With summer already upon us, you’re invariably finding yourself in situations that lend themselves to wearing a variety of shoulder-bearing clothes. Whether it’s a spaghetti-strap dress at a dinner party, a sleeveless outfit at a picnic, or a swimsuit at the beach, your shoulders will be displayed prominently for all to see. Are your shoulders up to the task? If not, read on …
From an aesthetic standpoint, the shoulders are perhaps the most important of all muscle groups. While the abs, butt and thighs tend to get all the glory, the shoulders tend to have an even greater bearing on your appearance, both in clothes and out. Specifically, they delineate the shape of your entire body, from the outer contours of your collarbone on down. That’s right, nothing does more to highlight your physique than a sultry set of shoulders!
The fashion industry has long been aware of this fact. Some designers insert shoulder pads into their garments. This provides instant gratification to those who lag in the shoulder area, creating an hourglass figure without any sweat or effort. The problem is, when you dare to bare, you simply can’t hide poor shoulder development – after all, there’s no padding in a tube top or bikini!
When discussing shoulder training, we are specifically referring to the deltoids, a complex of muscles so named because they resemble an inverted triangle (as in the Greek word “delta”). The deltoids are comprised of three distinct “heads”: the anterior (front) head, the medial (side) head and the posterior (rear) head. Because of their anatomical structure, these heads can be individually targeted through the use of different exercises – a fact that has exciting body sculpting possibilities.
Pressing movements are staple exercises in most shoulder routines. But there is a prevailing misperception that these exercises equally stress all three deltoid heads. The truth is, however, shoulder presses primarily target the anterior (front) head, with reduced stimulus to the medial (side) head and only minimal posterior (rear) activity. The reason has to do with the anatomic position of these heads. (Stay with me here, as it will all make sense in a minute).
When shoulder joint abduction is combined with external rotation (as in a shoulder press), the anterior fibers are put in a position where they directly oppose gravity. Now you’re probably saying, “Come on, Brad, what the heck does all this physiology have to do with getting results?” Well, by directly opposing gravity, the anterior (frontal) fibers will take the majority of stress in these movements. Making matters worse, most chest exercises involve the anterior deltoid to various degrees (and in some cases quite significantly). The bottom line is that the exclusive use of presses will tend to create a structural imbalance, overdeveloping the front of your shoulders vis-a-vis the other two deltoid heads.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting you should avoid pressing movements. In fact, quite to the contrary; they should play a central role in your routine. Not only are they excellent for developing the anterior portion of the delts, but they also work many of the stabilizer muscles that support the shoulder joint. This helps to maximize shoulder strength and integrity as well as providing a level of detail that cannot be achieved through isolation movements alone.
To achieve balanced development, it’s imperative that you take a multi-angled approach to shoulder training and utilize a variety of “isolation” exercises, too. For example, the medial (side) head of the deltoids is best activated by abduction movements in which your arms are brought away from the midline of your body (as in the many variations of the lateral raise). The medial delts are extremely important from a body sculpting perspective in that they have the greatest bearing on your shoulder-to-waist differential. Specifically, developing this region gives a “cap” to your shoulders that helps create the illusion of a smaller waist. And let’s face it, who doesn’t covet a smaller waist?
To target the posterior (rear) head, you need to horizontally extend the shoulder joint (bring your arm across and toward the back of your body). Since this portion of the deltoid resides on the back of the body, it’s often overlooked in the context of training. But just because you can’t readily see this muscle doesn’t mean it’s not important. Functionally, the posterior delt provides stability to the shoulder complex. It counteracts the pull of the anterior deltoid, maintaining structural integrity of the joint. Moreover, from an aesthetic standpoint, it helps balance out the other parts of the deltoid, improving the symmetry of your physique. Given these facts, movements such as bent laterals and similar variations should therefore be considered an essential part of any well-designed routine.
Because the shoulder complex is the most mobile of all the joints in your body, it is particularly vulnerable to injury. The joint itself has virtually complete freedom of movement with the ability to move backward, forward, up, down and sideways. Unfortunately, with increased mobility comes decreased stability. In order to compensate for a large range of motion, the shoulder joint is loosely constructed – a fact that makes it extremely fragile.
Progress and Safety
To ensure a safe, effective workout, be particularly cognizant of using strict form when training your shoulders. It’s crucial to perform all repetitions in a smooth, controlled fashion. Make sure to go slower on the eccentric (negative) portion of each movement, resisting gravity on the way down. In this way, you force your muscles to lower the weight, saving your joints from excessive wear and tear.
