Training

The Best Shoulder Workout to Fully Activate Your Delts

This intensive routine is designed to crush those caps and reignite growth.

by

Per Bernal

Sports have shown time and time again that a punch in the mouth can serve as the ultimate wake-up call, helping you return to the fray stronger than ever. It rattles you out of complacency and refocuses your efforts. And it's an apt lesson for the gym.

Consider the shoulders. Made up of three smaller heads— the anterior (front), middle, and posterior (rear) deltoids—their muscle tissue isn’t so easy to break down and set the stage for growth. Training shoulders can get downright tedious, and concentration can wane. The question is, When was the last time you really gave your delts the vicious thumping they need to get growing again? The following workout, complete with tips for each stage, will get the job done. 

Charles Lowthian

LATERAL MOVE

The key to a great shoulder workout is ensuring that those three heads get pushed harder. While the front head is engaged during chest training and overhead pressing movements, the middle and rear delts aren’t activated to the same degree and require focused attention. This workout accomplishes that—prioritizing the middle head for maximum width building—while keeping the workout interesting from beginning to end by interspersing the variety of raises needed with presses and upright rows.

You’ll start with dumbbell lateral raises. This is a warmup, so start light for a 16-rep set and run up the rack from there for three more sets of 14, 12, and eight to 10 reps. By that final set, you’ll want to be at a weight where you hit failure by 10—but not so heavy that you are rocking your upper body to generate momentum. Remember, each delt head is relatively small and can’t handle a ton of poundage on its own, so using excessively heavy dumbbells just means you’re cheating.

You’ll also want to lean forward slightly at the hips to let the dumbbells come down in front of your hips (but not clang together) at the bottom, then “lead with your elbows” on the raise—at the top, your elbows and hands should be parallel with the floor and aligned, with one not higher than the other.

Per Bernal

ELEVATE YOUR GAME

Next, pair a seated barbell press with more laterals in a superset. You might struggle with the seated press, due to the pre-exhaustion of your middle delt head. But that’s the point—just knock down the weight accordingly, pyramiding up from 12 reps to 10 to eight to six for the final set.

When pressing, engage your core and use a full range of motion, bringing the barbell down right in front of your nose and touching down to your clavicles, then pushing up to a point just before your elbows go completely straight.

You’ll follow each set of presses immediately with raises, running the rack back down, starting one set of ’bells down from where you did your eight- to 10-rep set, and striving for momentary failure each time.

Jason Breeze

REARS IN GEAR

From there, you’ll repeat the same pattern, this time with bentover dumbbell lateral raises and seated dumbbell presses. You’ll begin with four straight sets of raises, beginning with 16 reps, then 14, then 12, then a final set of eight to 10 with a heavy enough weight to elicit failure. Follow up with presses in a superset with more bentover raises—again, pyramiding up on the press and back down on the raise.

For dumbbell presses, you’ll want to work through a complete range of motion, bringing the ’bells down alongside your ears at the bottom and to nearly full elbow extension at the top. They’ll naturally arc toward each other on the way up. But don’t let the plates touch as you reach the top of each rep, which can dissipate the tension on the muscles.

 

Pavel Ythjall

FORWARD PROGRESS

The workout continues with front raises and upright rows. This time, you won’t begin with four separate sets of the raise— instead, you’ll go right into the superset, pairing rows with dumbbell raises, pyramiding up in both instances from a lighter warmup resistance to a challenging weight. While you won’t always be able to get it, over time—as with the presses—you’ll strive for a new personal best on the final set of six for the rows.

THE FINAL SCORE

By now, all three heads of your delts should be toast—much like the Bears’ gassed D in that fateful Miami showdown. For some of you, ending the workout here is a good choice, especially if you struggled to complete the last of the three superset combos.

But for those of you with a little left in the tank, we have one more finishing touch: a dropset of cable lateral raises or pike pushups, your choice. If you go the cable laterals route, use the variation where the cable runs behind your body instead of in front, and start with a weight you can get about 10 reps with.

Immediately after hitting failure, drop the weight by about 30% and continue repping. Once you reach failure again, attempt a few final partials, first halfway up and then quarter-reps and pulses. Then switch to the other side, and repeat.

Pike pushups can be performed with your hands and feet on the floor, with your butt high in a pike position so your body forms a flipped V. From here, simply bend your elbows to bring your forehead down toward the floor, then extend to raise yourself back up, repeating as many times as you can and terminating the set when you can’t complete a full rep. If you’re more advanced, you can put your feet up on a flat bench—just be careful to end the set before your upper body completely gives out and sends you tumbling to the floor.

Chris Lund

WINNING STRATEGIES

A final warning: This workout isn’t meant to be used for every shoulder session. It’s a little too much—after all, there’s a big difference between the occasional trouncing and getting your rear end handed to you every week.

Instead, you’ll want to dial back the total number of working sets to 15 to 25 on a regular basis, still front-loading with side and rear delt moves earlier in the routine when you have the most energy to give. Meanwhile, pull out this workout every three to four weeks or so. And if your delts really need a boost, consider moving them to the top of your split, after a rest day, saving chest and triceps for later in the week.

With that in mind, it’s time to give your delts the ass kicking they so desperately need. Sure, it may not be so easy to take in the moment, but today’s epic beating might just inspire a new level of greatness tomorrow.

Per Bernal

 YOUR SHOULDER SMACKDOWN 

  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 16, 14, 12, 8-10
  • Seated Barbell Press | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12, 10, 8, 6
    • superset with Dumbbell Lateral Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-12
  • Bentover Dumbbell Lateral Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 16, 14, 12, 8-10
  • Seated Dumbbell Press | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12, 10, 8, 6
    • superset with Bentover Dumbbell Lateral Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-12
  • Upright Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12, 10, 8, 6
    • superset with Dumbbell Front Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 16, 14, 12, 8-10
  • Cable One-Arm Lateral Raise | SETS: 1 | REPS: 12 (plus dropset)
    • or Pike Pushup | SETS: 1 | REPS: To Failure

Rest 60 seconds between standard sets, and pause just long enough within supersets to change from one exercise to the other. 

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