Readers often ask how I come up with some of my creative (crazy?) exercise variations. The answer is, it really boils down to necessity – I see a need for something, so I find a way to fill the need; if there's not something currently available, I design something that works. It's that simple!
That said, I don't wake up in the morning and ask myself, "How can I reinvent the wheel today?" But if the usual stuff stops working or just gets boring, it's my job to find some not-so-usual stuff that will get things moving again. Doing this makes training much more interesting, fun, and much more productive.
Which brings me to one of my favorite body parts to train: shoulders. Use some of these Unconventional Shoulder Training exercises to add variety to your training and spark some new growth!
You're Training Shoulders Too Often!
If you're an aspiring bodybuilder or weekend warrior, you're likely following a traditional bodybuilding split that looks similar to this:
- Day 1 – Chest & Triceps
- Day 2 – Back & Biceps
- Day 3 – Shoulders & Abs
- Day 4 – Legs (optional)
- Day 5 – Pre-nightclub Arms, Abs, Tanning, and Waxing
First things first: This kind of programming absolutely sucks, from both a shoulder health and long-term training perspective.
Think of it this way: Anytime your arms move in an exercise, you're stressing the muscles of the shoulder. So, chest day is actually chest and shoulders (and triceps) day; back day is really back and shoulders (and biceps) day. Then, after your shoulders have been pounded with heavy, repetitive loads for two days in a row, you go and perform a shoulder-focused training day.
That's three days out of four in which the shoulders are being loaded. With that lack of recovery, it only makes sense that your shoulders will eventually become overworked, break down, get weaker, and possibly become injured.
But here's the rub: If your goal is to increase the size of your shoulders, especially if they're a physique weak-point, you actually do need to train them more often, to a point. Later in this article I'll provide some sample shoulder training splits that are smart, safe, and effective at building bigger, stronger shoulders, without the risk of injury and potential overuse issues.
Overhead Pressing – Performance U Style
My first training priority, before getting folks bigger, stronger, and leaner, is NOT to injury anyone during the workout. In order to ensure safety and prevent injury, we compare the risk versus the reward of every exercise.
With that in mind, we predominantly use a neutral shoulder position (palms facing each other) when performing overhead pressing exercises, as opposed to the traditional pronated (internally rotated, palms facing the mirror) hand position.
That's not to say we never use the parallel grip when pressing; it's simply that we feel the neutral grip is safer on the shoulder because it allows you to maintain the most sub-acromial space, which places the least amount of impingement stress on the shoulder.
Using exercises that are easy on the joints but still place maximal stress on muscle is the premise behind all the exercises and techniques in my Joint Friendly Strength Training DVD.
Here are my three favorite ways of incorporating the neutral grip into the overhead press:
- Parallel Shoulder Press
- Reverse Arnold Press
- Kettlebell Press or Push Press
Parallel Shoulder Press
Reverse Arnold Press
The Unconventional Shoulder Exercises
Here's a list of some of what I consider to be the best shoulder-training exercises that most people aren't doing:
The Shoulder-to-Shoulder Press
The idea for developing this exercise came to me about 10 years ago while sitting on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland. I watched a few surfers carrying their boards by holding it up on one shoulder, and as one shoulder got tired, they switched to the other side. Seeing this, I thought, "Now that's a great functional shoulder exercise." Since then, it's been one of my favorite shoulder pressing movements.
As the video demonstrates, the shoulder-to-shoulder press can be done using a dumbbell, kettlebell, or heavy sand-filled medicine ball.
The added benefits to the shoulder-to-shoulder press are:
- It allows you to maintain a neutral shoulder position.
- It trains the lateral aspects of the core due to the offset load.
Angled Barbell Press and Catch
This movement, as shown in the video, is simply a faster, more explosive version of the angled barbell press featured in my Apex Predator Workout.
This exercise is fun to do and a favorite of my football players and MMA fighters.
Kettlebell Bottoms Up Press
If you're looking for a great combination shoulder strength / shoulder stabilization exercise, the kettlebell bottom up press, as shown in the video on the right, is just what the physique doctor ordered!
Dumbbell Upper Cuts
This is one of my all time favorite hybrid overhead-pressing variations. I got this move from my long time friend and mentor, Coach JC Santana.
Push Back Push-Up
This is a series of progressions I developed after reading Martin Rooney's book, Warrior Workouts.
The Push Back Push Up series forces the shoulders to work hard to drive your body back using a natural arc/push angle.
I developed the reverse burpee as an explosive variation of the push back push up, and it's much tougher than it looks. It's also very popular among my grappling athletes because it gives them the power they need to create space (push their opponent) in the top position from the ground.
Iso/Dynamic Shoulder Raises
Here's a version of shoulder raises that I developed based on some shoulder rehab techniques that I learned from renowned physical therapist Kevin Wilk.
This simple modification makes the exercise significantly more effective for several reasons:
- The isometric performed on one side eliminates any swinging and/or cheating.
- Because one side is moving while the other isn't, you create more core muscle activation to maintain posture and control due to the offset load.
- It allows you to incorporate and reap the benefits of both isometric and dynamic training into one comprehensive exercise.
You can use this Iso/Dynamic shoulder training technique for:
- Front Shoulder Raises
- Lateral Shoulder Raises
- Rear Delt Flys (aka Ts)
- Corrective work like Ys and Ls
Dumbbell & Band Shoulder Raises
Here's another great way to instantly make your shoulder raises (both front and side) more efficient and effective: Simply hold a light load resistance band handle and a dumbbell at the same time.
