For Big Shoulders, Ditch the Free Weights

4 Superior Cable Exercises for Delts

Most shoulder routines look stupidly similar. They begin with some heavy overhead presses, followed by some "dancing" side laterals. That's where the lifter bobs up and down in some kind of monkey mating dance because he's using momentum to move dumbbells that are way too heavy. These are followed up with a few half-assed sets for rear delts on the boob machine.

Even though that routine is common, it doesn't mean it's the best way to build a complete set of shoulders, especially for those who are suffering from DDS – Deficient Deltoid Syndrome.

Most people believe that simply progressing on the overhead press is going to cure their spindly little delts. Here's the reality: If you're already bench pressing and incline pressing and/or doing various chest pressing movements, then you're already smashing the anterior or "front" delts. I've literally never met one dude who was lacking in anterior delt development. Zero. Not one.

On top of that, the guys who don't have impressive shoulders spend very little time building the posterior delts because, well, it's not fun or sexy. Too bad, because it's posterior delt development in conjunction with medial delt development that actually gives you that capped off boulder-shoulder appearance!

This is why movement "syntax" for the delts should flow from back to front:

  • Start with the rear delts
  • Move on to the medial delts
  • Finish off with anterior delts

Accordingly, give the greatest amount of volume to the rear and medial delts and minimal volume to the anterior delts.

The other problem with the standard free weight approach is that there tends to be a lot of wasted range of motion in most standard shoulder exercises. Take barbell overhead pressing, for instance.

The resistance curve is descending, so the top portion of the movement offers little in the way of tension for the delts. With dumbbell lateral raises, the resistance curve is ascending so that the bottom quarter of the movement is kinda "meh" as far as deltoid tension goes.

This is why cables are extremely effective for shoulders. They provide a constant amount of resistance throughout the range of motion, regardless of what exercise you're performing. Here are the most effective ones.

Despite the fact that lots of guys and gals actually do include rear delt work, they usually initiate the exercises with the traps and rhomboids, so the poor little posterior delts get very little attention. Going too heavy can be one of the culprits here, but the other problem is that they don't begin the movement with the scapula properly set.

Ideally, you want to begin with the cables set up in line with the rear delts, and with the scaps in protraction. Then you should feel the posterior delts catch fire during the set. If that isn't happening, then you're still most likely initiating with the traps and upper back or calling them into play too much during the set.

It's also difficult to establish a mind/muscle connection with the posterior delts, which is another reason why this muscle group often lags behind. The bigger and stronger areas of the upper back are built for big work and love to take over on pulling movements. The posterior delts still get some love, but not enough to grow to their potential.

This is why movement execution is paramount – even more important than progression. Feel the rear delts. Kill the rear delts. See the growth happen.

Intensity Method: Drop Sets

Once you've mastered the form, bludgeon your rear delts into growth with this intensity method:

  • Choose a weight that allows you to hit 10 solid reps in good form, but most likely not 11. Do a set there.
  • Without rest, reduce the weight and shoot for 10 more reps.
  • Immediately reduce the weight again and shoot for another 10 reps.
  • Rest for a couple of minutes, then repeat that drop set two more times for a total of 90 reps.

If you can't feel your rear delts getting blasted, then you simply aren't in possession of posterior deltoids and can skip this portion of the workout.

This exercise naturally engages the lower traps, which play a huge role in providing shoulder stability and maintaining overall shoulder health. They're also a great movement for fully contracting the medial delts... and I promise you they'll get smoked.

Intensity Method: Rest/Pause

For those unfamiliar with rest/pause, you're going to perform a set to failure, rest for 20 seconds, and then go again. Rest for another 20 seconds and go one more time. That's one set. Do three.

Shoot for around 12 reps on your first set. There's no "ideal" rep ranges to hit after that, as long as you're giving it your all.

These are great for smashing the medial delts and traps, with the posterior delts getting a little bit of action as well. One thing I like about this version is that the physical therapy police can't pooh-pooh it like they do the traditional upright row, which involves elevation of the shoulders in conjunction with internal rotation.

With these, you're going to actually get some external rotation action happening as you pull the cable across your body, with the arms going behind you. This eliminates all bitching, moaning, complaining, and traffic stops from the physical therapy shoulder-police brigade.

Intensity Technique: Partials

Oh yes, this is going to hurt so good. After getting in 12 tough full reps, start doing half reps until you start to hallucinate. At that point, cut the range of motion in half again and crank out as many reps as you can. Three sets like this will have you wondering if I'm truly a maniac. (I am.)

This variation does a great job of smashing both the anterior and medial heads. It's also another example of how cable work has some advantages over a barbell in that the loading curve matches the strength curve, so there's constant tension on the delts from start to finish.

The other advantage is that most of the initiation of the movement comes at the shoulder joint rather than the elbow joint. The synergy between these two components makes this movement an awesome shoulder developer.

Intensity Technique: Accumulative Volume

Accumulative volume is sort of like the old "run the rack" technique that Arnold made popular:

  • Start with a light weight and perform a certain number of reps.
  • Without resting, immediately increase the weight and perform that same number of reps. This is what I call one "hop."
  • You continue performing hops until you can no longer hit your target number of reps.

For example, if you start with 8 reps, you'll continue making hops up the weight stack until you can't hit 8 reps. The total work done with these hops is what I call a "round." As far as the parallel-grip press, do 2 rounds, shooting for around 6 hops in each round, at 8 reps per hop.

To make it easy for you, here's the cable training session for shoulders all laid out:

  1. Seated Cable Rear Laterals: Drop sets, 3 sets of 10/10/10
  2. Incline Cable Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 12 reps (rest/pause two times per set)
  3. Cross-Body Upright Cable Row: 3 sets of 12 reps (using partial reps to extend the set)
  4. Parallel-Grip Cable Press: 2 rounds of 6 hops at 8 reps per hop

This is a full-on metabolic stress training session, so if you've been doing the progressive overload thing as your mainstay, expect some terrific soreness and possibly feeling like a total wuss throughout. That's good for you, but even better for your shoulder growth.