Deltoid Doctrine

Thought you knew all there was to shoulder training? Guess again!

By Steve Colescott, The Guerrilla Journalist

BATTLING THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER

According to the ancient Greek Poets, the Lernaean Hydra was an amphibious monster of legend with “more heads than the vase-painters could paint.” This beast used its venomous breath and serpentine fangs to guard the entrance to the underworld. With a protein-rich diet comprised of cattle and local villagers, the Hydra quickly outlived its welcome.

Killing the Hydra was part of Heracles’ Twelve Labors, which was made more difficult by the fact that the heads quickly grew back once severed. Like modern-day bodybuilders, Heracles combined both brains and brawn. As he severed the monster’s heads he quickly used a torch to cauterize the stump. This allowed him to ultimately vanquish his scaly opponent.

So what does any of this have to do with deltoid training? Although the deltoids are multi-headed muscles, our shoulders do not regenerate from injury as effortlessly as the heads of the Hydra so if you want monstrous delts you need to train them in a smart and well-planned manner. I will be outlining some basic guidelines here. If you are plagued by breath like venom however, that is a matter for another article.

CurtisLeffler_MachLaterals

Shoulders have long been the mark of masculine development. This is, of course, primarily because of their aesthetic significance; shoulders visually define the taper of the upper body (demonstrating width) and the roundness of the delts and traps gives one a sense of upper body power and thickness. In the animal kingdom this is demonstrated by the way animals (dogs and wolves, in particular) raise their hackles during a confrontation in order to look more intimidating to their opponent.

So shoulder development has long been a gauge of masculine power. To return again to classic mythology, Atlas was said to carry the world upon his shoulders and it was believed that he literally supported the planet and heavens much as we might place a heavy squat bar across our traps. He was condemned to support the earth for all eternity with only a brief respite as Heracles (on another of his Twelve Labors) assumed the duty for a short time.

From the easily visualized image of Atlas, we derive the phrase “shouldering a burden,” which has taken on the literal meaning of someone carrying a physical load or the figurative meaning of one assuming a responsibility. We often hear the common phrase, “carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders” which describes someone feeling as though they are overwhelmed with a problem, makes a very direct reference to Atlas. This makes “shoulder” not merely the name of a bodypart but a verb as well.

CurtisLeffler_Width
The athlete is Curtis Leffler, a national-level bodybuilder and strongman competitor who placed in the top three of the North American championships on two occasions. He passed away in 1998 (at the age of 36) due to complications of a blood clot. All photos were taken by Steve Colescott.

 

BASIC DELT ANATOMY AND PHYSIOLOGY 

The shoulder is a delicate yet potentially powerful group of muscles based around a very mobile ball and socket joint. The articulation of the scapula and the head of the humerus (the upper arm bone) forms the shoulder joint. The relative fragility of the joint makes it even more crucial that the muscles are properly developed to stabilize and protect the joint. Here are the major anatomical players in your shoulder workout:

  • Anterior Deltoid (front delt): abduction (moving the arm away from the body) so that the arm moves forward and rotates the arm inward.
  • Medial Deltoid (side delt): abduction so that the arm moves directly out to the side away from the body.
  • Posterior Deltoid (rear delt): abduction so that the arm moves backward behind the body or rotates the arm outward.
  • Trapezius (traps): elevation of the shoulder girdle.
  • Supraspinatus, infrapsinatus, subscapularis (not visible): these muscles stabilize the shoulder blade. They work as synergists in many upper body exercises and should be trained with the Rehab/Prehab Exercises listed in this article.

FITTING DELT TRAINING INTO THE BIGGER PICTURE 

So when exactly should one work delts into their weekly training split? There are a number of important considerations when deciding this. First off, the experience of the lifter needs to be assessed. In particular, how many times a week the athlete will be training. For a complete beginner, this might be a three-times a week, full-body workout. These full body workouts, by their very nature, are of low volume (one or two exercises per bodypart for 2-3 sets) so delts can be trained at each session. The function of these workouts is actually just to develop a base level of conditioning.

Once the body is split up and trained in separate sessions it becomes more complicated. Heavy chest and delt training both place considerable stress on the shoulder joints. Powerlifters or those specializing in increasing their Bench Press should limit heavy shoulder presses (and may need to do more prehab/rehab work).

One should also avoid training heavy pressing movements for shoulders and pecs on concurrent days. Plan your weekly training so that you have at least one day between these two body parts.

