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You’ll Never Have Great Shoulders

Unless You Follow These 10 Rules

It’s odd the way shoulders are something of an afterthought for many bodybuilders. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the muscles used in shoulder pressing are so similar to the ones used in chest pressing that they play second fiddle. In fact, I’ve seen many bodybuilders and serious weight trainees work their chests and shoulders on the same day, devoting an inordinate amount of their time and energy to the pecs, then rushing through a few quick sets for delts. Nothing looks sillier than a guy with a big chest, decent arms and little width and thickness to his shoulders. It’s a narrow, girlish look. Without wide, round shoulders it’s impossible to have an exceptional physique. None of the bodybuilding greats, from Grimek, Reeves, Park, Scott, Oliva, Arnold, Haney, Yates to Coleman, would have appeared so impressive without powerful cannonball delts that captured the eye in nearly every pose.

The ideal basic shape of a bodybuilder is the V-taper. And the top of that V must include a manly set of rugged shoulders along with wide lats. Unless you’re going to wear shoulder pads for the rest of your life, you need to pack some meat on those clavicles if you want to be considered a real muscle man. It’s not so tough to do. Just follow these rules.

Become strong at free-weight overhead presses.

For big legs you squat. A big chest comes from pressing and a monster back from pulling a ton of weight. And the shoulders also have one simple movement that is the key to overall mass: the overhead press. Show me a man who can press 1.5 times his bodyweight overhead for six to eight good reps, and I guarantee that that man will have big shoulders. Trying to add size to your shoulders without doing presses is like trying to drive cross-country with your emergency brake on. In other words, it will take you forever, and you’ll end up kicking yourself in the ass for being so stupid. There are many useful machines for pressing, but I recommend that you use them only occasionally for variety or when preexhausting. Free weights are the hardest tool to use, which you should know by now translates into greater effectiveness and faster results. Machines also give you a false sense of strength. Pushing up a weight stack of 300 pounds may make you feel powerful, but it pales in comparison to the true power of pressing a 300-pound Olympic bar or a pair of 150-pound dumbbells. The former puts you in the category of pretty strong for an average gym rat; the latter sets you in an elite group of truly strong men.

My preference is dumbbells, for several reasons. One, they’re the absolute toughest to handle, requiring every last ounce of balance and coordination. Two, I feel they do the best job of distributing the weight evenly between the three heads of the deltoid muscle. Pressing a bar to the front tends to involve more front delts. Pressing behind the neck is better but carries a risk of rotator cuff damage over time. You can’t go wrong with heavy seated dumbbell presses in good form.

Don’t turn overhead presses into inclines.

One very common form error you see all the time with overhead pressing is an excessive backward lean. A slight lean back is permissible, but take it too far, and you effectively turn your shoulder press into an incline press for upper chest. Theoretically, you’re already doing those when you train your chest. You want the weight to be traveling in a straight vertical line up from the shoulder joint so that the delts do the work. Leaning back puts the resistance over your upper chest.

The reason for this form flaw in nearly every case is that the lifter is using more weight than he or she can actually handle. The shoulders aren’t strong enough to move the weight on their own power, so lifters unconsciously recruit the powerful pecs to assist. Since it’s pretty tough to see that lean when looking at yourself straight on in a mirror, be aware of where your butt is. It should be touching or almost touching the seat back behind you. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have a form-Nazi wife, as I do, you can just listen for her to say, ‘What is that sh*t? Sit up straight, and do it right!’ (Love ya, babe!)

Prioritize shoulder training.

I’ve mentioned that many bodybuilders train chest after shoulders. Unless you’re one of those genetically blessed specimens whose shoulders are great no matter what they do or don’t do for them, that’s a bad idea. The argument supporting the chest-with-shoulders grouping usually goes something like, ‘It’s good because your shoulders are already warmed up from chest, and you don’t need to go so heavy.’ That argument sucks ass, in my not-very-humble opinion.

Your shoulders aren’t warmed up after you train chest; they’re knocked out! Heavy flat, incline and decline presses all take a significant toll on the anterior delts and triceps, fatiguing them just as much as they tire the pecs. It’s not that you don’t need to go heavy on shoulders after chest; it’s more like you can’t. And as we established in rule 1, you must get strong on overhead presses to build shoulder mass.

The answer is to prioritize shoulders by training them first on a different day from when you train chest (more on that in the next rule). You can pair them with biceps, triceps, both bi’s and tri’s, or odds and ends muscle groups like calves and abs. By training your delts when you’re fresh, you enable yourself to use more weight, apply greater intensity and, I assure you, glean far better results than you have been. ALL Allow your shoulders to recover.

