The shoulder-joints are extremely flexible, as opposed to, for example, the hip-joints. The shoulders must be flexible because of all the movements we want to perform with our arms, but the downside is lack of stability. It’s fairly easy to pop a shoulder-joint out of place, while the hips make up for the lost flexibility by being stable.
Because of the extreme flexibility of the shoulder, the only thing keeping the upper-arm bone, the Humerus, in place is some weak ligaments and plenty of small muscles, collectively known as the Rotator cuff. Those can be trained, which is good for avoiding future injuries, but this week I’m going to focus more on the outmost layer of muscle, the Deltoids. If you look in the mirror and see something shaped like a 12 oz. bottle over the shoulders, the Delts are your no.1 target for getting a good V-shape.
Now, the reason for all the babble about flexibility is that the Delts is one of the few muscles designed for such extreme variety of movement that it’s even its own antagonist! If you turn your head and look down on your shoulder, it starts off almost like a horse shoe around the claviculae and spina scapulae, the edge pointing out almost an inch out from the scapulae and stretching out to the side where it attaches to the claviculae. Then the whole muscle goes down to one point on the outer-mid humerus bone, tuberositas deltoidea. Now, flexing the muscle from different areas of the horse shoe, you can see that different areas will cause the arm to be lifted upwards in different directions. This is a great statement of the obvious, isn’t it? And it’s a total given that if you want to make a specific part of the Delt to grow, you have to TRAIN that part, i.e. making sure that you flex that part of the horse shoe with a weight resistance on it?
Yeah, one would think so. So isn’t it sad when big-name magazines go out and publish big-name bodybuilders claiming nonsense such as, and I’m quoting a specific athlete now: “Behind-the-neck press is an excellent all-round shoulder exercise, especially for the posterior Delts.” (posterior=back)
Like always when we analyze an exercise, we must start by focusing on the specific movement of the joint. The shoulder joint, in this case, is all we care about. If the arms are straight or bent or whatever, that is not important right now – all we want to know is what exactly is going on at the joint with the muscle we intend to train? In this case, we need to know the criteria for posterior Delt-training. The movement we’re looking for is a rowing-kind of motion, where the elbow is traveling backwards.
It doesn’t make that much of a difference if we’re keeping the elbow by the side, or if it’s pointing straight out in a 90 degree-angle – if we start pulling the elbow backwards, we’re using/training the posterior Delt.
Now, once we’ve concluded this, let’s take a look at a behind-the-neck press. Let’s even ignore the fact that practically ALL “behind-the-neck” exercises are generally less effective or equal at best to safer ways to train the targeted muscles.
Behind-the-neck press is, naturally, a pressing motion, which involves triceps to some degree and putting the main load on the muscle responsible for flexing the shoulder-joint upwards and forward. The front Delt is obviously involved, but when you start talking about the involvement of the medial Delts, guess what? This is N O T like lateral dumbbell-raises! Think about the horse-shoe. For the middle-part of the horse-shoe to be active, you need to shorten the distance between that middle-part and the attachment point of the humerus bone – basically flapping your arm straight out to the side. Now, keep a close eye on the behind the neck press!
Does this shortening of the distance actually take place? The answer is NO! What you get is a static tension! It’s still your front Delts doing the work!!
As for the posterior Delts, all the way behind the medial Delts which we already concluded isn’t really involved like we want it to, it’s definitely not better. What we’re looking for is a rowing kind of motion. The one who claims behind-the-neck presses to be a rowing exercise should seek immediate professional help by a PT, or probably medical help if he was dumb enough to actually try it.
Seriously, this one doesn’t even need an explanation. Grab a light dumbbell, a book or whatever, and do a few one-hand reps while you put your hand on the working Delt and feel where the tension is. To everyone’s great surprise, you’ll find that you posterior Delt is relaxed!
Alright, so now I’ve been bashing some poor ghostwriter in a major bodybuilding-mag. Now what? Well, how about moving onto what really WORKS for getting all-round, full and powerful shoulders? As usual, it’s essential to really understand WHY some exercises work and some doesn’t – simply because you will most likely have to adjust one or more of the “standard” exercises for each muscle-group to fit your body-type! If you’re not perfectly clear on what you’re supposed to accomplish, it’s close to impossible to get it right.
How do we accomplish a brutal V-shape? Sure – well-developed Lats is a given, but you simply don’t reach all the way without full shoulders. And that means ALL-ROUND shoulder development, not just anterior (front) delts! The anterior delts usually take a lot of beating during chest training, so there’s a major risk for overtraining. Personally, I’ve chosen to train anterior delts on the same day as my chest/triceps, and then save medial- and posterior delts for another day, for example, back. This way I get all the pressing muscles in one sweep (chest/triceps/ant. delts), and the pulling muscles (back/post.delts) can be trained with 100% intensity the next day.
A few good tried-and-true exercises for delts are:
Military presses. The ultimate ant. delt-killer. I recommend doing this exercise with dumbbells instead of a barbell, as you get a more natural range of motion and won’t be distracted by having a bar in your face on the bottom-part of the exercise. Then I would also recommend doing this exercise standing, as you get a lot less pressure on the spine. Remember that heaving a heavy weight above your head requires 100% concentration and control! To protect your spine, you must maintain constant tension in your abs, and the use of a weightlifting-belt is not at all a bad idea. Checkpoints, from feet up:
Shoulder-wide stance. Toes forward. Knees slightly bent. Hips neutral, abs tense. Shoulders down and back. Forearms straight – elbows straight down all the time. Wrists straight.
Cable lateral raises. The advantage of doing this in a cable machine compared to dumbbells, is that you get a continous resistance as well as better control. Stand in the middle and grab the lower pulley handles with your arms crossed in front of you. The objective here is to squeeze as much as you can out of your medial delts, and your medial delts only. That is why angles and strict form are crucial at this point, as you’ll be naturally tempted to shift the weight onto other, stronger muscles. Never go higher than 90 degrees.
Checkpoints, from feet up:
Shoulder-wide stance. Toes forward. Knees slightly bent. Hips neutral, abs tense. Shoulders down and back. Elbows slightly bent, at about 20 degrees. To get the right image for this exercise, imagine two invisible sticks going from the center of your shoulders and stretching out to your hands. Your job is to keep your elbows exactly in line with that stick, only that it points out an inch or two backwards (because it’s slightly bent). Another aid is to visualize that instead of LIFTING the weight, you’re PULLING the weight to the side, that the whole purpose is to reach as far to the sides as possible.
There is an excellent machine for posterior delts where you’re sitting wedged in between two pads – one in the chest and one in the back – where you put your elbows on two round pads and press backwards. It’s the very definition of simplicity, exercise-wise, but it’s oh so effective. Don’t be distracted by the fact that you’re pressing with your elbows. However, there’s still some checkpoints you have to observe:
Checkpoints, from feet up:
Shoulder-wide stance. Toes forward. Knees bent 90 degrees. Abs tense. Shoulders down and back. Neck relaxed. This is an excellent exercise for forced reps, as provided by a training partner or a Personal Trainer.
These were just a few good exercises for shoulders. There’re plenty more out there, and the best you can do is to read, experiment, and find out what works best for you. The one thing you want to make sure at all costs though, is that you train all three deltoid heads EQUALLY! Oh, and of course, all kinds of pulls and presses behind the neck are a no-no. 95% of us have too unflexible shoulders, and the rest of you would surely use too much weight and injure yourself anyway. Right? 😉