If you feel that you are prone to shoulder problems, avoid exercises that create an extended range of motion in the shoulder joint. Common culprits are the bench press to neck, bench dips and parallel bar dipping. If you choose to do these exercises, do them with caution and not for an extended period of time.

As Raise movements (Front Raises, Side Raises and Bent Raises) are meant to be isolation exercises, the three heads of the delt can be trained on different days. Overhead pressing tends to involve both the anterior and medial delt heads, so I recommend training them together. Posterior delts however, can very effectively be trained with the back. Back training (particularly rowing movements) act as an effective warm-up for rear delt work.

Trapezius activation is undesirable in any of the isolation raising motions but plays a part in all Upright Rows (in varying degrees depending on your grip and lifting form). Traps can be trained either as part of your shoulder workout or as part of your back training. If you are performing heavy deadlifts on your back workout, traps come heavily into play. For this reason you may want to train your trapezius after deadlifting during your strength and power phases.

CurtisLeffler_CblLaterals

WORKOUT TEMPLATES

Looking for the best possible deltoid workout? If only it were so simple! Since the human body is an adaptive organism, one must constantly provide new and different workouts. In fact this adaptability is the very essence of strength training. Progressive resistance training is all about exposing your muscles, nervous system and metabolism to new and greater levels of stress. For this reason I have presented you with a variety of training templates based on three different levels of lifting experience. They are as follows:

  • Level One: less than six months training
  • Level Two: six months to a year of hard, consistent training
  • Level Three: more than a year of hard, consistent training

PHASE

Level One

Level Two

Level Three

Power and Max Strength

3-4 min. rest between sets

3-4 min. rest between sets

3 min. rest between sets

Example:

1) Push Press: *warm-up then 3×4-6 reps

2) Wide-grip Upright Row 3×4-6 reps

1) Overhead Push Medicine Ball Throw: 4×3

2) DB Push Press 4×4

3) High Pull 4×4

1) Smith Machine Ballistic Press 6×3

2) Push Press 6×5/4/3/5/4/3

3) Hang Clean 6×5/4/3/5/4/3

Hypertrophy/ Strength

3 min. rest between sets

2-3 min. rest between sets

2-3 min. rest between sets

Example:

1) Military Press 4×5

2) Wide-grip Upright Row 4×5 reps

1) Push Press 5×3/3/2/2/1

2) 1-Arm Side Raise 3×6-10

3) High Pull 3×6

1) Hang Clean and Press 3×3

2) Push Press 3×3

3) Braced 1-Arm Side Raise 3×6-10

4) High Pulls 4×4

Hypertrophy

2 min. rest between sets

2 min. rest between sets 90 sec. rest between sets

Example:

1) Seated DB Press 3×6-10

2) Strict Side Raise 2×8-12

3) Cable upright Row (drop-set) 2x 8-12 > 6-10

1) Military Press 4×6-10

2A) Front Raise 3×8-12

2B) Side Raise 3×8-12

3) Machine Press (triple drop) 2×8-12 > 6-10 > 4-6

1) Alternate DB Press 4×6-10

2A) Upright DB Row 3×8-12

2B) Cable Side Raise 3×8-12 (followed by burns)

3) Machine Press 3×10-15 (middle 3/5 of the range of motion)

1) Inverted Incline Rear Delt Raises 2×8-12

2) Standing Pulldown-to-Face 2×10-15

on back day

1) Reverse Pec Deck 3×8-12

2) Seated Cable Row-to-Face 2×10-15

on back day

1A) Cross-bench Laterals 3×8-12

1B) Standing Pulldown-to-Face 3×10-15

on back day

Definition

not applicable

60-90 sec. rest between sets 60-90 sec. rest between sets

Example:

not applicable

1A) DB Push Press 3×8-12

1B) Leaning Side Raises 3×8-12

2A) Machine Side Raises (triple drop) 2×8-12 > 6-10 > 4-6

2B) Seated Military Press (middle 3/5 of the range of motion) 2×10-15

1A) Arnold Press 3×8-12

1B) Dumbbell Side Raise 3×8-12

1C) Shoulder-width Upright Row 3×8-12

2A) Strict Seated Side Raise 3×8-12

2B) Machine Press (drop-set) 2x2x8-12 > 6-10 > 4-6

1A) Wide-grip Cable Pull 3×8-12

1B) Reverse Cable Cross

2×10-15

train with back

1A) Rev. Pec Deck 3×8-12

2B) Standing Pulldown-to-Face 3×10-15

train with back

*Warm-up sets not listed. Make sure every workout includes at least 2-4 light warm-up sets before beginning the listed workout.

