Delts are hard to grow… if you don’t train them right. Here’s a workout that’ll maximize your overhead press and maximize your gains.
You’re already training your shoulders, so why not maximize your efforts, stretch out T-shirts, and force people to walk around you? This is the effect of 3D delts and it’ll catch attention like nothing else.
But it’s not just for the guys. Ladies, defined shoulders scream athleticism and create an incredible contrast with your smaller waist.
You won’t build shoulders that stand out with just a single heavy set of dumbbell presses. Not even if that one heavy set is at the top of a four-set pyramid. Not even if you crack off an array of isolation exercises afterwards.
Why? Because big shoulders are built from big mechanical stress and big volume. The tension required for impressive delts has to come from big compound movements. And when it comes to shoulders, none are bigger than barbell pressing. That’s where the seated overhead press comes in.
It’s my go-to movement for serious shoulder overload and volume. And it should be yours too. So why seated versus standing?
Sure, the standing overhead press is a time-tested strength and muscle building movement, but seated optimizes shoulder growth by removing leg drive.
Think about it. If you’re standing with a barbell doing overhead presses and you start to fatigue, you’re going to want to dip at the knees a bit and pop that weight up with a little help from your lower body. This is great for explosive power and overall strength, and honestly, not a half-bad muscle builder.
But for targeted shoulder tension, leg drive is a cheat to generate momentum and to allow you to use heavier weight than you’d be able to control without the drive. And with seated presses you’ll avoid fatiguing other structures first, allowing you to push delt fibers to near failure, a critical part of muscle-building stimulus.
You’ll also reduce lower back fatigue which may limit your work during the training session, and potentially affect your ability to maximize other low back fatiguing movements elsewhere in the program. (Think deadlift and squat patterns.) You want to maximize overall training efforts, not just a single exercise.
Now, the seated overhead press SEEMS simple enough, yet people still hurt themselves doing it… or they just get lackluster results. So let’s cover the important parts of maximizing this lift for muscle growth.
Skip the little 90 degree L-bench. Unless you have great mobility and strict form, you usually end up arched aggressively with shoulder blades sitting on top of the bench. Granted, plenty of guys do an incline bench press with poor lower back support, defeating the purpose of sitting versus standing. But a slight incline allows you to press at a shoulder-friendly angle.
Try this: Raise your arms upward straight in front of you until they’re overhead. Are you able to raise them perfectly vertical without arching your lower back? If not you probably can’t do a strict standing press without arching your back beyond what’s natural.
Many of us don’t possess the thoracic mobility to get into this position, so we’ll create the arch through our lumbar spine. Not good. Avoid stressing the lower back needlessly, or worse, explosively blasting the humerus into its shoulder socket repeatedly until the rotator cuff tendons shred into pulled pork.
Avoid that scenario by building bulletproof shoulders and using a bit of an incline for your heavy overhead pressing.
That means get the barbell under your chin, down to your collarbones if you can. This is going to force you to use a load appropriate to the range of motion.
You might be tempted to use a lot of weight, but resist that. Use what you’re capable of pressing with good form. Would you rather pretend to be strong to momentarily impress a couple random strangers at the gym, or train effectively and build actual strength that in time will dwarf the rep done with terrible form? Easy decision.
Training through a full range of motion will better stimulate muscle fibers for growth, not only for your delts but also triceps. What’s better than big shoulders? Big arms capped with big shoulders.
Going excessively wide tends to create an excessive arch position with your head in the way. This ends up becoming more of an aggressively-inclined chest press.
So to help keep the pecs from taking over, find a grip that feels right for you, allows the best range of motion, and helps you avoid discomfort.
Your elbows will flare as you press upwards; this is normal. As you lower the bar, consciously pull your elbows back into their narrow forward-pointed position and repeat each rep. This will allow for comfortable full range of motion and minimal head movement.
The bar should travel around your head and you won’t need to move your head out of the way, creating an efficient bar path and maximizing the reps you can perform. More reps equals more volume equals more growth.
You’ll need to exert smooth control for the entire movement. A surefire way to get hurt is to use excessive bouncing momentum out of the bottom of any lift. With a heavy barbell directly above your head, bad crap happens if you lose control.
Exerting control means lifting the right weight. Do a couple of lighter sets to work up to heavy weight you can control for working sets of 8 to 12 reps. If it’s easy at 12, add load.
Can’t get 8 reps with good controlled form? Lighten the load and develop the strength needed to progress. Using a tempo structure of 2/0/2/0 or 2/1/2/1 (lifting and lowering for two seconds pausing at the top and bottom for zero or one second) nails the control to get the most out of the movement. Excessively slow movement or pauses end up stripping us of valuable reps and overall volume to grow.
Do about 3 to 4 sets with it instead of just one at the top of a pyramid. If you’re already warmed up from dumbbell presses you can go straight to your working weight for 4 to 5 sets instead of ramping up to that weight for the first two sets.
Another warm-up pyramid just wastes time when you’re already proficient with this lift. This adds volume of work. Building size is driven by training volume, but not all volume is equal. That means working with weight you can do 8-12 reps smoothly and to (near) failure.
As for reps, smashing up against true failure with a heavy barbell overhead may not be wise, and too much failure accumulates fatigue faster than training volume. Save failure for the last set with a good spotter. Don’t use just any random gym bro. Keep his hands off your bar. It isn’t, “All you, bro.”
Drop setting the last set occasionally ramps up training volume and provides an intense stimulus to your delts.
Too little rest can cost you load, reps, and potentially increases injury risk. Sixty seconds isn’t going to cut it. Somewhere between 90 seconds and three minutes should work for heavy sets in an 8-12 rep range to near failure.
Anything longer and you’re wasting time and inconveniencing the guy who wants to use your rack. Everyone is different and women may feel ready faster than men. Don’t superset other movements here since the fatigue will rob you of maximum training volume.
That doesn’t mean always doing the same exercise with the same weights, reps, and sets. It DOES mean using the same program structure for an extended period of time.
Make adjustments where needed and mix in training intensity. Varying your rep schemes can be a great way to keep workouts fresh and find what best stimulates progress for you as an individual. Just don’t be the guy or girl who needs a new program every month. You won’t make meaningful progress program hopping. Do the big lifts consistently to force growth.
No further explanation is needed or you’re on the wrong website.
So what should a shoulder workout look like? There are multiple ways to do it, but here’s a great framework to begin with.
|Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press*
|Seated Overhead Barbell Press (Train to near failure)
|Rope Cable Face-Pull
|Cable Upright Row - EZ-Bar***
|Cable Bent Over Lateral Raise
|Front Plate Raise
|Reverse Pec Deck Flye
|Shrug (Barbell, Smith Machine, or Dumbbell)
* Pyramid the weight up for 3 sets of 15, 12, and 10 reps. The do 3 working sets for 8 reps, go to near (not absolute) failure.
** Begin with your weaker arm then match the reps with your stronger side.
*** Drop set the last set twice and go to failure.
If you train shoulders as part of your full-body workouts or a push-pull split, then place your seated press first on its training day to maximize the working volume and prioritize shoulder development. Complement it with enough shoulder volume through your workout program to produce growth.
String together three months of consistency, rep PRs, and progressive overload and see improvement. Try two consistent years and expect to replace your T-shirt collection.