If you’ve ever attended a national bodybuilding championships, you know the characters in the audience are often more interesting to watch than the guys on stage. I remember one story in particular about a rather impressive audience member.
I first heard about this bizarre incident from several old-time bodybuilders. Ben Sorenson, a lifter who managed Vic Tanny’s famous gym near Muscle Beach, related the most complete version to me.
“It was at the 1948 Mr. USA contest at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles,” Sorenson remembered. “Before the start of the show, some of us Tanny’s Gym regulars were hanging out in the lobby when a guy walked in with the broadest shoulders I’ve ever seen. I mean they were freakishly wide – at least 25 inches across. Steve Reeves had some tremendous shoulders on his frame, but they weren’t this broad.”
“What was he wearing?” I asked.
“He had on a tan-colored sweater with a two-inch-wide blue stripe that encircled his upper chest and each arm just below his deltoids,” Sorenson replied. “Of course, that stripe emphasized the breadth of his shoulders even more. As the guy approached where we were standing, I judged that he was about 20-years old, 6-feet tall, and probably weighed 210 pounds.”
“Did you get a chance to talk with him?”
“No, at the last moment, when he saw us starring in awe,” Sorenson said, “he veered to his right and quickly made his way up the stairs. Evidently, he had a seat in the balcony and he didn’t want to be confronted. But we watched him go up the stairs and it was obvious to some of us what the kid had done. One of the guys in our group said he got a better look at the guy later in the balcony and he also vouched for what I’m about to explain.”
“It seems the bodybuilder went to a shop in Tijuana, Mexico, which specialized in supplying theatrical clothes for Hollywood movies. There he was measured for seven custom-tailored sweaters that he could carefully layer on his upper body to provide the illusion of having extra-wide shoulders.
“Visualize this: The first sweater had an extra-large neck hole and a bottom that stopped at mid-torso, and sleeves that ended just past the elbows. Each of the middle five sweaters had a slightly smaller neck hole and a slightly longer bottom and longer sleeves. The seventh sweater had to be very large through the shoulders, chest, and upper arms, but be carefully tailored to fit normally at the neck, waist, and wrist.”
“I think I understand what you’re talking about,” I noted, shaking my head in amazement. “It must have been a little like seeing some of those inflatable muscle suits that are used on certain television shows to simulate exaggerated strength?”
“You’re right,” Sorenson said. “At first glance, you’re shocked because there’s a chance that the size is real. But then you realize that it’s a joke, or worse, the guy is actually serious about his desire to project broad shoulders.”
“Ben, why would a young man want to project extra-wide shoulders?” I wanted to know.
Scott Wilson gets my vote for the widest shoulders of the bodybuilders I’ve worked with. In 1983, I measured his shoulders unpumped and relaxed, with a large outside caliper, at exactly 24 inches.
Wide Shoulders Make the Man
“Because ‘shoulders make the man’ and ‘the wider the better’ were common beliefs that were prevalent during and after World War II,” Sorenson answered. “Armed forces recruiters frequently made reference to needing real men to fight, as opposed to sissy men. Boys everywhere wanted to be like the real-man heroes, who they saw in both the movies and the newsreels, or heard about on the battlefields.”
“You mean men like Johnny Weissmuller, Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne?” I said. “Their broad shoulders always seemed to be emphasized in their movies. Today, you can even see the exaggerated, heroic shoulder width in kids’ action toys and cartoons.”
“Exactly,” Sorenson said. “But there’s also another angle to this concept . . . because the greatest hero of all – a man among men – at least, for all us guys who fought in the War, was Audie Murphy.”
Audie Murphy – a Man Among Men
“You’re so right,” I remembered. “I grew up near Houston and Murphy was from north Texas – so he got a lot of publicity around the state. Not only because he was the most decorated US soldier in World War II, but also because of his heroic movie roles. All the kids in my neighborhood admired that serious-styled cowboy he played in his western movies. He was fast on the draw and his Texas twang seemed to speak to our hearts. His movie, To Hell and Back, which was also his autobiography, had to have been right up there in popularity with John Wayne’s The Alamo.
“In my neighborhood, most of the kids identified with Murphy because he was short (5 feet, 7 inches), lightly built (145 pounds), and somewhat of an underdog – for approximately half of most of his movies. Then, when he’d had enough, his controlled anger would take over and he’d become what every teenager wished he could become: A Real Man, a guy, who when provoked, could become an unbeatable-fighting machine.
“It was almost like Murphy didn’t need to lift weights, you know? He was a true ‘natural’ who had all-around athletic ability. His steely, laid-back, raw ability allowed him to destroy all those Germans in real life and do the same to the bullies or bad men in the movies.”
