Originally published at FigureAthlete.com
Developing Divine Delts
by Mike Robertson
Even if your goal isn’t to win the next Figure Olympia, an arsenal of solid exercises will aid you in developing the physique you really want. Whether you aim to put on a little size or to simply refine what you have, your shoulders are one of the first body parts people notice when taking stock of your physique.
Still not sure why you should be focusing on your delts? Here are some specific reasons:
#1: Lookin’ Hot
Let me fill you in a little here, ladies: A great set of shoulders is a sure-fire way to say, “Hey, I actually train hard and do more than loaf on the recumbent bike when I hit the gym!”
In all seriousness, see what these words mean to you:
There’s something sexy about a woman with a set of nicely defined deltoids that roll seamlessly into sculpted arms. Well, that’s what my single friends tell me, anyway. Please excuse me while my wife kicks my ass now.
#2: Improving Symmetry
Beyond simply looking hot in a tank top, a nice set of delts goes a long way to defining the rest of your physique. Capped shoulders give you a “V” taper (no, it isn’t just for guys) while making your hips and core look more symmetrical, as well.
Remember, it’s not about just one muscle group; it’s about the entire package.
Before we get into the exercises we’ll use, let’s briefly examine the deltoids themselves and how they function from the anatomical perspective. You have my word — I’ll do my best not to get all “anatomy geek” on you!
The Anatomy of your Deltoids
While your delts are one single muscle group, they actually consist of three different heads: The anterior (front) head, the middle head, and the posterior (back) head. Together, they work to abduct your shoulder (i.e. lift it away from your body out to the side).
Independently, they each serve slightly different functions:
Anterior — Shoulder Flexion
Middle — Shoulder Abduction
Posterior — Shoulder Extension
As you can see, while the muscles work together to promote some movements, they work independent of each other to produce others.
So what does this mean for our training? Quite simply, we need to train multiple movement patterns to really hit all three heads of the deltoids.
Overhead Pressing: The Foundation
I would put cash money on the fact that almost anyone with great delts has spent at least some dedicated time working on their overhead press. Sure, there are ladies with great genetics or who succeeded using different plans, but improving your overhead press is a sure-fire way to get those delts up to par with a quickness.
However, I would feel like a fraud if I didn’t throw one piece of caution your way: Not everyone is cut out to overhead press safely. If that’s you, fine! We have other options at the end that will work almost as well.
Take these two quick tests to determine if you need some remedial work prior to overhead pressing:
Test #1: T-spine Extension
Good extension at your thoracic spine (upper back) is our first pre-requisite. To make a long story short, if you don’t have this, your rotator cuff won’t have room to breathe and over the long haul you could become injured.
There are several ways to determine if your t-spine is properly aligned. Here’s a couple to get you started:
• Take pictures of yourself from both sides, taking note of your upper back posture. Is it fairly straight up and down, or do your shoulders have a tendency to “roll” forward?
• Take a second picture lifting your arms/hands from your side straight up overhead. Can you do this without excessively arching your back? Do your hands get up overhead?
If you passed both these tests, move on to #2. If not, check out the SMR exercises outlined in my e-manual or my Inside-Out DVD in the Biotest store. Both will help you in improving your thoracic spine extensibility.
Test #2: Scapular Mobility
The second pre-requisite is good movement of your scapulae (shoulder blade). In a healthy shoulder, your scapulae should rotate upward to help you achieve full range of motion.
To test this, lift both arms up and to the sides as high as possible. You should be able to get all the way overhead (180 degrees) without any pain. Next, perform the same movement; but this time, lift your arms straight ahead in front of you. Again, you should be able to lift them up fully overhead without pain.
Depending on your mobility, training history, and comfort with the following exercises, I’ve provided several options for each movement. All things being equal, a neutral grip dumbbell exercise is generally going to be easier on the shoulders overall as the ‘cuff has more room to breathe. Choose this option when in doubt and you should be good-to-go.
Neutral Grip Dumbbell Overhead Press
Stand tall with a pair of dumbbells resting on your shoulders and your palms facing you. Brace the stomach and the glutes, and drive the dumbbells up in a small arc over your head. Control the descent and lower to a point where the dumbbells are hovering just above the shoulders. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
The barbell overhead press is the gold standard when it comes to delt development. Many a great set of shoulders were built with this exercise alone.
Set-up the pins in a power rack as if you were going to front squat. Un-rack the bar with the elbows in front of the body, the chest up, and the stomach/glutes tight. Pushing the bar up can be a little tricky, since your chin has a tendency to get in the way. Trust me, I’ve found this out the hard way numerous times!
