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Build Stronger, More Secure Shoulders

Broad shoulders are synonymous with strength and power. Louis L’Amour’s main characters always have them, as did John Wayne and Conan. They’re symbols of masculinity, and every youngster who’s been bitten by the weight-training bug wants them. They’re even more impressive when they sit on top of a wide back and tree-trunk legs. While big arms and chests are often hidden under layers of clothing, wide shoulders can never be concealed.

Even before I got hooked on lifting weights, I admired anyone who possessed a wide shoulder girth, but it wasn’t until I visited the old York Barbell Gym on Board Street that I saw shoulder development of a magnitude that overwhelmed me. That afternoon, in the cramped upstairs weight room, I met Vern Weaver, Steve Stanko and John Grimek. They were ideal examples of manhood, and although all facets of their amazing physiques were eye-popping, my attention kept returning to their extrawide shoulders.

How in the world did they build such powerful shoulders? I wondered, yet I knew the answer. Years and years of very hard work. At that moment I vowed that I would also put in as much time and effort as it required to come close to the development that those three had achieved. That day I changed my training focus. Sure, like any other beginner I wanted arms and a chest that would do a tank top justice, but my goal was to get wide shoulders. I’m certainly not alone. Broad shoulders are high on the list of every strength athlete and bodybuilder. The trouble is, they put too much emphasis on the wrong exercises.

In a nutshell, they do too many exercises lying on a bench rather than standing. Flat- and incline-bench presses are the primary upper-body exercises in most routines. Standing movements for the shoulder girdle are seldom done, except for a few relegated to auxiliary status. That’s why you don’t see many members of gyms sporting broad shoulders. In fact, it’s rare to see any trainee with exceptional shoulder development, even those who have big arms and thick chests. The reason is that flat benches and inclines hit the pecs more than the deltoids. Along with lack of shoulder development come injuries to the shoulder joints due to the amount of work put in on the benches. At the same time the other groups that help secure the shoulder joints, especially the traps and rear deltoids, get little attention. So while the pecs and front deltoids get bigger and stronger, the groups supporting the rear portion of the shoulder joint lag behind, creating a disparity in strength. When the disparity becomes significant, problems result. Initially, it may just be minor discomfort in one shoulder or both. If nothing is done to change the disproportionate strength, the pain escalates to the point where all exercises that involve the shoulders have to be curtailed. Or worse, medical attention—and sometimes surgery—is necessary to remedy the situation.

I need to point out that the bench press per se is not to blame but, rather, the way it’s used. It’s basically too much of a good thing. I’ve watched countless people in commercial gyms spend 75 percent of their workouts benching and inclining at every session while completely neglecting the rear portions of their shoulder girdle. Flat benches should not be given priority in a strength program but should be relegated to an ancillary role and worked diligently only once a week.

Given a choice, I much prefer the incline bench over the flat version. The incline is more a pure shoulder exercise in that it involves the deltoids to a much greater extent. It’s also more difficult to cheat on than on the flat bench. Cheating moves—rebounding and bridging—will sooner or later take their toll on the shoulder joints. I also like the fact that inclines hit the higher part of the chest, which helps secure the joints, whereas flat benches work the lower and middle chest. Unlike flat benches, inclines are rarely overworked. I guess that’s because no one ever asks, “How much can you incline?”—except me because I consider it a truer test of upper-body strength than the flat bench.

The bottom line is that in order to build impressive, superstrong shoulders, you have to get up off a bench and do some work from a standing position. Overhead movements, such as military presses and jerks, are what build the cannonball delts that highlight shoulder development. The three physical specimens I encountered at the York Gym gained their broad shoulders from doing the three Olympic lifts: press, snatch and clean and jerk. All were champion Olympic lifters before they turned to physique competition.

Most of those who weight-train know that, and the reason they do more flat or incline benches is that they’re easier and more fun to do than any overhead lift. Once people get the feel of performing overhead presses or jerks, they discover that they, too, can be fun. The bonus of doing some sort of overhead work is it helps stabilize your shoulder joints. That’s because overhead presses not only hit your deltoids in a slightly different manner but also strengthen the groups that play a very direct role in securing your shoulder girdle—specifically the traps, but any overhead exercise also involves all the rest of the back as well as the hips, glutes and legs. That’s not the case for flat benches or inclines.

All athletes need to include at least one primary overhead lift in their program because the strength gained from that type of movement readily converts to all sports, particularly when a sport requires the athletes to extend their arms overhead. When you stop to think about it, that covers almost every sport there is, except maybe bowling. Overhead lifts benefit those who play basketball, volleyball, baseball, lacrosse, soccer (throw-ins), the field events in track and the large majority of positions in football. Only interior linemen benefit from doing flat benches, whereas the entire offensive backfield, defensive backs, linebackers, wide receivers and tight ends use the strength gained from lifting weights overhead more than from any kind of benching.

