A pair of three-dimensional, chiseled, boulder shoulders is often the finishing touch on a summer body, and it’s more than that, too. Your shoulders are involved in just about every upper-body exercise you can think of, whether it’s the deltoids acting as key movers in the bench press, or supporting shoulder musculature providing stability during pullups and even biceps curls.
But it’s not always easy to train your shoulders. The most hallowed shoulder exercise of them all, the military press, isn’t always easy on your delts, especially if your shoulder mobility isn’t on point. Overhead presses place unstable shoulders in a compromising position, and if you try to compensate with the wrong body lean or movement, you could even cause lower back issues, too. That’s why plenty of trainers increasingly talk about the idea of “earning the right” to do overhead presses and other overhead motions; as simple as it may seem to reach for a cabinet overhead, doing so with, say, 30 pounds in hand, isn’t smart or ideal.
The solution: A shoulder workout that lets you smash your delts without relying on military presses. And yes, such a workout is indeed possible. This five-move workout is a good start. You’ll challenge your delts with this workout and build not only shoulder strength but greater shoulder stability and mobility.
And you’ll do it all without every military pressing, keeping you healthy and pain-free while still getting you the shoulder muscle you crave.
Why You Don’t Need To Press
Putting together a solid workout program shouldn’t simply focus on muscles. It should focus on the movements our body does on a daily basis, and movements that protect our body during regular daily actions. And let’s be real: Unless you’re a professional student of the teacher’s pet variety, raising your arms overhead very likely isn’t the dominant motion of your day.
Instead, what are you doing? You’re driving your car, arms outstretched in front of you. You’re typing, with arms out in front of you, and opening doors, and carrying boxes, very likely, in front of you. That means you need to be proficient at doing motions in front of you (think: pushups). You also need to build mid-back strength with movements like rows, adding stability and balance to all the motions you’re doing in front of you.
In addition to all that, you need to be building stability in other planes. All the pushing and driving and typing occurs in what’s called the sagittal plane, when you move forwards and backwards (think: walking, and pushups). But your body is also capable of rotating in multiple directions. Your shoulder can also rotate in multiple directions, too.
You need to train and remind your muscles that such motions are possible, though, and that’s the underrated piece of a good shoulder workout. Get caught up in military presses, and you’re moving in that sagittal plane for the umpteenth time. Broaden your training horizons, and you’re giving your shoulder what it needs for longevity — and for muscle too!
Train With Balance
When you overfocus your program on aesthetics, you’re cruising for a shoulder injury — and often, you’re moving farther from the aesthetics you want, too. Why? Because you tend to trai the muscles you can see, meaning lots of chest work and ab work and shoulder work, and not enough work on your back musculature.
This alone predisposes your shoulder to injury, shifting the shoulder capsule further forward and inviting your upper arm bone (the humerus) to get closer to the collarbone (clavicle), limiting the room your rotator cuff tendons have to move. This winds up becoming another reason not to load up on too many overhead presses in your routine: Your shoulder workouts should spend at least some time attacking your rear delts, promoting better overall body balance.
Your Zero-Press Shoulder Workout
That all makes this shoulder workout, free of military presses, your ultimate shoulder-safe ticket to size. It’s also going to take the shoulder through a variety of ranges of motion and positions, training your delts to be not only muscular, but also healthy and functional. Do it once a week, twice tops.
Directions: Warm up with 60 seconds of jumping jacks, a 45-second plank, and 2 sets of 10 pushups. Then do the exercises in order.
1. Face Pull and Farmer’s Walk Superset
Do 4 sets of this superset, starting with the Resistance Band Face Pull-Aparts. Do 15 reps per set. Then pick up weights for the farmer’s carry; walk for 30 seconds. Rest 30 seconds. You’re firing up your midback with the pull-aparts, and doing the same on the farmer’s carries while also challenging your core. Essentially, you’re setting yourself up for success on the exercises to follow.
2. Neutral Grip Lat Pulldown
Set up in a lat pulldown station using a handle that lets you set your palms to face each other. Tighten your abs, and tighten your shoulder blades, then pull the handle down to your chest. Pause, then slowly return to the weight to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 4 sets of 10. Yes, this is a back exercise, but your rear delts and rotator cuff muscles are still involved in it. And remember, you want to train your back muscles often when you can.
3. Kettlebell Halos
Do 4 sets of 8 each way. Complete all 8 reps going one way, then do the 8 reps going the opposite direction. Switch the side you lead with every set. This exercise is as much about shoulder strength as it is about shoulder mobility.
4. 45-Degree Raise
Skip classic front raises and lateral raises and do this exercise instead. Essentially, you’re going to do a lateral raise with your arms at a 45-degree angle. So stand holding dumbbells at your sides, thumbs facing forward, abs and shoulder blades tight. Raise the dumbbells up and outward, keeping just a soft bend in your elbows. Pause when your wrists are just short of parallel with your shoulders, then lower to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 4 sets of 15.
5. Lateral Plank Walk
Your shoulders help support your torso when you’re in pushup position, and you’ll be in that here. This will also burn your core. Set up in pushup position, wrists directly below shoulders, core tight. Maintain this position, keeping your hips square to the ground, as you walk your entire body to the right 10 steps. Walk back to the start. That’s 1 set; do 4 sets. Master the plank below before tackling these plank walks.
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