Shoulder training, one of the least covered and over-injury-hyped topics in bodybuilding. For most people shoulder neglect isn’t that big of a deal.
If you have a mesomorphic or endomorphic body type then you probably have a naturally broad enough shoulders where hitting them with compound movements like incline bench press and overhead press is enough to make them bulbous and impressive looking.
However, if you were not blessed with long clavicles, which is a genetic limitation, then you will always look droopy-shouldered unless you put some serious effort into targeted shoulder training.
But, Shoulders Are Easy to Injure!
Let’s get this settled right off the bat, shoulders are no more “injury prone” than any other joint in your body. Sure, if you fail to properly warm up, execute with poor form and attempt to move more weight than you can handle, you could injure your shoulder joint.
BUT this can also be said about your hip joints and your knees, and other flexible bones like your spine. You never hear anyone say you shouldn’t train legs or back because you’ll get injured.
I think shoulder training get’s a bad rap because people do injure them at a higher clip than their other body parts, not because they are fragile, but because the muscle groups, talking about the anterior, medial and posterior deltoid heads, are not very big.
Thus they are better stimulated with higher volume than just pure progressive overload aka heavy weight.
Work your way up in weight, focus on volume/high reps, execute properly and you will be able to grow those shoulders, which is essential for ectomorphs if they ever hope to achieve any type of V-silhouette instead of just looking like trees.
The Importance of Warming Up
This can’t be stressed enough…for EVERY muscle group and joint! Because the shoulder muscles are relatively small if you go straight into a heavy dumbbell or barbell press, or heavy lateral raises, you become very susceptible to injury.
Again, this isn’t because the shoulder is naturally an injury-prone part of the body, it’s just that the smaller deltoid muscles will have a tougher time handling that heavy load compared to lets say, if you loaded up a leg press machine and started pressing without warming up.
With leg, and even chest/back movements, the muscles supporting your skeletal structure are so much larger and thus can manage heavier weights with less difficulty and less chance of injury as opposed to skeletal structure supported by smaller muscles, like the shoulder.
Warm up your shoulders for a good 10 minutes before beginning any intense shoulder workout. Some great shoulder warm-ups include cable machine shoulder internal/external rotation for warming up the cuff, and arm circles and stretches for warming up the whole arm and deltoid muscles.
Matt Ogus, besides having an insane physique, has some of the best warm up, stretching and mobility routines that bodybuilders and weightlifters alike borrow from. Here is a sample of Ogus’s shoulder mobility warm up:
Even if you don’t do the whole thing, at least you get an idea of the kind of motions required to warm the joint up and get blood moving.
In addition to just warming up, it is important to ease yourself into the weights too for shoulder exercises. While other muscle groups, like the legs, can make the hump from bodyweight/bar weight to loaded sets, the shoulders sometimes require more gradual acclimation.
We recommend doing reverse pyramid sets for shoulders, starting with a low weight at higher reps and working your way up to a higher weight with lower reps. This way by the time you begin moving more significant loads your shoulders will be well warmed up from the higher starting volume (at lighter loads).
The Importance of Frequency
Now that we have warming up and safety out of the way, let’s talk about what it actually takes to grow the shoulders.
For most hardgainers, ectomorphs or just tall skinny guys in general, growing your deltoids will take a surprising amount of volume and frequency.
For example, at 6’2, averaging 185-190, I spent most of my adult life training shoulders specifically with isolation work once per week at most. This is because I read from so many “experts” that the shoulders get plenty of stimulation from regular bench and incline bench/overhead press type work.
Well, for nearly 5 years of waiting for my pressing to make my deltoids blow up I finally realized that was bullshit. Sure, you do activate your shoulders when you bench, but they are not the primary movers of the exercise, that would be the pecs and triceps, so they aren’t being pushed to the max with simple pressing work.
Additionally, on chest days not all the exercises are press oriented. There is always a lot of cable/dumbbell fly movements and pullovers and dips mixed in as well, which are again not isolating the deltoid, especially in a way to make the medial area pop out, which is what we want for a more rounded physique.
It wasn’t until I started training shoulders 3 times a week that they began to grow and actually create some separation between them and my arms (a more capped look).
The Skinny Yoked ideal split for a week includes:
1 day pure shoulder destruction
This is the day we massacre our shoulders. We throw everything we have at them, overhead pressing with free weights, overhead pressing with machines, front, lateral, rear raises with free weights, weight cables, even the use of specialized deltoid training (lateral raises with arms bent against resistance arm pads) to pound the fuck out of those bastards.
Skinny Yoked Tip: throw in some hammer curls as a finisher on your delt destruction day. Hammer curls involve the delts but also engorge your entire arms with blood, creating a very satisfying pump and making sure your delt development will tie nicely into your arm development.
2 days shoulder supplementary work
Two other days in the week we throw in shoulder work as well. These are on chest days and back days. On chest days we throw in some lateral raises and front raises.
On back days we throw in some specific rear delt work. Essentially, while you can’t overload the delts with weight, you can attack them with frequency, which they seem to respond well to.
Again, we must stress the importance of warming up. With increased training frequency comes an increased chance of injury. However, with increased frequency also comes growth.
The Importance of Balance
Guys who say you don’t have to train delts because they get plenty of work with bench press do have one idea right, that is if you only do one shoulder day and then the rest of your week consists of regular chest/back/legs split, you will be hitting the front (anterior) deltoid with more frequency, causing it to grow out of proportion compared to the other parts of the muscle.
The most often neglected part of the shoulders are the rear deltoids. Like much of the back, people neglect this muscle group mostly because they can’t see it in the mirror easily or while working it, creating a weak mind-muscle connection and less visual positive reenforcement.
Don’t be lazy, hit the rear deltoid with a vengeance. Not only on your dedicated shoulder day but do at least one rear delt exercise, like face pulls for example, on chest day.
On back day make sure you have some upper back/trap work that recruits rear delts too like rear-delt machine flyes, one arm cable rear delt flyes, or upright rows.
Most guys overly obsess about their chests, because it’s the glamour muscle of the alpha bro.
This is cool and all, but over emphasis on chest development and neglect of upper back/shoulder/trap and rear deltoid development will almost always lead to a severe muscle imbalance.
Severe muscle imbalances suck. Sure, you might look good from a straight double bicep pose, but try pulling any side-view pose or back pose and your shortcoming swill be glaringly obvious.
Additionally, and more importantly, muscle imbalances caused by over-development of a muscle group that is designed to work synergistically with another muscle group (i.e over development of front deltoid vs rear deltoid) will over time totally fuck up your posture.
With a tight chest and huge front deltoids but weak upper back and rear deltoids you will perpetually walk around with a inward bowed chest, which looks beta as fuck and over time will cause back problems.
So in summary, here the key tips to think about when looking to build up your deltoids:
- Don’t be a pussy, hit them frequently and hit them hard, just make sure you warm up sufficiently and ease yourself into your working weight.
- You must be a form nazi with the shoulders. You can slack with form with chest work, with arm work, and leg work and still get decent results, but shoulders require spot on form for both A. growth and B. injury prevention.
- Keep everything balanced. As visually satisfying as hitting front raises every day may seem, having a lopsided shoulder will cause all sorts of posture problems in the long run.