Overhead lifting provides one other benefit that few think much about. Movements such as the military press and jerk very thoroughly work the middle back, where the rotator cuffs are located. When overhead presses were the standard of strength, everyone did them. As a result, there were no rotator cuff injuries. When the shift to the bench press came along and athletes ceased doing any form of overhead lifting—and seldom bothered doing any specific work for their middle backs—rotator cuff injuries became common.

A thing about overhead lifts I always liked is that you can do them without any spotters. That means you can do them while training alone and not have to be concerned with safety. If the weight isn’t pressed or jerked to lockout, just return it to your shoulders, or if it’s really heavy, dump it.

You can do several overhead lifts, but one or two are sufficient. Military presses, push presses, jerks and push jerks all provide the desired results if they’re worked diligently and with heavy weights—heavy being a relative term. I like to start beginners out with military presses. Once they learn correct form on that exercise, it’s easier to teach them to do push presses, push jerks and split jerks. Most like to do four to five sets of military presses and follow them with push presses or jerks, which is a good idea. The presses help set up the correct line, and the working muscles are thoroughly warmed up before they get overloaded.

While form on the presses and jerks doesn’t have to be perfect, it needs to be at least adequate in order to be beneficial. I’ve covered the technique of the press previously but will go over the major points again as a reminder. Your feet should be set at shoulder width, with toes pointed straight ahead. Do not place one foot ahead of the other, a mistake many beginners make. That creates a weaker base and places an undue stress on the lower back. Grip the bar at shoulder width so that when you extend your thumbs, they’ll just touch the smooth center. Your elbows must stay under your wrists throughout the movement. So if your forearms aren’t in a vertical position, alter your grip until they are.

You can either power clean the weight or take it off the rack. Fix the bar across your front deltoids, not on your collarbone. Do that by elevating your shoulder girdle to create a muscular ledge. Your elbows shouldn’t be high, as in parallel to the floor, or pointed downward, but set somewhere between those two extremes. Your wrists must stay straight and locked during any overhead lift. If that’s a problem for you, tape or wrap them.

After the bar is set firmly on your shoulders, tighten all the muscles in your body, from your feet on up to your traps. Think of trying to grip the floor with your toes. That will provide a solid foundation from which to move the bar upward. Ease your midsection a bit forward so that you’re coiled like a muscular spring. Your knees should be locked, and they need to stay that way during the lift.

Eyes front. Beginners often get into the habit of following the bar upward with their eyes. That’s incorrect because it makes you lean backward as the bar moves over your head, and you don’t want to do that.

Take a breath and drive the bar off your shoulders. It should travel upward very close to your face, nearly touching your nose. Follow through immediately—no hesitation whatsoever, for that causes the bar to pause in midair, which adversely affects the lift. As the bar moves up past the top of your head, push your pelvis forward and extend your head through the gap you’ve created. Those coordinated moves keep your power base under the bar and help you use your levers more efficiently.

Keep pressure on the bar until it’s completely locked out, and then take another breath. Don’t inhale or exhale during the execution of the press; either action causes your diaphram to relax, and that in turn creates negative intrathoracic pressure, which means you no longer have a solid base. Once the bar is locked out, hold it there for a few seconds, and on the final rep of every set hold it longer, five or six seconds. That forces all the groups responsible for controlling the weight overhead to get to work and will strengthen nearly every group from your shoulders to your feet. It’s especially valuable to the back muscles that support the spine.

Lower the bar to your shoulders. If the weight is heavy, take a short dip to cushion the descending bar. Then reset, take another breath, and do the next rep. Stay with light-to-moderate poundages until you get the feel of the lift. When the exercise is done right, the bar will float upward almost as if it’s being pulled up by an unseen force. Five sets of five work well while you’re learning proper form. Then move on to this formula: two sets of five with the warmup weights, then three to five sets of heavier triples. If you’re successful with the work sets of three, add weight the next time around. Should you fail with any of the work sets, stay with that same weight at your next press session.

You do push presses in the same manner as military presses, except you set the bar in motion with a knee kick. Not a huge kick—just enough to move the bar up over your head and almost to lockout. Then you quickly follow through and secure the bar with your arm straight overhead. Obviously you can use more weight on the exercise, and that’s the idea. So if you’re military-pressing 175×5, you should be handling somewhere around 205×3 on the push press. Do threes on all your push presses. Since you’re using heavier weights, when the bar is reset on your shoulders, it tends to slip out of the ideal starting position. That means it’s not a good idea to do higher reps.

Push jerks are very similar to push presses, but the main difference is that the jerks are not pressed out at all. The bar goes from your shoulders to lockout in one explosive move. That means your drive has to be more aggressive than with push presses, and, since it’s done so fast, your line has to be precise. Again, do three reps on these and hold the bar overhead for a set count of five or six on the final rep of each set.