Audie Murphy was a real-life hero to kids growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.
“That does makes sense,” Sorenson said, “but I’ll tell you Ellington, with us mortals, weight lifting was a huge benefit, both during and after the War. There was much truth to shoulders making the man. Strong, broad shoulders sure helped me, they helped George Eiferman, they helped Joe Gold, they helped Steve Reeves, they helped all the other soldiers I knew who lifted during and after the War.”
“Besides Reeves,” I asked, “who had the broadest shoulders in Tanny’s Gym?”
Chuck Ahrens and his Shoulder Strength
“Vic Tanny’s younger brother, Armand, was almost Reeves’s equal on shoulders,” Sorenson answered. “Reeves’ shoulders, from deltoid to deltoid, measured with a caliper, were 23-1/2 inches. Tanny’s were 23-3/8 inches. And Bill Trumbo was between those two. But the guy who impressed me the most, was a young Chuck Ahrens weighing in at 275 pounds. Six-foot tall Ahrens, actually had shoulders like that guy wearing those seven-tailored sweaters wished he had.
“If you’ve followed the Iron Game for the last 50 years, you’ll remember some of the amazing feats of strength that were attributed to Ahrens by the muscle magazines in the late 1950s and 1960s. There was a lot of fiction, no doubt, presented as fact. But I saw Ahrens, when he was only a teenager, do standing lateral raises with a pair of 90-pound dumbbells in his hands. And he did them in fairly good form. Even then, the boy kept his body covered, and I never heard of anyone ever seeing him without his shirt. But his very broad shoulders and huge arms were undeniable.”
Chuck Ahrens performed this demonstration of shoulder strength in 1957 at Muscle Beach. Ahrens weighed 280 pounds and the girl weighed 75 pounds.
“I remember reading that Ahrens also did seated presses with dumbbells weighing 160 pounds each,” I noted. “And I’ve read several times that his shoulder width, measured accurately with calipers, was 26-5/8 inches. Those are the widest shoulders I’ve ever heard of. In 1983, I personally measured Scott Wilson’s shoulders at 24 inches. His deltoids and overall shoulder width were awesome. I doubt very seriously that Ahrens ever had anything close to the muscularity that Wilson achieved.”
“You’re right,” Sorenson said, “Ahrens was never in hard, ripped condition. And I can’t vouch for Ahrens’ shoulders ever spanning 26-5/8 inches. My personal opinion would be . . . they were 25-1/2 inches – tops. I’ve heard from reliable sources, however, that he handled 160-pound, or even heavier, dumbbells on seated presses.”
“So Ben, dumbbell lateral raises and overhead presses would be a recommended part of your shoulder-development program, right?”
“Definitely dumbbell lateral raises, but not dumbbell presses. I always preferred military presses with a barbell to any type of dumbbell press. In my opinion, you can concentrate more with a barbell, than with dumbbells, especially on pressing movements.
“At one time, a military press meant that you had to perform the lift using strict military posture: heels together, back straight, chin down, and with only the strength of your shoulders and arms. Within a couple of decades during the middle of the last century, the concept deteriorated into more of a jerk than a press, until the competitive lift was finally discontinued in 1972. It’s a shame, you seldom see bodybuilders today doing overhead work. As a result, the shoulder mass of the typical bodybuilder has suffered.”
Measuring Shoulder Width
How do you know if your shoulders are real-man wide or just normal? You don’t unless you know how to determine shoulder width – accurately.
Measuring your shoulder width is different from measuring your arms and calves. We’re not interested in circumference, we’re looking for width: the distance from the outside of the left deltoid, straight through the upper torso, to the outside of the right deltoid. The best tool to use for determining this distance is a large outside caliper.
This photo shows Gregg Downing’s shoulder width being measured with an outside caliper. From this position the caliper is closed until each point comes in contact with the outside of his deltoid, which has been marked with an “x.” Prior to his initial workout, Gregg’s shoulders were 20 inches. After one 4-exercise cycle, his shoulders pumped to 20-1/2 inches, which was an indication that they could grow to that width.
Most gyms in the 1940s and 1950s, according to Sorenson, had an outside caliper handy for this meaningful measurement. Unfortunately, such a tool is seldom seen today.
An alternate way of determining shoulder width is as follows:
- Take off your shirt and stand with your back next to a smooth wall.
- Hang your hands in a relaxed manner and touch the sides of your thighs. Do not flare your elbows or widen your lats. (By flaring your elbows you can get another inch or so on the measurement, but you’re simply fooling yourself.)