The band allows you to begin the exercise with tension, as opposed to just holding the dumbbells where you'd have almost zero tension when the dumbbells were by your sides.
As you raise your arms away from your body, the mechanical advantage of the bands increases while it decreases on the dumbbell. This creates a sort of "accommodating resistance" effect which causes your shoulders to work harder through the entire range of motion, not just at the top of the movement (when your arms are at 90-degrees with your torso).
All that technical talk aside, it's a shoulder blaster!
Putting It All Together: The Unconventional Shoulder Workouts
Having a bunch of exercises is pretty useless if you don't know how to structure them together into an effective workout. Here are three great shoulder workouts using these unconventional shoulder exercises.
Each workout is designed to de done on an upper-body training day, along with more traditional lifts. I'll provide sample training splits in the next section.
Workout 1 – Shoulder Power
Here's a sample dynamic effort (power) emphasis shoulder workout for someone looking to increase motor unit recruitment, power, and explosiveness of their shoulders. This routine is great for combat athletes (boxers, MMA, wrestling, etc.).
- A. Barbell Push Press 5 x 4-5
- B. Angled Barbell Press & Catch 4 x 4-6 each arm
- C. Dumbbell Upper Cuts 4 x 8-10 each arm
Workout 2 – Shoulder Complexes
This shoulder workout consists of two shoulder dominant complexes, each composed of medium loads performed at a high volume. That means they'll give you a serious pump and leave you breathing hard!
If you're looking to increase muscle endurance or add a metabolic component to your shoulder workout, this routine is right on!
Barbell Shoulder Dominant Complex x 5 sets
- A1. Upright Rows x 10-12
- A2. Overhead Shoulder Press x 10-12
- A3. Upper-Body Dominant Snatch x 5-6
Rest 1-2 minutes between complexes
Dumbbell Press with Farmers Walk Complex
- B1. Perform 6-8 Overhead Shoulder Presses
- B2. Walk 25-40 yards holding the dumbbells overhead
- B3. Perform 4-6 Push Presses
- B4. Walk 25-40 yards holding the dumbbells overhead
- When performing upright rows, use a wider grip and pull the bar into your chest, similar to a row. Doing this instead of using a close grip and driving your elbows toward the sky, as in the traditional upright row, is much safer on your shoulders.
- When using a barbell to perform overhead presses, you're unable to use the neutral shoulder/hand grip I mentioned earlier. With that in mind, it's recommended you only use this workout if you have no history of shoulder problems and posses optimal shoulder and thoracic spine mobility.
- When performing the upper-body dominant snatch, minimize hip drive and the use of your lower body. To all you Olympic lifting purists, this is NOT an Olympic lift – it's simply a hybrid of an Oly lift, used to help you crank out a few extra reps to continuously overload the shoulders.
- If you're unable to maintain holding the dumbbells overhead due to fatigue on the dumbbell press with Framers Walk complex, I recommend you carry the 'bells in the racked position instead. This will allow you to still finish the set and still get some good quality work done without stopping the set entirely.
Workout 3 –Shoulder Hypertrophy
This is more of a bodybuilding, hypertrophy-emphasis workout using unconventional methods.
- A. Reverse Arnold Shoulder Press 4 x 8-10
- B. Iso/Dynamic Shoulder Front Raises 3 x 10+10
- C. Iso/Dynamic Shoulder Lateral Raises 3 x 10+10
- D. Push Back Push Ups 2 x AMRAP (As many reps as possible)
Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
On both iso/dynamic exercises (front & lateral raises), perform two cycles of 10 reps each side.
- Right side: 10 x dynamic reps while left holds
- Left side: 10 x dynamic reps while right side holds
- Right side: 10 x dynamic reps while left holds
- Left side: 10 x dynamic reps while right side holds
As mentioned earlier, it's critical not to overwork your shoulders by giving them their own training day within your split. I always recommend simply combining your shoulder training into your existing upper-body push and/or pulling workouts.
If your primary goal is bigger, stronger shoulders, simply spend more time training your shoulders both during the week and within each workout while spending a little less time on the other lifts. Use any of the three shoulder workouts provided after performing compound lifts like bench presses and chin ups, etc.
Here's how I recommend doing so in both a 3-day and 4-day training split:
Sample 3-Day Spit With Shoulder Emphasis
- Day 1 – Pulling + Shoulders (workout #2)
- Day 2 – Legs/Hips
- Day 3 – Pushing + Shoulders (workout #3)
Rest and Repeat
Sample 4-Day Spit With Shoulder Emphasis
- Day 1 – Pulling + Shoulders (workout #1)
- Day 2 – Legs/Hip
- Day 3 – Pushing + Shoulders (workout #2)
- Day 4 – Legs/Hips
Shoulders to Boulders
Necessity is the mother of change, and I wouldn't spend the time developing and testing these methods if they didn't deliver results, fast. Put these unconventional shoulder exercises and workouts to work for you and I'm sure you'll see the same great results as we do here at Performance U.
As always, I love to hear your comments in the discussion forum – just don't let me catch you asking why I didn't cover any "traditional" shoulder exercises that you likely already know. Let's not forget the title of this article series!
Take a break from the usual routine and get growing again!