Most people train for one of two reasons—to perform better in athletics or to look good. Who doesn’t want the perfect blend of style and performance? However, there is an area where both goals can be obtained. People often perceive performing shoulder workouts as a means to achieve one or the other. That notion couldn’t be further from the truth.
As someone who comes from a strength and conditioning background but who also has an affinity for competitive physique events (e.g., bodybuilding, figure), I offer my clients the best of both worlds. The sought-after “V-taper” physique literally starts from the top down. The V-taper creates the illusion of more size with a smaller waist; you not only look bigger, you also appear leaner.
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Furthermore, shoulder workouts that create strength and mobility are essential to every lift and every athletic movement. The Bench Press requires strong delts; lineman exploding off the line require strong delts; and swimmers require strong and mobile delts. Even my hairstylist, who holds her arms at eye-level for eight-plus hours a day, requires functional delts. Whether your goal is to be more athletic or look more aesthetically pleasing—or if you’re a mechanic who lifts all day—training your delts should be a high priority.
The central piece of designing shoulder workouts that achieve both function and aesthetics is the primary lift (or compound lift). The primary lift should be done at the beginning of the workout when your muscles are fresh. Since your goal is to use a multi-joint, compound movement, being fresh is essential to moving the most weight possible.
The following are excellent choices: Split Jerk, Push-Press, Standing Barbell/DB Overhead Press, and Seated Barbell/DB Overhead press. If you’re doing Olympic-style lifts such as the Push-Press or Split Jerk, keep sets and reps on the lower end—3-5 sets of 3-5 reps will be plenty. If you choose to do overhead pressing motions, you can increase the volume slightly—to 4-5 sets of 6-10 reps.
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Choose exercises that target the front deltoid, middle deltoid and rear deltoid. Hitting the shoulders from all planes of motion will ensure they build symmetrically and help you develop strength in each.
- Front deltoid exercises: Front Raises (with DB, bar, or plate) and Incline Presses (bar or DB), DB Arnold Presses (which also target the middle delts)
- Middle deltoid exercises: Lateral Raises (cable or DB), Upright Rows
- Rear deltoid exercises: Rear Flys (with DB or seated backwards on pectoral fly machine), Face Pulls, Band Pull-Aparts
Finally, integrate some bodybuilding set modifications. These include drop sets, one and a half reps, supersets, rest-pause sets, and 100s sets. I discuss some of these methods here.
When performing set modifications (or “set extenders”), do them at the end of your workout. If you do them early, your muscles will be too fatigued to reap the benefits of lifting heavier on your succeeding exercises. I typically do set modifications on the last exercise or two.
DB Seated Overhead Presses
- Sets/Reps: 5×12,10,8,6,6 (increasing weight with each subsequent set)
Seated Shoulder Press Machine
- Sets/Reps: 4×15,12,10,8 (back not supported with bench; sit tilted slightly forward to focus on your middle delts)
Single-Arm Lateral Cable Delt Raises
Rope Face Pulls
- Sets/Reps: 3×10-12
- Superset with DB Standing Front Raises (alternating arms each rep): 3×10-12 each arm
Seated Lateral Delt Raise
- Machine drop sets: 10-15 reps each set X 4 drops (resting 15 seconds between sets)
Be creative with your workouts to keep your muscles guessing and break up the monotony. But most important, have fun with exercising. Remember, it’s a lifelong committment. Just because you achieved your desired 1RM Bench or met your bodyweight goal doesn’t mean that you can quit. It’s time to set a new goal.