By Michael Berg, NSCA-CPT | Photos by Robert Reiff
I refer to these as Dean Michael presses,” says the preternaturally poised 23-year-old, sitting on a fully upright adjustable bench with a 150-pound dumbbell on each knee. “I figure if you can lift 300 pounds on a shoulder press, you can call it whatever name you want.”
With that, Dean Michael (née Fazzolari) powerfully lifts each weight into place with a grunt and a helpful bounce of each leg, one at a time, to delt height, palms facing forward. Michael’s chest is full, his core tight, his traps fully flexed while his shoulder blades dig into the bench as he presses both dumbbells overhead to full elbow extension. There he stops for a count and, leaving just the left dumbbell overhead, he lowers the right one down to the start.
From here, Michael alternates back and forth, one dumbbell up while the other is descending. His breath hisses in and out as beads of sweat drip down his face, which is contorted into an expression of pure intensity. One rep each side, then two, and finally three, before his right arm falters on the fourth-attempted extension and he quickly brings the weights down to his knees and then drops them to the floor.
A pro in the nascent IFBB physique division since 2011, when he finished second in the Team Universe Class B (tall) Men’s Physique contest, two things will immediately strike you about Michael: One, he’s huge for a physique competitor, considering it was a division originally formed to give smaller, conditioned guys a chance to battle onstage now that the open classes are regularly patrolled by mass monsters tipping scales at 250-plus pounds. Two, he doesn’t lack for confidence, as demonstrated by his pre-set statement co-opting the alternating press under his own marketing umbrella.
You may be turned off by such brash statements from youngsters, even 230-pound ones with undeniably impressive, muscular frames. But behind the brashness, the self-proclaimed “Freak of Physique” has some original and innovative ideas on training. His advice could revamp your own program, helping you build wide, thick, ego-boosting delts of your own.
One to Grow On
Picture the typical shoulder-training workout. It probably spans barbells, dumbbells and machines, and likely consists of a press or two, followed by a selection of raises to target the anterior, side and rear delts. It may include an upright row as well.
No doubt, anyone using that formula will benefit. It combines compound presses — which call upon multiple muscles to facilitate the lift — and isolation moves like laterals, which can target one muscle or a portion of it, as laterals do the middle head of the three-headed deltoid.
Still, there’s an overlooked flaw in most programs, even those that employ all the various exercises just mentioned: They are dominated by bilateral (two-limbed) movements. Think about it — whether presses, upright rows or raises, you’re mostly working both deltoids at the same time. To Michael, that reduces your ability to place the maximum stimulus on either one.
“At first, just like anyone else, I started with the basics,” he explains. “But I began experimenting, and with shoulders, I found that I could use the same weight or more while focusing more effort on each delt when I worked them unilaterally.”
Thus was born “Dean Michael presses,” as well as his wide array of one-arm raises, which include EZ-bar — yes, EZ-bar — side and rear laterals and an explosive barbell toss aimed directly at the front delts.
“The reason I’ll do laterals with the curl bar is to introduce a balance element to the lift,” he says. “Think about holding a 30-pound ball in one [hand] and lifting it out to your side. All the weight is concentrated in your palm, so it’s relatively easy to stabilize. Now imagine if the weight was distributed to each end, like with a bar, and you’re holding it in the middle. Now you not only have to lift it, you need to steady it and stop it from tipping side to side, which calls on more muscles and requires greater concentration.”
That philosophy permeates his hourlong delt routine, even to the one-arm dumbbell shrugs (for traps) that typically finish it off. It has helped him hone his proportions, a valued asset in the realm of physique competition, while doing something perhaps even more important: adding an invigorating dose of variety to the typical bodybuilding playbook.
“I don’t just do these types of unique approaches for my delts, I do them for everything,” he says. “I post my workouts on Instagram; I have a ton of crazy back workouts, bodyweight workouts like a suspension-training program for chest — you name it. Doing different workouts, finding different ways to target my muscles, it’s more or less having fun with the process.”
The results have been dramatic. Michael didn’t start lifting seriously until he was 18 and had signed up to join the Air Force National Guard. At his towering height (6’3”), he was barely 170 pounds soaking wet and he set out to add some protective size to his frame before starting boot camp. “I had played baseball in high school, and I wrestled for a year, but never really tried weightlifting until then,” he admits.
Michael was aiming to be a police officer, but after his recently completed six-year stint in the Air Force, he had a change of heart — instead of helping people as an officer, he wanted to help people gain control over their bodies.
