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The Basics of Shoulder Training

Training the shoulders is critical for any athlete, bodybuilder, powerlifter, and anyone trying to get into shape and develop a fit physique.  Regardless of your fitness and training goals, wider, more developed shoulders will provide a more toned-looking upper body and make the waist appear smaller. And having wide, well-developed shoulders is something that every bodybuilder aspires to achieve. In fact, when judges evaluate symmetry at a bodybuilding competition, shoulder width helps to create the desirable V-shape and adds more taper that helps to increase thickness and balance throughout the entire physique.  While it’s true that genetics (bone structure, shape) play a large role in the appearance of wide and rounded shoulders that contribute to a nice V-taper, regular training can greatly improve shape and symmetry.

Women especially should regularly train their shoulders because well-developed shoulders can give the appearance of a wider upper body, a narrow waist, smaller hips, and even make arms look more developed with the creation of the V-taper. Wide, strong shoulders can increase a physique’s overall attractiveness because they help create a symmetrical physique that is pleasing to the eye.  In fact, people associate well-developed shoulders on women and men with an image of youth and sexiness.  If you are trying to improve your overall appearance and attain a strong looking physique, start focusing some extra work on those shoulders!

Your shoulders are also one of the most important muscle groups in terms of helping to improve upper body strength and improving general function in everyday life. You use your shoulders for just about everything, from stretching upon awakening in the morning, to lifting laundry, carrying the groceries (or a pet or child), making dinner, and getting dressed and undressed. Training your shoulders to improve your general strength will improve your overall function and help you to prevent injury, whether you are playing golf, swimming, participating in other sports, or just living a generally active lifestyle.

The muscles of the shoulder are complex because they are designed to allow you to rotate your arm in a 360-degree circle. The shoulder (deltoid) is a large triangular muscle that serves to rotate and lift your arms.  It has three heads – the anterior (front) deltoid lifts the arm to the front.  The lateral (medial, side) deltoid lifts the arms to the side.  The posterior (rear) deltoid lifts the arm backwards (hyperextension).  The trapezius muscle (traps) is often trained with shoulders – it extends out and down from the neck and in between the shoulder blades.  The traps help support the shoulders and draw them up and down, along with assisting with head and neck movement.

General Training

Shoulder workouts generally involve two basic motions – raises and presses.  Raises involve lifting the arm – straight or bent – in a wide arc (to the front, side, or various angles) and better isolates the heads of the shoulders.  Presses involve lifting weight over your head and also engage the triceps. Dumbbells can be used as a great alternative for mixing up your shoulder training routine. Dumbbell presses allow for a full range of motion and engage the core for stability and balance. In fact, dumbbells work very well for shoulder training because of the range of motion and the ability to isolate specific heads of the shoulder so well. Dumbbells can be more challenging, however, so be sure not to compromise your form. This will help to develop the muscle better and reduce the risk of injury. Remember that more often than not, dumbbell exercises should be done with less weight than their barbell or machine equivalents.

  • Overhead Press

    Overhead presses focus on the front and side of the deltoid.  Overhead presses can be done with either barbells or dumbbells, and many gyms have machines that mimic this motion. You want to lift the weight from approximately your head/neck level to directly overhead. Focus on the range of motion and don’t overextend at the bottom. Dumbbells will provide the largest range of motion but require less weight to be effective. Arnold Presses provide an interesting variation that incorporate a 180-degree rotation of the arms, starting with palms facing you at the bottom and ending with palms facing outward at the top.
  • Lateral Raise

    Lateral raises really target the outside head of the deltoid, while also engaging the front and rear heads. These are most often performed with dumbbells, although cables are a great substitution, and there are machines available as well (machines may help to reduce stress on your joints).  Weight should be lifted from each side of your body directly outward. Be sure not to swing your body or rock back and forth while you perform this exercise. Variations can be incorporated from a seated or standing position, and with arms bent or straight.
  • Front Raise: 

    Front raises are very similar to lateral raises except the weight is lifted outward directly in front of you. This exercise focuses on the front head of the shoulder, but also engages the traps. The weight does not have to be lifted all the way overhead – a proper range of motion involves stopping around or just above shoulder level. Be sure again not to rock your body when performing this exercise so that you isolate the target muscle group better. Front raises can be performed in a seated position for a stricter movement.
  • Rear Lateral Raise

