Got stubborn delts? You probably need new exercises and methods, not more weight on the bar. Here are six fresh ways to build shoulders.
It can be tough to build shoulders once you’re past the newbie phase. Many lifters are tempted to double down on barbell overhead press or add weight to exercises that are already beating up their joints.
Doing more of the same and expecting different results is craziness. If your usual shoulder workout isn’t giving you results, try these training tweaks and break out of the rut.
Upright rows have gotten a bad rap since they can irritate the shoulder joint and possibly cause impingement. However, the hand spacing with a snatch-grip upright row reduces impingement because the elbows can only be raised so high.
Pull the bar up to roughly sternum height and lead with your elbows to the sides. If you look at the top position of the pull, the upper arm is similar to that of the top position of a lateral raise. This, coupled with the fact that you can use appreciable weights, makes it a deceptively good medial delt builder.
Stick to high rep (15-plus) ranges for this one.
For isolation exercises, there’s no need to worry about going heavier every workout. It’s more about challenging your muscles instead of adding plates.
If you want to develop the shoulders, lose your ego when choosing weights. Trying to add weight every week leads to shoddy form or using other muscles to complete the set. If you’ve been swinging weights around on lateral raise variations and your shoulders haven’t changed, it’s time to wake up.
If an efficient set of lateral raises means using a pair of pastel dumbbells from an aerobics class to target the medial delts, so be it. Try to get as much as you can out of a set with a light to moderate weight using a less-is-more approach. Your joints will thank you, and muscular shoulders will be your reward.
Shoot for 15 strict reps.
With the Ahrens Press, instead of pressing dumbbells straight overhead, you press them outward so that your arms form a Y-shape. It’s a unique variation where there’s still considerable tension on the shoulders at lockout. This exercise is also kind to lifters who lack overhead mobility.
Increase the contraction by using an incline bench. Set a bench to a steep incline with your chest on the backrest. Don’t be tempted to use a lower incline; this will limit the weight you can lift and place you in corrective exercise purgatory.
Begin with the dumbbells at shoulder height and press “up and out” as you would for a regular Ahrens Press. The slight forward torso angle will intensify the contraction in addition to punishing your upper back. For an added challenge, do an accentuated eccentric by lowering the dumbbells from a side raise position.
Do moderate reps in the 8-12 range.
If your typical shoulder training boils down to overhead presses and some isolation work, you could be shortchanging your growth. The shoulder is designed to move in multiple ranges and angles.
Try exercises like windmills and Turkish get-ups, which load the shoulder through ranges that aren’t stressed in traditional presses and isolation work. Keep the reps low and focus on the quality of execution.
The first Mr. Olympia, Larry Scott, had ingenious ways of modifying exercises to maximize muscular development. Despite having humble beginnings and self-proclaimed small shoulders, he was able to build delts that eventually became hallmarks of his physique. One of the ways he did this was by using a modified standing dumbbell press.
Begin by positioning the dumbbells above shoulder height, with palms facing forward and your little finger raised higher than the thumbs. Bend forward slightly at the hips and maintain a slight torso lean throughout.
Press the weights up in an arc and focus on your elbows staying in line or behind your head, almost like a pseudo behind-the-neck press. The key is to not lock out and only focus on the middle range of the exercise to maintain tension. Lastly, keep your elbows wide as your raise and lower.
The handstand can be a useful addition to your program when your goal is boulder shoulders.
The handstand and handstand push-up variations are examples of closed-chain exercises. As opposed to holding onto a barbell or dumbbell in an overhead press, the hands are affixed to an immovable object such as the floor or parallettes.
You must control your body around this fixed position, creating a unique demand for muscular coordination. Additionally, handstand work can have a positive transfer to its free-weight counterparts. It’s a definite confidence booster to know you can control your entire bodyweight inverted.
Handstands do require an element of mobility, namely shoulder flexion and wrist extension. If you have limitations, this may necessitate using push-up handles for the wrists or using a regression that doesn’t fully tax overhead mobility.
I’m assuming none of us are going to the Olympics for gymnastics anytime soon, so accessible options include back-to-wall handstands, belly-to-wall handstands, and pike handstand push-ups.