"The shoulders make the physique," is a pretty common bodybuilding expression.
Given the opportunity to revise it, I would add, "and if your deltoid development resembles Larry King's, your shoulder workouts require serious pain tolerance, tenacious grit, and a healthy dose of creativity."
Okay, it might not be the most elegant piece of prose ever written, but it does sum up my approach to stubborn shoulder training. Let me begin by giving you some background on my experience with this pesky muscle group.
My shoulder genetics are pretty pathetic, and only made worse by the fact that I'm very genetically gifted through the neck. My neck was 19 inches in high school and 21 inches when I got out of college – without ever training it. So in the early days, my physique had this big, thick neck leading to little, narrow shoulders that sloped downward; basically, I'm a pair of pronated arms away from the full-fledged Geico caveman look.
To top it off, I also have short clavicles, so when you combine all these short-straws with a wide pelvic girdle, you're talking about someone who had a very hard time looking wide and tapered.
Like my back, I spent many years trying the standard shoulder training protocols featured in "Muscle and Fiction." You know the drill: lots of overhead presses – that's what will make them huge – and then lots of lateral raises – which will make them wide.
I did numerous overhead-pressing variations with regularity and included enough lateral raises to get championship width several times over, but I just didn't seem to get any serious shoulder thickness or size.
My lower body was certainly growing, and I was doing well in bodybuilding competitions just due to my legs and ability to get in great condition. But when I went to the Nationals and saw the tremendous roundness and thickness that those guys had in their delts, it blew me away. I had to figure out how I could achieve that look, too!
There was one moment in particular that totally changed my shoulder training philosophies and got me to realize what I was doing didn't work for me and that it was time to get creative. It wasn't a routine in a magazine, studying anatomy, or reading any Eastern Bloc theories on muscular hypertrophy.
I was training at the old Gold's Gym here in Columbus and Nick, one of my old friends, came to do a chest and shoulders workout with me. If you've read any of my previous articles, Nick was the guy that would often do a powerlifting and bodybuilding show on the same day. Suffice it to say, he was a beast: thick and ripped.
At the time I was getting ready for Nationals and when he saw me, he said this exact phrase: "Johnny, where are your shoulders, man?"
I didn't quite know what to say. Your mind is in a very delicate state before shows, so I felt pretty deflated.
Nick then asked me about my rep counts and the weight I was using in my shoulder workouts. I started bragging about doing sets of 8 with 50 pounders on lateral raises and dumbbell overhead presses with the 100's, which didn't seem to impress him much, considering his next comment was, "That ain't doing shit."
My "street" education in delt training was about to begin.
Nick told me to grab the 15-pound dumbbells and head over to the incline utility bench so we could start with incline barbell presses and rear deltoid work.
Rear delts? I wasn't sure what was in store, as I hadn't been doing much rear delt training outside of the odd set of heavy rear delt raises that I read about in the magazines.
We started off by doing some pressing reps on the incline bench to get warmed up. Once we were ready, he barked out his instructions: just do sets of 5 pressing reps on the bench, and then lay face down on the incline bench and do a set of 60 rear delt raises with 15-pound dumbbells.
Yes, 60 reps!
I thought he was kidding; I mean, all the textbooks say that growth happens at 8 to 12 reps, and all this was going to do was hit the slow-twitch muscle fibers and turn me into a marathon runner. Still, I humbled myself and did the set.
It was EXCRUCIATING. I'd never felt pain like that in my rear delts in my life. Next we added some weight to the incline bench, bringing it up to 275. I did another set of 5, but noticed it suddenly felt heavy, and then on to another set of 60 rear delt raises.
The first 60-rep set was extremely painful, but this one was worse – it must have taken me five minutes just to do the set. After resting, again we went to bench. This time 315 pounds practically came crashing down on me. Nick thought it was pretty funny, commenting how weak my rear delts were and how they were no longer functioning as stabilizers. Still, he made me do one final set of 60 reps.
After those three sets, my rear delts were swollen and pumped beyond belief, but Nick was just getting going. "Do you want to go heavy now?" he asked. I responded with an enthusiastic yes, so he told me to grab 60-pound dumbbells.
"This is going to be easy," I thought. Sixty-pound dumbbell presses is a baby weight for me. So I thought.
"Heavy weight, high reps," he barked – the same message that Tom Platz had tried to hammer into us during a seminar he held years back. Platz had said to forget about the heavy weight for low reps/low weight for high reps philosophies and instead take a heavy weight and high rep approach for ultimate intensity.
We were to do "swings" with the 60's. This was a standing side lateral with a very limited range of motion, done with a heavy weight. You simply tilt your head back and do these swings until you hit your rep count, and we proceeded to do sets of 35 reps. Nick did his reps with ease, and laughed at the sight of me struggling so much, though I did make it through all three sets.