As for repetitions, you should choose a range that suits your goals. A moderate rep range (six to 10 per set) is best for maximizing hypertrophy (muscular size) while a higher rep range (15 to 20 per set) tends to produce more of a lean, “toned” look. Regardless of the rep scheme you choose to employ, make sure to apply the principle of progressive overload. In order to achieve consistent results, you must challenge your muscles beyond their present capacity. To that end, the last few reps of your sets should be difficult, if not impossible, to complete. Unless you force your body to adapt to increased demands, your progress is bound to suffer.
Sexy Summer Shoulder Workout
The following is a cutting-edge program guaranteed to optimize shoulder development. It’s designed to target all three heads of the deltoids, producing balanced, symmetrical development of the muscle complex. Beginners can start out performing one set per exercise while more advanced trainees should aim for three sets each. Strive to push yourself through the routine expeditiously, taking less than 60 seconds rest between sets. For added intensity, consider supersets (or giant sets) with some or all of the exercises.
Given the intense, high-volume approach of the routine, you’ll need to perform it only once per week. This will allow adequate time for your muscles to recuperate. For variety purposes (and remember that variety is the spice of exercise!), I’ve provided three separate routines to keep things interesting. Feel free to mix and match the exercises as long as you include one pressing movement and one exercise for each of the medial and posterior heads per session.
• Arnold Press
• Machine Lateral Raise
• Bent Lateral
• Machine Shoulder Press
• Dumbbell Lateral Raise
• Cable Kneeling Bent Lateral Raise
• Military Press
• Cable Lateral Raise
• Machine Rear Lateral
How to Do the Exercises
Arnold Press. Begin by sitting at the edge of a flat bench. Grasp two dumbbells and bring the weights to shoulder level with your palms facing toward your body. Press the dumbbells directly upward, simultaneously rotating your hands so that your palms face forward during the last portion of the movement. Touch the weights together over your head and then slowly return them along the same arc, rotating your hands back to the start position.
Machine Shoulder Press. Begin by sitting in a shoulder press machine. Grasp the machine handles with your palms facing away from your body. Slowly press the handles directly upward and over your head, contracting your deltoids at the top of the move. Then, slowly return the handles back to the start position.
Military Press. Begin by sitting at the edge of a flat bench. Grasp a barbell and bring it to the level of your upper chest with your palms facing away from your body. Slowly press the barbell directly upward and over your head, contracting your deltoids at the top of the move. Then, slowly return the bar along the same arc back to the start position.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise. Begin by grasping two dumbbells and allow them to hang by your hips. With a slight bend to your elbows, raise the dumbbells up and out to the sides until they reach shoulder level. At the top of the movement, the rear of the dumbbells should be slightly higher than the front. Contract your deltoids and then slowly return the weights along the same path back to the start position.
Cable Lateral Raise. Begin by grasping a loop handle attached to a low pulley apparatus with your right hand and stand so that your left side is facing the pulley. With a slight bend to your elbow, raise the handle across your body, up and out to the sides until it reaches the level of your shoulder. Contract your delts at the top of the movement and then slowly return the handle back to the start position. After completing the desired number of reps, repeat the process on your left side.
Machine Lateral Raise. Begin by sitting face-forward in a lateral raise machine. With a slight bend to your elbows, grasp the machine handles with your palms facing one another. Raise your arms up and out to the sides until they reach shoulder level. Contract your delts and then slowly return to the start position.
Bench Rear Lateral Raise. Begin by grasping two dumbbells. Lie face down on an incline bench (adjusted to about a 30-degree incline) so your torso is almost parallel with the ground and allow the dumbbells to hang down in front of your body. With a slight bend to your elbows, raise the dumbbells up and out to the sides until they are parallel with the ground. Contract your delts at the top of the movement and then slowly return the dumbbells back to the start position.
Machine Rear Lateral. Begin by sitting face-forward in a pec deck apparatus. With a slight bend to your elbows, grasp the machine handles with your palms facing one another. Slowly pull the handles back in a semicircular arc as far as comfortably possible, keeping your arms parallel with the ground at all times. Contract your rear delts and then reverse direction, returning the handles to the start position.
Cable Kneeling Bent Lateral Raise. Begin by grasping a loop handle attached to a low pulley apparatus with your right hand and assuming an “all-fours” position, stabilizing your torso with your left arm. With a slight bend to your elbow, raise the handle underneath your left arm, across your body, and up and out to the sides until it is parallel with the ground. Contract your delts at the top of the movement and then slowly return the handle to the start position. After completing the desired number of reps, repeat the process on your left side.