These days, he does just that, training clients in person and online while also working as a social media marketer for 360Cut supplements. “I do physique competitions as a way to market myself, to connect with fans,” Michael says. “The more I get myself out there, the more followers I get, and the more I’m able to help and inspire people to be their best.”
With that ultimate goal in mind, Michael — who has come up just shy of first place in a number of shows thus far — isn’t discouraged that a title has been just out of reach. Even though it’s his prodigious footprint that may be holding him back, with judging panels perhaps marking him down for being oversized for the physique division, he’s not ready to throttle back in his training.
“I love bodybuilding, and I’m not going to stop my body from growing,” he says. “For years I’ve been struggling to bring down my weight for physique shows. I did five shows last year and ended up burning off 30 pounds of muscle by the end — and I was still considered too big. But I don’t want to switch to the [bodybuilding] open class. For me to compete in bodybuilding, at my height I’d have to carry 280 pounds onstage and be over 300 pounds off-season. For me, it’s like, do I want to be 60 years old and wiped out, or do I want to be 60 and still able to bang out 100 push-ups?”
These days, instead of trying to stave off bodyweight, he welcomes the juxtaposition. Having dubbed himself “The Freak of Physique,” a moniker embraced by his fans and the bodybuilding media alike, he’s planning to dive back into another run of shows in 2014 with the help of his new contest advisor, longtime fitness model and entrepreneur Michael O’Hearn.
“I love competing in men’s physique,” Michael says. “Stepping on stage is not about the money or the trophy. I’m not here for the panel of judges right in front of me, but for the other 1,000 judges that sit behind them. If the fans like me big and I’m inspiring others to not just follow the traditional path but to stand out on their own, then that’s all I want to do. For me, coming in bigger is my image.”
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Seated Alternating Dumbbell Press
“I start right off with this exercise,” Michael says. “I usually warm up with 100-pound dumbbells for 10 reps, then 120 for 10 and 130 for 10. At 140, I’ll get eight or so, and then for the fifth set I’ll get three to five. Those are just averages, though. I go as far as I can with every set. I don’t believe in just stopping at a predetermined number. If you’re aiming for 10 and you can do 12, why would you stop? If you can keep going, you really haven’t stimulated the muscle yet.”
Sitting on a short-back chair or an adjustable bench set to its uppermost setting (Michael prefers the latter because it better fits his tall frame), he lifts both dumbbells into position at shoulder level, palms facing forward. “What I do is roll my shoulders back and squeeze the shoulder blades and traps together, pushing back into the incline bench,” Michael says. “Then I keep everything nice and tight throughout so I can focus on only working the shoulders.”
Michael pushes both dumbbells overhead to nearly full elbow extension, stopping just before locking out. Next, he’ll lower one dumbbell back to delt level while holding the other dumbbell overhead before reversing the movement. When both dumbbells are back up overhead, he’ll repeat the action with the other arm. Once through with both arms equals one full rep.
With this exercise, a solid foundation is key. “Plant your feet wide and keep your body upright by engaging your core and stabilizing muscles,” Michael recommends.
EZ-Bar Side Lateral Raise
“Each workout, I’ll rotate whether I do rear or side raises as my second exercise,” Michael says. “If I’m doing side laterals with the EZ-bar, I’ll make sure to brace myself on an incline bench [as shown] or hold on to a pole or machine. The last thing I want to do is rock my body or keep switching my stance to cheat the weight up. I want all the pressure possible on the middle delt and that’s it.”
Holding an EZ-bar with one hand in the center (elbow straight, not locked), he moves one leg toward the bench, grasps the top with his free hand and flexes his body from head to toe with his chest elevated and back tight. He brings his working arm an inch or two away from his side, putting his delt under tension.
Maintaining a slight bend in his elbow throughout, Michael lifts the bar up and out, away from his body, locking his wrist straight and bringing it just above shoulder level. Pausing for a beat at the top, he lowers the bar, stopping just before his arm goes fully perpendicular to the floor before performing the next rep.
“I’ll often stick with one weight on each of my four or five sets of raises,” Michael says. “Sometimes I’m feeling strong and good, and other days I may be a little tired. But what I’ll do to get the right weight is judge after five reps. If the first five are easy, I’ll stop and go up. If I’m struggling at five, I’ll immediately drop from, say, 95 to 75 pounds. After all, the goal isn’t training your ego, it’s training the muscle.”
