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The Ultimate Guide To Shoulder Workouts:

By Tyler Woodward

Tired of having small shoulders? It's time for you to take control of your workouts! In this article of the Ultimate Workout Guide Series we discuss everything you need to know to develop a principle-based shoulder workout. Now let's build some boulder shoulders...

Key Takeaways:

Delt Anatomy 101:

Delt Anatomy

To understand how to successfully create a complete shoulder workout, we must start with the anatomy of the deltoid muscles. The deltoids or more commonly referred to as, the ‘delts’, are made up of three divisions based on where they attach to the body:

  1. The front or anterior delts - Attach to the clavicle, in front of the body
  2. The side, lateral or medial delts - Attach to the top of the scapula (shoulder blade) right above the humerus (upper-arm bone)
  3. The rear or posterior delts - Attach to the back of the scapula along the scapular “spine”

Each division of the delts consists of three individual heads that will each have their own specific arm path. Although commonly referred to as a “small” muscle group, the delts as a whole are actually the largest muscle in the upper body by volume.

To understand how muscles work I often like to view them as a piece of rope. Muscles are made up of contractile proteins that are able to shorten and lengthen in order to move the joint they attach to. As you shorten a muscle you move the origin towards its insertion and as you lengthen a muscle you move the origin away from its insertion.  A fully lengthened muscle will resemble a very taut rope like when you play of tug-of-war and a fully shortened muscle will look like  a loose  “u-shaped” rope as the two ends get closer together.  

The front and rear delts are basically antagonists or opposites to one another, so as you shorten one the other lengthens. Here is an exercise that provides an easy way to view the arm path that each division of the delts contract in. 

Recommended Exercise: “The Shaka Sign”

Stand up with your arms in a neutral position, arms slightly out to your side and your palms facing in. Now make a “hang loose” or “shaka'' sign with your hands by sticking your thumb and pinky out, your thumb should be pointing in front of you and your pinkie behind. Keeping your shoulders in this neutral position with your palms (now a fist) facing in, I want you to imagine that your arms are both in a full cast from your hand to your shoulder, so you cannot bend your elbow or wrist . 

From here bring your thumbs together up in front of your body, this is one of the fully shortened position of your anterior delts. Now, move your arms in the direct opposite path they just came up in, following your pinky, as far back behind your body as possible. You should end up back in the neutral “ish” grip with your arms at a 45 degree angle relative to your body, this is the fully shortened position of your rear delts. Finally, move your arms out into a Y with your arms with your palms facing in front of you, this is the fully shortened position of your middle delts.

As I said before each division of your delts (front, middle, and rear) each have three separate heads/attachment points, so there are technically three fully shortened and fully lengthened positions of each division. The important part is to understand that whichever muscle is on top, directly opposing the resistance (whether that is free weights (gravity), a cable or a machine), is the main division at work. Here are a few tips to make this easy: 

  • If your thumbs are pointing up and leading the way, then your anterior/front delts are working
  • If your middle three fingers/knuckles are on top then the medial/lateral delts are working
  • If your arms are going in the direction of your pinkie then your rear/posterior delts are working

To show this one last time, let’s do a “sunrise”. Start in the fully shortened position of your rear delts arms behind you at around a 45 degree angle with your palms in a neutral position (facing in), in the “shaka” hand position. Slowly bring your arms in a circle up and around the side of your body to the fully shortened front delt position, but as you do this allow your palms and shoulders to naturally rotate. You should see that as your shoulders move up and your lateral delts take over your palm is now facing the ground. As your anterior delts then take over your palm rotates to face out in front of you and then back towards your body as they fully shorten. 

 *Note* - Your hands/wrist don’t actually attach to your shoulder joint, so the degree to which they are rotated technically doesn’t affect which part of the deltoid is used. But the degree your hand is rotated biases the arm path you take and the degree of shoulder internal or external rotation you are in, which will determine which delt muscle is working. 

Now if you want to play around some more, try leaning over or arching your back and doing the same drill to see which positions and angles bias each delt. You will find that arching your back puts your front delts in the best position to work, and bending over puts the lateral delts and rear delts in the best position to work depending on your arm path and how bent you are. 

This is key to choosing exercises for each division of the delts is to place that division on top, directly opposing the resistance.

