Mark Coles is a physique coach and owner of M10, a private personal training and performance gym based in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire.
Cannonball shoulders are one of the key aesthetic considerations that separates a good physique from a great one. But building boulder shoulders isn’t as difficult as it can seem once you start training them in the right way. When it comes to creating a full and round set of deltoids there a few fundamental rules that you should adhere to that many people often overlook.
I’m not going to get into an anatomy lesson about shoulder biomechanics and how they function, but let’s just say that most people have a very limited understanding of how their anterior, lateral and posterior delts operate and function.
The wrong way to train shoulders
One of the most common misconceptions in the typical approach to shoulder training is that heavier equals better. This is completely the wrong strategy. Many also seem to think – based on my experience of watching people train – that each lift should involve an element of momentum or swinging. I don’t know why the shoulders appear to be treated differently to every other muscle group but the reality is that they too have a peak contraction and extension position.
One of the main reasons why people fail to grow decent shoulders is simply because there is never enough direct stimulus on the target muscles, either because there is too much momentum at the expense of tension, or because other muscles are being engaged. Whenever you are working the rear delts, anterior delts or lateral delts with isolation lifts there should be no involvement whatsoever from other joints.
Master movement patterns
The best move for developing bigger and stronger shoulders is the same lift that’s best for building any body part, and that’s the exercise that you’re not currently performing consistently correctly. In the case of the shoulders, the majority of people can do a dumbbell shoulder press, but then always turn a dumbbell lateral raise into an almost entirely momentum-driven move.
Despite being impressed with the weights they’re moving they never see any benefit from lateral raises so perceive them as a waste of time but presses as hugely beneficial. However, taking the time to learn how a lateral raise is performed effectively – even though it would require reducing the weight of the dumbbells significantly – then it would be this lift that takes your shoulder development to the next level. So the key is to be honest with yourself and admit which lifts you’re not doing as effectively as possible, then spending some time on mastering the correct movement patterns. Is this a quick-fix? No. But it’s a highly-effective one.
Assessing your weaknesses
Most people favour the standard shoulder press for overall deltoid development, but they fail to appreciate the other muscles that surround the joint. The most common shoulder muscle imbalances are between the anterior deltoids and the rear deltoids. There is also a lot of weakness between the deep internal and external rotators, such as the subscapularis, teres minor, supraspinatus and infraspinatus of the shoulder joint.
Many pressing exercises in the gym bring the anterior deltoids and internal rotators into play, but the rear deltoids and external rotators are very often neglected. If you have overdeveloped anterior deltoids the best way I like to address this imbalance is to favour lateral and rear delts work over anterior delts training on a ratio of 3:1 in my shoulder workouts. There are many variations of rear lateral head exercises, so take some time to experiment with angles, tempo and rep ranges.
Training shoulders the right way
Anyone with underdeveloped delts really should consider training them a minimum of twice per week, and even three times per week for certain phases of your programme. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you must do three separate shoulder workouts per week. Instead you can tag on some specific lateral and rear delts moves at the end of a chest and back workout, for instance.
When training the lateral and rear delts heads in isolation I would always favour repetition ranges between 10 and 15 reps, but you can go as high as 25 reps if you find that works for you. I like to design many of my shoulder workouts with a heavy pressing movement near the start of the session for sets of around six to eight reps, then three to five reps, where I can concentrate on strength gains.
I then like to increase reps and volume as the workout progresses. I find the smaller muscle groups, such as the lateral and rear delts, respond very well to short rest periods so I utilise supersets, trisets and giant sets, because the bigger the pump and the greater lactic acid build-up the better.
Another tip when wanting to develop the lateral and rear delt heads is to concentrate on a two-second pause in the contracted position of each rep. For instance, on a lateral raise, pause and hold the dumbbell for two seconds when it’s level with you ears. If you can’t contract and hold the weight there then it’s too heavy. This is the reason why I reduce the load most of my male clients lift by anywhere up to 60%. And it’s not a coincidence that this is when they also make the most progress.
Don’t neglect the stabilisers
As someone who has suffered a full reconstructive surgery on my left shoulder, and a fully separated acromioclavicular joint on my right, I fully appreciate how shoulder biomechanics can impair shoulder development. That’s why I encourage everyone to think not only about the external anterior, rear and lateral delts muscles, but to also ensure that the deep stabilising muscles – the internal and external rotators – and retractor muscles – rhomboids and lower traps – are all strong. I also encourage people to forget about the weight that they’re using and focus instead on the getting a good contraction, and controlling each and every rep.