Overhead Press

Optimizing Shoulder Training


Many people want well-developed shoulders, but few know how to train them appropriately. Whether you’re male or female, developing the complete deltoid aids in creating an aesthetic, tapered torso, especially when combined with a low-enough bodyfat to make the waist look proportionately tiny in relation to the shoulder girdle.

As  relatively slow-twitch muscle group, the shoulders require a relatively high amount of volume.  And due to their placement on the torso, it is very easy to let other muscle groups, such as the triceps, traps, and upper back muscles, rob the shoulders of any stimulation during training.  Not only must your programming skills be up to par, but so should your execution.

Let’s look at some of the most common mistakes people make in the gym and what we can do to fix them.

#1 – Poor Execution

The deltoid is made up of three heads (anterior, lateral and posterior) and is responsible for abducting the humerus (moving the arm away from the body) as well as flexing the shoulder (as in an overhead press).  The posterior or rear delts also are one of the main movers in reaching extension while the upper arm is abducted (as in a rear lateral raise).

What this basically means is that the shoulder’s job is to move the arm away from the body in just about all movement patterns.  While this might seem obvious, one of the biggest technical flaws I see in people performing shoulder movements are that they begin to focus on simply lifting the weight as high as possible, rather than on getting the weight as far away from the deltoid and shoulder joint as possible.

How can we correct this?  In single joint movements such as raises in various directions, the goal should be to think about extension of the weight, rather than elevation.  For example, when performing a lateral raise, the goal is not to simply lift the weight up to a certain height (such as in line with the shoulders), but rather to think about trying to reach the weights as far out to the side as possible so that the distance between the weight and the delt being trained is as great as possible.

In other words, I will typically cue a client to think about reaching the dumbbells toward opposite walls, rather than focusing on elevating the dumbbells to shoulder height.

In addition, rotating the humerus internally or externally can alter which portion of the deltoid is preferentially recruited.  Essentially, out of the three major heads of the deltoid, whichever one sits highest during the exercise being performed will be the one that gets stimulated the most.

An example of this would be someone performing a lateral raise with their upper arm externally rotated (elbow pointing toward the floor, thumbs up in the air).  Even though the lateral raise is conventionally a side delt exercise, this position sits the anterior delt substantially higher than the lateral delt, which means it will experience the biggest pull from gravity and will then get the most work.

For visual demonstrations, watch this video:

#2 – Poor Programming

Once you have the execution side of things down, you’re already at a point where your odds of improving your shoulder development have gone up significantly.  The next step in the puzzle is how to put it together into your weekly training program.

Although there are certain lifters who have achieved phenomenal shoulder development with nothing but overhead pressing variations and little isolation work, for the vast majority of clients that we see, direct work should be a bigger focus.  Overhead presses such as military presses, push presses and dumbbell presses need to be included for their sheer bang for your buck value as well as their effect on strengthening the connective tissue surrounding the shoulder, but a variety of raises and other more direct work should be included as presses alone have to share the stress with the triceps, traps and to a degree even the upper chest.

What this means for a lot of people is an incredible amount of volume.  Supersets, giant sets, drop sets, rest pause techniques – these things all allow for a much greater amount of volume without turning your workout into a 2-hour marathon.  Weekly frequency can also often be increased to two, potentially even three workouts per week, although that may mean that you have to reduce volume on muscles that rely on the shoulders as secondary movers (such as chest presses of any kind as well as most upper back exercises).  Don’t worry – your chest won’t shrivel up because you spent a few weeks using more flyes and less bench presses.

My personal favorite technique for the shoulders is the giant set – at least 3 exercises (if not more) all performed in rapid succession for the same muscle groups.

What I have found to be most effective is to place overhead presses near the end of a giant set, once the various heads of the deltoids have begun to fatigue, so that the triceps and traps (or even the more commonly overdeveloped anterior head of the delt) don’t fatigue first.  It might look something like this:

A1) Isolation exercise for the posterior delt
A2) Isolation or compound exercise with a great amount of posterior and/or lateral head recruitment
A3) Overhead press variation

One of my favorite tri-sets is the following:

A1) Gironda lateral swings – blending abduction on one arm in a conventional lateral raise, with a little bit of abduction and transverse extension on the other arm to hit both the lateral and posterior heads

A2) Wide grip upright row – unlike a conventional, close-grip upright row, a wider grip allows for a wider elbow position and a slightly reduced potential for range of motion, increasing stress on the lateral delts and reducing the involvement of the traps (if performed correctly, obviously.

A3) Wide grip standing military press – the wide grip forces more abduction as well as significantly more external rotation of the shoulder, reducing the contribution from the anterior delt.  If flexibility is ideal, this could even be performed behind-the-heck to increase posterior delt recruitment.  The weight also ends up being significantly lighter when placed at the end instead of the beginning of the circuit, reducing joint stress and limiting weak links in the triceps and traps.

See it in action here:

You’ll soon find that by working these adjustments into your program, your shoulders will experience growth that they haven’t seen in quite a while.  Just make sure you take a shower beforehand or get a good hat, because you may not be able to get your arm to your head for a few days.