A head-turning physique is built from the shoulders down. Round, developed delts make your waist look smaller. They're the top of that awesome hourglass shape or V-taper look so coveted in and out of the bodybuilding community.
Shoulder training is unique because it takes a lot of isolation work to build big caps efficiently. You can do heavy overhead barbell presses all day, but you won't see that roundness or definition unless you grab some lighter dumbbells and hit a lot of reps.
Neon athlete Ashley Hoffmann has a killer set of shoulders. And you can bet your last dollar that she worked really hard to shape them. Here are some the techniques she uses to keep building her shoulders, and even a workout you can try for yourself.
Ready, set, lift!
Technique 1: Find the Right Weight
Shoulder training can be difficult to figure out because it's hard to know how much weight to use. Some lifts such as the push press allow for heavy weight. But other lifts like front and lateral raises can be difficult with only 10-pound dumbbells. Shoulders can also be susceptible to injury, which can make choosing exercises and weight even more confusing.
To train her shoulders, Ashley stays away from the super heavy weights. "Using heavy weight is a risk," she says, "I like to stick with lighter weight so I can use my delts—and only my delts—to guide the movement."
Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise
With shoulders like hers, Ashley must be doing something right. By isolating her delts, she gives them ample stress for growth. She doesn't need to go heavy. If she did, she'd likely recruit other muscles into the movement, which is exactly what you don't want to do.
Finding the right weight can take some trial and error. You should feel challenged, but not strained. You shouldn't rely on any muscle other than the one you're using to do the lift. If you feel your back or chest starting to make up for some fatigue in your shoulders, you need to grab smaller dumbbells.
Don't worry: You're not playing it safe, you're playing it smart. You'll get better results by focusing on isolation rather than weight.
Technique 2: Train Delts One Head at a Time
Ashley likes to begin her shoulder workout with a lift that will engage all three heads of her delts. Then, she'll move to exercises that isolate each head of her delt. Starting with a bigger, heavier lift like a dumbbell shoulder or military press can pre-fatigue your delts so you have to recruit more muscle fibers when you move to isolating each head.
"When you move to isolating each head, aim to hit each one evenly so you don't develop any muscular imbalances," says Ashley. If you know that you are already presenting some level of muscle imbalance between the three heads—or worse, between each arm—then add more volume, more weight, or both to your weaker areas until everything balances out.
Keep in mind that you'll hit your front deltoid regularly during many of your chest exercises. You may want to put a little more focus on the posterior and medial (back and middle) heads during your shoulder-focused workouts.
Technique 3: Maximum Control
The real secret to getting unbeatable results is not lifting as much as you can handle, but focusing on using the delts to begin each movement and then giving them an extra squeeze at the top of the lift.
Ashley always likes to use the "mind-muscle connection" when she lifts, but she finds it especially relevant on shoulder day. By training her mind to think about how her shoulders are contracting and lifting the weight, she can engage more muscle fibers. Concentrate on feeling those muscles doing their job.
Once you get the hang of connecting your mind to your working muscles, you'll notice a big difference in your workouts and the results you get from your hard work.
Technique 4: "Run the Rack"
Dropsets are a fun way to do a lot of volume. They work like this: On the last set of a given exercise, perform the prescribed amount of reps as usual. But then perform a dropset by lifting a lighter pair of dumbbells to failure. Keep grabbing lighter dumbbells all the way to the end of the rack.
If you're doing lateral raises with 15 pounds, do 15 reps, then drop the weight and pick up 10-pounders, and go to failure. When you can't do any more, pick up the 5-pound dumbbells and go until your muscles quit. Doing this many reps brings a lot of blood to the muscles, which helps them grow.
Ashley uses this technique during lateral raises so she can hit her lateral (middle) deltoid with greater intensity. It can be easy to underwork the middle head because the posterior and anterior heads are used in more non-shoulder-specific exercises. So, putting your lateral head through some extra work is never a bad idea!
Technique 5: Slow Down
Because your shoulders are such important parts of your physique, you need to train them seriously. That means you need to make every rep count. "Make sure each rep is controlled so the shoulder muscles are targeted. You won't target each deltoid with sloppy form," says Ashley.
It might be tempting to throw some momentum into your lifts and allow other muscles to help you move the weight, but that's not the most efficient way to build sexy shoulder caps. Plus, using other muscles to move the weight can put your shoulders in an awkward position, leading to injury.
To train your shoulders properly, you may have to slow down. There's nothing wrong with doing slow, controlled reps. Keep your muscles under tension for longer and see better results.
Ashley's Shoulder Workout
Now that you know some of Ashley's techniques, let's put them into action! Here's one of her favorite shoulder workouts. It includes multiple dropsets that will challenge the strength of your body and mind.
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
4 sets of 15 reps
- Seated Side Lateral Raise
3 sets of 15 reps, run the rack dropset on last set
- Dumbbell Incline Shoulder Raise
3 sets of 15 reps, last set is a dropset to failure
- Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise
3 sets of 20 reps
- Dumbbell Shrug
2 sets of 15 reps