Exercises

OVERHEAD PRESSES

Military Press: This is the basic pressing movement. Done standing or seated, press the weight from the upper pecs/collarbone area overhead to lockout. The exercise may also be done with dumbbells kettlebells or on a Smith machine.

Press Behind-the-Neck: This exercise is a press beginning with the bar resting on the upper traps (similar to its resting position on an Olympic-style squat). Use caution with this exercise as the shearing forces it places on the scapula are known shoulder-wreckers. To reduce the risk of injury, use a wider than shoulder width grip and only lower the bar down to the height of your earlobes. If you choose to do these be cautious with how heavy your go and for how long you let the exercise be a part of your program.

Push Press: This is a great power movement. This is a Standing Military Press in which the lifter begins the exercise by slightly dipping the knees and beginning with a powerful hip drive from the bottom. This short but powerful push from the knees and hips gets the bar moving allowing for heavier poundages. This exercise can also be done with dumbbells and kettlebells.

Dumbbell Press: Using dumbbells for your presses require greater control and therefore a higher level of neural activation. This also equate to the use of lighter weights so this exercise is more suited to Hypertrophy and Definition Phases. Dumbbell Presses can be done either standing or seated.

Alternate Dumbbell Press: By alternating dumbbells this exercises requires greater coordination and torso stabilization. This makes for an excellent exercise when you need some variety.

Arnold Press: If you are not familiar with this exercise it begins with the dumbbells held with your palms facing in towards your shoulders (similar to the top of a Dumbbell Curl except your elbows are held higher). The pressing movement involves a transverse rotation of the shoulders (moving up and outward) that brings in a great deal of medial deltoid activation as they are pressed overhead.

CurtisLeffler_MachPress

RAISES

Raises of all kinds are exceptional deltoid isolation exercises, which makes them a good choice for the first part of a pre-exhaustion superset (or the middle exercise in a tri-set). They can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, cables or bands. Bands are a particularly good option since the resistance increases at the top of the exercise. A very good technique is to use both a traditional weight and bands so that the bands provide increased tension as the weight is raised. Once the lifter reaches a point in which no further reps can be completed, they can simply let go of the bands and extend the set with the resistance of just the bands.

Front Raise: Front Raises isolate the anterior deltoid head and can be done standing, seated, or on an incline. They can be done either alternating or together. In order to also activate the upper pecs, I like to bring the dumbbells in toward the centerline of the body at the very top. This is an excellent option for those of you that will be training pecs and medial delts in the same workout. You can also do a plate raise in which a 25, 35 or 45-pounds plate is held by both hands (like a steering wheel) and brought up to eye level.

Side Raise (Lateral Raises): This is the key exercise for wide “capped” shoulders. There are a number of varieties of side raises (including those done with the various types of equipment listed previously). Arm position is critical in order to keep emphasis on the medial deltoid. Because most people have stronger anterior deltoids there is a tendency for the humerus to rotate slightly backward (evidenced by a the elbow dropping in relation to the wrist) which robs the side head of the delt of the brunt of the workload. For this reason, the old adage of keeping the pinkie side of the hand slightly higher than the thumb (as though pouring milk from a pitcher) is a great visual. For ultimate strictness (particularly when just learning the exercise, begin with the weight at your side and raise it directly out to the side with a straight arm (no elbow bend). Lift until your arms are parallel to the floor since going any higher will only involve the trapezius muscles.

As you become more adept with the feel of the exercise you may want to try a less strict version of the Side Raise that will enable you to use heavier poundages. Bend forward slightly at the waist and begin the set with weights in front of your hips. A slight bend in the elbows and the altered body position will allow for the use of heavier weights.

Another Side Raise variation involves holding onto a stable upright (a piece of heavy equipment or a power rack) and leaning your body slightly towards the working side. This alters the lines of force and gives the exercise a different feel (emphasizing the top 2/3 of the range-of-motion).

Machine Laterals: Performing your Side Raises on a machine provides good variety and is an excellent option for those wishing to performing extended sets in which they perform reps until failure (i.e. 80 pounds for 10 reps) and then pull the pin and place it at a lighter weight to train to failure again (60 pounds for another 6 reps).

Cable Raises: Another variant is to use cables. Using cables make for continued resistance throughout the top of the range of motion. Variations include letting the cable run in front or behind the body. Both offer a slightly different feel but if the arm position is correct it should still direct emphasis to the medial deltoid head.

