No body part gets worked as much as the shoulders. To some degree, they're involved in chest, back, and even triceps training—and that's before you've done a single dedicated movement for deltoids.
Because the delicate ball-and-socket joints of the shoulder can be injured so easily and in so many different ways, extended high-volume, heavy training can take its toll even when you’re careful. That's why an intermediate-level workout needs to balance the total number of sets with adequate chance for recovery, so that the deltoids don't get overworked.
These are just some of the factors that need to be accounted for when progressing from a beginning-level shoulder workout to an intermediate one. Before, you probably did two exercises three times a week. Now, you’ll be doing more like four exercises every four days or so. The extra work and more-demanding training simply requires more time to recover.
Upgrading Your Beginner Workout
Whereas a beginner might follow a shoulder workout that’s integrated into a total-body routine, the intermediate must not only increase volume but also introduce greater variety into his routine to continue making gains. As a rule, rank beginners aside, a workout starts losing effectiveness after about 6-8 weeks. So you must make some adjustments in your training—especially in exercise selection—to keep the gains coming. That’s where training smarter, instead of simply longer or harder, can make the difference in how far you progress.
Let’s take a look at some different shoulder workouts that are geared for intermediates and how they differ so you can select the right one or ones for you.
Characteristics of a Good Shoulder Workout
Intermediate-level shoulder workouts, like other body-part workouts, are characterized by a few important concepts:
- Reliance on multijoint exercises in a mass-producing rep range
- Multiple angles for the greatest possible overall growth
- Preference for challenging free-weight exercises over machines
- Sufficient volume and intensity to boost the hormonal response
During this phase of your training, it’s all about building your foundation, and the best place to start on shoulder day is some variation of the overhead press. Some variations, like using dumbbells, are more difficult to get the hang of if you've never done them before. There are many technical points to consider, and “How To Overhead Press” covers many of them. Master this movement, as it will be the backbone of a mass-building shoulder workout for the entirety of your lifting career.
You may not have found warm-ups necessary as a beginner, but they become more important the more advanced you become. Simply put, you’ll be stronger on a movement if you’ve preceded it with a few light-weight sets first. As you get into your working weights, tilt your shoulder workout more toward strength at the onset by going a bit heavier (failure at about 6 reps) than a normal hypertrophy-based workout (failure at 8-12). The best time to tackle heavier weights is early in your workout is when your strength levels are highest and fatigue hasn’t settled in.
While many programs follow a pyramid set-up, in which you use increasingly heavier weight on successive sets, the ones below are instead based on reverse pyramids, in which you to take more total sets to failure. After warming up well, go right to your heaviest 1-2 sets, reducing the weight on follow-up sets to account for accumulating fatigue. Reduce the weight by about 5-10 percent, which is indicated in the workouts by a higher rep target.
After presses, finish your workout with single-joint movements, which effectively allow you to target each of the three delts heads: front (anterior), middle, and rear (posterior). The higher rep targets here will also help you finish your training session with a muscle pump. The last workout, the pre-exhaust, is the only one that doesn't follow the standard protocol of doing multijoint presses first.
For all intermediate shoulder workouts below, follow these tips:
- The workouts don’t include warm-up sets. Perform as many as you need, but never take your warm-ups anywhere near muscle failure.
- After warm-ups, choose a weight that allows you to reach muscle failure by the target rep listed. The rep sequence for each exercise follows a reverse pyramid, meaning you lighten the weight a bit for slightly higher reps on each set after your first 1-2 sets. It’s important to take each set close to muscle failure.
- As an intermediate, you’ll want to expand your exercise repertoire, which enables you to work the target muscle groups in different ways. Our intention here is to expose you to some new movements. Don’t be afraid of trying something new. When learning a new movement, use textbook form. Poor execution can put the load on a joint or another muscle group.
1. Basic Mass-Building Workout
This mass workout starts with two multijoint movements. The standing overhead press is more challenging because it's a total-body movement. Bringing the bar to the front of your head pulls your elbows somewhat forward, so it effectively targets the front and middle delt heads. If you have shoulder issues, avoid lowering the bar behind your head.
