Do your shoulders still look like tiny pebbles someone could use to skip across a lake? You’ve been training them for years, and yet you’ve never developed the superhero-sized delts that Thor, Captain America, or Superman have on screen. Why?
Why Aren't My Shoulders Growing?
For the most part, it’s because you’ve been training your shoulders with the same three exercises for years. Plus in our modern, sedentary, hunched over society, we spend too much time internally rotated, and we weaken our shoulder muscles. And, another your reason your shoulders aren't three-dimensional is that you under train one of the most important of the three deltoid muscles.
Building shoulders like Chris Hemsworth’s, that demand the immediate attention and admiration of mere mortals, takes more than Arnold presses, overhead presses, and endless sets of lateral raises. To accomplish this heroic task, you need to look at your shoulders in three dimensions and deliver some new muscle building stimulus to them with these five exercises.
Listen To Your Body & Avoid Injuries
For some, overhead pressing can cause pain or irritation. And if you’re one of these people, you don’t want to “push through the pain”. You may have a goal of building a lean and muscular physique, but you don’t want to do this at the expense of your body. So before you think about continuing with any overhead movement, here’s a quick test you can give yourself at home or the gym to see if you have the scapular mobility to press overhead safely.
Lay down on the ground with your knees bent and arms at your side. Make sure to keep your back flat and in contact with the ground the entire time. Now, engage your core to maintain contact with the ground, and then slowly raise your arms overhead, until your arms are fully extended behind you. If you can touch the back of your hand to the ground without arching your upper back, then you have the mobility to safely overhead press without any issues.
However, if during this motion you arch your upper back and your arms aren’t flat on the floor, then I highly suggest training your shoulders with this next exercise for 4-6 weeks. This exercise will still challenge your shoulders, but also helps to promote a better movement pattern with your scapula. And because it’s a single arm exercise, even if you have good shoulder mobility, the landmine press will stimulate more muscle, while maximizing tension, making this one of the best shoulder building exercises around.
1. Landmine Shoulder Press
If your gym has a landmine machine, it usually resembles the same shape as home plate in baseball. However, if your gym doesn’t have a landmine machine, you’re not out of luck. All you have to do is wedge a barbell into the corner of a wall.
To perform this exercise, you’ll start with one end of the barbell resting on your shoulder, while maintaining a slight bend in your knees, or assume a split stance, press the barbell forward and overhead. Complete 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps.
As a bonus, not only will you be building bigger and more superhero-sized shoulders with this exercise, but your core will also engage while you maintain balance to press the barbell overhead.
2. Dumbbell Y-Press
When it comes to challenging muscles to grow, you don’t always have to hit them from the same angle. You can incline bench press instead of flat bench pressing to change which portion of your chest you target. But when it comes to training your shoulders, most people stick with the same old strategies.
Building muscle is about increasing the amount of tension your muscles are under. And one way to increase tension is to change the normal angle at which the exercise is performed. The Dumbbell Y-Press does this, and it will force you to check your ego at the door, as well. You won’t be able to push the normal weight you’re used to with overhead pressing. Why?
Well, this exercise places your shoulders in a weaker position than normal, and with gravity pulling down on the weights, your body will want to bring the weight down in a lateral motion. So the small stabilizer muscles in your shoulder have to work even harder to maintain the Y-shape your body creates. That means you’ll want to start with a weight you’d normally consider easy and try to complete 12-15 reps.
You may never push heavy weight with this exercise, but this exercise is perfect for improving shoulder stability and burning out your delts at the end of a workout.
3. Leaning Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Yes. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that you’ve been screwing up building superhero-sized shoulders by focusing on only three exercises – one of them being the lateral raise. But the truth is, there really is no better way to train your middle delts.
But, the traditional lateral raise suffers from one shortcoming – the first 15-30 degrees of the movement uses your supraspinatus, and not your middle delt. That little rat has been stealing your precious middle delt gains for years. And you know what you do with a rat? You eliminate them. And the best way to eliminate your supraspinatus from engaging in the lateral raise is to grab onto a pole and lean away.
What makes the leaning dumbbell lateral raise better than it’s standing counterpart, is that you increase the amount of time the middle delt is under tension, but you also increase your range of motion. That’s a combination that leads to more gains.
To perform this exercise: Grab a dumbbell, find a stable post, and place your hand around the post at shoulder height, then lean away from the post until your arm is fully extended. Perform a side lateral raise the same way you would while standing. Perform these at the end of your workout. Aim for 3 sets of 8-12 reps per set.