The Scapula:

The Scapula

A lesson on shoulder anatomy would not be complete without mentioning the scapula. The scapula, also known as the shoulder blade, works with our humerus (upper-arm bone) to coordinate the movement of the two joints. This is a phenomenon known as scapulo-humeral rhythm by which for every 2 degrees which the humerus moves up, the scapula rotates 1 degree. The same is true, but in the opposite fashion for when the humerus moves down and back behind our body or out to the side. This has two pivotal takeaways to shoulder training:

  1. Allow your shoulder blades (scapulae) to move naturally - it has become a common trend in the fitness industry to pin your shoulder blades down and back in order to isolate *insert* muscle group like your delts or pecs. While this technically will isolate the muscle group more, it will also completely destroy your shoulder mechanics. Immediately resulting in you being weaker and able to lift less weight and eventually resulting in shoulder dysfunction and injury.
  2. There is no muscle in the body that moves optimally in the completely vertical or horizontal plane - In order to move with your scapulohumeral rhythm, your arms need to move slightly in front of your body at about an angle of 30 degrees (or more). When you perform exercises with your arms directly out to your sides (imagine creating the letter “T) with your arms) you shift more tension away from the delts (onto the coracobrachialis, which you can’t see and no one cares about) and place more tension on your shoulder joints.  You’ll often hear the standing or seated military press is often cited as  a great delt builder, but in reality it is pretty 🗑 for this reason. The anterior delts do not move perfectly in the vertical direction, rather they converge (move together) up and around your body in the diagonal-arc we saw before. The same idea goes with the lateral delts, as they naturally don’t move directly out to our side, but also move slightly out in front of our body (remember the “Y”), again in an arc-like fashion. Now, this doesn’t mean the front or lateral delts won’t be active in these respective exercises, but they are by no means optimal for these muscle groups and can be drastically improved with a few minor adjustments. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Chest Workouts

Muscle Physiology 101:

Muscle Physiology

How muscles work is actually very simple. Muscles attach two bones together, acting like a rope or bridge between them. As the muscle contracts and the two bones become closer together, the muscle tissue begins to “clump” together and forms the “peak” we associate with flexing a muscle like your bicep. Very similar to how a drawbridge works. 

​Part I

When you bring the two bones as close together as possible the muscle is fully shortened and when you bring the two bones as far apart as possible the muscle is fully lengthened.  Due to a number of factors your muscle will be much weaker in the shortened position and much stronger in the lengthened position.  

Part II - 

Your muscles are composed of hundreds of muscle fibers each of which are capable of contracting in order to move the desired bone. The way your muscle fibers work is kind of like a video game. When you go to scratch your head or do something that does not require a lot of effort you only use the weakest muscle fibers, like the first level of a video game. As you lift a weight repeatedly or lift a heavier weight, you need to recruit more of your muscle fibers in order to produce enough force to lift the load. When we’re working out we basically want to get to “level 10” (the hardest level) and recruit our strongest muscle fibers, what are referred to as our high-threshold motor units. In order for our muscles to grow we need to “beat level 10”, so that our muscles get broken down and the next time we can lift more weight or perform more repetitions. This is like beating the video game and restarting it, now at the “more difficult” level. 

Read More: How to Gain Muscle By Increasing Natural Testosterone Production

Physics 101:

Muscle Physiology

The last piece of the puzzle is gathering a basic understanding of physics, so we can understand how the forces produces in exercises are “translated” to our muscles. If you’ve ever performed a dumbbell lateral raise, you may have experienced that the more you bend your elbow, the easier it is to perform the exercise. If you bend your elbow to 90 degrees it should actually be half as difficult to lift the weight. This is because you have decreased the distance between the load (the dumbbell) and the joint, in this case your shoulder joint by half.  This means that only half the force is required to lift the same weight because the distance or “moment arm” is halved. This is a concept known as torque and basically determines when a given exercise is hardest. 

Luckily, there’s a cheat code.  Torque is always greatest at 90 degrees, so when the load (cable or free weights) creates a right angle relative to the joint that is moving, that is when torque will be the greatest and therefore the exercise will be the hardest. For example, the top of a lateral raise, the bottom of a bench press, or when your legs reach parallel (90 degrees) in a squat. We can use the concept of torque to understand where an exercise is hardest and thereby what point of a muscle’s range of motion (fully shortened, lengthened or somewhere in between) the exercise is overloading. 

