Shoulder Training: A Forgotten Art?

Shoulder training used to be one of the cornerstones of any man's training program. There was a time when developing wide and full deltoids was such a priority that many men actually spent more time training that complex muscle group than any other!

Old-time bodybuilders would do a lot of volume for the shoulders in hope of creating that elusive V-shape and it worked! By emphasizing deltoid development, many "structurally challenged" men were able to give the illusion of width despite a relatively narrow shoulder girdle/clavicle.

You only have to think about Larry Scott. Scott started out shaped like a traffic cone until he began to blast the hell out of his delts! In fact, there was a time when he was considered to have the best shoulders in bodybuilding!

Other good examples of naturally narrow shoulder structure being overcome by sheer will include Mike Mentzer and Mohammed Makkawy, both former Mr. Olympia runner-ups. Look at both pictures of Mentzer; in the first one he's in shape, but far from his best level of development. Notice his narrow shoulder structure, yet in the second picture he looks like a monster!

I'm also an example of a guy with a naturally narrow shoulder structure who was able to correct the situation by building up my delts as much as possible. The picture presented below is one of my girlfriend Christiane, who shows just how impressive fully developed shoulders can look!

However, the pendulum has swung the other way! Now most coaches are actually advocating the avoidance of direct deltoid work. The reason goes something like this: "The delts receive enough stimulation when training the chest and the back."

While this might be true in some individuals who are genetically gifted in shoulder development, I'm completely against this way of thinking. Here's why:

1. While it's true that most chest exercises, from bench pressing to flyes, involve the shoulders, they mostly (not to say exclusively) hit the anterior portion of the deltoid, leaving the lateral head relatively under-stimulated.

2. In most individuals, the lateral head tends to be slow-twitch dominant (thus harder to build up) while the anterior portion tends to be fast-twitch dominant (thus easier to hypertrophy). So if you have a lot of anterior delt development and perform no isolated lateral (and posterior) delt work to compensate, you'll run into troubles. You risk an injury, your posture will degrade, and you'll look very narrow when viewed from the front.

3. It's the lateral head of the deltoid that gives you that illusion of width and thus contributes to building a nice V-shape, which is both aesthetic and powerful looking. Wide shoulders can help compensate for naturally narrow clavicles or a wide waist.

4. Building up the anterior delts – which happens when you train chest – will give you thickness from the side, no doubt about it, and that's a good thing. But without the accompanying width, you'll end up looking good only when seen from certain angles... not good!

The bottom line is that if you want to build an aesthetic and complete physique, there's just no way that you should avoid shoulder work, especially for the lateral and posterior portions of the muscle group. We'll still include some anterior delt work to make sure that we make our shoulders as big as possible, but emphasis will be on the two other parts of the muscle group.

As mentioned in Part 1 of the HSS specialization series (for back), when you're specializing on one muscle group you should increase the training frequency for that muscle while decreasing the training volume for the other groups: down to 1-2 exercises performed for 3-4 sets. Failure to reduce the volume of work for the non-targeted muscle group will lead to stagnation and possibly overtraining. Don't do it!

So, without further ado, let's get to the program!


HSS-100: Shoulder Specialization

Training Split


Shoulder Workout #1: Shoulder Width

This exercise is very similar to an old-time strength feat called the iron cross or crucifix, which consisted of holding a dumbbell or pair of dumbbells at arms length by the side of your body and parallel to the floor (forming a cross with your arms and body).

This lift is still used in many strongman competitions around the world, sometimes for max weight, but mostly for max time. We aren't going to be using the holding variation, but we will inspire ourselves with this feat of strength to design a type of dumbbell pressing that'll focus most of the stress on the lateral portion of the shoulders.

We want to perform the unwinding press in such a way that it truly places a lot of training stress on the lateral head of the deltoid. Here's how we're going to perform the movement:

1. Start with a dumbbell held in each hand. The 'bells are brought up to the shoulders using a neutral (hammer) grip, meaning that your palms are basically facing your ears.

2. Slowly (but not too slow, a two seconds pressing motion is recommended) press the weights outward and slightly up (maybe at a 30-45 degrees angle) while pronating your arms (turning your arms so that the palms will be facing the floor at the end of the movement). At the end of the pressing phase we want the back end of the dumbbells to be slightly higher than the front end. Hold the position for 1-2 seconds.

3. Bring the dumbbells back to the shoulders using the opposite action.

Sets: 4-5

Reps: 6 to 8

* Include a 1-2 seconds hold at the completion of each rep

Special advanced intensification technique: At the end of the last rep of your last set, you can try to hold the dumbbells in place for as long as possible.

Rest intervals: 60- 90 seconds

This is one exercise that's really surprised me over the past few weeks, so much so that it has actually become my favorite movement to build massive delts! When I first read about the drill I was a bit sceptical. After all, it did look like a simple side lateral with the added "crooked rep" for the opposite arm. I couldn't see how this movement could actually place more training stress on the shoulder.

But, after all, it is a Gironda movement, and the man was rarely wrong when coming up with innovative new exercises. So I gave it an honest try, and boy, am I glad I did! The "crooked" lateral portion of the lift is the money portion of the exercise. At first I thought that it would actually contribute little to the stimulating effect of the movement, but after playing with the exercise I quickly noticed how much of a difference it makes!

It does hit the shoulder in a new way, and this provides a brand new training stimulus to turn your shoulders into boulders! The real key to make the "crooked" portion work is to lift the arm in front of your torso, but as you reach the higher part of the movement, you should actually push the dumbbell (slightly extend the arm) toward the other arm (the one performing the "regular" lateral portion of the lift).

Note that one repetition equals one complete swing. A complete swing is the full sequence illustrated above.