That was the end of that workout, and the next day my shoulders were probably the sorest they'd ever been in my life. Just the fact that they were sore was amazing to me, as I'd always had a hard time getting them sore. I've since used this lesson in formulating my thoughts on "high reps from different angles" for shoulders.
Other things have happened over the years that have steered me toward my current shoulder training philosophies, much of which might be very different from what you're accustomed to. Now remember, this is what worked for me, and I'm not saying overhead presses or regular rep ranges are useless; I'm simply saying that sometimes you have to be creative and resourceful to achieve your ultimate potential, which is exactly what I had to do.
Let's first review my key concepts for shoulder training.
Train your rear delts
My first bit of advice is to actually train rear delts. Training your back isn't enough to develop really large rear delts unless you're enormously gifted genetically. Developing the rear delts is of paramount importance when you stand to the side: when fully developed, you get a thick, 3-D "look" that can set you apart from everyone else.
Train rear delts with very high reps (most of the time)
What I've found over the years is that rear delts respond very well to high reps. Burning the life out of them can be painful and test your willpower, but if you can do it, they'll grow. Try the rep scheme below for one month and you'll see what I mean.
Four weeks typically look like this on a selected rear delt exercise (the exercise can change week to week):
- Week 1 – 4 sets of 35 reps
- Week 2 – 4 sets of 20-25 reps
- Week 3 – 4 sets of 12-15 reps
- Week 4 – 4 sets of a traditional reverse pyramid: 35 reps, 25 reps, 15-20 reps, and then 8-12 reps. I increase weight each set on these.
- Use heavy weight for high reps once a month for a shock: So how do you do this on rear delts? I use the following once a month in the offseason, and then twice a month pre-contest.
Finish your shoulder workout with a "Destroyer" set of hang and swings: These are similar to the standing swings explained earlier except here you lay face down on an incline bench and let the dumbbells hang down. Use a pair of heavy dumbbells and be sure to use wrist straps. Here's the rep scheme for the set:
- Do 60 reps with heavy dumbbells with the partial range of motion hang and swing.
- Drop the dumbbells when you hit 60 reps, and grab a weight that is half of what you did. Do another 30 reps of hang and swings.
- Drop the dumbbells and cut the weight in half again. On these do 10 reps, but come all the way up with a full range of motion, and flex your rear delts hard for 2 seconds on each rep.
Lost? Watch the video below for a demonstration.
There are some great high intensity techniques you can use on side delts that are safe and will lead to big time results.
Use Heavy Eccentric Loads on a Machine Side Laterals
These are phenomenal. The proper way to execute these is by doing the positive/concentric part of the exercise on your own, then have your training partner push down during the eccentric/negative part as you resist maximally.
I love these because unlike many negative protocols, they're safe to execute (most heavy negatives aren't), and they seem to really "dig down deep" into the medial delt muscle fibers.
Use Heavy Weight for High Reps
This leads me back to the standing side lateral in which we're using a swing technique out of the bottom with very heavy weight. Your arms should only have a tiny amount of bend in them while doing these. Sets of 25-35 reps seem to do the trick on these.
Watch the video below for a demonstration (it's the second exercise done in the video).
Do Drop Sets on Side Laterals
This one many of you probably already do, so I won't spend much time on it. You can do these on a machine or with dumbbells, obviously.
I typically don't do much isolation work for anterior delts, but instead focus on movements that hit both the front and side delts.
Do Weekly Incline Bench Presses
If you remember my chest article from last month, you know that I like incline bench presses for shoulder width. I've noticed that when I stop doing barbell inclines, my shoulders lose width and volume from the side. It's very obvious. I like standard pyramids on these, and will typically only go down to a few inches above my chest to save my rotator cuff. I like to train shoulders and chest on the same day, so this works well with that rotation.
Do Six Ways
This is just one of those combination exercises that works. You do a seated lateral raise, and during the contracted portion, swing your arms around straight out in front of you. You then raise them straight up over your head before you reverse your actions. Bring your arms back down in front of you, swing around to the side, then lower back to starting position. The entire start to finish range of motion is considered one rep.
I use 10-pound dumbbells on these, so don't think you'll be able to go heavy. I typically do sets of 10 reps.
▶️ Press Sparingly
Doing heavy presses every week wreaked havoc on my joints and I'll never do it again. I will on occasion bring out some presses for fun as I think they can be effective, but they're just too easy to overdue. Remember, a big part of my philosophy is staying healthy and in one piece. There are three styles in particular that I'm partial to:
1. Over and Backs
As the name implies, you take the barbell and go from behind your head, just over your head, to in front of you, then reverse course. Over and back is 1 rep. Do these standing. Use a rep range of 8 to 12. See the video below for a demo – this is another exercise that sneaks up on you. (Editor's note: similar to Bradford press).
