Building great shoulders is key to achieving a body that looks lean, strong, and aesthetic. This is true for women and men alike.
Problem is, you've been misguided on how you ACTUALLY need to train to achieve the physique you want.
Today's blog is a deep dive into how to train your shoulders for both functional strength and aesthetics.
Let's get into it.
Shoulder & Upper Back Anatomy 101
The first step to building better shoulders?
A quick understanding of anatomy.
Your shoulder muscles or "deltoids" ("delts" in bro-speak) can be divided into three distinct muscle groups:
1.Your Anterior Delts a.k.a Front Delts
2. Your Medial Delts a.k.a. Side Delts
3. Your Posterior Delts a.k.a. Rear Delts
It's also important to understand that the muscles of your upper back very much come into play when training shoulders - specifically the trapezius (a.k.a. traps) and rhomboids.
There's an old way of thinking amongst many trainers and strength coaches...
"ANY activation on the traps or rhomboids when training shoulders is bad."
...but that's not the case.
The musculature of your back plays an important role in properly performing MOST of your shoulder movements.
For example, during a properly executed dumbbell lateral raise...
Your scapula (shoulder blades) should be rotating upward. With an understanding of anatomy, you can see that some of your upper back (in this case, traps) should be involved in order for the shoulder blade to move safely.
Something very similar often happens when training the rear delts with movements like Rear Delt Rows...
You get the idea. While you could try to "lock down" your scapulae/prevent as much shoulder blade movement as possible... this often just leads to a severely limited ability to create overload, and occasionally even shoulder issues due to failure to let your shoulder blades move properly.
So the point of this is - your shoulder training & upper back training are intricately tied together, and shouldn't necessarily be as "separate" as many think.
Training Each Of Your Delts
Each of your delts is responsible for contributing to movement through a different range of motion. This means it's very hard to find movements that do a good job of hitting all three heads of the shoulder evenly, as they're each responsible for working in different planes of motion
Flying your arms in front of you will often recruit primarily your front delts, as in the Dumbbell Front Raise...
Flying your arms to the side will recruit primarily your side delts, as in the Dumbbell Lateral Raise...
Flying your arms to the back will recruit primarily your rear delts, as in the Dumbbell Back Fly...
Now, your front delts get a lot of work without needing much attention.
Any time you're pressing, either horizontally (e.g. bench pressing) or vertically (e.g. shoulder presses) the front delts are largely involved.
This means that the front delts are typically exposed to a lot of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage, so they don't need much extra attention.
Out of the three heads of the shoulder, the front delts are almost always the most developed. It's very unlikely lagging front delts are the reason your shoulders don't have the aesthetic you want.
So, outside of presses, your front delts don't need any added work. If you're pressing (horizontally and/or vertically) a few times per week, they're good.
Your side and rear delts are quite the opposite.
They are not well positioned on your body to be exposed to much mechanical tension or muscle damage.
Basically - they’re very hard to feel, hard to train with heavy weights, and hard to get sore.
This means that the side and rear delts, unlike the front delts, do need a lot of added focus in order to get your shoulders to look the way you want.
Failure to understand the anatomy and science of optimal delt training is exactly why so many mean and women have such a frustrating time building great shoulders.
Now that you DO have a good understand of the science & anatomy, let's move on to the concepts I apply to online clients shoulder training to help the achieve their best body composition ever.
The Keys To Completely Reshaping Your Shoulders
As far as "bang-for-your-buck" movements go, pressing movements are where it's at - they allow you to accrue a LOT of "stimulus" for muscle growth per each rep.
Horizontal pressing variations do stimulate the front delts (and should make up 1/2-2/3rds of your total pressing volume), but vertical pressing will work your delts to a much greater extent.
So if you have the shoulder mobility to press overhead, a variety of shoulder presses should be staples of your shoulder training.
You're best served to choose a few "bread and butter" shoulder pressing variations, and focus on progressing these across multiple mesocycles (training phases). A few of my favorite options to program for online clients here...
Dumbbell Seated Shoulder Presses:
Barbell Overhead Presses:
1-Arm Shoulder Presses:
A few things to consider here:
1. While presses are great, too much pressing and your shoulders will very quickly start feeling beat up, so you do need to limit pressing frequency, and be smart about how you work your vertical pressing into your week. Most do best with 6-10 hard sets of vertical pressing per week, at most.
2. Your horizontal presses AND vertical presses use the front delts. So whenever you're overhead pressing before you're pressing horizontally, you're reducing the amount of weight you'll be able to bench (because you've fatigued your front delts). This makes the delts much more likely to become the limiting factor when benching instead of the chest.
