Bodybuilder Fouad Abiad picking up dumbbells to train shoulders

4 EXERCISES FOR STRONGER SHOULDERS

A strong physique isn’t complete without wide, capped shoulders. Compared to other muscle groups, like the back or legs, I approach delts with a slightly different training method. Even though we can put on good size in the shoulders, they’re still a small muscle group, so the load we use doesn’t need to be as dramatic. Also, I find technique to be far more important when training delts. If you aren’t paying attention or are trying to go too heavy, your traps, back, and chest can easily take over an exercise. How can you tell? If you’ve been lifting heavy for a long period of time and aren’t seeing any progress in your shoulders, it’s probably because other muscles are doing the work. Take a step back and lighten the weight until you know your shoulders are working.

I also don’t use the same volume on shoulders as I do for other muscle groups. My plan each session is to hit a total of 12 sets spread between three or four exercises, once per week. That’s it. For those who are struggling to build their shoulders, you can incorporate a few exercises on another training day like back or chest, but keep that shoulder work to two exercises, max.

My typical shoulder workout follows this format, so I hit all three heads of the delts. You’ll notice some exercises are higher reps than what I usually do, but with fewer sets than normal. I also prefer to get right to work in each exercise, not using as many feeder sets like I do on bigger muscle groups.

  1. WARM-UP AND REAR DELT FLYES

Because the shoulder is such a complex joint, I make sure it’s totally warmed up before getting to the heavy work. I’ll do a variety of movements, like external rotations, Cuban rotations, lateral raises and presses, using bands or really light weight to warm up. Integrate these into your warm-up sets of rear delt flyes on the pec deck machine. Generally, in about three sets my shoulders feel warm and ready to work.

Next, I’ll do straight sets of rear delt flyes on the pec deck. I like starting with an isolation exercise before moving to a compound exercise, simply for shoulder health. The most common mistake I see with this exercise is the range of movement, hyperextending the arms behind the body. This can put too much stress on the shoulder joint and also takes the work out of the rear delts and into the teres or traps.

I keep my palms facing the floor, pushing against the handles of the machine with the side of my hand. Also, think about keeping the elbows pointing back and a little bit up so the work stays in the rear delt through the entire range. Stop in line with your body with a little pause to really contract the rear delt. I’ll do three straight sets of around 20 reps, which will set the muscle on fire. 

  1. MILITARY PRESS

Now I feel good to go into a heavy compound exercise. Personally, I prefer doing my press on the Smith machine sitting on an upright bench. If you feel comfortable doing these with dumbbells or a free bar, that works. I find my back arches too much and feels unstable, moving the work into my chest. My approach is to do an exercise in a way that I get the most out of the target muscle, and for me, that’s on the Smith machine.

Use a shoulder-width grip, maybe a little wider, and bring the bar down to chin level. Some people may try and go lower, but I find the risk of shoulder injury is greater than the reward. At chin level, I can keep the work in my delts and don’t risk straining the joint. Focus on keeping your elbows under the bar, pointing down to the ground, and hitting about 90 degrees.

On this exercise, I work my way up in weight for a total of five sets. As I increase my weight, the reps decrease, starting at 15 and progressing so that by my final and heaviest set, I fail at six to eight reps. 

  1. LATERAL RAISE

This might be one of the hardest exercises for people to execute properly. It really builds the rounded cap to the shoulders for a wider look, so take the time to get it right. Through the exercise, think about pouring a glass of water from a jug, bringing the elbow up with the pinkie finger leading the movement, and the inside of the bicep facing down to the ground. Think about pushing out to recruit the lateral delt, and then up, but not straight up, which would be more like a shrug or an upright row. The weights should come to eye level at the peak of the movement. Any higher and you’ll be using more trap than delt. Elbows should have a slight bend to them, around 30 – 40 degrees.

I don’t do any feeder sets here, focusing on four sets of 10–15 reps with solid form. On the last two sets, do two drops and go to failure to really burn out the lateral portion of the muscle. Remember that form is important, so don’t focus on weight yet. Get this right and then build up, especially when doing this amount of reps. And don’t bounce. 

  1. UPRIGHT ROW

I end my workout with upright rows, usually on the Smith machine. Using a shoulder-width grip, or slightly wider, pull the bar up towards your chest. Think about aiming for your chin, but your range of movement will likely end at chest height. Make sure your elbows stay on top of the bar, and move it in a straight line. Nothing fancy here; do three straight sets of 10–12 reps with a slight pause at the peak and control the negative portion of the rep.

 

Exercise Sets Reps
Rear Delt Flyes 3 To Failure*
Rear Delt Flyes 3 20
Military Press 5 15,12,10,8,6
Lateral Raise 4 10–15
Upright Row 3 10–12
*Light warm-up sets.

 

ALTERNATE EXERCISES

There are two options I sometimes swap into my workout. I’ve always gotten a lot from behind the neck presses on the Smith machine, instead of the basic military press. With this exercise, the movement should stop at the base of the skull, not any lower. A lot of the same cues carry over from the military press—elbows track under the bar and hit 90 degrees. Your grip may need to be slightly wider, but not to the point that your elbows are greater than 90 degrees. Use the same set and rep structure as the military press. I don’t recommend this exercise for anyone who has shoulder issues, though. Stick to regular military press and keep your shoulders healthy.

The second option is to swap front raises for the upright row to finish the workout. I do these seated with dumbbells, making a point to cut out any momentum at the bottom of the movement. Your elbows might have a slight bend to them, but are pretty straight as they lift in front of you with the palms facing down. The movement should stop when the arm is parallel to the ground. Include these if you feel your front delts are lacking, but keep in mind that they get worked a lot during chest and shoulder presses.  

The shoulders are a key part of the X-frame shape we’re looking to build. The wider the shoulders are, the narrower your waist will look. Build your shoulders by focusing on your form and then increasing the weights to grow. Without that technique nailed down, other muscles will grow, but you’ll be left with narrow shoulders. Keep it simple, but do it right.