The Little-Known Secret to Massive Shoulders
What would happen if your shoulder hurt every time you lifted your arm? You’ll find out soon enough if you neglect the critical rotator cuffs. Here’s how to build big shoulders and keep your cuffs healthy.
By: Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photography by: Paul Buceta; Model: IFBB Pro Ronny Rockel
If calves are the most forgotten bodypart in a lifter’s routine, the rear delts come in a close second. Unfortunately, they lie on the back of our shoulders and our minds. But where poorly trained calves offer more of an obvious aesthetic imbalance, poor rear delts might be a clear indication of even bigger issues, the least of which is the glaring imbalance between the front, side and rear of your shoulder. Poor rear delts are classic indicators of an unwelcome injury and invariably, weak rotators.
Sound like an exaggeration? Ok, well, let’s see if this sounds familiar. It’s shoulder day, and naturally you reach for some light dumbbells to bust out a few sets of lateral raises before heading to either the heavier dumbbells or a loaded barbell for some grueling overhead presses. After the overhead presses, you might hit some upright rows, which heavily target the middle delts, followed by some heavier laterals and front raises. Finally, if you’re up to it, you either grab some light dumbbells or head to the reverse pec deck station for some rear delt work, but more often than not you end up convincing yourself that you’ll hit them next time.
If that routine sounds familiar, you’re not alone, but you’re also not excused. We naturally gravitate toward exercises and routines that target the most visible muscles. Plainly said, we don’t generally consider the rear delts as important muscles, period. But neglecting the rear delts is also an indicator of a bad habit that many bodybuilders fall into: neglect of the rotators. Undoubtedly, those who don’t take time to work on their rear delts will more than likely ignore the delicate rotators as well.
Change Your Profile
Going back to our example above, nowhere within that routine do you find any sufficient training of the rear deltoids or adequate warm-up of the rotator cuff muscles, a thin group of four strap muscles —supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis — that are highly responsible for long-term shoulder health. See, neglecting both the rotators and rear delts week after week will lead to two definite outcomes: muscular imbalance and subsequent injury.
The imbalance is the easiest to spot. Just stand sideways to the mirror and check your profile. Do your front and middle delts overpower your rear delts? If doing benches for chest is your favorite workout and have a habit of skipping back training or rear delt, work we already know the answer! Some of you are even hunched over, causing even worse posture than you thought you had! Without question, it’s most certainly due to underdeveloped rear delts. What you want is for your profile to be a fair representation of the hours you’re putting into the gym. However, the unfortunate truth is that you may indeed be “that guy” who looks like he does only bench presses and biceps curls. It’s time to change your profile.
Handcuffed By Rotators
As far as potential injury, that problem isn’t as easy to detect or predict. That is, of course, until you strain one of the delicate muscles, all of which serve only to stabilize the shoulder. See, you can grow bigger and stronger on the outside with the deltoids while the smaller inner muscles lag behind until the day they can’t support the stress that the outer muscles require. The fact is, your shoulder development will forever be at the mercy of the foundation within.
The truth is that because those muscles are so small, it doesn’t take much time and/or effort to train them adequately. A few minutes per week are all they need to stay healthy and ready for the rigors of the more “important” training of the superficial muscles. If we slow down long enough to focus on the minor, finer muscles, the major muscles will forever be grateful — and grow.
This month, we’re going to completely flip your shoulder training upside-down, beginning with a proper warm-up of the rotators using simple internal and external rotation exercises, and working from the rear delts forward. Think of it as a weakest-to-strongest approach. Unorthodox to be sure, but after four weeks of dedicated inside-out delt work, your appearance, as well as your shoulder strength and stability, will be immediately improved. Not only that, other exercises and bodyparts that rely on strong and stable shoulders will also benefit from your new dedicated approach.
Inside-Out Delt Solution
Cable Internal Rotation* 2 Sets x 20 Reps (each arm)
Cable External Rotation* 2 Sets x 20 Reps (each arm)
Dumbbell Bent-Over Lateral Raise 3 Sets x 12–15 Reps
Prone Incline Dumbbell Y-Raise 3 Sets x 12–15 Reps
Leaning Lateral Raise 3 Sets x 8–10 Reps
Upright Row 3 Sets x 8–10 Reps
Overhead Press^ 3 Sets x 8-12 Reps
*With your upper arm pressed tightly to your body, hold a D-handle (attached to a cable set at waist height) in your hand and keep your lower arm parallel to the floor. Keep your elbow in tight to your body. The range of motion is only a few inches. Rotate the handle toward your midline (internal) and away from (external) your body.
^Your working weight on the overhead press will likely be less than typical because your shoulders are prefatigued.