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Best Big-Shoulder Molder

Q: What is the best, as you like to say, “bang for the buck” exercise for the shoulders? What do you think about using bands for shoulder work?

A: The problem with trying to answer that question is that the shoulder joint has a ball-and-socket design that lets you have a wide range of movement. For you exercise science majors, the major movements of the shoulder are abduction, flexion, horizontal adduction, internal rotation, extension, horizontal abduction and external rotation.

Most bodybuilding articles describe deltoid anatomy as having three portions: anterior, or front; medial, or side; and posterior, or rear. In fact, there are seven portions, more appropriately described as “deltoid 1–7, anterior to posterior.” The percentage of activation of each portion depends on the orientation of the upper arm to the shoulder joint.

Because of the unique anatomy of the shoulders, regardless of the exercise performed, the shoulder muscles are never uniformly activated. So there’s no single “bang for the buck” shoulder exercise—and that has specific implications in program design. For example, deltoids 1 and 7 are stimulated most by pressing and pulling exercises, and I’ve found that deltoids 3 to 5 require the most direct work. Further, it’s important to use a wide variety of exercises in your shoulder training to ensure structural balance that will keep the joint healthy. Also, I prefer a  2-to-1 ratio of dumbbell to barbell work.

One way to ensure sufficient variety in your shoulder training is to use tri-sets, which involve performing three exercises in sequence as part of one entire set. One effective tri-set for building shoulders like boulders would be to perform a set of dumbbell presses with a semisupinated grip, followed immediately by a lateral raise and then a bent-over lateral raise—chest on knees, arms forward. Perform 12 reps of each exercise, with no rest between the second and third exercises, and assume a 20 percent drop in weight for each exercise. Rest three minutes between tri-sets, completing a total of three rounds—believe me, it’s a lot tougher than it looks on paper. Because the rest time between the first and second exercises must be minimal—no more than 10 seconds—you need to have your dumbbells set up before you start.

Regarding bands, the problem is that you get maximal effect only at the end of the motion, when the band is stretched, thus creating an imbalance in the strength curve. Also, bands may increase the risk of shoulder injuries.

When I was asked to work with the Canadian national synchronized swimming team many years ago, I found there was an epidemic of shoulder problems among the athletes. Upon investigation, I learned that resistance training for the upper body consisted of exercises done with surgical tubing. I had the athletes stop using those exercises, and the shoulder problems quickly disappeared. It was that easy.

The problem is that the tubing adversely affected the athletes’ shoulder-movement patterns during swimming. Specifically, the arms were decelerated by the tubing so that when the athletes swam, the muscles used to decelerate the shoulders did not function properly, causing increased stress on the joint.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit  IM

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