If all you're doing for shoulders is conventional pressing and lateral raises, you're selling yourself short on shoulder day. There's more to consider. Much more. And yes, while some of the following are technically presses, they're different enough to shake things up.
Plane and Simple
Force angles and planes of action are the key when looking for variety in shoulder training (and any training). Zeroing in on the same three muscles while manipulating these factors can be the difference between an exhaustive and effective shoulder workout and one that the body's adapted to completely.
But it doesn't take much to create a new stimulus and expose tremendous amounts of weakness.
1 – The Y Press
Performing standard shoulder presses gets the shoulders strong in one plane, but a slight angular shift in pressing can make the mid deltoids work much harder.
To do the Y press, it's important to remember your angles. As you can see in the video, start with the palms facing each other at shoulder-width. As you extend the arms, the hands travel farther away from each other, and the fists rotate so that the palms face forward by the end.
You feel the most tension at the top, where the lever arms are the longest, which is why pausing at the top of each rep for a 1-2 second count is smart. It's also important that the arms don't drift too far in front of, or behind, the body. Keeping them in line with the rest of the body is key.
Lastly, note that the dumbbells are held with an emphasis towards the "near side" of the handle. That deepens the force angle at the top of the lift and can make light weight feel heavier. In the video, I'm using 20-pound dumbbells. When aiming for higher reps, it shouldn't take much more than this.
Y presses serve as an excellent accessory movement to follow barbell or dumbbell overhead presses.
2 – Seated Snatches
The barbell snatch is complex, and something that's difficult to master even with a coach. Simplifying this movement by eliminating the involvement of the ankle, knee, and hip joint by using dumbbells and taking a seat is great for lifters looking for some size and conditioning.
The best part about them, unlike barbell snatches, is that they make you responsible for your negative reps. That forces you to be much more honest with the weight you choose, especially when doing sets of 6 or 8 reps. Moreover, similar to a Z press, this movement will quickly expose mobility issues since your seated position has no backrest.
If you can't hold the weight directly overhead with an upright torso, it's time to improve your shoulder mobility and the health of your thoracic spine. To say this focuses on just the front, mid, or rear delts would be selling it short because it tackles all three, depending on the phase of the lift.
As a bonus, you'll also light up your traps. In the video, I'm using 35-pound dumbbells, and that's more than enough to do the trick, especially if fatigued from base shoulder movements. Based on their explosive nature, however, keep these closer to the beginning of shoulder workouts.
3 – Behind the Neck Push Press, Snatch Grip
Another underused tool for hitting the rear delts is behind the neck pressing, and adding a snatch grip and a push start is invaluable. I don't recommend any conventional behind the neck press variation, as many lifters don't have the requisite mobility to make this movement's benefits outweigh its disadvantages. However, widening out to a snatch grip and eliminating the need to press only through the arms during the first one-third of the lift can improve the situation.
This movement restricts the amount of weight you can use and makes the scapular muscles, mid traps, and rear delts work much harder. As this movement isn't for newbies, it's imperative that you have good shoulder health.
- Start with a high bar position, not low bar. Let the bar rest near the top of the traps.
- As you push up with assisted leg drive, actively press outwards.
- Lower the weight slowly and under control.
- Continue to press outward on the way down while raising the ribcage as high as you can. This will help keep the mid back engaged to avoid a crash landing.
- Using good timing, "cushion" the landing by absorbing as much impact as you can on the negative rep. The bar should never land on your shoulders while you have straight knees.
- Treat each rep like its own set. This shouldn't be done for high reps, nor speed. Take your time between reps to gather yourself.
4 – Bentover Lateral Raise, Reverse Grip
If you want to stick with doing reverse flyes after barbell presses, do me a solid and at least make one modification. There are few things that drive me crazier than a lifter who doesn't respect the point and purpose of accessory work. As a result, these disrespectful lifters use dumbbells as heavy as those used for major work sets, use a ton of body English, and somehow believe gains will follow.
For the record, any flye pattern counts as accessory work. Recognizing they're intended to help the shoulder perform better, bring up weak links, and possibly bolster bigger lifts should move a lifter to lower the weight, chase more reps, and focus on form and technique while getting their pump fix.
Not doing this results in a miss for people trying to target the rear deltoids and can often result in anterior shoulder glide, which is another can of worms for shoulder health.
Switching to a reverse grip on flyes can negate these problems since it makes variability in start and finish points much smaller. Because of this – and the fact that externally rotating the arms makes them contract more strongly – the rear delts get hit harder and more effectively through the entire set.
Done properly, there's simply no need for most lifters to do this with much more than 20 pounds.
5 – Blackburns
Doing blackburns to mimic your overhead press pattern is a good way to encourage good shoulder mobility, rear delt activation, a neutral lower spine, and an extended thoracic spine without any of the vertical stress forces on the vertebrae or shoulder capsule. As a bonus, the rest of the posterior chain gets hit hard too.
Rather than using the floor or an unsecured bench, which limits how much tension you can create through the entire posterior chain, secure your heels in the glute-ham raise or horizontal back extension machine. It makes everything between the back of the knees and the rear delts work very hard, both isometrically and isotonically.
The most important part of this lift is the hand and arm position. Use a thumbs-up position for some external rotation, and try your best to mimic the conventional overhead press angles while being horizontal.
That means the head travels through the "window" created by the arms at full extension, and the arms stay in line with the shoulder joint and spine. It also means keeping the elbows tucked toward the floor as much as possible at the bottom of the lift.
The 5-pound plates shown in the video should be adequate for just about anyone. Focusing on a slow tempo and maintaining positioning will prove challenging enough, and even a pound too heavy can ruin your patterning.
This exercise is great way to help train overhead range with a different reference point, allowing gravity to create a new force angle. It's excellent for healthy lifters, and often a safe alternative for lifters who feel pain during pressing movements.