Muscle Mechanisms:

There are a few ways or adaptations that can occur in our muscles cells that result in increased size and strength of our muscles:

  • Myofibrillar Hypertrophy - This is an increase in the amount of contractile proteins in our muscle cells so they can produce more force. This results in our muscles getting stronger and is known as “functional” hypertrophy”.
  • Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy - This is an increase in the amount of fuel stored in our muscle cells,  as glucose, glycogen and water, so they fuel stronger contraction and for longer. This is also  known as “cellular swelling” and is associated with the muscle “pump” many people experience when training due to increased blood flow to the area.
  • Neurological - This is actually our brain or nervous system becoming better at using/coordinating our muscles, so we become more efficient at lifting heavy weights. This is the same idea as improving your coordination in a sport or when a baby learns to crawl, walk, and eventually run. 

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The Ultimate Delt Workout:

In order to build the ultimate delt workout we need to abide by the following principles:

  • Take the delts through their full range of motion, while applying adequate resistance throughout this range of motion
  • Program exercises that bias both mechanisms of hypertrophy into your workout over time to maximize  muscle-growth and strength. 

Ultimate Delt Workout 1

One-Day Delts Day (General Focus):

  1. Front Delt DB Press (Bench between 45-60 degrees) superset DB front raise - 3 Set X 6-8, 10-12 Reps 2-3 minute rest
  2. Two-Arm chest supported Cable Y-Raise -  3 X 8-12 Reps,  2-3 minute rest
  3. Two-Arm Rear Delt Cable Fly - 3 X 8-12 reps, 2-3 minute rest

One-Day Delt Day (Pump/ Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy):

  1. Two-arm Cable front delt raise 4 X 10 -12 reps (30-60 second rest)
  2. Dumbbell Lateral Raises 4 X 10 -12 reps (30-60 second rest)
  3. Dumbbell Chest-supported Rear Delt Row (arms at about 45 degrees)

Ultimate Delt Workout 2Two- Day Delt Day  (Mechanical Tension/ Myofibrillar Focus):

Day 1:

  1. Anterior Delt DB Press (Bench between 45-60 degrees) 3 X 6-8
  2. Two-Arm Cable lateral Raise with drop set 3 X 10-12, 6-8 on the drop set the weight should be heavy enough you can only go halfway up
  3. Two-Arm Rear Delt Pulldown - 3 X 8-10, create a slight arch in your back, arms should end at around 45 degrees

Day 2:

  1. Two-arm Cable front delt raise 4 X 10 -12 reps (30-60 second rest)
  2. Dumbbell Lateral Raises 4 X 10 -12 reps (30-60 second rest)
  3. Dumbbell Chest-supported Rear Delt Row (arms at about 45 degrees)

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Notes on Exercise Selection:

  1. If you are not performing some cable exercises for your delts it is nearly impossible to build the big delts associated with the ideal physique of either men or women. Free weights can be great options in conjunction with some cable variations, but because the resistance of free weights relies on gravity it is impossible to mimic the arc motion of the delts. You will never be able to optimally tax the shortened front delt, or the lengthened lateral and rear delts without using some cable variation. Additionally, due to the adjustability of cables they can often make your training much more efficient and joint-friendly because you can align them perfectly with the muscle group and often get more range of motion.
  2. Building off of this, machines can be a great tool for building delts, but you need to make sure their arm path is either converging (coming together) or diverging (moving apart) for front delts and rear delts respectively or you may as well just use free weights. Lateral delt machines always go straight out to the side and don’t move in the scapular plane, so I don’t recommend using these. 
  3. Do Not Use the seated shoulder bench - These benches set you up, so arms naturally move at the 90 degree angle which is nowhere close to optimal. Additionally, the 90 degree angle makes is much less stable compared because it keeps you perfectly upright, which most results in most people arching their back a lot when they begin to use heavy weights. By using a regular and setting it anywhere between 45-80 degrees you will be in a much more optimal position to bias your front delts
  4. Use a chest support when possible - Besides dumbbell lateral raises you’ll notice I did not program any other standing shoulder variations. This is because stability is your friend, the more external stability you have the more force output you can get from your muscles. 

Conclusion:

My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.

Thanks for reading!

Until next time… be good
~Tyler Woodward
B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology