STRONG SHOULDERS ARE AN ASSET IN NEARLY EVERY ACTIVITY IN WHICH YOU USE YOUR ARMS. BUT IN THE ZEAL TO BUILD THEM UP, MANY MEN OVEREXTEND THEIR SHOULDERS AND END UP INJURING THEM.
Does any part of the body so define a man as his shoulders? Is anything more synonymous with strength, both physical and mental? Consider: When Carl Sandburg described Chicago as a city of slaughterhouses, tool makers, and railroads, he called it “city of big shoulders.” And when we say that a man shouldered the load, we mean that he had the strength to assume a burden or responsibility.
Brawny shoulders are practical too. You need them to lift your son over your head, to push your car when it’s stuck in the snow, and to pull the other team into the mud at the tug-of-war contest at the company picnic. Plus, almost every upper body training exercise involves your shoulder muscles, so by strengthening them you will be able to lift heavier weights for your chest and back routines.
“Everything you do with your arms pretty much involves the shoulders,” says Joe Sumrell, a five-time national champion professional bodybuilder and personal trainer in Boston.
Broad shoulders fairly scream one word: stud! People notice you. If you get that V-shaped back that is accented with broad shoulders, it tapers the waistline.
So you’ll end up getting compliments both ways: “Wow, your shoulders are getting bigger.” “Look how skinny your waist is getting.”
Your shoulder muscles are called deltoids, or delts in gym jargon. The deltoids are two large muscles whose name means “triangular in outline.” There is one deltoid muscle in each of your shoulders, extending from your collarbone and shoulder blade to the humerus, the large bone in your upper arm.
The deltoids enable you to lift, rotate, and extend your arms. They can be broken down into anterior, lateral, and posterior, meaning the front, side, and back “heads” of the muscle.
Each area of the deltoids can and should be exercised individually. Doing so provides muscular balance and reduces your chance of injury.
You get guys who just do bench presses, they’re primarily working the front or anterior of the deltoids and some of the lateral, but they’re certainly not getting the rear head.
Beneath each deltoid is the rotator cuff: four muscles and tendons that keep your arm from popping out of the socket. Pitchers occasionally hurt their rotator cuffs, often jeopardizing their careers.
TRAIN THE TRAPEZIUS
This muscle raises your shoulder, rotates your shoulder blades, and helps you turn your head. The trapezius extends out and down from the neck and down between the shoulder blades. It’s that big muscle you see bulging on each side of a bodybuilder’s neck, like some concealed alien creature ready to explode from the skin.
Some guys have hunched shoulders because they give their trapezius less thought than their smelly gym gear. But for better-looking, less-injury-prone shoulders, the trapezius is worth working individually.
THE BIG HURT
Shoulders are particularly prone to injuries during workouts. Here are some reasons why.
- Overtraining. Either a guy is doing an exercise (say, the bench press) too often or he’s lifting too much weight. Or both.
- Unbalanced workouts. Shoulder injuries may occur because this is a joint with a wide range of motion. The tendency is not to do exercises that support that much range of motion.
- Poor technique. Many men have poor form when doing chest and overhead shoulder presses, stretching muscle tissue too much in the process.
When you do shoulder exercises on an incline bench, be careful not to arch your back. Doing so gives you extra leverage to lift heavier weights but also exposes your lower back to injury.
As with other muscle groups, you should do simple stretches not only before you work the shoulders but also after, in order to minimize the risk of injury and remain flexible.
During your shoulder workouts, alternate between higher weight with fewer repetitions and lighter weight with more repetitions. This enables you to exercise a variety of muscle fibers. If you train the same way all the time, you’re only going to develop one form of strength.
This exercise also strengthens your rhomboids, which lie between your spine and your shoulder blades.
- Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, letting your arms hang alongside your body. Your palms should face your body. Make sure your shoulders are back and relaxed.
- Slowly shrug your shoulders as high as they’ll go, keeping your head still and your chin slightly tucked. Hold for a second, then slowly return to the starting position.
DELTOIDS AND TRAPEZIUS
This exercise also strengthens your biceps and forearms.
- Stand upright holding a barbell in both hands, your palms down in a narrow grip. Your arms should be fully extended in front of you, with the barbell at your upper thighs. Allow your shoulders to relax slightly, but keep your back straight.
- Slowly pull the barbell straight up and tuck it under your chin. Your elbows should be pointing up and out. Hold briefly, and then slowly lower the weight.
In addition to working your side deltoids and trapezius, this exercise builds your rhomboids, which lie between your spine and your shoulder blades, as well as your pecs and biceps.