2. Super Wide Front Presses
This is a standing military press where your hands are placed all the way out to the end of the bar, with the barbell lowered all the way down to your chest.
It might feel uncomfortable at first as your delts aren't used to this range of motion, but as you loosen up you just might enjoy these. They're hard, and don't require much weight at all. I like to do sets of 12 to 15 with only 70 or 80 pounds.
3. Cage Presses
This is just a standing overhead press done in a squat rack/cage. The difference is that you place the bar against the cage and press up. This will offer extra resistance, but a fixed range of motion.
At the top, lean forward and flex your delts. A group of powerlifters at Westside Barbell taught me these back in the day, and I still enjoy doing them on occasion. They're also excellent for traps!
I keep volume for shoulders lower than with larger body parts such as legs or back. With these techniques for intensity combined with the deltoids' relatively small size, I don't think you need a high number of sets as with legs.
Like all body parts, I like to gradually increase shoulder volume and train hard for about six weeks at that volume before bringing the volume back down. Intensity doesn't change, but the difference in volume provides some built-in periodization.
Volume wise, my 12-week program for shoulders looks like this:
Phase 1 – Weeks 1-3
Use a medium volume approach. The set total ranges from 6-8 sets. Generally, focus on two or maybe three exercises, one always being a rear delt exercise. Use high intensity techniques as outlined above.
Phase 2 – Weeks 4-9
Use a high volume approach. Now we start to build in volume each week. Your body will be adjusting to the intensity you threw at it in the first phase, so we'll keep it off balance by adding more overall volume and total tonnage over the course of another 6 weeks. Sets will typically go to 9-12 sets, with more high intensity sets added each week. Again, use 2 to 3 exercises. You're going to grind hard for 6 weeks during this phase.
Phase 3 – Weeks 10-12
Use a low to medium volume approach, using high intensity sets preceded by a proper warm up almost exclusively. Set ranges will be around 4 – 6 sets. Overall volume now goes down in terms of sets, but the sets you do will be the hardest sets you've done in your life. I generally suggest using two exercises during this phase.
Deload Phase – 2 weeks
As with any hard program, there's a period of deloading that will benefit you in the long run because you'll get a rebound effect from cumulative neural fatigue that accompanies high intensity work. Everyone is different though, and I've had people insert this at the 6 week point while others go over 30 weeks training with lights out intensity and continued progress. Two weeks of light training is my general recommendation after a brutal 12 weeks.
Here's a typical shoulder workout from Phase I of my program (8 sets total). Remember, I do chest first with barbell inclines to help with shoulder development.
1. Heavy Lateral Raises (Partial Reps)
Grab a pair of very heavy dumbbells, and let your arms hang straight out to the side. Just do little swings. Do 4 sets of 35 reps. Tilt your head back when you do these, and again, keep your arms straight. Make sure the medial head of your delts begins to lift the weight up.
2. Machine Rear Delts (Reverse Peck Deck)
3 sets of 35 reps. Get the weight back as far as you can with kind of an exaggerated ROM.
3. Rear dElt Dumbbell Laterals Face Down on Incline Bench
1 destroyer set. Grab heavy dumbbells, strap up, and do 60 reps. Drop the weight and pick up half of that weight for the next set of 30. Lastly, drop that weight in half, and do 10 reps using a FULL RANGE OF MOTION and 2 second holds. Lights out delts!
Here's a typical shoulder workout from Phase II of my program (12 sets total). I consider this high volume for a small muscle like shoulders.
1. Barbell Over and Back Press
4 sets of 12. Take the barbell down in front of you and press it so that it barely clears your head and take it behind your head. Immediately come right back up over your head and in front of you again. That's one rep. Don't go crazy on weight and smash your skull when you get tired.
2. Rear Deltoid Raises on Cable Machine
Stand in front of a cable crossover station and pull from the high angle. Stand up straight and hold the flex for 2 seconds at the contacted part of each rep. Do 4 sets of 25 reps.
3. Six Ways
Just in case there's anything left in your delts, do 4 sets of 10 reps.
I was never dealt the perfect hand when it came to shoulder genetics. Instead, I had to experiment, tinker, and push my creativity – and my pain tolerance – to the absolute limit before I could start filling out my suit jackets. However, that doesn't mean you have to repeat my long and winding road.
Remember, there will always be genetic freaks that grow from just about anything, but I think you'll find my "stuff" great if you're not one of those lucky bastards. Hopefully some of these techniques can help you as much as they've helped me.