- Have a buddy stand in front, and with a yardstick in his hand, place one end next to your right deltoid and extend it to the front. Have him make a light pencil mark on the wall at the inside edge of the yardstick, which signifies the protrusion of your right shoulder.
- Apply the same procedure, with the yardstick and pencil, on your left deltoid.
- Step away from the wall and measure, with the yardstick or tape measure, the horizontal distance between the two pencil marks.
That horizontal measurement (which includes both deltoids), in inches and fractions of inches, is your shoulder width.
The average man in the United States is 5-foot 10-inches tal, and weighs 172 pounds. His shoulder width is 18-1/4 inches.
Using that as a starting number, if your shoulder width is approximately 18-1/4 inches . . . then, your shoulder width is AVERAGE or NORMAL.
A little bit goes a long way in shoulder width . . . 20-inch-wide shoulders look significantly broader than average shoulders; 21-inch shoulders will get plenty of attention; 22-inch shoulders will draw stares from almost everyone; 23-inch shoulders are super heroic and will get you a ticket on the front row of Mr. Olympia contests; and 24-inch shoulders are as rare as a 500-pound overhead press.
The goal of this two-week plan is to add at least 1/2 inch of muscle onto the width of your shoulders.
The Real-Man Routine
Ben Sorenson is correct. Bodybuilders today should definitely NOT ignore overhead pressing. The other key to this routine is the triple pre-exhaustion cycle of dumbbell raises that you do before the overhead press. Also, the overhead press separates into three stages, which adds a different feel to the standard movement. Appreciation goes to Andrew Shortt of Ottawa, Canada, for his assistance in designing and testing this routine.
Here are my deltoid exercises for wider, real-man shoulders:
- Bent-over raise with dumbbells, seated, immediately followed by:
- Lateral raise with dumbbells, seated, immediately followed by:
- Front raise with dumbbells, seated, followed by:
- Overhead press with barbell, standing, performed in thirds . . . middle, top, and bottom.
(During Week 2, add a final set of the regular overhead press.)
Below are the directions for the two workouts that make up Week 1 and the two workouts that compose Week 2.
Week 1: Wider-Shoulder Cycle
For the wider-shoulder cycle, you’ll need dumbbells, a barbell, and a bench.
Bent-Over Raise With Dumbbells
You won’t require much resistance on each dumbbell to get the job done here: 10-20 pounds per dumbbell will work for most trainees on the bent-over raise, and it won’t change as you move into the lateral raise and the front raise.
The idea is to pre-exhaust the deltoids (posterior, lateral, and anterior) and get a burning shoulder PUMP, before you get into the press. Then, you can use your triceps to force your pre-exhausted deltoids into making a deeper inroad into your starting level of pressing strength. Or, in short, it stimulates your deltoids to grow.
Grasp a light set of dumbbells and sit on the front edge of a flat bench. Bend your knees 90 degrees and place your feet together. Lean forward and move your chest near your thighs. Allow the dumbbells to hang near the floor with your arms almost straight. Keep a slight bend in your elbows throughout the movement.
Bring both dumbbells to the sides in an arching motion until the dumbbells are in line with your ears. Pause at the top for 2 seconds and lower smoothly to the starting position. Repeat for maximum repetitions, which should be in the 8 to 12 range. After the final repetition, do not place the dumbbells on the floor. Straighten your torso into a vertical position and go immediately into the lateral raise.
Lateral Raise With Dumbbells
Sit up straight, stabilize your shoulder girdle, and maintain a slight bend in your elbows. Lift the dumbbells laterally until your arms are parallel to the floor. Pause for 2 seconds. Lower slowly while relaxing your neck and face. Repeat for 8 to 12 strict reps. Move immediately into the front raise. Do not place the dumbbells on the floor. Keep holding them.
Front Raise With Dumbbells
Slide forward to the edge of the bench. Bend your knees and place your feet together. Sit upright and maintain a slight bend in your elbows. Raise both dumbbells to the front while keeping your thumbs up. Pause for 2 seconds when your arms are parallel to the floor and lower slowly to the bottom. Repeat for 8 to 12 repetitions. After the final repetition, place the dumbbells on the floor and move immediately to the overhead press with a barbell.
(By now, you should have a burning PUMP throughout your deltoids. Much of the pump is a result of the 2-second pause in the top position of the dumbbell raises. It may be helpful to count to yourself . . . 1-0-0-1, 1-0-0-2 . . . during each rep.)
