You want all the pieces to the V-taper physique you’ve seen in magazines, and in movies.
But, man, do your shoulders ever stand for more than just the beginnings of your dream physique.
They’re a symbol of strength. Big, round, powerful shoulders tell people that you don’t mess around in the gym. They’re a symbol of your hard work, your dedication, and your desire to leave no question that you’re the real deal.
You want your deltoids to look like glistening globes of solid muscle that literally round off your physique.
If you follow the example of the biggest guy in the gym, like I did for far too long, or generic workouts from Bodybuilding.com, you’ll find yourself walking down a road that promises boulders, and delivers pebbles.
The meathead protocol for shoulder training kicks off with a bunch of heavy-ass shoulder press variations that have your spine flexing, you using a ton of momentum and your triceps and upper back bearing the brunt of the load. Closely followed by a few token sets of lateral raises. But remember, it’s important to use a weight that’s way too heavy so the movement resembles the bastard child of a lateral raise and a shrug.
You can’t be blamed for following this advice.
It’s widely accepted, used, and endorsed by plenty of guys bigger than you, so it must be true, right?
This traditional approach to shoulder training may of worked for a select few, but it leaves much to be desired for those of you who bust your ass in the gym, with no shoulders to show for it.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and bash traditional shoulder training without giving a solution.
I want you to get those boulder shoulders you dream of, and the method I’m going to share with you in this article will go a long ways towards helping you sculpt serious deltoids.
HERE'S YOUR GUIDE TO BUILDING BOULDER SHOULDERS
(Heads up: I’ll be referring to shoulders as deltoids or delts for the purposes of this article)
Your deltoids are responsible for more than just pressing and carrying around your problems. They are responsible for the following;
Front Delts: Bring your arm in towards your inner chest (think about where your arms go on a most muscular pose and don’t tell me you haven’t hit one in your ‘good lighting’ spot).
Medial Delts: Raise your arm away from your body like when you’re performing a lateral raise or you’re starting off your expressive dance routine.
Rear Delts: Bring your arm back behind your body like during a rear delt fly or when you’re about to launch a rocket propelled snowball at an unsuspecting victim.
Why is it important to know this? You’re not a physical therapist so why should you care about the functions of your shoulder?
Well, now that you are armed with this knowledge you can now apply it to exercises and be aware of exactly what areas of the shoulder they are working. You will also now be aware that shoulder training has to incorporate exercises that happen in different planes of motion in order for your shoulders to fully develop. You can go a lot deeper than what I’ve listed above (and I would encourage you to do so) but even having this basic knowledge will have you approaching your shoulder training from a more informed position and knowledge is power.
KEEP IT LIGHT
The majority of your shoulder work should be in the higher rep ranges and employ plenty of supersets, drop sets etc. Over the past ten years I’ve spent training myself in the gym, I’ve done my fair share of dumb stuff.
I used to put clips on the smith machine, waste all my money on supplements and do fasted cardio to get ‘shredded’ but my shoulder training was especially dumb.
I followed the traditional protocol that I spoke about earlier and my shoulders barely grew an inch.
When I realized that I was getting nowhere I decided to do the opposite of what I was doing and see where that got me. When I introduced more high rep, metabolic focused work into my shoulder training, I saw results, and progress almost instantly. Don’t be afraid to get intense during your shoulder workouts and really finish them off with a brutal drop set, tri-set, monster set or any other type of brutality you can think of.
EXECUTION IS EVERYTHING
This principle can be applied to anything you do in the gym. If you aren't executing every rep, creating as much tension in your targeted muscle as possible, controlling the tempo (1 second concentric with a squeeze at the top of the movement followed by a 4 seconds negative is a good protocol to follow) and contracting hard throughout the movement then you are not executing to the level that you could be. Execution has to be your main priority if you want to build ungodly amounts of muscle, execution leads to mastery and mastery of exercise effectively makes you a jacked Yoda of lifting galaxy.
That’s the principles covered, now it’s time to get onto the details.
Overhead pressing is a fundamental exercise when it comes to training delts, the issue with most overhead pressing is the lack of stability. How many times have you performed an overhead press and felt it in your lower back? We’ve all done those reps on a dumbbell overhead press where our feet slide out, our back arches off the bench and we gyrate until we have a purple face in order to barely get the weights overhead. Take control of your pressing movements and let your shoulders do the work by creating more stability and choosing exercises wisely.
For example, if you are performing a dumbbell overhead press. It would help to reduce the load to one that you can control throughout the movement (that means an ego check, there are plenty of times to go heavy, your shoulder joint will thank you for this not being one of those times). The next thing to do would be drive your feet into something as hard as you can (the dumbbell rack, the wall etc) this will stabilize your torso on the bench and give you a solid platform to press off of.
