“We’re doing shoulders and triceps today at 2:30,” I wrote in a succinct email to one of my powerlifting teammates.

His response was to bust my chops for using bodybuilding terms instead of powerlifting terms:

“Shoulders and triceps? You mean overhead presses and close-grip benches?”

Kidding aside, it got me thinking. Sometimes looking at things from a bodybuilding perspective is a good thing. Bodybuilders are known for muscle balance and symmetry – two things that can also keep you healthy.

If all you care about is overhead pressing and close grip benching, what are you doing for the rear deltoids to keep them in proportion to the front delts? A proper bodybuilder shoulder-workout would be far more comprehensive, targeting all heads of the deltoids from a variety of angles.

While this might be considered overkill, especially for those whose goal isn’t to stand on stage in shiny Fruit of the Looms, it does help prevent imbalances in both strength and size.

On to the meat of this article – this is a classic shoulders and triceps blast. The purpose? To put some serious size on your shoulders and tris and make them stronger in the process. Everything you need to get the job done is here, from the exercises to the weekly progressions.

Warm Up

I like to start most workouts with about 10 minutes of mobility work directed at the areas I’m going to train. Since we’re hitting the shoulders and triceps, we want to “open up” the upper body.

Stretch the pecs, lats, biceps, and triceps (I use a band for this) and work on T-spine extension and general shoulder girdle mobility.

I follow this general warm-up with one set of standing overhead presses combined with an overhead shrug for a set of 15 reps. I’ve been doing this for several months and it really helps wake up the shoulder girdle.

Perform a classic overhead press, and in the extended position go to an overhead shrug. Lower the bar and repeat 14 times.

I started out with just the bar and moved up five or ten pounds every month, doing this at least twice a week. See the video below for a demonstration.

To be proficient at overhead pressing, you need to feel comfortable standing with your legs straight, pelvis tucked posteriorly, trunk relatively vertical, arms straight with locked elbows, wrists in line with the forearms, and hands in the same vertical line as your ankles.

If you can’t do all that, you need to work on your mobility.

As I’ve seen many people struggle to achieve this position, the main overhead pressing exercise used in this article is the seated dumbbell shoulder press, which most lifters can do successfully.

You may substitute with standard shoulder presses – which are superior from a pure strength point of view – although the seated variation offers comparable gains in terms of size.

The Exercises

Shoulders:

  • Seated dumbbell shoulder press
  • Lateral raise
  • Rear deltoid raise with power form (elbows bent, palms face each other)

Triceps:

  • Close-grip bench press
  • Dumbbell triceps pullovers
  • Triceps pushdowns (your choice of grip)

The first chart contains the exercises, sets, and reps, along with a very effective progression scheme.

In the second chart I’ve listed the actual weights and reps I did when I followed it. Modify up or down as needed; just try to stick to the same theme.

Weeks 1-3

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Upper body mobility 10 minutes 10 minutes 10 minutes
Dumbbell shoulder press 3 sets of 10, each set followed by a drop set of 8 3 sets of 10, each set followed by a drop set of 8 3 sets of 10, each set followed by a drop set of 8
Lateral raise 100 reps total 100 reps total 100 reps total
Power dumbbell rear delt raise 100 reps total 100 reps total 100 reps total
Close-grip bench 3 sets of 10 3 sets of 10 3 sets of 10
Dumbbell triceps pullover 3 sets of 12, each set followed by a drop set of 8 3 sets of 12, each set followed by a drop set of 8 3 sets of 12, each set followed by a drop set of 8
Triceps pushdowns 3 sets of 12 3 sets of 12 3 sets of 12

Actual Routine Weeks 1-3 (note weekly change in weight or reps)

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Upper body mobility 10 minutes 10 minutes 10 minutes
Dumbbell shoulder press 60×10 drop 40×8
60×10 drop 40×8
60×10 drop 40×8
60×10 drop 40×8
70×10 drop 50×8
60×10 drop 40×8
60×10 drop 40×8
80xAMRAP drop 60×8
70×10 drop 50×8
Lateral raise 25×20, 20, 20, 20, 20 25×30, 30, 20, 20 25×40, 30, 30
Power dumbbell rear delt raise 25×20, 20, 20, 20, 20 25×30, 30, 20, 20 25×50, 50
Close-grip bench 235×8, 235×8, 235×8 235×8, 255×8, 235×8 235×8, 275xAMRAP 255×8
Dumbbell triceps pullover 50×12 drop 35×8
50×12 drop 35×8
50×12 drop 35×8
50×12 drop 35×8
60×12 drop 45×8
50×12 drop 35×8
50×12 drop 35×8
70×12 drop 55×8
60×12 drop 45×8
Triceps pushdowns 60×12, 60×12, 60×12 60×12, 60×12, 60×12 60×12, 60×12, 60×12

