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Muscle Specific Training 4 – Boulders for Shoulders

The deltoids (shoulders) are comprised of 3 main regions. The anterior, lateral and posterior deltoids.

(Note. There is actually up to 7 different segments within the delts, but that complicates things unnecessarily – dividing them into the 3 listed above is commonly accepted in the sports science community).

The delts originate along the clavicle and scapula spine and insert on the humerus.

Anatomy of the Deltoids - pic courtesy of taylorednutrition.tripod.com
Anatomy of the Deltoids – pic courtesy of taylorednutrition.tripod.com

“The key to developing delts that have a round, three-dimensional look is to proportionally develop all three heads. That way your delts look full whether viewed from the front, rear, or side.”

Clay Hyght

Pic courtesy of strong-athlete.com
Pic courtesy of strong-athlete.com

The anterior delt is a shoulder flexor. The posterior delt is a shoulder extensor in the sagittal plane (greatest contribution with arms below horizontal) and a shoulder adductor in the frontal plane.

delt ext flex abd add
Ant delt is hit in extension & Lat Delts in Abduction
The Shoulder is a mobile joint and the delts are worked in a variety of movements.
The Shoulder is a mobile joint and the delts are worked in a variety of movements. Here you can see the rear delt working in horizontal extension.

The foundation built on overhead presses will go a long way to developing your delts. When shoulder pressing you probably find they fatigue pretty easily. In this case add volume by performing some down sets with a lighter weight once the performance in heavier working sets drop off.

It is worth noting that grip width and pressing angle can affect muscle activity in the three deltoids. The steeper the angle the greater emphasis on the anterior deltoid. Wider grip widths also seem to cause greater activation of the anterior delt during incline pressing.

Anterior Delts:

Almost all lifters get sufficient anterior delt activation from pressing movements so no need to waste time and energy on isolation work.

Indeed, according to EMG experiments the best exercises for stimulating the front delts are all pressing movements. Top of the tree were seated behind neck press, seated military press, standing DB military press and Incline presses.

Seated Overhead Pressing Made Even Cooler by Frank McGrath - pic curtesy of gamestrengthinsider.com
In case you weren’t sure if Seated Overhead Pressing was cool… this pic of Frank McGrath should cofirm it is – pic courtesy of gamestrengthinsider.com

Do plenty of these in your training?

Yep you don’t need to add in any isolation work for the front delts.

Moving on…

“…when you’re doing shoulder adduction (pull-ups), shoulder extension (dumbbell rows), horizontal abduction (overhand rows), or pretty much any combination thereof, your rear delts are going to be heavily involved whether you like it or not.”

Clay Hyght

Rear delts have a great capacity to recover from training and isolation exercises for them are not very taxing so frequency of training can be up to 6 days per week. Such high frequency combined with the stimulation they receive from back training means the volume per session of direct rear delt work doesn’t need to be very large. Two to four good works sets of one rear delt exercise should get the job done.

The Rear Detls - pic courtesy of seannal.com
The Rear Delts – pic courtesy of seannal.com

Technique Tips To Target The Rear Delts:

  1. When training rear delts you don’t want to retract (pull back) the shoulder blades. The function of the rear delts is to move the humerus (upper arm) back NOT to bring the shoulder blades together. As such, if training the rear delts is the goal then keep tension on them by only training the first 45o of ROM (range of motion).
Do as I Say NOT As I DO!!! :) This made a nice pic but, I wasn't training my rear delts effectively.
Do as I Say NOT As I DO!!! 🙂 This made a nice pic but, I wasn’t training my rear delts effectively.

2. Internally rotating your arm (pinky up) during reverse flyes targets the rear deltoids best.

3. The optimal line of pull for the rear delts is with the arm at 30-45o away from the body.

4. To avoid the upper back taking over generally use a lighter weight for higher reps and focus on initiating the movement with the rear delts

5. EMG data for the rear delt has shown the highest activation was achieved in Bent Over Rear Delt Flyes, Prone Flyes and Banded Face Pulls.

I Bet You Aren't Doing Banded Face Pulls...YOU SHOULD they are a FANTASTIC rear delt movement - pic courtesy of stack.com
I Bet You Aren’t Doing Banded Face Pulls…YOU SHOULD they are a FANTASTIC rear delt movement – pic courtesy of stack.com

Shoulders can recover from a high training volume BUT, they get a ton of stimulus from pressing, rowing and pulldown movements. The lateral delt, however, doesn’t get so much from these lifts and can, therefore, take a high volume of direct work. Doing as many as 20+ sets a week should be recoverable for almost everyone with some training experience. Building up to this takes time though so start out with 2-3 sets 3-4 times a week and then keep increasing this as long as progress continues.

Lateral Delts:

Lateral Deltoid - pic courtesy of bentbrookbrush.com
Lateral Deltoid – pic courtesy of bentbrookbrush.com

Lateral delts also recover quite quickly so training them at least twice a week makes sense with forays into the 3-4 x week realm being a good idea

When doing lateral raises you should probably use less weight than you have been and focus on actually initiating with the lateral delt. At the top of the movement the pals should be facing down, or to maximize recruitment the thumb side could be rotated down slightly (only a few degrees) meaning the pinky side is higher.

Lateral Raises...If you do them right it doesn't take a lot of weight to get the job done - pic courtesy of bodybuilding.com
Lateral Raises…If you do them right it doesn’t take a lot of weight to get the job done – pic courtesy of bodybuilding.com

For most people the wrist, elbow and shoulder should be level at the top. Some folks can go a bit higher without it irritating their shoulders while others would find doing so painful. Be smart and find the ROM that works best for you.

A common mistake is letting the upper traps take over at the end of the movement. I have often been guilty of this especially as the reps get tough towards the end of the set. A good cue to help avoid this is to think about taking the DBs away from you to the side rather than lifting them up. If you feel it in your traps but, not your side delts then you are getting it wrong!

The lateral delt is best stimulated using DB or cable lateral raises, behind the neck presses and banded face pulls.

Very little data is available on deltoid muscle fibre type. What is available tends to indicate a mixed fibre distribution with a slight type I dominance. A variety of reps ranges, therefore, will work well for shoulder training but, aim to use a mostly medium to high reps for a high volume to maximize growth.

Exercises such as presses, upright rows and face pulls are good options for going heavy on shoulders. Most other shoulder exercises should be done lighter, with strict form and a focus on the “mind muscle” connection though.

My Favourite Upright Row Variation is the DB Version. It allows you the freedom to move the weights up and out as suits your body structure as opposed to being constrained by your grip on a barbell.

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