Overhead Press With Barbell, Standing, Performed in Stages or Thirds . . . Middle, Top, and Bottom
After the triple pre-exhaustion with the dumbbell raises, you won’t be able to handle nearly as much as you normally do in the overhead press. I suggest that most trainees try initially from 60 to 80 pounds.
Next, visually divide the range of motion of the overhead press into three stages as follows: bottom,from upper chest to chin; middle, from chin to eyebrows; and top, from eyebrows to lockout.
Grasp the barbell with a shoulder-width grip and bring it to the front shoulders. While standing, do 8 reps in the middle third. Then do 8 reps in the top third and a final 8 reps in the bottom third.
Squeeze into each mini-rep and make the movements smooth. Each stage of 8 mini-reps should take approximately 20 seconds. Halfway through, you should feel a deep burn throughout the deltoids. Remain focused and keep pushing. If you don’t feel exhausted at the end of the third stage, the barbell is too light and you should increase it for the next session. Finish off the set by performing several full repetitions in the press. Your goal for the fourth session is 12 mini-reps in each stage.
Week 2: Wider-Shoulder Cycle
For Week 2, perform the same exercises in the same order, with one exception: On the completion of the overhead press, which is done in stages, take 2 MINUTES REST. Then, perform the overhead press with as much weight as you can, for 8 to 12 repetitions. Keep the form strict, but you can cheat a little on the last several reps.
Review for Week 2, do these five exercises:
- Bent-over raise, immediately followed by:
- Lateral raise, immediately followed by:
- Front raise, immediately followed by:
- Overhead press with barbell, in stages: middle, top, and bottom.
- Rest for 2 minutes.
- Overhead press with heavier barbell
The entire shoulder cycle, including the rest period, should take only 7 to 8 minutes. Again, if you do the exercises properly with the correct resistance, you should have a tremendous shoulder pump after 3 minutes . . . and it should become even more pronounced during and after the overhead presses.
Sign-up for Wider Shoulders … Now
It’s to your advantage to progress through the two-week, wider-shoulder routine as a part of a group. You’ll be able to benefit from the group’s collective feedback. Here’s what to do to join:
- Post a message at the end of this article and note your intention. Also, let me know your age, height, and weight.
- Agree to train your shoulders, according to the outlined instructions, four times over two weeks.
- Take a BEFORE measurement of your shoulders, according to the five bulleted guidelines in “an alternate way to determine shoulder width.” Do the measurement prior to your first workout and record it to the nearest one-sixteenth of an inch.
- Note: It’s not necessary to take BEFORE and AFTER photos of your shoulders. If you decide to, however, here’s the method to apply. Have a friend with a digital camera take a photo of you from the waist up. Position your hands by your thighs and relax your arms, shoulders, and chest. Do not try to pose and do not pump up any of your muscles. Try to standardize the photos: same background, angle and distance from the camera, and time of day. At the end of the plan, consider emailing me your comparison photos. If you don’t want to be recognized, wear dark glasses or crop out your head.
- Begin your initial workout on July 24, 2006. You can also start on the next day. Train four, non-consecutive days over two weeks. Allow two or three days to elapse between workouts.
- IMPORTANT: Add six non-shoulder exercises to complete your routine on each training day. I suggest a squat with a barbell or the leg press machine; a leg extension, leg curl machine, or calf raise; and four upper-body exercises, such as bent-over rowing, reverse curl, trunk curl, and stiff-legged deadlift.
- Limit your strenuous activity of your off-days. Also, get more rest and sleep, if possible.
- Eat nutritiously and don’t skimp on calories.
- Use creatine monohydrate (I like Biotest’s micronized version combined with Surge) according to directions on the label for two weeks.
- Complete your fourth and last shoulder-training session on August 4, 2006. Rest over the next two days. On the morning of August 7th, re-measure your shoulder width, using the five bulleted guidelines, and record it to the nearest one-sixteenth of an inch.
- Post your BEFORE and AFTER measurements at the end of the Real-Man Shoulder thread on T-Nation.
Scott Wilson’s 24-inch shoulders do a good job of stabilizing his 18-inch upper arms and 15-inch forearms . . . as he performs an overhead press machine.
Apply the specialized routine four times over the next two weeks and you’ll be far along that road of having well-rounded deltoids and wider shoulders.
In fact, you won’t have to even CONSIDER a trip to Tijuana. Real-man shoulders are not made from yarn, but from muscle.
Muscle grows from lifting iron, not supporting sweaters.
Editor’s Note: Hey, anybody out there have legitimate 24-inch shoulders? How about some that are at least a fightin’ distance away from 24-inches, or that look imposing nonetheless?