Workout Program Weeks 4-6

Exercise Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
Upper body mobility 10 minutes 10 minutes 10 minutes
Dumbbell shoulder press 3 sets of 5
drop sets of 6
3 sets of 5
drop sets of 6
3 sets of 5
drop sets of 6
Lateral raise 50 reps total 50 reps total 50 reps total
Power dumbbell rear delt raise 50 reps total 50 reps total 50 reps total
Close-grip bench 3 sets of 5 3 sets of 5 3 sets of 5
Dumbbell triceps pullover 3 sets of 8
drop sets of 6
3 sets of 8
drop sets of 6
3 sets of 8
drop sets of 6
Triceps pushdowns 3 sets of 8 3 sets of 8 3 sets of 8

Actual Routine Weeks 4-6 (note weekly change in weight or reps)

Exercise Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
Upper body mobility 10 minutes 10 minutes 10 minutes
Dumbbell shoulder press 80×5 drop 60×6
80×5 drop 60×6
80×5 drop 60×6
80×5 drop 60×6
90×5 drop 70×6
80×5 drop 60×6
80×5 drop 60×6
100xAMRAP drop 80×6
90×5 drop 70×6
Lateral raise 35×15, 15, 12, 8 35×20, 15, 15 35×25, 25
Power dumbbell rear delt raise 35×20, 15, 15 35×20, 15, 15 35×25, 25
Close-grip bench 275×5, 275×5, 275×5 275×5, 295×5, 275×5 275×5, 315xAMRAP 275×5
Dumbbell triceps pullover 70×8 drop 50×6
70×8 drop 50×6
70×8 drop 50×6
70×8 drop 50×6
80×8 drop 60×6
70×8 drop 50×6
70×8 drop 50×6
90×8 drop 70×6
80×8 drop 60×6
Triceps pushdowns 80×8, 80×8, 80×8 80×8, 80×8, 80×8 80×8, 80×8, 80×8

Note: End weight on week 3 (higher reps) is start weight on week 4 for shoulder press and close-grip bench.

Key Points

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

  • If seated, reclining the seat to one notch from vertical is permissible. Many meatheads are strongest and most comfortable in this position.
  • Watch for excessive arch in the lower back, which can occur during max sets. In the video below my back is a little too arched as I didn’t slide back far enough in the seat before I started.
  • There’s just one drop set – as soon as the first part of the set is done, drop the weight and grab a lighter weight for the second part of the set. Make sure you perform a slow negative (five seconds down) and a normal positive. You should be able to stop the dumbbells descent at any point in the ROM if asked.
  • Week 3 and week 6, do as many reps as possible (AMRAP) on your main set. Try to do all the negatives as one set – don’t stop and rest as I did in the video below unless absolutely necessary. (That was my Max Effort day so I was spent from the first set!)

Lateral and Rear Delt Raise

  • You’re doing a total number of reps – 100 on the first three weeks, 50 on the last three weeks. Break the sets, reps, and rest up as you want, but try to beat your reps per set and total time each week. Choose a weight that lets you complete the first week in under five minutes, with the goal to get it under three minutes. I found 30-second rests to be very useful. This should give you a massive burn!

Close-Grip Bench

  • Grip width needn’t be exceedingly close; two fingers on the smooth and two on the grip works well for most. This more moderate grip lets the chest get involved while still hitting the triceps hard.

Dumbbell Triceps Pullover

  • This is like a traditional dumbbell pullover, except the elbows are bent on the way down and straightened on the way up. This makes the exercise much easier, but also places considerable emphasis on the stubborn long head of the triceps. It’s also more shoulder-friendly, so you can go heavy. On the drop set, as with the shoulder press, perform a slower negative.

Triceps Pushdown

  • Any variation will work, just keep your upper body and shoulder girdle in “bench press position” (lower back arched, shoulder blades retracted and depressed, chest up) throughout the set.

Although most lifters are much weaker in this position, it tends to transfer to the bench press better than the “rounded and protracted” pressdowns typically seen in commercial gyms.

It’s okay to go light; squeeze the triceps and get a pump. This forces blood into the area, which helps keep the elbows healthy.

Get Growing!

This system can provide a quick “sneak peak” of how strong you are in a given lift. I try to set some PR’s on the non-contested lifts in the off-season, and this program fit the bill nicely.

But as with most workout routines, the devil is in the details. Note the progression required on the main sets of shoulder presses and close-grip bench presses – if you fail on the first week you’re screwed, so start on the light side and work your way up each week.

As for those who scoff that this is just a “bodybuilder” program, you got it all wrong. Bigger and stronger shoulders and triceps mean a better bench press.

Besides, who doesn’t secretly want bigger shoulders and arms?