Seated Rear Delt Raises: This is a hard exercise to get the proper feel for. The primary reason for this is that the posterior deltoid is a relatively weak muscle in close proximity to the large powerhouse muscles of the trapezius and mid-back. Beginners should stick to a very strict seated version until they have developed the ability to control the involved muscles. Begin by sitting at the very edge of a flat bench. Bend forward until your head is directly above your knees. Grab two relatively light dumbbells. The starting position is with them held parallel to one another and right behind your ankles. Rotate your arms directly out to the side, stopping just short of parallel to the ground. Your head should not have moved and your upper back muscles should not be “squinched” together (concentrate on keeping your shoulder joints WIDE). On all of these Rear Delt Raises your elbows should be kept straight out from the body in order to keep lats out of movement.

Standing Rear Delt Raises: Done one arm at a time, this is more of a power movement. I recommend doing these while bracing your upper body by placing your non-working hand on a bench or rack. Although heavy weights can be used, do not sacrifice form for poundage.

Inverted Incline Rear Delt Raises: Lay face down on an incline bench for these. I recommend setting the bench at 45° or less. This exercise provides variety and removes the need to stabilize the upper body. Focus on proper form and posterior delt isolation. Cables, bands or dumbbells can all be used for this exercise.

Lying Delt Pulls: While lying on your side on an incline bench, raise a dumbbell from a position in front of your face to above your shoulder. Keep a slight bend in your elbow joint and try to not let the shoulder blade change its relative position. This will keep the exercise from becoming a posterior delt/ mid-back exercise.

CurtisLeffler_UprightRow

PULLS

Pulling/rowing exercises should be a regular part of your deltoid workouts. When considering their effect on deltoid development, examine the angle that the humerus moves and the line of pull against gravity. When examined in this manner, it is easy to see that when doing an Upright Row, the motion of the upper arms is very similar to that of Side Raises. Other rowing exercises can target posterior deltoids very effectively.

Upright Rows: As you may know, the width of your grip strongly effects which muscles act as the prime movers on this exercise. A close grip causes the lifter to raise the shoulder girdle making this a trapezius exercise. For our purposes though, we will be using a shoulder width grip and concentrating on not lifting the shoulder girdle in order to direct emphasis to the medial deltoids. These can be done with a bar (a cambered bar is easier for many because of the more comfortable grip), cables or bands.

This exercise lends itself particularly well to the extended set technique using bands with a barbell. Holding both the bar and a set of resistance bands, row until you reach muscular failure, then release your grip on the bands and continue repping out with just the bar until no more strict reps are possible.

High Pulls: This is a less isolated, more functional version of row, similar in motion to the Upright Row except that the bar begins at knee height and is initiated by a powerful forward hip drive. This makes for a more full-body power exercise and requires the use of much heavier weights.

Dumbbells Upright Rows: I listed these separately because the use of dumbbells allows for a subtle rotation, which can make the exercise more of a blend of Upright Row and Side Raise. Try to gently rotate the hands inward (lifting the pinkie side of your hand) as the weight is lifted for greater medial deltoid activation.

Standing Pulldown-to-Face: My personal favorite posterior deltoid exercise. Stand in front of a Lat Pulldown machine, grasping the bar with a shoulder-width over-grip. I place one foot up on the seat or kneepad to stabilize myself. With my elbows held high I pull the bar back toward my clavicle concentrating on using my rear delts. Rather than using a full range-of motion, I pull back until my arms are straight out from my body and only go about 2/3 of the way forward. This one gives me a wicked rear delt pump!

Seated Row-to-Face: Similar to the previous exercise, but this is done on a Seated Cable Row station with a shoulder-width over grip on a straight bar. Once again, keep the elbows up high while pulling to the upper chest using your rear delts. Focus on the contracted portion in the range of motion.

Reverse Cable Crossover (top cables): Called by many different names, this is a great posterior deltoid exercise. It involves use of the top cables in a cable crossover unit. Your starting position involves you standing about one step back from the centerline of the unit, holding the cables (which are crossed over one another) above your head and slightly in front of your face. Some people prefer just holding the teardrop-shaped eyelets of the cable, provided there are no exposed cable fray or sharp edges. Pull outward and back, using the posterior delts. This exercise will require tweaking to get the right feel as each machine requires differing biomechanics. You may find that you have to kneel, sit on a bench or adjust how far back from the crossbar you are positioned in order to get the correct line of pull.

CONCLUSION 

So do the deltoids seem a bit more complicated than you had guessed? Don’t worry. By following the guidelines in this article, you are well on your way to sporting wide, thick, strong AND healthy shoulders. No other bodyparts has such an instant visual impact and universal appeal. All that is left is for you to apply the information and train hard.


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