By Darran Clemmit
Part 1: Shoulder Anatomy
Many of us have a ‘shoulders’ day in our workout plans, though what we really mean are deltoids. But, as well as training providing us with more strength and larger muscles, we also need to make sure it’s done in a way that avoids injury and keeps the joint healthy. For that we need to learn a little more about the shoulder joint, so that when training deltoids we can better isolate the target muscles and keep things balanced.
The shoulder joint is one of the most complex in the body: it has the largest range of movement in the most directions and, were it man made, it would be regarded as a miracle of engineering. I’ll just cover the very basics because covering it in detail would fill a whole book! There are eleven muscles / groups of muscles responsible for moving the glenohumeral joint (shoulder), as well as ligaments, bursas, cartilage and the articular capsule with those muscles to keep the head of the humerus stable in the glenoid cavity and provide movement. There are major nerves running across the shoulder joint and down the arm including the medial, median, radial and ulna, as well as the brachial artery and the basilic vein, along with smaller nerves and veins.
The deltoid can be divided into three distinct segments, anterior (front), medial (middle) and posterior (rear). All three groups abduct the glenohumeral joint but the anterior and posterior portions also act to flex and extend, horizontally adduct and abduct, as well as assisting in rotation of the upper arm. Front and rear delts are also antagonist to each other, so when one contracts the other relaxes, to control the movement. For that reason most people should include more rear delt exercise to help maintain shoulder balance, as its common to be front delt ‘heavy’ from movements such as bench press and overhead press.
Rotator cuff is a key area and one where a large portion of shoulder problems occur. A major cause from gym work can be too great a range of movement on exercises like lateral raises, specifically coming too high, or poor form on pressing movements such as flat bench, leading to impingement of soft tissue between the humerus and the acromium. Some exercises, such as upright rows and behind the neck press, are by their very nature increasing the risk of long term wear and injury of the rotator cuff and the tendons, and are best avoided altogether and substituted for less risky alternatives.
Looking past the deltoids and rotator cuff, the muscles of the back and chest, as well as those of the scapular, also have a bearing on shoulder health, but can’t all be covered in a brief article.
Part 2: Training Shoulders
I’m going to lay down a good balanced shoulder routine. I don’t claim it to be the best, as there are many ways to skin a cat, but it’s a solid routine that will help most people progress their shoulder development. There’s nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking about it, but I’m always amazed at the number of people that neglect rear delts, for instance. Not only does it lead to a poor looking shoulder, but it also affects stability, function and long term health as well.
I’ll start by laying out the basic routine, and then looking at exercise choices, and some form tips.
As I discussed earlier, the shoulder is complicated and has a lot of muscles crossing it. Even though we are training the delts, other muscles will be used as stabilisers, both dynamic and static. Warming these up also helps to warm up the shoulder and gets the blood flowing, so a light set each of the following exercises, with about 20 reps: chest press, lat pull down, row with scapular retraction, internal and external rotation. These will start to get blood moving through the shoulders, and get the shoulder joint warmed up.
- Lateral raises: light warm-up sets, 4-5 working sets, with 10-15 reps per set.
- Rear delts: 1 light set, 4-5 working sets, with 10-15 reps per set.
- Shoulder press: 2 light sets (mainly to make sure triceps are ready, and ‘grease the groove’), 6 working sets. First 2 sets 10-12 reps, then 2 heavy sets with 6-8 reps, then 2 further sets with 12-15 reps, concentrating on slow negatives, and explosive turnarounds, with a pause at the top.
- Wide grip rows, with fixed scapular and elbows up to isolate rear delts: 3-4 working sets, 12-15 reps, with a squeeze on each rep.
- Full range lateral raises; a very good, functional move; won’t need much weight: 6 sets, 10-12 reps.
- Shrugs (we can debate where they should go, but upper traps will already be tired, so finish them off on shoulder day); heavy as grip will allow for as many reps as possible, with a static hold at the end for as long as possible: 3 sets.
Exercise Choice and Form
Alternate weekly between dumbbells and low pulley. Both work the medial delt quite differently, needing the most work from the muscle at opposite ends of the range of movement. As a general rule of thumb, don’t allow arms to come up past parallel to the floor, or you risk the head of the humerus and the acromion pinching soft tissue. Having the arms slightly forward to the body, at about 30° (scapular plane), also allows a little more room in the shoulder and should reduce the risk of wear.
These can be done lying on a slightly inclined bench for more isolation, or for more core involvement leaning forwards. If you have any back problems then I would suggest doing them lying on a bench. If you do them leaning over, make sure the ‘lean’ forwards is coming from the hips and not from the back. Both ways you should use a weight that allows good control and a slight pause at the top for most of the reps, if not, it’s too heavy.
The exercise with the most choices: shoulder press machine, seated dumbbell press, standing barbell press, standing dumbbell press, roughly in stability order, more stable and less challenging to less stable and more challenging. Which you choose will depend on your overall goals, and how much you want to isolate the shoulders. You’ll be able to move more weight on a shoulder press, and quite a lot less on a standing press. I’d suggest using a rotation between them so you benefit from more functional lifting some weeks, and moving heavier weights on others. When pressing standing up, make sure that the lower back isn’t being extended; it’s a common fault especially when people are tying to lift too heavy or getting tired.
Wide Grip Rows for Rear Delts
Keep grip as wide as possible and try to relax the arms to take out biceps. Keep the scapular fixed and concentrate on generating the movement at the shoulder and tensing the rear delts at the top. Elbows should be moving horizontally and be just below the shoulder joint.
Full Range Lat Raises (sometimes called ‘around the worlds’)
Form is key on this exercise, and difficult to explain in words. It’s worth having someone show you this lift if you aren’t familiar with it.
Keep arms by your sides, and concentrate on just lifting the scapular to isolate as much as possible the upper trap fibres. Middle and lower fibres of the traps are better hit on back day.
Why not give this workout a go and you’ll be well on the way to a great set of big and well proportioned shoulders.