Sets: 3

Reps: 8 to 10 full swings

Rest intervals: none

This is my favorite variation of the lateral raise when it comes to the development of the lateral head of the deltoid. It simply consists of performing the lateral raise using a "pouring" motion as you lift the 'bells.

Essentially, bring the arms up so that at the end of the movement the back end of the dumbbells is higher than the front end. This position greatly reduces the involvement of the anterior portion of the deltoid and as a result places more stress on the lateral head.

Sets: 3

Reps: 10 to 12

Rest intervals: 60-90 seconds

"Muscle rounds" is a technique created by Leo Costa which is basically a high-volume variation of the rest/pause technique. Each set is composed of four mini-sets of six reps. There's around ten seconds of rest between each mini-set for a muscle.

In the case of unilateral movements like this one (one arm is trained at a time), you don't take additional rest: the right arm partially recovers while the left arm works and vice-versa. So one muscle round/set for this exercise would look like this:

This is oneset (or one muscle round). You should select a load that you could normally perform for around 12 reps, so you'll end up doing 24 reps with your 12RM.

Sets: 3 muscle rounds

Reps: 4 mini-sets of 6 reps each (total of 24 reps per arm per set)

Rest intervals: 45-60 seconds between sets/rounds

Really, there's no need to explain this one! The goal is to get the 100 reps without any pauses. At first it might be impossible because the deltoids seem to be a muscle group where lactic acid accumulates fast and the reps can quickly become painful. So a few 4-5 second pauses here and there are acceptable, but gradually try to eliminate them.

Set: 1

Reps: 100

Rest intervals: N/A


Shoulder Workout #2: Overall Shoulder Development

This is the bread and butter lift for thick shoulders. While it won't give you much width (we already have one full day for that!), we're still after complete shoulder development, so might as well use the most powerful exercises to do the job!

The push press is basically a cheated variation of the standing military press. The shoulders and arms still do most of the work, but you use a small "leg kick" to get the bar moving off the clavicle. This will allow you to use more weight and really overload the delts.

Sets: 4 to 5

Reps: 4 to 6

Rest intervals: 60-90 seconds

As I mentioned, we want to promote full shoulder development; however, we still need to place more emphasis on the lateral portion of the deltoids to create the illusion of more width and of a more aesthetic physique. This is why in this superset we'll use the pre-fatigue method (isolation exercise before compound movement), selecting an isolation exercise targeting the lateral portion of the deltoid.

This portion is slow-twitch dominant (in most individuals) compared to the anterior portion which is fast-twitch dominant. So by pre-fatiguing the lateral portion we'll be able to at least stimulate it as much as the anterior portion, which is naturally more active in any pressing exercises.

The seated pitcher raise is essentially the same exercise as the standing pitcher raise that we saw earlier. The main difference is that since you're seated, it's harder to cheat and, most importantly, the fact that you're seated means that the dumbbells must start on your side and not in front of you. This gives a slightly different stimulus at the start of the movement. As they say, always try to attack the enemy from many fronts!

Sets: 3

Reps: 12 to 15

Rest intervals: none

Sets: 3

Reps: 6 to 8

Rest intervals: 60-90 seconds

In case you've been living on Mars, in a cave, or in Arkansas (kidding, guys), you know that a muscle is stronger during the eccentric (lowering) portion of a movement. We also know that overloading the eccentric portion – called accentuated eccentrics – is a great way to stimulate hypertrophy/muscle growth. This is just what this exercise does.

To accomplish that feat you'll combine two exercises: a dumbbell press and a lateral raise. The concentric (lifting) portion is performed as a dumbbell press while the eccentric (lowering portion) is performed as a thumbs-up lateral raise. To make this drill all the more effective, execute the eccentric portion in 4-5 seconds.

Sets: 3

Reps: 6 to 8

Rest intervals: 45-60 seconds

Again, this one is self-explanatory. The goal is to get the 100 reps without any pauses. A few short pauses here and there are acceptable at first, but gradually try to eliminate them. You don't need to lock out your reps. In fact, for the purpose of this exercise, three-fourth reps are actually better.

Set: 1

Reps: 100

Rest intervals: N/A


Shoulder Workout #3: Posterior Deltoid

This nice exercise will thoroughly trash the rear deltoids, upper and mid trapezius, as well as the rhomboid muscles. In other words, it'll make you thick and as a bonus will help you correct several antero-posterior muscular imbalances. We want big muscles, but if we can get injury-free at the same time, why not take it?

The keys for the proper performance of this exercise are as follows:

Sets: 4 to 5

Reps: 6 to 8

Rest intervals: 60-90 seconds

Sets: 3

Reps: 10 to 12

Rest intervals: none

This exercise is pretty straightforward: Grab a single handle from the high pulley station. While keeping your whole body straight, bring the arm outward and down toward your hip joint using as wide an arc as possible (in other words, keep the arm perfectly extended during the whole movement).

A possible variation is to replace the handle with a rope and perform the exact same movement with a pronation grip (palm facing down).

Sets: 3

Reps: 12 to 15 per side

Rest intervals: 45-60 sec.

Here's an interesting exercise you may not have seen before.

* I'd like to thank my good friend and member of the Junior Canadian National Baseball team's coaching staff, strength coach Phil Tomlinson, for the pictures of these last two exercises.

Sets: 3

Reps: 12 to 15

Rest intervals: 45-60 sec.

Sets: 1

Reps: 100

Rest intervals: N/A

Conclusion

This wraps up the second portion of the HSS-100 specialization series! Hopefully you'll be able to take a lot from it, either by following the program and building some humongous deltoids, or simply by learning a few new exercises that'll allow you to stimulate a little growth in an otherwise stagnant shoulder development.

The third installment of this series will deal with chest specialization. Stay tuned!