If you want some big, bad ass boulder shoulders that make you look like you’re wearing a pair of Road Warrior-like studded football pads underneath your shirt, well, this isn’t the article you should be reading. Sorry. However, if you want to correct a few muscle imbalances you may have created before you knew better, or if you want to fortify the integrity of your shoulder joints and maybe even improve your posture, then this might be just the article you need.
We all know people who were really into bodybuilding at one time in their lives but eventually dropped out after a few years of hardcore lifting. Why? In many cases, these guys developed so many nagging injuries they eventually just gave up on training. Injuries to the shoulders top the list. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Proper care and feeding of your “caps” can keep them healthy through years of hard training. After all, you can’t build cannonball delts if you’re injured.
Here are a few exercises to get your shoulders stronger, healthier, and yes, maybe even a little bigger.
Don’t let the name fool you. I’m not talking about the fine art of cigar making or some weird form of torture. Okay, perhaps the latter does apply. (You’ll know what I mean when you try it.) This movement stems from the Cuban press, an exercise popularized by Charles Poliquin when Muscle Media was actually Y2K compliant. If you want to seriously drive your bench press or pull-up poundages through the roof, then you’ve come to the right place. If, on the other hand, you’re merely seeking to improve your shoulder health and add some strength in the meantime, then you’re also in luck!
The limiting factor in the original three-part Cuban press (which is basically an upright row, external rotation, and an overhead press) is the rotation, thus the name “Cuban rotation.” It’s all about balance. By working the weak link, the entire chain gets stronger. The beauty is that not only will your Cuban press get stronger, but so will other lifts like the bench press and pull-up. By using a barbell, this movement is very specific to the aforementioned exercises. The Cuban rotation can be performed standing, seated, or kneeling, but to respect the Law of Specificity, you should use the same grip you commonly use for your benches and wide grip pull-ups.
With the arms abducted (raised out to the side), the Cuban rotation primarily stresses the infraspinatus, a rotator cuff muscle responsible for external/lateral rotation of the humerus (your upper arm bone). Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock over the last decade, you should know that the big boys up top, i.e. your pecs and lats, are internal rotators of the humerus. It’s very easy to develop a muscular imbalance since most programs heavily favor internal rotation and not external rotation.
The integrity of the shoulder joint subsequently suffers, increasing the likelihood of injury. Furthermore, strength about the shoulder joint is also compromised as a protective measure if the external rotators aren’t well developed and can’t stabilize a heavy load.
Okay, here we go. To perform the Cuban rotation, start with your upper arms raised out to your sides until they’re parallel to the ground and in line with your shoulders. The bar should be positioned directly in front of your lower sternum. Keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees and the wrists straight and firm throughout. Rotate the bar toward your forehead but stop just shy of vertical at the top of the movement. This will ensure that you maintain tension on the muscle at all times.
If you hit yourself in the head, then you either went too far (duh!), and/or your elbows were too low (below shoulder level). Keep your chest up and head erect during the entire exercise. As a matter of fact, imitate your favorite Playmate and draw your sternum up as high as possible. According to some experts you’re about 10% stronger in this position, although this is a bit of a generalization. On the eccentric (negative) contraction, rotate the bar down as far as you can without lowering your chest or your upper arms.
Don’t get too brave with this exercise; take it easy on the weight to begin with and concentrate on your form. A standard 45-pound Olympic bar will be too heavy for most of you and a 15 pound cambered (EZ-Curl) bar will probably be light, so find a weight in between. Don’t be deceived, though. This exercise is a lot like the movie Man On The Moon; you start off laughing but end up crying. The Cuban rotation will catch up to you quickly and you’ll definitely feel it!
Also, don’t go overboard with the sets, especially at the beginning. Since the external rotators are relatively small muscles, two to three sets of 12 to 15 reps will do just fine to begin with. It’s advisable to use light weights and higher reps at this stage to develop the neural pathways. However, the latest research indicates a slightly greater proportion of fast twitch muscle fibers in the infraspinatus; therefore, a medium rep range would be ideal.
