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The 6 best shoulder exercises for mass and strength

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by Yuan

You need to follow 2 training strategies for maximum shoulder health, strength, and size. In this post, I’m going to talk about the best shoulder exercises and how to apply these training strategies for optimal shoulder growth. The first strategy is to train for consistent and long term progress.

1. Train the overhead press for long term shoulder growth

The back squat is the undisputed king of leg exercises. While other exercises are used to correct weaknesses, squatting is the best for long term leg development. When it comes to shoulders, nothing beats the overhead press for long term growth.

Don’t waste your time on a bunch of random exercise. Set the overhead press as your core shoulder exercise and work towards consistent progress. The priority should be gaining strength on the overhead press while using other exercises to assist its growth. There should be noticeable shoulder growth for every 20 lbs you earn on the bar.

Unfortunately, the overhead press has become a lost skill. Now, people will tell you that the exercise is bad for your spine and shoulders. These are probably the same people that said, “squatting below parallel is bad for your knees.”

Just like squatting, the overhead press is a complex movement that requires precise technique. Learn how to do it correctly and reap the benefits. I have 2 articles explaining how to do it:

Out of all of the main barbell exercises (squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press), your overhead press will progress significantly slower than the rest. As discouraging as it can be, you should always perform honest repetitions and earn every pound on the bar. If the exercise doesn’t feel right, stay with a light weight and experiment with the technique until you get it.

You need strong traps for a heavy press

Bill Starr (the father of modern strength training) recounts that shoulder injuries were basically unheard of when the overhead press was widely practiced (it was known as ‘the press’ back then). In 1972, pressing was dropped from the olympics and it lost popularity. Once the bench press took its place, shoulder injuries became extremely common.

Best shoulder exercises 1

Bill Starr pressing 350 lbs

Starr emphasizes that strong traps are needed create a stable shoulder girdle. For most people, training the power clean is the fastest way to strengthen traps. It is much easier to learn compared to the olympic lifts and it is more effective than shrugs because you can progress more successfully on the power clean.

2. Train scapular strength for bulletproof shoulders

“The scapula craves complexity but the hips crave intensity.” – Ido Portal

There are 17 muscles connecting to the scapula, making the shoulder joint very complex. You need complex stimulation for the scapula to create bulletproof shoulders. With superior scapular control and bulletproof shoulders, you can press heavier weights to reach your potential while avoiding injury and chronic pain.

In this arena, gymnasts are the best to learn from because they are masters of scapular strength. A 150 lbs gymnast doing the iron cross will be under 2000 lbs of torque. Some of the greatest bodybuilders in the 40’s and and early 50’s (before bodybuilders started juicing) had a background in gymnastics. This included John Grimek, Vince Gironda, Jack Lalanne, Jules Bacon, and Jack Delinger.

How to get rid of shoulder pain 1

The iron cross (there is nothing supporting his legs)

To benefit from gymnastics, you will only need to train 5 of the basic gymnastic exercises:

  1. Front lever
  2. Straddle Planche
  3. Side Lever (human flag)
  4. Hollowback Press
  5. Rope Climb holding the L-Sit position

Start with front lever training:

Just spend 5-10 minutes working on it after your regular workout. If you are reasonably fit, it should take couple of months to get the front lever. If you struggle with the progression steps of the front lever, start with a ring row progression.

Once you get the front lever, I recommend more sophisticated progressions for the other exercises because joint preparation and mobility hold a much bigger role.

Isolating the front deltoids and rear deltoids

If you train the press and gymnastic exercises, you will not need to isolate these two muscles. Your rotator cuff will be optimally developed in a balanced way. If you’re following a regular bodybuilding routine that uses more pushing than pulling movements, you will need isolated rear deltoid work (especially if your shoulders don’t feel great).

The key to isolating rear deltoids is to start very light and learn to isolate the muscle. The exercise becomes ineffective if your traps become involved. Seated and lying variations of the reverse fly works best for isolating.

Isolating the side deltoids

Isolating the side deltoids can enhance your aesthetics by creating a greater waist to shoulder ratio. When it comes to isolation, my favourite exercises are from Vince Gironda and Larry Scott:

Don’t use momentum like the video example, they are both advanced lifters with superior muscle control. Use a slow tempo in the beginning to get a feel for the side deltoid isolation. You will need to use a light weight to isolate, otherwise the traps take over and it ruins the exercise.

If you’re following the holistic training approach of this article, extra side deltoid work will most likely slow down overall progress unless you have really good recovery.

How to program your shoulder workout

If you’re a beginner, stick with the overhead press exclusively for 3 sets of 5 reps. Start with a light weight and add on a little more weight every single week until it is no longer possible (never compromise your technique).

At this point, drop the weight by 20% and start using 5×5. If you’re already fit, add in the front lever progression, otherwise start with the ring rows progression for assistance (which is a lot harder than it looks, try it and you’ll find out). If you’re doing dips, they are also a great assistance exercise for the overhead press.

If you want to be an overachiever, work on a static straight arm exercise like the floor L-sit and handstand progression (handstand hold -> handstand pushup -> hollow back press):

In this programming, I did not include conventional bodybuilding exercises that directly targets the shoulder. Those exercises will only slow you down in the grand scheme of things. Train for advanced levels of shoulder strength like getting the hollow back press and overhead pressing more than your own body weight. I guarantee that it will produce the optimal size, strength and shoulder health.

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