The seated overhead dumbbell press allows the elbows to go straight out to your sides, effectively targeting the middle delts, which give you better width. Here the rep range starts to drift a bit higher (meaning relatively lighter weights), which provides a slightly different training stimulus than the first exercise.
The last two movements are single-joint in nature, which generally follow higher rep schemes. One focuses on the front delts, the other on the rear delts, completing a balanced workout that hits all three heads. Most men tend to have overdeveloped front delts from all that chest work, so you may consider doing the movement for that one last. Feel free to move the order of single-joint movements around so you're not always doing the same one last.
Remember you’re following a reverse-pyramid approach, with your first exercise tilted to the lower end of the hypertrophy range (reaching failure at rep 6-8) for a bit more strength stimulus. This reverse pyramid allows you to take more total sets to muscle failure.
2. Mass-Building Front-Delt Workout
The seated overhead barbell press draws your elbows forward, which better engages the front delts too. Anytime you lower the bar in front of your head, you'll get that extra front-delt activation.
Because the start position requires your elbows to be in front of your body, you get a great deal of front-delt stimulation with the Arnold press as well. The rep range is also slightly higher so the first two movements work them with different relative intensities (i.e., with both fairly heavy and moderate weights).
There are any number of single-joint exercises for the front delts; the rope front raise just happens to be one of my favorites. The last exercise better focuses on the middle delts to ensure the workout is balanced. You could also replace it with a rear-delt single-joint move if that head demands more attention.
3. Mass-Building Middle-Delt Workout
Most of us want our delt workouts to prioritize the middle delts because they magnify the appearance of the V-taper. This is the workout that really focuses on them. Any time your elbows go directly out to your sides, you know that the middles are highly engaged, and that's what's happening with the movements here.
By now the formula should sound familiar: start with a pair of middle-head multijoint movements that have slightly different rep targets, and add a pair of single-joint moves after that. You already know the seated overhead dumbbell press is a proven middle-delt winner, and so it the upright row with a wide grip. (If you mistakenly go with a close grip, watch how that changes where your elbows go during the motion.)
Take your side delts to failure with the lateral-raise machine. Then finish with a rear-delt exercise to get some variety and balance out your routine. We choose rear delts here, but you could just as easily do a front-delt exercise.
4. Mass-Building Rear-Delt Workout
And now, we have a problem. All those multijoint presses we included in earlier workouts mainly work the middle and front delts, but have only a marginal effect on the rears. But you know what does? Rows! (Which answers the question of why so many bodybuilders train their rear delts with back.) The first exercise in this workout is a rowing motion, so you must consider how you set up your training split with regard to shoulder- and back-training days. Most rows hit the rear delts pretty effectively; I suggest going with one you can use with a pretty good weight.
We'll add three single-joint movements from here, starting with a single-joint rear-delt exercise in which you use a pretty substantial weight. My vote here goes to the bent-over lateral raise, which allows a good degree of body English. Follow up with a move for middle or front delts, then finish with an isolation rear-delt move; my choice is the standing reverse cable fly because the angle is a bit different from the bent-over move you already did. Moreover, you'll slightly alter the relative intensity (meaning you'll reach muscle failure at a higher rep target).
5. Pre-Exhaust Shoulder Workout
This is an oft-overlooked technique that: allows you to target a particular head for growth. It's also useful if you have sore shoulders as the pre-fatigue means you won't be using the same heavy weights on your multijoint exercises to reach muscle failure. It's a great way to add variety into your training as it flip-flops single- and multijoint exercises in your workout, which for most folks is a novel training stimulus.
We started with a middle-delt movement but you can start with any delt head so long as you choose a single-joint movement. Since it's first in your workout, you'll be able to go a bit heavier than normal, so it's getting a greater-than-normal training stimulus. We also throw in some extra volume; you'll already be well-pumped going into your presses.
That pre-fatigue means you won't be as strong as usual when you do your presses; hence you can train with lighter weights to reach muscle failure. We opted for a machine movement here so you don't have to worry about balancing the bar. Just get in position and push.
The next two single-joint exercises in this workout hit the remaining delt heads for balanced overall development. Remember, you can alternate the order of which delt head is targeted first—and last—to add variety to your training and bring up a lagging area.