Your second go around with this exercise, during a different program, should then concentrate on a slightly lower rep bracket (8 to10 reps) for three to four sets. Use a moderate tempo and take two seconds to complete the positive contraction and two to four seconds for the negative (lowering) with no pause in between. Use short rest intervals: 45 to 60 seconds at the lower intensity/load and 75 to 90 seconds at the higher intensity.
In general, to improve the strength and integrity of the shoulder joint, you should perform external rotations on a regular basis. With that in mind, check out this next exercise that’s also quite effective, but will hit you from a totally different angle.
The Super Set
A1) Side-Lying Dumbbell External Rotation
To all you competitive bodybuilders and European females, accidentally spilling Nair on your nipples is nothing compared to this combination of exercises. Take it from me, this superset will burn like crazy!
The side-lying dumbbell external rotation works the teres minor, the other rotator cuff muscle responsible for, you guessed it, external rotation. This is an exercise commonly prescribed by many therapists to rehabilitate an injured shoulder, but it also serves as an excellent strength and conditioning movement if performed correctly. In fact, Ian King thinks of it as one of the most valuable external rotation drills.
Start by lying on your side with your knees bent slightly for comfort and support. Grab onto a light dumbbell and keep your upper arm bent at 90 degrees throughout the exercise. (Of course, when performing unilateral movements, always start with your weak side first.) Rest your head on your lower arm, not your hand, to keep the cervical spine neutral. This point may seem trivial, but is actually very important and will make a difference in strength.
Keeping the wrist of your working arm straight and firm, rotate the dumbbell backward as far as you can but never go beyond perpendicular to the floor. Then, in a smooth fashion, lower the weight without it ever touching the ground. Try to keep your elbow glued to your side and minimize the amount of flaring for best results.
If you think that taking an ice cold bath is a humbling experience, try to impress a chick with this exercise. You won’t! I’ve even had some men start with a semi-filled water bottle on this one! (I didn’t have the heart to hand them a soup can.) On average, though, most men use between five to ten pounds. Again, keep the reps fairly high in the 12 to15 range.
With external rotations in particular, it’s wise to use small loading progressions. The five pound jump typical on most dumbbell racks may be too much. You’ll be quite surprised what a difference only five pounds makes in this exercise! If you have access to PlateMates then you can take advantage of microloading for continued strength gains.
The other option is to manipulate the tempo. By slowing down the speed of execution, you can effectively make this exercise more difficult. Moreover, by altering trunk position, you can influence the strength curve and control the level of difficulty You can do this by rotating your trunk forward to make the exercise more difficult; rotate back and it’s a breeze. This is a trick I learned from Jerry Telle and his concept of Tellekinetics.
Take no rest and proceed to the next exercise.
A2) Side-Lying Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise
Since most upper-body exercises favor the anterior head of the deltoid (or for those that read Men’s Fitness, the front part of the shoulder), a muscle imbalance is not uncommon. This exercise, on the other hand, stresses the posterior (rear) deltoid and may help to improve a kyphotic (hunchback) posture and rounded shoulders that’s so common in today’s society.
With the dumbbell still in hand, extend your arm out directly in front of your chest. Your upper arm will actually make contact with your chest and the elbow should be slightly bent. This is the starting position. Now, move the dumbbell in an arcing motion until it’s almost directly above your shoulder. In order to maintain tension on the working muscle, you don’t quite want to reach vertical at the top position. It’s important that you follow the same pathway and remain in the same plane of motion (a.k.a. the Technical Limit Principle) on each repetition to derive the best results from this, or any other, exercise.
Perform the same number of reps as the external rotation and repeat the superset two to three times with no more than two minutes rest in between. Variations for this exercise include lying on a Swiss ball or on a bench and adjusting the angle of incline.
This routine isn’t going to build huge delts, but it will keep you lifting for a long time to come. You may even discover some new found muscularity filling the gaps behind those deltoids. After a few weeks, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the improved shoulder strength. After a few years, you’ll really appreciate the pain-free and healthy shoulders.