Thus, for a strong chest and shoulders, it makes sense to at least have one day where you bench first, one day where you overhead press first. If you're concerned about chest + delt development equally, it makes sense to always put your horizontal pressing first.
General Recommendations For Pressing:
—> Sets: 6-10 per week
—> Reps: 5-15
—> Frequency: 1-3x/week
—> Tempo: Explosive press, 2-3 sec lowering phase
As we've established, your front delts will already be well trained from your pressing work.
That said, your side and rear delts are not, and will need to be hit with much more training volume to catch up to your front delts. This is where online clients incorporate lots of different lateral raise and back fly variations.
The approach we take within your programming here is almost completely the opposite of your approach for presses:
—> While your shoulders can likely only handle so many heavy presses per week before getting banged up, you can handle TONS of volume from lateral raises and the like, without hindering your recovery. So it makes sense to take full advantage of this by training these movements with a lot of frequency (up to 6x/week).
—> These movements are also better suited to the higher rep ranges, as trying to go too heavy typically causes you to compensate too much with other muscles, cut range of motion short, and turn it into a less effective delt exercise.
—> Being aware of proper form here is VERY important (like always). It's easy to cut the top half of a fly variation short. While this is an easy way to tell yourself you got stronger from last week (you could do more weight or add a rep due to cutting range of motion short/making the movement easier), you're just shortchanging the amount of stimulus your delts receive per rep by cutting range of motion short. The "start" and "end" point should be uber consistent, from your first rep to your last.
A few excellent side delt movements to progress across a mesocycle...
Dumbbell Lateral Raises:
Cable Lateral Raises:
Dumbbell Leaning Lateral Raises:
Dumbbell Upright Rows:
Incline Side Lying Lateral Raise:
And, a few excellent rear delt movements to progress across a mesocycle...
Dumbbell Back Flys & Chest Supported Back Flys:
Dumbbell Thumbs-Up Raises:
Rear Delt Rows:
Finally, a few spicy combo exercises that hit side & rear delts simultaneously...
Incline Butterfly Raises:
Cable Y-Raise + Lateral Raise:
3D Band Pull-Aparts:
General Recommendations For Side & Rear Delts:
—> Sets: 10-20 per week
—> Reps: 10-30
—> Frequency: 2-6x/week
—> Tempo: Explosive raise, 2-4 sec lowering phase
Hypothetically, let's say you started online coaching with the goal of building your best body composition ever, and improving your shoulders specifically.
After working through the intial strategy call, questionnaire, and movement screen like all my online clients do, we determine that the best split for your goals is a 4x/week upper/lower split + 1 conditioning day per week
First, we'd simply see how there shoulders responded to a bit of extra emphasis just 2 days per week. So their upper body days would look something like...
Day 1 (Upper):
a1.) Dumbbell Bench Press 4x5-10
b1.) Barbell Bent Row 4x5-10
c1.) Dumbbell 1-Arm Shoulder Press 4x10-15/side
c2.) Lat Pulldown 4x10-15
d1.) Dumbbell Leaning Lateral Raise 3x15-20/side
e1.) Chest-Supported Back Fly 3x15-20
f1.) Barbell Curl 3x10-15
f2.) Cable Overhead Extension 3x10-15
Day 3 (Upper):
a1.) Dumbbell Seated Shoulder Press 4x8-12
b1.) Pull-Up 4x5-10
c1.) Dumbbell Low Incline Bench 4x10-15
c2.) Dumbbell Chest Supported Row 4x10-15
d1.) Cable Upright Row 3x15-20
e1.) Dumbbell Facepull 3x15-20
f1.) Dumbbell Incline Hammer Curls 3x10-15
f2.) Med Ball Push-Ups 3xAMRAP
If this is your first time following an individualized, well-structured training program, you'll see great results for quite some time from this alone.
From here, if/when shoulder progression stalls, our order of operations will look like:
—> Add 1-2 sets to your current side and rear delt exercises OR add 1-2 more side/rear delt exercises to the end of each upper body training day.
If/when progress stalls again...
—> Add 1 side and 1 rear delt movement, 2-3 sets each, to the end each of your lower body training days. Gradually increase this to 3-4 total movements as needed.
From here you're getting a TON of volume, but if you hypothetically needed more, we'd eventually ramp up to...
—> Add 1 side and 1 rear delt movement, 2-3 sets each, to the beginning of the clients conditioning day.
You get the idea.
And that's how you build amazing shoulders. Get strong at pressing 2x/week in the 5-15 range. From there, add volume as needed through delt fly variations.
Need a fully customized training + nutrition plan and expert coaching through the process of building your best body composition ever? Click here now to apply for online coaching with me.
Jeremiah Bair is a nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram for more educational content.
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