I’m going to suggest another method of stabilizing your pressing movement however, this is going to be controversial. You’ve seen the memes, read the ridiculing comments and saw people roasted online for venturing anywhere near this machine - yes, I’m talking about the smith machine. Get all the nonsense out your head about the smith machine, it has plenty of uses. One of those uses is creating a stable environment for you to overhead press in with the added benefit of being able to add more weight.
RAISE YOUR LATERAL GAME
Lateral raises target the lateral head of your deltoids, this is the area of your shoulders that round off your physique and make it difficult to fit through doors.
Traditional dumbbell lateral raises are a great exercise but they are only part of the equation and the execution of them could be upgraded in most cases to take advantage of your Active Range Of Motion (AROM).
What do I mean by AROM? Your AROM is the range of motion in which your target muscle is working the hardest. If you look at a lateral raise it is easiest at the bottom with little to no tension on the delts and hardest at the top where maximum tension is on the shoulder.
Don’t waste time at the bottom of the movement and instead remain in your AROM - this is typically when your are 10-12 inches away from your side at the bottom of the movement up to when your arm is level with your shoulders.
Does this mean that you should never perform a lateral raise from the side of your body? No, to activate your lateral delts at the bottom end of their range they need a different type of stress placed upon them.
This is where a cable lateral raise comes in - this exercise places maximum tension on the lateral delts at the bottom of the movement so your AROM on this exercise is from the bottom position up to your arm being just below shoulder height.
DELT DESTRUCTION SUPER-SET
Perform the following exercises one after the other for the prescribed reps and 3-5 total rounds. Do not perform this on a day when you plan to wash your hair - you know that scene in Ace Ventura 2 when he gets shot with the poison darts in the arm? Yeah, it was inspired by me after doing this superset.
Seated lateral raises
I recommend doing your dumbbell lateral raises seated to prevent any unnecessary momentum being used. This method is going to dial in on your delts with laser focus and put them to task, this is what will ramp up muscle growth and get your deltoids looking insane!
Grab 2 light dumbbells with a loose grip.
Raise your arms out to the side, contract your delts when your arms are level with your shoulders. Think ‘shoulders out’ not ‘dumbbells up’. (small cues like this can make a big difference when you repeat them over and over to yourself, they help reinforce the mind-muscle connection).
Lower for a count of 4 and pause when your arms are 10-12 inches away from your body.
Repeat for 10-12 reps.
Cable lateral raises
I recommend not using any attachments for the cables and instead grip the rubber stopper. This helps you focus on using your shoulders to move the weight and not your hands pulling at the handle.
Set the cable to it’s lowest setting and grab each side with the opposite arm.
Begin the exercise by contracting your delts and raising the cables.
Stay in your active range by stopping just below shoulder height.
Control the lowering phase for a 4 count. (this is going to burn, A LOT! This is where you need to realize it’s nothing to do with strength, you can complete the movement, you just need to ignore the burn and execute each and every rep, muscle are not built in comfort zones)
Repeat for 10-12 reps.
DON'T FORGET THE REAR
What’s that on the back of your shoulders?
Can you see it?
No? Probably because your rear delts get neglected and, as a result, are undeveloped.
Rear delts don’t get a lot of love because they are such a small muscle group but they really should. From an aesthetic and performance point of view your rear delts matter but even when you do perform the odd set of rear delt flys I’m willing to bet that you’re not completely isolating your rear delts. Your rear delts are responsible for pulling your arm behind you in any plane of movement.
The rear delt fly is often performed on the pec-deck machine or bent over with dumbbells. I would suggest sticking to the machine and introducing cables to your rear delt work. Whether you are on the machine or using a cable the following principles apply to isolating your rear delt;
Flex your tricep, press your shoulder joint down and slightly forward and initiate the movement by contracting your rear delt.
This protocol takes into account the fact that the larger muscles that surround your rear delt are likely to take over the movement, in order to prevent that your setup has to be on point to ensure that your rear delt is doing the work.
Building boulder shoulders is something that many people strive for but few achieve.
This alone should tell you that the conventional wisdom is very limited, what I have outlined in this article is the principles and techniques that will sculpt your shoulders into the shape you have always wanted them to be. Don’t let this just be another article that gets you fired up for five minutes before you slip back into your regular routine, take action on this information and reap the rewards of boulder shoulders.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris is a performance coach who strives to enable people to build muscle, get stronger, work harder, eat well, and live well. He takes into account scientific research, practical application, previous experience, and the individual needs of clients to deliver a complete coaching service. Chris has played rugby at amateur level all his life and competes in powerlifting during the off-season. He lives by the mantra "discipline equals freedom" and seeks to instil discipline into all of his clients that carries over into all areas of their life. Chris believes there is no better vessel for improving self discipline than the pursuit of ultimate performance.