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Shoulder Training

Shoulder Training

Looking to create some bolder shoulders? Good work. A good pair of shoulders can be one of the defining parts of an impressive physique. They create the illusion of width that bodybuilders aim for, and make you fill out your t shirts nicely. So to create strong, big and importantly healthy shoulders requires some knowledge. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of the shoulders and, the training principles you should apply to them, and which exercises work best.

Anatomy of The Shoulder

The shoulder is an extremely complex part of the body. It has the largest range of motion of any joint in the body. This is one of the reasons why so many people complain of shoulder pain. Since there are so many interlocking elements to the shoulder, inflammation and injury are common.

Rotator Cuff

This collection of muscles perform an extremely important function. The name tells you what you need to know, they assist in the rotation of the shoulder joint. They are used almost constantly in day to day activity, and are heavily used in gym movements. The rotator cuff provides stability to various parts of the shoulder muscles and bones, ensuring that each part is able to stay in place and move without hindrance.


The deltoids can be split up into three seperate sections.

a) Anterior (or Front)

b) Lateral  (or Middle)

c) Posterior (or Rear)

The functions of these put simply are the following.

Front deltoids assist when you are required to do some horizontal pushing. A push up, or barbell bench press are good examples. To stabilize the weight, the front deltoids are engaged heavily.

Middle deltoids assist in the raising of the arm. So a lateral raise is an exercise that isolates thus particular deltoid.

Rear deltoids are using in pulling. When you perform any type of horizontal row (barbell row, cable row etc) your rear deltoids will be engaged.

This is not to say that each deltoid works separately from the others. In a movement such as an incline bench press, the front and middle deltoid are working to keep the weight balanced. Let’s now take a look at the general principles of shoulder training.

General Principles

Frequency of Training

The frequency of your shoulder training will depend entirely on your goals. As a rule, you should be looking to do around 12 working sets of shoulder work. This can either be all in one shoulder session, or spread throughout the week into two or three shoulder sessions.

It is important to remember that heavy volume beyond 12 sets per week can lead to internal shoulder inflammation. Unlike muscles like legs or back which are capable of greater punishment, since the shoulders are small and complex, overwhelming them to constant heavy volume may stifle progress and lead to injury.

If you are aiming to improve your shoulder condition, then you can increase the volume of work on the shoulders. However, since you will also be hitting your front and rear deltoids in your chest and back work (respectively) you should bring the volume down on these days. So more shoulder work should come at the expense of chest and back work. If you are mindful of the volume your shoulders can cope with, then you will ensure long healthy growth, uninterrupted by bad injuries.

Isolation and Compound Work

Hitting the shoulders should not just be all about isolating each deltoid with small movements. This strategy will not create the large/shapely and balanced shoulders you are seeking. Shoulder training should always include some variation of an overhead press. There are several to choose from, and they all have similar benefits.

Pushing things overhead is a movement that is very basic to the human body. As a result, you will be able to make steady progress for years in these movements, constantly benefiting your strength levels and physique. Isolation work has it’s place in shoulder training. To emphasize the middle deltoids, isolation work can be used. This will create the coveted wide shoulder look.

Rear deltoids are often very neglected by the average gym goer. This is a muscle than can benefit greatly from some isolation work. Facepulls and rear delt flyes can help. This will bring a lot more balance to the shoulder, promote good joint health, and make the shoulder stronger and better looking. The front delts are usually pounded to a pulp by chest day, and as a result isolation work is less necessary here. However, if you are lagging in your front delts, some light isolation work (such as plate raises) can help you out.

Pre-hab and Healthy Shoulders

It is important to stress that healthy shoulders do not stay healthy if they are not protected. Since the machinery on the inside of your shoulders is very complex, it must be respected if you are to build decent shoulders.

If you constantly hammer isolation exercises on to your delts, they will grow. However, your ligaments, tendons and internal muscles will not keep up. This will mean imbalances in your shoulders, and it is an injury waiting to happen. The best exercises for keeping your shoulders happy will be discussed below. The principle however must be realized. Make your shoulders internally strong, so they can keep getting externally strong!

The Best Shoulder Exercises

We will break the exercises into 4 sections.

• Big movements

• Compound

• Isolation

• Pre-hab

Big Movements

This is essentially anything that requires you to put weight above your head until lock out. It includes:

• Military press

• Overhead barbell press (seated and standing)

• Overhead dumbbell press (seated and standing)

• Clean and press variations (clean and jerk, and clean and push press)

• Jerks, and push presses (no clean)

These exercises are the ones that will put the most strain through your shoulders. The weight you are able to use with these will be significantly higher than any isolation movements. Your aim should be to keep increasing the weight, and the reps you are doing on these movements.

For strength, aim for reps of around 3-6 reps.

For hypertrophy focused, aim for around 8-12 reps.


These movements are not overhead pressing variations, but thy still recruit a lot of muscle, therefore they are able to be called “compound exercises”.

• Landmine press (sometimes called a corner press)

• Arnold Press

• Upright row (some form cues here)

With these movements, you can aim for the higher rep range of around 8-12 reps.


These will be movements that you use to bring up the lagging parts of your shoulders.

• Lateral raise variations (Have a look at some here)

• Rear Delt flye variations (chest supported, bent over)

• Cable flyes (Applies to middle and rear delts)

These movements will be in the higher rep range of around 12-15. The point is not to go too heavy, but to feel the muscle working, and fill it with blood.


This topic is very large, and actually could require an entire article to deal with it. For now, check out this great article here for 8 different pre-hab exercises. An important move to remember is face pulls. These can help warm up the rear delts before any pushing is done, and will help the traditionally underdeveloped rear delts to catch up.

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