It’s all in the shoulders

From Superman to He-Man, every superhero that inspired any kid growing up had one thing in common – a wide set of shoulders. These are the muscles that signify power, authority and dominance. Building perfectly rounded, coconut-shaped deltoids will separate you from the crowd beyond question.

To develop the deltoids perfectly, you must learn a little bit about them. First, the fact that they are comprised of only three heads (front, side, rear) is an antiquated notion. There are actually seven in total, more appropriately described as deltoids 1-7, anterior to posterior. In order to create that 3-D look about them, all seven heads must be trained with equal consideration.

The shoulder is a complex joint that is capable of executing multiple functions – including abduction, flexion, extension, horizontal adduction, horizontal abduction, internal rotation and external rotation. Within this muscle group, the ability to generate seven planes of movement signifies that the shoulders are comprised of a different arrangement and direction of muscle fibres.

Each exercise carries a particular movement pattern that targets a specific group of muscle fibres. In order to recruit these muscle fibres uniformly, the deltoids must be attacked through various lines of force.

MILITARY PRESS

The military press is an exercise that targets the bulk of the shoulders. Total reliance on this exercise however, can overdevelop the anterior portion of the deltoids. Personally, I have yet to meet a trained individual who had underdeveloped anterior deltoids.

Some would even go as far saying that there is no specific need to training the anterior deltoids, since they receive a ‘pounding’ from performing the bench press and dips – which would be considered a valid statement. For functional purposes however, the military press is still considered a staple exercise for many strength enthusiasts.

With all intents and purposes, you have to press to impress.

The military press can be carried out with a barbell or a set of dumbbells. Both are great for varying the intensity and diversity in your training. Using dumbbells allows the freedom in manipulating the pressing movement, in a way that would place greater tension on the deltoids. A barbell is fantastic for adding load to the bar, without the difficulty of having to coordinate two individual objects.

You can perform this exercise whilst standing or in the seated position. Doing so whilst seated will put less strain on the lower back and target the deltoids greater.

Electromyography (EMG) studies, a scientific method that’s used to assess the electrical activity of skeletal muscles, indicate that most seated exercises tend to recruit greater involvement of the muscles being worked, than that of standing exercises.

When we do a standing military press for example, the muscles in the torso and the legs also contribute to facilitate movement. Whilst seated however, the neural drive is not wasted in trying to stabilise the body. More of the nerve-based signals can be assigned to working muscles, resulting in greater force output in that specific area.

Starting Position

Sit on the military bench with your feet firmly placed on the floor. Reach up and grasp the barbell from the rack with an overhand grip and arms extended at about shoulder width. Range of motion will be comprised if your grip is too wide.

Execution

Lower the barbell slowly down to collarbone height, making sure that the elbows and wrists are directly under the bar. In the bottom position, concentrate on pressing the weight back up with your deltoids. Minimise any curvature in the lower back by pushing it up against the bench.

As you reach the top of the rep, stop just short of elbow lockout. This way you can keep the tension on the deltoids and minimise any involvement in the triceps.

Return and repeat the exercise.

When it comes to using dumbbells, there is a specific technique that places greater emphasis on the deltoids and minimises further use of the triceps. Rather than pressing two dumbbells straight up into the lockout position, tilt them in a manner so that the bells closest the head are facing downward. This puts the arms in the formation of the letter W, hence where it gets its name as being a W-press.

Raise both dumbbells in a wide arc until they touch, returning them back to near ear lobe height.  Repeat in this fashion for reps, by keeping constant tension on the deltoids. It is a fantastic pressing movement that really isolates the middle deltoids.

LATERAL RAISE

This is probably the best overall exercise for developing the shape, symmetry and proportion of the deltoids. I remember back during university days, the gym they had was not equipped with heavy dumbbells. To make a light weight seem heavy, I would train my shoulders almost exclusively with lateral raises – and they grew like weed because of it.