    Rear lateral raises target the rear head of the shoulder and can be performed seated or standing, with dumbbells, cables, or on machines. Rear lateral raises are similar to side laterals, except you need to bend forward about 45 degrees to isolate the rear deltoid instead of the side. Be careful not to lift your body upwards as you lift the weight and don’t let the weight drift behind your shoulders. This exercise can be performed effectively on the pectoral fly machine, facing the other direction.
  • Upright Row 

    Upright rows focus on the traps and front shoulders and help to create a separation between the shoulders and chest muscles. It is easiest to perform upright rows in a standing position holding a barbell in front of you. Keep your back straight and lift the barbell up to about your chin level. The movement should feel similar to an upwards rowing motion. Be sure to perform this exercise strictly without any swinging or additional upper body movement. 
  • Shrug: 

    Shrugs isolate the traps and can really help to develop thickness throughout the traps.  Trap development is especially important for bodybuilders because it also increases back thickness and improves back posing.  Shrugs are performed with dumbbells or a weighted barbell, from a standing position, keeping the arms straight and bringing the shoulders upwards towards the ears.  Pause and squeeze at the top of the contraction for maximum effectiveness.
  • Example Workouts

    Training the shoulders and traps can be a workout in and of itself. There are a wide variety of exercises that can be incorporated into shoulder training. Just about every exercise can be performed with dumbbells, barbells, or machines, and many variations can be incorporated just by changing your angle or your position. Exercises can be switched up regularly to keep your body guessing and make the workouts more challenging. To train the entire muscle group, each shoulder workout should consist of at least one exercise for each of the three heads of the shoulder, and at least one exercise for the traps.  Don’t forget that you also engage other muscles in your upper body when you train your shoulders, especially your chest and triceps, so be sure to develop your training layout smartly, allowing yourself plenty of recovery in between workouts (i.e., don’t train shoulders and chest back-to-back).
The following examples provide a general framework for structuring complete shoulder workouts – the number of repetitions and sets can vary depending on your training and fitness goals.  The reps/sets that are provided below are for illustration only and are based on general training for fitness and overall conditioning (and may differ for bodybuilding and/or sports-specific training).

Example #1:
  • DB shoulder press – 4 sets x 10-15
  • DB side lateral raises – 2 sets straight arm x 8-10, 2 sets bent arm x 8-10
  • Cable raises (front and side alternating sets) – 2 sets front/side x 8-10 on each arm
  • Rear DB Raises – seated, bent forward, 3 sets x 8-12
  • DB Shrugs – 3-4 sets x 10-15.
Example #2:
  • DB Arnold Presses – 3 sets x 10-15 (these may require less weight than regular overhead DB presses)
  • Standing Barbell Front Raises – 3 sets x 10-15
  • Upright Rows – using a barbell, 4 sets x 10-15
  • Rear Delts on the “Pec Deck” – seated backwards on the pectoral fly machine, 3 sets x 10-15

Avoiding Injury

Because the shoulder provides such a wide range of mobility and is used in just about every activity and form of exercise, it is one of the most complex muscle groups/joints in the human body. And of course because of its large number of muscle attachments, shoulder pain and injury can be can be common and can pose long-term problems for athletes and those involved in intense physical training.  Shoulder injuries can significantly impact just about any form of training, so it is important to train smartly and try to reduce the risk of injuring your shoulder.
  • Proper range of motion and performance is critical to avoiding injury: Follow the directions explicitly for any movement, especially in resistance training.  Don’t sacrifice form for heavier weight.
  • Warm-up properly:  A proper warm-up will help reduce the risk of overstressing your body by preparing it for the workout and getting blood circulating to the area before too much exertion. 
  • Add rotator cuff exercises into your routine:  The rotator cuff is the part of your shoulder that assists in circular motions and provides a lot of general support for your shoulder.  Rotator cuff exercises can help keep the joint limber and pain-free. A few sets of rotator cuff rotations with a light dumbbell or cables can be helpful in preventing common injuries like tendonitis and rotator cuff tears.
  • Be sure to allow yourself enough recovery and get plenty of sleep:  This is self-explanatory and applies to training in general.  Rest can be as important as lifting for muscle growth and overall physical development.

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