Many lifters struggle with delts — whether it’s struggling with size, strength, or pain, the shoulders can be a difficult muscle to incorporate into a powerlifting routine. As I explain to the athletes I work with, that’s precisely because the shoulders are so important! You use them as a major mover in the bench press and as a stabilizer in the squat and deadlift.
Add in the extra compound work that you’ll find in many typical programs — movements like overhead or incline presses — and it’s no surprise that the delts end up overworked. And, as I’ve explained before, overworking is a quick route to suboptimal performance.
At the same time, you can’t rely on just the powerlifts to train the delts sufficiently. You have three parts of the shoulder that you need to remember: the front, medial, and rear delts. The bench press mostly works the front delts, and while the squat and deadlift might strain the shoulder (and rotator cuff), they’re unlikely to contribute much to progress in that area. For balance, you need to make sure to train your medial and rear delts, too, without overloading the front delts.
So, shoulders are one of the very few muscle groups where I strongly recommend that you rely heavily on isolation work for better size, strength, and overall health. But just like with any other muscle group, you can’t just throw isolation exercises at them and expect good results: you have to be strategic in exercise selection, programming, and execution. There’s no one perfect shoulder routine, but here are a few exercises I really find helpful for my delt development!
1. Dumbbell Upright Row
This is an unusual one, but it’s also one of my favorites. Many lifters struggle with traditional barbell upright rows, because of limited wrist flexibility. The unrestricted motion of dumbbells removes that limitation, and allows you to get all the benefits of a great exercise.
There are some things you’ll want to keep in mind while performing these:
- Pull the dumbbell high — at least to ear level on each rep. If you’re not using the full range of motion, your medial and rear delts are going to miss out on a lot of the work they could be getting.
- This isn’t a front raise! You’re not bringing the dumbbell up straight in front of you. You want to pull it up, but also out and away from your body. This will engage all three head of the shoulder (much like an Arnold press does).
- You can go pretty heavy with these, and it’s okay to use a little momentum to get the weight moving. If you do go heavy, though, I suggest that you use wrist straps.
Now, you can do these with two dumbbells at the same time, but I suggest that you do them unilaterally and use one hand to brace yourself against a bench. I find it easier to perform the movement that way.
2. Incline Lateral Raise
This one is a variation of the standard bent-over lateral raise, but instead of bending forward at the waist, you’re going to lie face-down on a low incline bench (about 30 degrees is a good bet). Bent-forward lateral raises are easy to cheat on and require you to really focus on your torso position to keep your body stable, and when you’re focused on that, you’re not focused on training your shoulders.
Using an incline bench instead will allow you to hit your rear delts just as hard, but without the need to stabilize your body. The trick here is to keep the traps relaxed. Powerlifters often have overdeveloped traps from heavy deadlifts, and they can easily do more of the work on lateral raises than you might want. Depressing the scapula (pulling your shoulder blades down) can help to minimize that, as can bringing the dumbbells way out to your sides.
I highly suggest that you stick to light weights and high reps on these. There’s nothing wrong with training lateral raises with heavy weights, but I find that they’re more effective when performed properly regardless of the poundages used, so until you’re very confident in your technique, stick with the lighter dumbbells.
3. Behind-the-Neck Press
Most everyone has heard of the behind-the-neck press, but few lifters perform it. That’s probably because it’s gotten a bad rap for causing shoulders injuries, and you do need to be very careful when performing it. That said, some of the greatest benchers in history have relied on the behind-the-neck press as a primary shoulder movement, and you shouldn’t bail on the movement without at least giving it a try.
As always, safety first. It’s okay to use a partial range of motion and only lower the weight to slightly below the top of your head. In fact, unless you have remarkable shoulder mobility, I suggest not trying to lower the weight all the way down to your traps. And, while you can go pretty heavy on this movement, you don’t have to. I’ve found significant benefits from behind-the-neck presses with light and moderate weights.
I do suggest that, for stability, you perform the behind-the-neck press seated. However, make sure to keep the abs tight! Many lifters turn seated presses into some bastardized version of an incline press because they fail to brace their core while performing the movement. Don’t make that mistake.
This is a great one to use after a lighter bench press day.
- Behind-the-neck press: 4 sets of 6 reps with 70% 1RM, resting 2-minutes between sets.
- Dumbbell upright row: 3 sets of 12 reps. Don’t rest between sets — just alternate from one arm to the next until you’ve done three sets for each arm.
- Incline lateral raise: 2 sets of 20 reps, resting 90-seconds between sets.
That’s it! There’s no need to overdo shoulder work in a powerlifting routine. However, you should make sure to include plenty of rotator cuff work — exercises like L-flyes and YTWLs — for shoulder health.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.