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Triple-Threat Shoulder Sets

Q: I’ve been doing side lateral raises for two months, four to five sets of 10 to 12 reps, but my shoulder development still lags. My brother also has narrow shoulders, but he doesn’t train. Can you suggest a better exercise, or should I use a different set-and-rep protocol?

A: The first obvious problem is that you’ve been doing the same exercise for two months. I usually change exercises after six workouts, as I’ve found that progress tends to significantly reduce to a point of diminishing returns after that.

Second, your potential for building wide shoulders is influenced by the length of the bones of your shoulders, which in medical terms is referred to as the biacromial width. Thus, if other members of your family have narrow shoulders, with or without training, you may also have a relatively narrow biacromial width. I’m not saying you should give up, but be sure to set realistic goals based on your genetics, and place more emphasis on shoulder training to compensate for that relative weakness.

If you’re like most bodybuilders, you’ve probably spent a lot of time on chest work. If so, then the anterior, or front, portion of the deltoid musculature is probably already receiving enough work. So you should focus on the medial, or middle, and posterior, or rear, heads. Also, if you want to focus on shoulder development, reduce the amount of chest work you perform until the middle and rear heads are proportionately developed.

It’s evident by the exceptional shoulder development of many weightlifters—who focus on low reps—and bodybuilders—who focus on higher reps—that the deltoids are made up of a mixed-fiber type that responds to a variety of repetition protocols. So in addition to varying the exercises about every six workouts, you should vary the set-and-rep protocols in order to hypertrophy all the deltoids’ fiber types. For example, for two weeks perform shoulder exercises for eight to 12 reps; then switch to a workout that emphasizes three to six reps. Also consider that there is an inverse relationship between reps and sets, so when you do lower reps, you need to do more sets.

Now let’s look at exercise selection. The deltoids perform seven basic functions: abduction, flexion, horizontal adduction, internal rotation, extension, horizontal abduction and external rotation. Because they have such a variety of movements, I like to include a large number of exercises in shoulder workouts. I also like to keep my workouts to about an hour in length, and a practical method of doing that is to perform tri-sets. Putting all that together, here’s a workout that emphasizes the medial and posterior portions of the deltoid. Take no rest between tri-set exercises, but take 180 seconds’ rest after each tri-set:

Tri-set 1

A-1 Lean-away lateral raises, 3/0/X/2 tempo 3 x 8

A-2 EZ-bar upright rows, 3/0/1/0 tempo 3 x 12

A-3 Seated military presses, 3/0/1/0 tempo 3 x 12

Tri-set 2

B-1 45 degree bent-over cable

laterals, 2/0/X/2 tempo 3 x 8

B-2 Seated cable rows to throat, 3/0/1/0 tempo 3 x 12

B-3 Collar-to-collar bent-over

rows, 2/0/1/0 tempo 3 x 12

Again, that’s just one workout—it’s not a lifestyle. After six workouts change the exercises and set-rep protocols. Be creative.

Another point: Pressing exercises tend to compress the ulnar nerve, which is located in the forearm, and when injured can affect your ability to perform many exercises. One trick I use to help prevent that and keep the joint healthy is to perform grip training at the end of shoulder work, as that tends to stretch the ulnar nerve. Pinch-gripping exercises are examples of that kind of work. Rather than repetitions, I describe pinch-grip protocols in terms of time.

A general protocol for a pinch-grip exercise would be 3 sets x 30 seconds with 75 seconds of rest between sets. Before you say, “That doesn’t sound like much” because you’re doing a total of only 90 seconds of work, give it a try. Pinch-gripping as hard as you can—seriously, all out—for three sets of 30 seconds is a tough workout.

Finally, not to sound like the Grammar Police, but I prefer to call side lateral raises simply lateral raises. The word lateral means “side”— so “side lateral raises” is redundant.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most successful 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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