Even great delt workouts stop producing results sooner or later. Here’s how to mix it up to keep on growing.

If you grew up in Southern California, one of your dreams as a kid was to spend a day at Disneyland. I recall the first time I went there, I was so excited that I raced from one adventure ride to the next. I’d frequently take a day off from school to travel with my older sister on subsequent visits, and later on would drive there with friends. While the Magic Kingdom no doubt lived up to its name, over time something decidedly unmagical also happened: It just wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.

An economist might say this is the law of diminishing returns in action, but it’s not cited as a condition specific to Disneyland. In fact, it’s evident in many aspects of our lives. This being a magazine on muscle building, you’re one step ahead of the game if you’ve already figured out that diminishing returns also applies to your weight-training efforts. In fact, it’s probably the No. 1 reason you aren’t making gains any more. Here’s why.

That great shoulder workout you did a few months back, the one that gave you the tremendous pump and feel-good next-day muscle soreness and the same one you’ve done on shoulder day every workout since, doesn’t seem to be so effective any longer. As you hit your body with a training stimulus and overload a target muscle, your body responds (given rest and good nutrition) by growing stronger and bigger. But soon enough your body plateaus because the novel training stimulus isn’t new for very long, and each subsequent workout becomes less valuable — see, diminishing returns. Eventually you can expend a lot of effort in the gym and go absolutely nowhere.

In the theme park example, one way to make sure your excitement levels don’t taper off (or at least diminish as quickly) is to visit other amusement parks: Six Flags, Universal, SeaWorld, Knott’s Berry Farm, each of which has different and unique attractions. Changing up your training can have a similar effect: By choosing slightly different exercises that work the target muscles in similar yet different ways, the muscles can never quite fully adapt because you’re always changing your approach to some degree.

While this particular article focuses on changes you make with your exercise selection, order and rep ranges, you can also try variables such as volume, rest periods (between sets and workouts) and intensity-boosting techniques (forced reps, drop sets, rest-pause and the like) to introduce additional variety into your routine. Because just like riding Space Mountain for the 100th time, after a while it’s just not the same as it used to be.


Gyms offer a variety of types of equipment — barbells, dumbbells, machines, cables — and while you may not know how to use them all at first, in time you’ll want to. That’s because most any move can be done a variety of ways, and each one is slightly different from its cousins. Take the overhead shoulder press. It can be done: 1) seated with dumbbells, 2) seated with a barbell, 3) seated on an exercise machine, 4) standing with a barbell or dumbbells, 5) brought in front or behind the neck (careful with this latter variation) or 6) in combination with any of these permutations.

The fact is, each one is slightly different from the others. The barbell, for example, lets you use more weight and is easier to control than dumbbells but doesn’t require as many stabilizer muscles. With a machine you hardly engage stabilizer muscles at all so you can really load up the weight without having to worry about balance. When standing, you can use a bit more body english, generating momentum through the knees and hips, which enables you to push more weight than you can in seated versions. In addition, because hand position is slightly different on each variation, the muscle-recruitment pattern is slightly different with each one as well, meaning you can build the muscle from a greater number of angles for better overall development.

Hence it behooves you to learn as many variations of a given exercise as you can. Not only is that helpful navigating around the lines of people clogging a particular piece of equipment that’s next on your workout list, but the variety will do your body good as well.

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.

Front Raise

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.