It never thought in terms of training individual bodyparts when I was a world-champion powerlifters, and I certainly never did any specific shoulder exercises as part of my workouts. In those days, I’d think in terms of doing bench presses and squats, not chest and legs. So when I switched to bodybuilding, I had tremendously strong front delts from all those years of heavy benches, but my side and rear delts were lagging.
Let me add that my benches back then weren’t strict, bodybuilding benches, but an all-out powerlifting movement — bringing the bar very low, arching and pressing up using a lot front delts and even lats as well as chest and triceps. I was always a shoulder presser, which gave me even more disproportionate front deltoid development.
Occasionally I would do some shoulder training, mostly to add a little variety to my workouts. I’d do a few sets of laterals, then a push-press movement for shoulders rather than a strict press because the ballistic movement felt much more powerful and athletic.
As a result of this deltoid neglect, when I began bodybuilding training in earnest, shoulders were not my favorite bodypart to train. In fact, they were the most painful. I’d never experienced that incredible burn. People say that calves burn more than anything, but because I’d been doing a lot of running I was used to the burning in the lower body – falling on the ground in agony after 400- meter time trials, for example. but that burn I got working shoulders to the max was an incredible shock.
I believe you should attack your weaknesses, and since becoming a pro bodybuilder. I’ve spent considerable time working out what I feel is the ideal shoulder training program for my physique. I follow three rules in training, including shoulder training:
- Sticking to the basic exercises
- Training hard, but not overtraining
- Putting enough variety in my workouts so that I don’t get bored.
Thus, my usual shoulder workout looks something like this:
I do four varieties of shoulder press (five sets):
- Machine Press (especially Smith machines) 2. Barbell Press
- Dumbbell Press
- Behind Neck Press
I like Smith machine presses because the chances of losing control of the weight and injuring the shoulders are much less than with free-weight presses, there you must lift, balance and control the weight. You also don’t have to worry about getting stuck and having to depend on a spotter to keep you from blowing it- — or getting hit on the head with a bar.
But I still do so some barbell shoulder presses. Working with a bar helps to build up the stabilizer muscles and overall shoulder strength. However, when I do any kind of shoulder presses, I use what I call an Olympic lifter style. A lot of bodybuilders lean back as the lift the bar overhead. But as soon as the bar is above my head, I lean my body forward so the weight is directly overhead, which works the shoulder much more in balance and keeps the front delts from dominating the movement.
Although I like stability when doing shoulder presses, dumbbell presses are my second favorite pressing exercise. It’s not really a contradiction because I use less weight and do higher reps with dumbbells, emphasizing control, isolation, strictness and full range of motion rather than heavy weight for building mass.
For the sake of variety, I occasionally do behind-the-neck- presses, but I’m wary of this movement because it puts the shoulder joints in an extreme, somewhat uncomfortable position.
I do three types of side laterals (six sets):
- Dumbbell Laterals
- One-Arm (cross-body) Laterals 3. Machine Laterals
Most people I see in the gym do dumbbell laterals too heavy and not strict enough. When you try to use heavy poundages for laterals,, you end up doing a lot of cheating, using your legs and lower body to help, rather than making the side deltoids do the work.
As I do laterals, I always think of lifting the weight out, rather than up, I want to establish as wide and arc as possible.
I do both dumbbell laterals, and cable laterals. Doing one- arm, cross-body cables gives a stricter feel to the movement, and the resistance form the cables gives me the continuous tension that is so important in exercises like this.
I also use a number of lateral machines from time to time, mostly for the sake of variety. I need to keep my mind alert and my body responsive by doing new, unusual and different movements every once in awhile just to shock myself into paying more attention.
I also do three rear-lateral movements (four sets):
- Bent-Over One-Arm Cable Laterals
- Standing Rear Delt Cable Laterals
- Bent-Over Dumbbell Laterals
A lot of bodybuilders like bent-over dumbbell laterals for the rear delts, and I do this movement occasionally but I get a much better feel using cables. For a very strict movement, I do bent-over cable laterals with one arm at a time. But I also do standing rear-delt crossovers with overhead pulleys in a kind of reverse lateral movement. I like the standing version because I can stabilize my body better breathe better since my lungs aren’t collapsed as in the bent-over position.
The trick to doing rear delt exercises is to use the shoulders – not the back – to move the weight. Use your back when you’re doing neck training, and make sure you’re isolating the deltoids when it comes to shoulder training.
OVERTRAINING + DELTOID IMBALANCE = SHOULDER INJURY
“I tore my rotator cuff,” says Bev Francis, “back when I was still a powerlifter, although I didn’t have it operated on until after I began bodybuilding. The basic cause of the injury was that I didn’t understand how to implement a proper rest / recovery training cycle. I’d bench press almost every day which I now see as crazy. I was just fortunate that my body was resilient and came back from the injury so that I could continue training.”
Bev says that her love of intense training led her to a highly dangerous state of overtraining. “I’d bench and squat every day and keep going until I got sick or got injured – which happened frequently. I rarely took days off. Instead I’d cycle heavy days and easy days, but that wasn’t enough to give my body the time it needed to rest and recover. Unfortunately, it took me about ten years to realize I was making a mistake, in the meantime I basically just wore my shoulder out.”
Bev experienced chronic shoulder pain beginning in 1981, right after she benched a world-record 331 pounds. For the next three years she never benched higher than 270 in training, saving the heavier attempts for actual meets.
“Training at lower weights with higher reps.” she says, “didn’t hurt as much although the pain gradually got worse and worse. And that’s why I wasn’t able to go on setting higher and higher records. I was strong enough, but my shoulder problems became too severe.”
Bev had a shoulder operation in 1984, which corrected the problem and took away the pain. She attributes the fact the she’s never re-injured her rotator cuff not only to the fact that she doesn’t’ handle powerlifting poundages anymore, but also to the improved deltoid muscle balance she developed through bodybuilding training.
“I had overdeveloped front deltoids and underdeveloped lateral and rear deltoids,” she says. “This created a tremendously disproportionate and asymmetrical pull on the shoulder joint and the whole shoulder girdle. Nowadays, I do very little front deltoid work at all. Bench pressing is the only front deltoid work. I need. But I do lots of laterals to work the outside deltoid head and I always include rear deltoid exercises in my shoulder program.”
The shoulder is a complicated joint, Bev points out, the most mobile and vulnerable joint in the body, It can easily be injured by overtraining, imbalanced training or both – as in her case.
“You need to train shoulders intensely”, she concludes, “but also give them plenty of time to rest and recover. And it’s absolutely necessary to work all the heads the appropriate amount, which means doing a lot more rear delt training than most bodybuilders are used to. If you follow these training tips, your chances of incurring a shoulder injury will be tremendously reduced.”