep in mind that the function of the rear delt is simply to move a humorous back, not bring the shoulder blades together. I cue this by telling people to keep their scapulae still and then bring their arm back by “pinching” with the rear delts. If you do it right, you will know what I mean by pinching.
Regardless of what exercise you do for your posterior delts, there are a few biomechanical principles to keep in mind. For starters, to maximize the work of a rear delt, train it in its optimal line of pull, which is with your shoulder abducted (away from your side) ~30-45 degrees.
Likewise, pinky side of your hand should lead the way. That line up the posterior delt so that it’ll do the brunt of the work.
When isolating rear delts, the challenge for most people is to actually isolate them and feel a good, strong contraction. For that reason, generally stay on the higher-rep side, 10-15 reps. Going heavier with fewer reps every once in awhile is certainly valid, but wait until your rear delt and neuromuscular efficiency is really good before you go heavy.
2 – Anterior Delts
It is a good idea to nearly always do some variation of an overhead press in your shoulder workout. After all, pressing the overhead is a fundamental movement pattern.
That overhead press should be a free-weight variation, whether done with the barbell or dumbbells. Doing so will help keep your shoulder stabilizers working properly, which will help keep your shoulders healthy.
Additionally, overhead presses are to the anterior deltoids what squats are for quads. On the other hand, front raises isolate anterior delts like leg extensions isolate the quads. Be smart, though, and do some of each, but keep in mind your own shoulder symmetry.
If you’re anterior delts are the strong point, then focus primarily on the overhead press, with an occasional front raise variation thrown in for good measure. This, combined with the stimulation they will receive in your chest training, should be all they need.
On the other hand, if you need to actually bring up your front delts, then you would generally want to do one front-raise exercise in addition to overhead pressing.
The two best overhead press exercises are the basic barbell press (seated or standing) and a basic dumbbell press, done seated or standing. While many overhead press set/ rep schemes will work, it’s best to stay around the 4 x 6-10, but 5 x 5 and 3 x 8-12 are also solid options that should be implemented fairly regularly.
When it comes to the isolating the anterior delts via front raises, alternating dumbbell front raises are the way to go, but barbell front raises are an effective alternative.
Regardless of the front raise variation you choose, make sure to raise a bar to ~ 110 degrees, roughly level with the top of your forehead. That is where peak contraction of the anterior deltoid occurs, not at 90 degrees, which is where a lot of people stop.
When doing one of these front raise of variations, generally stay in a 3 x 10-12 range, occasionally going as heavy as 6-8 or as light as 12-15.
3 – Middle Delts
If you want shoulders like a bodybuilder, you should always include a lateral raise variation to emphasize the middle delts, the most fundamental of which is a standing dumbbell lateral raise.
While a lot of people do lateral raises, most do not do them correctly.
To optimize the line of pull of the middle delts, your palm should be facing down in the top, contracted position. Or if you really want to fine tune this, tilt the thumb-side of a dumbbell down a few degrees so that the pinky-side is up.
Likewise, your wrist, elbow, and shoulder must all be level at the top. Another way to think about it is that the pointed part of your elbow (aka, the olecranon process) should be pointing straight backward, not down toward the ground.
At the top of the movement, most people tend to have a thumb-side of the dumbbell tilted too high and their wrist higher than their elbow. That’s because this movement pattern allows more dominant anterior deltoid to help out more than you want it to.
People who have an overactive upper traps also tend to shrug the dumbbells as they near the 90-degree finish position. To avoid this, think about pushing the dumbbell away from you, toward a side.
Do not worry about doing any other lateral raise variation until you have gotten your form down on the basic dumbbell lateral raise. When you are ready for some variations, try behind-the-back cable laterals, finishing in the same position mentioned above.
For more variation, you can change the point of the maximum tension (and stimulus) by doing one of the following unilateral versions:
Lying on your side on an incline bench. Your stopping point is the 90 degrees of shoulder abduction, where peak contraction of the middle delts occurs.
If you need to bring your middle delts up, typically do three sets of two different shoulder an abduction (lateral raise) exercises. Do one with 3 sets of 8-12 and the other with the 3 sets of 12-15. And, as they always case, go heavier or lighter every once in awhile.
Two Solid Workouts
Here are two fundamental, no-nonsense programs, each addressing the different shoulder weakness.
1 – For lagging middle and posterior delts (but good anterior delts):
Exercise Sets Reps
A Barbell Overhead Press 4 6-8
B Dumbbell Lateral Raise 3 8-12
C Cable Lateral Raise (behind back) 3 12-15
D Rear-Delt Dumbbell Kickback 4 10-15
2 – For lagging anterior delts (but good medial delts):
Exercise Sets Reps
A Dumbbell Overhead Press 4 6-10
B Barbell Front Raise 3 8-12
C Dumbbell Lateral Raise 3 8-12
D Rear-Delt Dumbbell Kickback (w/ext rotation) 3 12-15