- Stand with your back straight, your legs shoulder-width apart, and your knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your arms hanging down and your palms facing your body.
- I Slowly raise the weights as far as you can toward your armpits without jerking at the top of the lift. Keep your elbows pointing out and the weights close to your body. Hold for a second, and then slowly lower your arms to the starting position.
FRONT DELTOID RAISE
This move also works your pectoral, trapeztus, and inner upper arm muscles.
- Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, your knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let your arms hang at your sides, with your elbows slightly bent. Your palms should face your upper thighs. Lean forward slightly at the waist, keeping your elbows back, your chest out, and your lower back straight.
- Slowly raise your left arm in front of you until it’s at shoulder height. The palm of that hand should face downward. Don’t rock your hips or swing your arms for momentum. Hold for a second, and then slowly return to the starting position.
Finish the set, and then switch arms.
SIDE DELOTOID RAISE
This exercise targets your side deltoids.
- Stand upright, arms at your sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand, with your palms facing your body and your elbows slightly bent. Keep your shoulders back, your chest out, and your lower back straight with a slight forward lean. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart.
- Slowly raise both dumbbells in unison in a straight line until they’re at shoulder level. Make sure that your elbows are slightly bent, and keep your arms in the same plane as your torso. Hold for a second, and then slowly lower your arms to the starting position.
BENT-OVER CABLE LATERAL RAISE
As well as targeting your side and back deltoids, this exercise works your trapezius and your rhomboids, which lie between your spine and your shoulder blades.
- Stand between two low pulleys with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. With both hands, reach across your body to grasp the D handles on the opposite sides. Allow your arms to hang down, your elbows slightly bent and your forearms crossed. Bend forward at the waist, keeping your back slightly arched but not rounded, until your upper body is parallel to the floor.
- Slowly raise your arms outward and upward as high as you can. Hold for a second, and then slowly lower to the starting position.
BENT-OVER LATERAL RAISE
This exercise emphasizes your back deltoids.
- Bend over at the waist with a dumbbell in each hand, your arms before you and your elbows slightly bent. Your palms should face each other. Place your feet slightly farther than shoulder-width apart, and keep your back straight and roughly parallel to the floor.
- Slowly raise the dumbbells in unison out toward your sides as if you were flapping your arms. Raise your arms until they’re parallel to the floor, keeping your back straight. Hold for a second, and then slowly return to the starting position
BEHIND-THE-NECK PRESS WITH BARRELL
This all-purpose exercise targets not only your front and back deltoids but also your pectoral, upper back, triceps, and rib cage muscles. It is equally effective when done in front of the neck, which some experts consider a safer variation. Caution: Use lighter-than-usual weights to start.
- Stand with your back straight, your feet shoulder-width apart, and your knees slightly bent. Hold a barbell behind your neck across the top of your shoulders. Your hands should be slightly more than shoulder-width apart, palms facing forward. Keep your elbows pointing down and your chest high.
- Slowly raise the barbell straight up, keeping your elbows pointed outward. Pull your head slightly forward to allow space for the bar to move. Hold for a second, and then slowly lower the bar to the starting position.
OVERHEAD PRESS WITH BARBELL
This move targets your front and side deltoids.
- Stand with your back straight, your feet shoulder-width apart, and your knees slightly bent. Hold a barbell overhand, with your hands shoulder-width or slightly farther apart. Bend your elbows and raise the bar to shoulder level. Keep your elbows pointing down and your chest high.
- Slowly lift the barbell straight over your head. Hold for a second, then slowly lower it to chest level and repeat.
LYING SIDE DELTOID RAISE
This exercise also works your trapezius and shoulder blade muscles.
- Stand facing an incline bench, your chest against the incline. Your legs should be shoulder-width apart, feet on the floor, with your chin just above the top of the bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your arms dangling below the bench. Keep your elbows slightly bent and your palms facing each other.
- Slowly raise your arms to the sides until they’re at about shoulder height, keeping your elbows relaxed. Hold for a second, and then slowly lower to the starting position.
DUMBBELL MILITARY PRESS
This exercise works your front and side deltoids as well as your trapezius and triceps. Note: Since your arms must work alone, use less weight than for an overhead press.
- Sit on the end of a bench with your back straight. With your palms facing your body at shoulder height, hold a dumbbell in each hand.
- Slowly raise both dumbbells overhead until they almost touch. Extend your arms fully, but don’t let your elbows lock. Pause for a second, and then slowly lower the dumbbells to the starting position.