While we’ve assembled a pair of shoulder workouts here that on the surface look fairly similar — each starts with a multijoint move and then adds a single-joint exercise for each delt head — but they in no way mirror each other. In fact, they make a number of substitutions that introduce variety into your training (such as doing a movement one arm at a time (or unilaterally) instead of two; using cables instead of free weights; doing a move seated instead of standing; allowing the cable to run in front of or behind your back).
For starters, the most basic way to set up a shoulder workout is to lead off with a compound move (some variation of the shoulder press) and then add single-joint exercises for each of the three delt heads (front, middle and rear).
The bread-and-butter movement in a shoulder workout is the basic overhead press, a compound move that engages all three heads (generally the front and middle delts to the greatest degree), as well as the triceps. But if you always do it the same way, without variation, soon enough your results will stagnate. Doing that same press with other pieces of equipment — a barbell, Smith machine, other kinds of machines, or with a twist of the wrists as is the case with the Arnold press — you slightly alter the muscle recruitment pattern and muscles engaged. That’s the key to making sure an exercise remains effective, as well as altering such variables as volume, rest periods and intensity-boosting techniques.
The same is true with single-joint moves for each of the delt heads: Learn simple exercise substitutions for standing lateral raises for your middle delts, front raises for anterior or front delts and bent-over lateral raises for the posterior or rear delts. In fact, there are many more variations not listed here that you should also consider incorporating into your training at some point.
While the basic combination of a shoulder press combined with three isolation moves is a template that’s been followed successfully by trainers for decades, its value diminishes over time as your body grows accustomed to it. Some individuals, sadly, creatures of habit, continue to do the same routine even though it stopped producing gains months — or years — earlier. A smarter approach to ensure continued growth is to make changes every couple of months, sometimes more frequently, so that the adaptation process never ends.
Variety isn’t just the spice of life, it also ensures your muscle-building progress.
Seated Overhead Press
Targets: All heads, with emphasis on front and middle delts, triceps
Exercise Family: Overhead presses are compound moves, which are typically performed first in your shoulder routine, and consist of more than two sets of joints working together, in this case the muscles that attach to the elbow and shoulder joints, so the triceps are also assisting. Press the weight overhead to full-arm extension without locking out your elbows.
What’s the Difference? Dumbbells require the most coordination but also allow the most freedom, so you can even do them with your hands facing forward or neutral (palms in). Hence, more stabilizer muscles are involved but you typically won’t be able to go as heavy. Though machine designs vary by manufacturer, in general they don’t require you to balance the weight; just get set in position and push. This is especially helpful for beginners or toward the end of your workout when your shoulders are highly fatigued.
Dumbbell Form Tip: Getting the weights into position can be tricky so a spotter is a good idea; he can also assist you as you fatigue.
Barbell Form Tip: Setting the machine up for your body frame is critical. Adjust the machine so that the handles sit outside your shoulders; your elbows should point down and out.
Targets: Front delt
Exercise Family: Single-joint moves in which you move your straightened arm (one at a time or simultaneously) directly in front of your body are called front raises. Because they’re single-joint moves, do them after your presses and use a challenging but moderate weight. Note that the front delts also get worked quite heavily on chest day.
What’s the Difference? You’d think since both moves are using a single arm they’d be fairly similar, but that’s not the case. With the cable, you do all of your reps for just one arm consecutively so it doesn’t get any rest between reps. When alternating with dumbbells, one arm gets a short rest period while the other side is working, which in fact makes the set somewhat easier, enabling you to either use more weight or do more reps. Further, with cables the line of pull comes from an angle (the line of pull with dumbbells is always straight down via gravity). On cables, this ensures there’s always constant tension on a muscle from the bottom of the range of motion to the top. While the dumbbell front raise has tension at the top, it doesn’t at the bottom, as your arm is hanging straight down, so the front delt can relax.
Dumbbell Form Tip: With both versions keep your elbow unlocked but your arm as straight as possible.
Barbell Form Tip: Align your working-side shoulder with the lower pulley so that it smoothly runs directly out in front.