Split jerks also build stronger shoulders, but because they require a good bit more technique, you might want to wait until you’ve mastered the push jerk before trying them. Many find they like push jerks more than split jerks.

Another exercise that I highly recommend to anyone wanting to increase shoulder size and strength is weighted dips. When I first got interested in weight training, dipping with weights was considered a primary exercise just like full squats for any Olympic lifter, strength athlete or bodybuilder. With the introduction of so many machines, though, dips slowly disappeared from physical culture. Seldom do I even see dip bars in gyms any longer, and if they’re used, it’s only as a warmup exercise.

Nevertheless, weighted dips are a great exercise for building stronger deltoids and triceps. Few are able to handle any extra weight at the beginning. That’s fine. It’s not where you start; it’s where you end up. When you can do 20 reps, freehand, you’re ready to do them with weight. Just use a dumbbell. Tuck one between your thighs, and then lift your lower legs to secure it and dip. It works only up to about 100 pounds; then you’re going to need a dipping belt. I’ve rigged two regular lifting belts together to hold plates, but it’s quite awkward. Dipping belts are readily available and worth the cost.

Most dip bars are fairly high, and trying to get in position with more than a hundred pounds strapped on is difficult, as is getting down from the bars after the set is over. So pull a bench up close to the bars. Ease off the bench, and take a moment to set up so that you’re not swinging at all. Knock out your reps, and then step back on the bench. Problem solved.

The key form point for weighted dips is to lock the weights tightly between your legs to prevent them from swinging. If the weights start moving around like a pendulum, stop. That can be risky to your shoulders and elbows. When you hit a sticking point, look up and lean back. That will help you keep the weights directly under your shoulders.

I like to vary the set-and-rep sequence at every dip session. Four sets of eight; five sets of five, followed by a workout where you do two warmup sets of five, then four sets of three. The higher reps greatly improve the workload, and the lower reps hit the attachments. It’s a nice combination because every workout is a bit different.

What else? Pressing heavy dumbbells is a terrific way to get bigger, stronger shoulders. Because the dumbbells have to be controlled much more than a bar, they force different muscles to get involved, and that means more overall strength. Front and lateral raises with dumbbells are also good because they isolate the front and lateral heads of the deltoids.

Overhead lifting, dipping and incorporating dumbbell exercises into your routine, however, is only half of the equation. In order to create broader, stronger shoulders and stabilize the shoulder joints, you must include exercises that work the upper back. The ones that get the job done are heavy shrugs, using both a clean and snatch grip, clean- and snatch-grip high pulls, and power snatches. I’ll begin with power snatches.

The reason they’re so beneficial is that you have to pull the weight very high. When that happens, you hit the rear deltoids directly. That group is very difficult to strengthen, but power snatches do just that. When you do snatch-grip high pulls right behind power snatches, the rear delts get a double dose of work. Another reason I like power snatches for building shoulders is that when the bar is locked out with the wider grip, you use muscles that aren’t used in locking out with a closer grip, especially the lateral delts and lats.

Shrugs are a no-brainer. They overload the traps as no other exercise can. You can use a great deal more weight on the shrug than on the high pull or power clean. The key to making shrugs productive is to pull every rep just as high as you possibly can. It sets the pattern for the upcoming heavier sets.

You’ll need straps for shrugs once you start handling in the mid-300s and above. The standard I set for my athletes was to be able to handle six 45-pound plates on each side of the bar for five reps by the end of the off-season strength program. That’s 585 pounds, and those who applied themselves made it, typically before spring break.

I find it helpful to change from a clean grip to a snatch grip every so often. Again, the slight alteration brings different muscles into the mix—always a good thing in strength training.

Although bent-over rows are generally thought of in terms of the middle back, they’re also useful in making the upper back stronger. When you perform them with dumbbells, bent-over rows do an excellent job of hitting the elusive rear deltoids. You can do them one arm at a time or with both arms at the same time. I find that when I rest my forehead on the back of a padded chair, I can concentrate better on getting a full range of motion with the dumbbells. To put more emphasis on the rear delt, I pause at the topmost part of the pull and hold for a brief second or two.

Dumbbell rows fit in as an auxiliary movement, but barbell rows are definitely in the primary category. Do them in strict fashion. That is, keep your upper body parallel to the floor and try not to let it move upward at the end of the row, except for the final couple of sets. Then you can cheat a bit. By cheating, I mean bringing your torso higher at the conclusion of the movement. That enables you to handle more weight and still hit the target muscles.

Five sets of five are recommended for the barbell bent-over rows and higher reps for the dumbbells—two sets of 20. Or, if you have only lighter dumbbells at your disposal, do two sets of as many as you can in perfect form.

By working one or more of the overhead lifts hard and heavy, then attacking your upper back with the suggested exercises, you will build extremely strong, impressive shoulders. While you may never reach the point where people mistake you for Conan, if you apply yourself fully, they just might.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

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