4. Javelin Press
The Dumbbell Y-Press will challenge the stabilizer muscles of your shoulders, but if you’re looking for an exercise that challenges not only your shoulders but your core, then look no further than the Javelin Press.
Like the Y-Press, you’ll have to start this exercise with a lot less weight than you think. For those who can’t balance or push a standard barbell overhead, you can always use the smaller barbells (the ones that are usually racked together and range from 20-100 pounds). Once you move up in strength, then you can challenge yourself with a standard 45-pound barbell.
While performing this lift, not only will you feel like Thor thrusting Mjollnir to the heavens above, but you’ll place your shoulders in their most powerful mechanical positioning possible. This lift forces you to pack your shoulder blades down and back to prevent the bar from tilting. And by getting your shoulder into this position, you take the stress off your joints and force the muscles of your shoulder to take the brunt of the weight. That places tension where you want it: on the muscles you’re looking to build.
Lastly, what makes this exercise phenomenal for building stronger and more defined shoulders, is that it forces you to control the lowering, eccentric, portion of the lift. And it’s during the eccentric portion where you want to control the weight as it’s this part of the lift where you’re the weakest, and thus, can create more stimulus for muscle growth.
5. Bradford Press
If you have pain overhead pressing, the first two exercises listed above are a good place for you to start in regards to building bigger shoulders but also building up your capacity to overhead press, safely. Now, if you have no pain overhead pressing and you’re looking for a way to build superhero-sized shoulders, then look no further than The Bradford Press.
There are two ways I like to approach The Bradford Press: as a moderate weight, moderate rep hypertrophy exercise, or, as a low weight, high rep shoulder day finisher. If you decide to go with number one and use this to put some size on your shoulders, choose a weight that’s about 50-60% of your one rep max. Keep your reps between 8-10 and stay around 3-4 total sets. But if you’d rather use this as a way to finish your shoulder workout, the best way to approach this exercise is to keeps peps high(er), 12-15+ per set and keep your sets to only one or two shoulder swelling sets.
Tip: If your form begins to break down and you hyperextend your lower back – end your set. Don’t try and push it for a few more reps. Keep your form solid throughout.
Muscles Of The Shoulder
So far I’ve covered exercises that can help you build superhero-sized shoulders that target the anterior and middle deltoids. But there are three primary muscles of the shoulder. And the third one is often the most overlooked or under trained. And when it comes to creating three-dimensional shoulders, you need to give more time and attention to your rear delts.
Don’t Let The Posterior Become Inferior
Your posterior, or rear delts, have a few important functions:
- Shoulder extension
- External shoulder rotation
- Transverse extension (think ripping apart a phone book)
- Transverse Abduction (think hugging)
Exercises like the bench press, dumbbell fly, or rows recruit your rear delts to assist in the movement of your shoulder. Now, if you spend the majority of your time hunched over at a desk all day, your rear delts are likely already stretched and weakened due to your slouched posture.
When it comes to exercise selection for your rear delts, it’s time to bench the tired and old bent-over rear delt raise. And since your rear delts respond best to higher volume and lighter loads, you can add one or two rear delt focused exercises multiple times a week.
My favorite exercise to use with my clients or myself is Face Pulls. Depending on what exercises are on the plan for the day, I may have my clients start their workout with two sets of 10-12 reps of Face Pulls with a resistance band. Then at the end, we’ll do even lighter weight on the cable machine and do Face Pulls for 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.
There's one problem you run into with traditional Face Pulls. Many people use too much weight, and instead of isolating their rear delts they bring their hips into the motion and rock their hips back and forth as they pull the weight toward their face. To fix this issue, grab a bench or lay on the ground and perform this exercise supine. This forces you to 100% isolate your rear delts and even provides a bit of an extra stretch on your muscles.
*Side note: larger rear delts create an optical illusion that makes your triceps look bigger. So not only will the rear delts improve your strength on pulling and pushing exercises, but they help your arms look larger than life.*
Conclusion – Your Super Shoulder Serum
Captain America went from a scrawny pipsqueak, to sporting the body of the ultimate soldier. Thor has shoulders strong enough to fight demons and Frost Giants. And Superman, well, we can’t all be an alien from another world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build shoulders that are out of this world.
And when it comes to sparking new growth in your shoulders, sometimes you need to approach their training a bit differently. Give these shoulder exercises a try and shock your shoulders with a new stimulus.
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