When people discuss which part of their body they’re most interested in training, we get a lot of different answers. Women might say they want to train their glutes to look like Kim Kardashian, men might say they want their arms and chest to look like Arnold, and psychopaths might say they want to train legs every day.
But perhaps the most neglected area of the body in terms of appearance are the shoulders. It seems strange, but for a relatively small muscle group, your shoulders have a large impact on your appearance and upper body functionality. Properly developed shoulders, more so than other muscle group, will make the upper body pop, creating the appearance of a smaller waist and a nice X-shaped frame.
Warm Up With Rotations
When thinking about shoulders, we often think of the deltoid muscles, which will be discussed later. Your shoulder joints are actually powered by the four muscles of the rotator cuff. These muscles work as stabilizers, as well as internal and external rotators.
Your rotators are not the sexiest muscles to train since they don’t add a lot to the aesthetics directly. However, keeping them strong and healthy is important for overall health and training longevity.
Adding internal and external rotations to the beginning of your workout is an easy and great way to keep your rotator cuffs strong and healthy.
How to Do an Internal Rotation
To perform an internal rotation, use light dumbbells or a cable machine at the gym. Adjust the cable about halfway between your shoulder and hip, and attach a handle to the pulley system.
Position your elbows against your sides and imagine someone is trying to tickle you, keep your armpits tight.
Grab your dumbbells or handles and keep a 90-degree angle in your elbow.
Pull the weights towards your body, in a semicircle motion.
Return to the start position and continue until the set is complete.
To do an external rotation, do the same thing except move the opposite way. Keep weight relatively low on these exercises and reps relatively high, about 15 or so reps, and nothing too challenging.
Compound Shoulder Exercises
Compound shoulder exercises like presses and rows should be the bulk of your shoulder workout, and are best tackled right after your warmup.
These compound movements demand the most energy and require the most technique. They’ll also give you the most bang for your buck as far as shoulder development, so you’ll want to be as fresh as possible for them.
Some sort of heavy press should be in every single shoulder workout. Specifically vertical pressing between 30 and 90 degrees, which provides the best shoulder activation necessary for growth.
You’ll also want to choose a variation that allows you to overload the muscle easily, i.e. make the movement harder. The easiest way to do this is to add weight, which makes barbells and dumbbells a great tool when doing presses.
Whichever variation of press you decide do (dumbbell, barbell, seated, standing, etc.) there are certain things you’ll want to keep in mind:
Shoulder Press Tips
Keep your body tight while the weight is moving, and try to brace when the weight is either at the top or at the bottom.
Keep your scapula retracted (think Superman chest).
Keep your elbows underneath your hands and weight at all times.
Raise the weights directly over the shoulder joint, not too far in front, not too far in back. You can tell the weight is in the right spot when it feels like it weighs the least.
Now, onto pulling. The upright row is a great pulling compound movement that targets the shoulders, especially the side delts. Generally, we want to take a wider grip on the upright row, which will stimulate more of the side and rear delts, as well as the traps. Be careful on this exercise though, as bad form has been linked to shoulder impingement.
How to Do an Upright Row
To do an upright row, grab the weight with your palms facing your body.
Start with the weight resting against your thighs with your arms straight.
Squeeze your shoulders together and brace your body before lifting the weight up.
Pull your elbows up and away from each other, keeping the weight close to your body.
Pull the weight up until you cannot raise it any further.
Remember, pull with your elbows, not your hands. Your elbows should always be higher than your hands.
A good trick to do at the gym is to do the upright row on the cable machine with a rope attachment. It can be helpful to think about pulling the rope apart as you row upwards during the rep.
Since your shoulders are approximately 50% slow twitch fibers and 50% fast twitch fibers, you should train them at varying rep ranges. For muscle growth anywhere from six to 20 reps is appropriate. The compound movements should mostly be done towards the smaller end of that range, while the isolation movements, which we are about to discuss, should be towards the higher end of that range.
Shoulder Isolation Movements
After you warm-up, and after you’ve done your heavy compound sets, it’s time to chase the pump and do some isolation work. We’ll start with your lateral (side) deltoid muscle.
This is the part of your shoulder that faces the side and gives the shoulders a “capped” look. This muscle is in charge of shoulder abduction, i.e. raising your arm to your side. This muscle is not activated as much in pressing movements, so doing some supplemental isolation work makes sense.
To target the side delt specifically, you need to do some variation on a side raise, also called a lateral raise. This exercise can be performed with a dumbbell or with cables.
How to Do a Shoulder Side Raise
To do a side raise, start with the weight in your hands, palms facing the body, arms at your side.
Keeping the rest of your body still, raise the weight laterally while keeping your arm straight.
Come up to about shoulder height before bringing the weight back down under control and doing your next rep.
It is sometimes helpful to imagine pouring out a pitcher of water while doing this exercise, or pitcher of beer if you’re in college.
Rear delts often get neglected, but they are important to train for developing an aesthetic posterior as well as contributing to overall shoulder health. Compound movements like presses and rows to a lesser degree do a very poor job of activating this muscle, so reverse fly movements that isolate this muscle are a must for a properly designed shoulder workout. The reverse pec dec is king for rear delt isolation movements, partially because it allows for constant tension on the muscle throughout the movement.
How to Do a Reverse Pec Dec Fly
To do a reverse pec dec fly, adjust the machine to your specific proportions.
Handles should be at shoulder height.
Face your palms either toward each other, or face down, whichever feels better.
Keep your arms straight and horizontally pull the handles back towards your body.
Go back to your fullest range of motion before doing another rep.
More Shoulder Exercise Tips
You might also be wondering about the anterior or front delts. The front delts can and should be trained optimally through pressing variations alone. Basically, if you have one horizontal press (like a pushup) and one vertical press (like a shoulder press) in your program, that should provide enough stimulation to the front delts to support growth.
An often used but not very functional exercise people throw into their shoulder workouts are front raises. This exercise is redundant in a properly designed program, and just isn’t as good at activating the front delts as pressing variations.
Because the shoulders are a smaller muscle group, they can recover quicker, meaning you can train them more frequently. Training shoulders at least twice per week is a good place to start.
Structure and order your shoulder workouts with this easy template: warmup, compound, isolation.