For the shoulders to respond in growth, it’s about finding exercises that bring about the greatest pump in them. To do that, they must also be approached with isolation type movements such as lateral raises.

This exercise is all about form and intensity. You must find a weight that is moderate enough to encourage perfect technique, whilst striving for the burn in the muscle. Too often I see people using a heavy weight with lousy form, missing muscle fibres along the way. Lifting ego-boosting loads with this exercise tends to shut the shoulders off, resulting in abysmal stimulation and sub-par development.

The lateral raise is not an exercise that needs much weight. You have to build a strong ‘mind-to-body’ connection, in order to create the pump necessary for them to grow.

Just imagine holding out your arms parallel to the floor and keeping them there for as long as you can. Do you feel the burn? Good, now keep going till you can’t hold them any longer.

That’s the feeling we are aiming for. You know you are training the deltoids correctly when standing up with your arms by your side is hard work.

Starting position

You can either perform lateral raises whilst standing or in the seated position. Again, doing them seated against an upright bench prevents swinging, placing greater tension on the deltoids.

Hold a set of dumbbells by the side of your thighs, with palms facing each other. Look straight ahead whilst keeping your shoulders and back up against the bench. As you hold the weight, maintain a slight flexion in the elbows. The arms should remain straight throughout the movement, without the elbows completely locking out.

Execution

This is where it gets tricky and many beginners get this incorrect. In order to target the lateral head of the deltoids, you must know how to tweak the dumbbells in a specific way.

Maintaining that slight bend in the elbows, raise your arms out by your sides in an arc-like motion, till they are parallel to the floor. The idea here is to lead with the elbows without changing the angle of the elbow joint.

Telling someone to lead with their elbows can cause them to bend their arms at the elbow joint. No, keep the same angle as you raise the dumbbells, generating movement from the shoulder joint.

When your arms are parallel to the floor, the elbow joint must be slightly higher than the wrist joint. You want to create a small peak in the elbow. To do that, tilt the dumbbells down so that the pinky finger sits higher than the thumb.

Another way to explain this technique is to imagine the dumbbells representing two glasses of water. You raise your arms out by your sides and as they reach parallel to the floor, you are pouring the water out of the front end of the dumbbell.

These are also known as “pitcher” raises and that’s basically the movement we are trying to mirror.

The deltoids respond best with constant tension, so it is imperative that you eliminate resting at the bottom of the rep. Lower the weight down slowly under control as you resist against gravity. When the dumbbells reach 2-3 inches from your thighs, raise them back up in one fluent motion without pause.

To complete the entire deltoid trinity, do not forget those hard to reach posteriors. In comparison to the front and lateral heads, most people struggle in rear shoulder development. In a way, you could almost describe this phenomenon as superior for the front deltoids, mediocre for the side deltoids and downright woeful for the rear.

If your rear deltoids are lagging behind, it is probably best you prioritise them first in your training. Better yet, hit them exclusively for a while.

To target the posterior head, perform bent-over lateral raises. You must bend at the hips so that your upper torso is parallel to the floor. You can either do them standing or hunched over in the seated position.

A more controlled way is to execute them on the incline bench. Set it at 45 degrees and place a towel on the top of the bench. Use the towel to rest your forehead as you get into position.

Keep the spine in a neutral position and arms parallel in front of you. Raise your arms out to the sides, till the dumbbells reach ear lobe height. Control the weight back down, maintain constant tension and repeat the sequence.

So there you have it, whether you wear a fitted shirt or an elegant dress, the symmetry begins with the deltoids. During the golden era of bodybuilding in the 70’s and 80’s, many were infatuated with attaining that V-Taper look. The waist-to-shoulder ratio was the most sought after accomplishment in physique development.

Bringing out the shoulders wide enough would automatically create the illusion of a smaller waist. The shoulders are what create that silhouette-like appearance. Train them to oblivion with the above guidelines and you will soon develop a pair of boulder shoulders that even Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers would be proud of.