EZ-Bar Front Raise to Overhead Press
“I’ll include exercises for my front delts every other workout,” Michael says. “I don’t do them every week because they also get stimulation during my chest workouts. You can easily overtrain your front delts if you’re not careful.”
Using an EZ-bar, Michael will take a wide, comfortable stance and grasp the handles or holes in the plates, bringing the bar to his upper thighs.
With arms tensed and his body taut, Michael flexes his anterior delts to lift the bar straight out in front of him in an arc, continuing until it’s directly overhead. From there, he performs one full press repetition, bringing the bar down to his clavicles and then extending back up, before finishing the raise by bringing the bar down to the start.
Michael’s wide wingspan helps on this movement. But holding the plates instead of the bar puts his hands in a desirable palms-facing position. “If you hold the bar with your hands in a supinated [palms up] or pronated [palms down] position, you can see the transition in your shoulders from one delt head to another. But in a hammer-grip position, you focus on the anterior delt all the way up.”
Alternating Vertical Barbell Front Raise Toss/Alternating Horizontal Barbell Front Raise Toss
“I call these ‘positives’ and ‘negatives,’” Michael says of the barbell front raise tosses that come next in his routine. “I use a straight bar for these, which involve an explosive contraction of the front delt to toss the bar in the air. Then I catch it with the other arm and bring it down in a slow, controlled negative contraction.”
In a comfortable shoulder-width stance, Michael faces forward with a pre-loaded barbell in one hand, holding it in its center, palm in a hammer grip. As with every other exercise in his routine, core control and a stabilized frame is critical, so he tenses his body to prepare for the motion to come.
In one firm, explosive action, he brings the bar up quickly by raising his arm in front of him, letting it go as his arm reaches a point parallel to the floor so it sails into his other hand, arm outstretched and awaiting its arrival. Once he catches the bar, he lowers it under control. At the bottom, he repeats: two catches equal one rep.
After he does two to three sets with the bar in a vertical position, Michael does two to three sets with the bar in a horizontal position, which provides a slightly different feel to the contraction. “I go very light — the most I’ll do is 20 or 30 pounds,” Michael adds. “This exercise is all about the burn and controlling the negative, not the weight. And think about it — 20 pounds is that much heavier on the way down after the toss because of the effects of gravity, so you’re handling more weight than you think.”
Unilateral Rear-Delt EZ-Bar/Dumbbell Raise
“I’ll start with the EZ-bar for my rear delt raises for the first two sets, then finish with two to three more sets with the dumbbell,” Michael says. “That way, I get all those benefits of stabilizing the bar early on, and then I can finish just gorging the rear delt with blood to fill it like a balloon and rip those muscle fibers.”
Michael takes a position on an incline bench with his knee on the pad and his arm on the upper edge, holding an EZ-bar or dumbbell in his free hand, allowing it to hang toward the floor. He bends slightly at the elbow (a position he’ll maintain throughout) and tenses his chest, back and core.
: In a fluid motion he lifts his arm until the weight is level with his delt, then lowers to the start. “Keep your traps flexed and your shoulder blades pinched as you lift. Otherwise, instead of working your rear delts, you’ll work your upper back by opening and closing your wingspan.”
The slight bend in the elbow is key. “When I pull the weight up, I focus on bringing the elbow back rather than leading with the hand,” Michael explains. “With my elbow bent, I can handle more weight, put more stress on the delt and I don’t get any pain in my elbow like I tend to when they’re straight.”
One-Arm/two-Arm Dumbbell Shrug
“I do one-arm shrugs first, then burn out the last two sets with two-handed shrugs,” Michael says. “When I do one side at a time, I can hold a 150-pound dumbbell while bracing myself on something with my other hand, and I make sure that one trap is handling that weight, as opposed to trying to hold 300 pounds at once and my lower back is killing me.”
Standing behind a bench set all the way upright, he’ll hold the top of the pad with his free hand while gripping a dumbbell in the other, arm straight and at his side. His body is upright, and his core and lower back are firm.
With all the movement only occurring at the shoulder, he’ll flex his trapezius to bring his delt cap straight up as if he’s trying to touch his ear. Once it goes as high as he can bring it, he pauses for a one-count and then lowers the weight to a full stretch.
“The goal is to go as heavy as you can while still controlling the weight. You get maximum hypertrophy by lifting heavy, using a full range of motion and maintaining that control.”