As you press up, pull the head/neck back slightly until you clear your head. As you clear, think about pushing your head forward slightly. Strength coach extraordinaire calls this “Peeking through the window.” Reverse the action on the way down, pulling the head back until the bar clears your chin.
You’ll notice that in both of the above variations, I recommend that you perform the exercise standing. If your only goal is to have well developed shoulders, feel free to perform the same exercises seated — it’s not the greatest thing for your lumbar spine and discs, but it won’t kill you either.
The reason I recommend standing overhead variations is because they allow the body to work as a functional unit. If you have a huge discrepancy between the weights you press standing versus seated, chances are you have some core instabilities that need to be addressed.
Alternatives to the Overhead Press
As I mentioned up front, the overhead press is the crème-de-la-crème of shoulder exercises. As great as they are, however, they simply aren’t right for every pair of shoulders. In this case, most will derive solid benefits from limited range of motion (ROM) horizontal presses.
To perform the following exercise you’ll need some 2″x6″‘s, and preferably a training partner to hold the boards. (Check out the video below to see how the partner helps here).
Don’t worry if people look at you a little weird while doing these; you’ll be making progress when they aren’t!
The board press is essentially a bench press with a shortened ROM. Lie on a bench with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder blades squeezed back and down, and your hands spaced evenly on the bar. Have your partner hold the boards just over the top of your chest.
Slowly lower to a point that would be just above your lower sternum, touch the boards lightly, and then drive the bar back up to the top position.
The floor press is similar to the board press in that it shortens the ROM; however, since you’re on the floor, you can’t get as much leg drive which really puts a lot of emphasis on the shoulders and upper torso.
Lie on the ground with a barbell loaded toward the bottom of a rack. Your feet should be flat on the floor, shoulder blades squeezed back and down, and your hands spaced evenly on the bar.
Just like the bench and board press, tuck your elbows and lower to a point where the elbows and upper arms are resting/hovering on the ground and then drive the bar back up to the starting position.
If the barbell version doesn’t agree with you, feel free to try this exercise with dumbbells to make it easier. If that still doesn’t work, try using dumbbells with the palms in the neutral position for an even more “shoulder-friendly” variation.
The “Forgotten” Delt
Most of the exercise programs out there place heavy emphasis on the anterior and middle heads of the deltoids, with little emphasis on the posterior deltoid. But we’re smarter than that here!
Here are some great options when it comes to developing your posterior delts. Some may be new, some may be old, but they’ll all deliver great results!
Face pulls are one of my all-time favorite exercises because they not only help build a great looking set of shoulders, but they also work your upper back and keep those shoulders healthy to boot.
Place a rope attachment at the top position of a cable crossover machine. Grab the handles such that your thumb and pointer finger are touching the rubber handles. Take a few steps back to get some tension on the weight stack.
Think about pulling through the elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades back. While it works to develop the muscles of the mid-back, this stimulates the posterior delts to a high degree, as well.
This is another great exercise for the posterior delts. As an added bonus, it will also integrate your core and upper extremity to boot!
Place a D-attachment at the bottom position of both sides of a cable crossover machine. You may want to place a small towel or Airex pad in the middle, as you’ll be on your knees throughout the course of this set. Grab each handle with the opposite hand (in other words, your right hand will be holding the left cable, and vice versa).
Assume a tall kneeling position with the chest up, stomach tight, and the glutes fired. Think about pulling your hands across your body so that you finish up in the Rocky position at the top — arms extended and overhead at approximately 45 degrees. Lower under control and repeat for the necessary number of repetitions.
Our final posterior delt exercise is an oldie but a goodie. Grab a pair of light dumbbells and set-up in the bottom of an RDL or bent-over row position; chest up, back flat, hips pushed back.
Let the dumbbells hang down, and initiate the movement by squeezing your posterior delts and pulling your scapulae together. Lower under control and repeat for the necessary repetitions.
Keep in mind that bent-over laterals are a long-lever exercise; quite simply, they don’t require a lot of weight and feel really hard! Work on controlling your momentum and feeling the exercise in the desired area.
Delts to Die For
So there you have it. Some solid exercises to help you develop a beautiful set of capped, well-defined shoulders. Now it’s up to you to get into the gym, load up the bar, and get to work!
Have fun watching your upper body transform; I’ll be looking forward to some awesome before/after photos in the future!