The shoulders are involved in practically every exercise you do for your upper body, and they’re easy to overtrain. Think about it: The rear delts get hammered indirectly on back day, the front delts take a beating on chest day, and even biceps and triceps work needs the support of the deltoids. That’s why it’s important that you try to take 48 hours between your shoulder and chest workouts in particular and also between shoulder and back workouts (the traps are involved in most back exercises and shoulder movements too). Hitting shoulders the day before or after chest is especially counterproductive to gains. As The Offspring sang a few years ago, ‘You gotta keep ’em separated!’ Also, be conscious of overall volume; keep your total overall work sets to no more than 12 to 15. If you can’t get the job done with that, you need to train heavier and harder.

Learn how to perform lateral raises correctly.

The lateral, or side, raise is a killer movement for developing round caps on your medial deltoids but only if you do it right. Most people don’t. Usually you see guys heaving and throwing the weights up like they’re trying to flap their wings and fly. Most times it’s because they’re using dumbbells that are too heavy for them. I have watched thousands of bodybuilders train over the past 20 years, and I can count on one hand the number I’ve seen who could use perfect form with dumbbells weighing 50 pounds or more. Yet I see men all the time using that much weight with horrible form, and they’re crazy enough to think that they’re actually working their side delts hard.

The two-second solution is to reduce the weight. You should be able to raise the weight under control and pause for a brief second at the top to contract your side delts before lowering slowly, slower than the speed with which you raised the ‘bells. No other part of your body should be moving. If you’re doing a little jump or hip thrust, your form blows, and you need to fix it.

Preexhaust at every fourth workout, at least.

Pressing first in your shoulder workout is a good strategy. It lets you use the most weight on the most important exercise. Eventually, though, many lifters find that their front delts and triceps are growing ahead of their side delts. I suggest that at least every fourth workout’and more often if your side delts are really lagging’you preexhaust the side delts either by doing your lateral raises first before moving on to presses or performing preexhaust supersets of laterals immediately followed by overhead presses. You might want to use machine presses in preexhaust supersets, as your ability to balance heavy weight overhead will be temporarily impaired.

Develop your rear delts.

The posterior, or rear, delts are without doubt the red-headed stepchild of the shoulder complex. Many lifters don’t train them at all, or if they do, it’s usually a few half-effort sets before heading to the locker room at the end of the workout. It’s no surprise that very few men have good development in the rear delts. The solution is simply to train them, and train them hard. Either include three or four good sets of rear, or bent-over, laterals performed with dumbbells, cables or a machine on shoulder day or at the end of back day. They will grow if you just train them regularly and properly. If you look in the mirror sideways and you’re lurching forward like a Neanderthal, you may need to train your rear delts first on shoulder day for a few months so that they can catch up and also to improve your Paleolithic posture.

Strengthen your rotator cuff muscles.

Nothing will derail your training of both chest and shoulders like a rotator cuff injury, as many of you have unhappily learned firsthand. Whether it’s happened to you once, or you have yet to experience that agony and frustration, the best cure is prevention. Once or, preferably, twice a week do rotator cuff exercises. Yes, the weight is light, the reps are high, and it’s about as exciting as waiting in line at Costco on a Friday night, but it will strengthen those critical muscles and help keep you injury-free.

Change workouts regularly.

I’ve written at least 200 shoulder-training articles based on the routines of the pros and top amateur bodybuilders over the years, and I have to confess they are almost numbingly similar. Most of them do some type of overhead press, lateral raises and rear laterals for three to four sets each of eight to 12 reps. While that’s a pretty solid routine, you can only follow it for so long before your shoulders adapt to it and no amount of further effort will bring more growth. Change your exercises, the order in which you do them, the rep ranges you use and the speed with which you perform your reps from time to time. Keep your shoulders guessing, and they’ll continue to have to fight to adapt, which will result in growth.

Perform upright rows.

I always had good shoulders, but until I started incorporating upright rows into my workouts about four years ago, I never had those ridiculously round delts that almost don’t look real. Upright rows done with dumbbells (a favorite of Steve Holman and Jonathan Lawson in their X-Rep program) are extremely effective, as are upright rows performed with a barbell and a slightly wider-than-shoulder-width grip. Do them in addition to lateral raises’or in place of them’every second or third workout. If you haven’t been, you don’t know how much round, full, side-delt mass you’ve been missing out on.

Next month I’ll lay down the rules you need to know if bigger biceps are on your wish list.

Editor’s note: Check out Ron Harris’ Web site, IM

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