The Old-School Bodybuilding Shoulders and Arms Workout

Supercharge your delts, biceps and triceps by borrowing the best tricks from top bodybuilders — this workout shows you how.

Photo: GettyImages

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You may not want to look like a pro bodybuilder, with the extreme muscularity and every detail popping through paper-thin skin on the contest stage… but it’s undeniable that those athletes know plenty about transforming your body.

So, for those of us who want to add a little muscle here or there, it stands to reason that we could learn a thing or two from bodybuilders, right? That’s the philosophy behind this workout, designed exclusively for Oxygen by Denise Cervantes, a personal trainer, group health instructor, certified Level 1 USA Weightlifting Coach, and a Sports Performance and Fitness Specialist at Herbalife.

“I can promise you, just taking some key elements from how a bodybuilder trains won’t suddenly make you huge,” Cervantes says. “What it can do is fast-track your results by focusing on individual parts of your muscles that can often get overlooked in standard fitness-oriented workouts, while increasing your overall intensity levels to get the most out of each session.”

In this workout, you’ll split your time evenly between your shoulders, biceps and triceps — hitting them for 10 minutes each. While that may be much less attention than a typical bodybuilder would give a bodypart, what you give up in minutes you’ll more than make up for in good old-fashioned bodybuilding-style intensity.

“For shoulders, you’ll do dumbbell presses, a multi-joint exercise that hits the front and middle heads of your delts pretty hard,” Cervantes explains. “However, instead of doing a typical set-and-rep scheme, you’ll instead do a big descending set, where you’ll perform 10 presses, rest for 30 seconds, then do 9 presses, rest again for 30 seconds, and continue the pattern until you’re down to doing one rep.”

Cervantes suggests choosing a weight where you could finish 10 reps with a slight struggle by the last rep. That way, the difficulty will remain elevated even as you’re dropping the rep count, since your body can’t quite bounce back to full strength in just a 30-second rest period. “This approach will help break down muscle fibers in your shoulders by pushing them to their max,” she adds.

To make sure you’re torching your shoulders from all angles, you’ll follow up presses with a rear-delt–focused exercise, with three sets of 15 reps of standing reverse flyes on a cable crossover apparatus. Because your triceps get their fair share of action during shoulder presses, you’ll give them a break while moving onto biceps next.

“Just like the delts are made up of three muscle heads, the biceps have two distinct heads, and a bodybuilder aims to train both during every arm workout,” Cervantes explains. “Another important part of the overall look of your upper arm is the brachialis muscle, which runs beneath the biceps and helps give it shape.”

The first movement — EZ-bar preacher machine curls — focuses on the biceps short head, which is located on the inner part of your arm. For that exercise, Cervantes introduces another devious twist in the form of drop sets, where you do reps to near failure, then lower the weight by 10 percent to 15 percent and continue repping. 

You’ll finish the biceps portion of your workout with cross-body alternating hammer curls, which hit the long head of the biceps and the brachialis. While you could use dumbbells, Cervantes prefers a cable machine, since the cables keep tension on the target muscle throughout the entire rep.

“Use moderate to light weight and be sure to challenge the biceps — you want to feel the blood flow into them,” she says. “That’s the pump!” The blood-flow-induced pump isn’t just for show, either; it helps stretch the muscle, prompting a growth response, and carries nutrients into the tissue that can help kick-start the recovery process.

The final 10 minutes of the session will be dedicated to triceps — which, in fact, are made up of three muscle heads that together form the “horseshoe” shape you see on the back of a well-developed arm. To hit all three heads, Cervantes recommends two bodybuilding staples: Lying skullcrushers and cable rope pushdowns. “Since pushdowns are the last exercise of the day, you’ll want to give everything you got,” she says. “So I include another drop set here, which will bring blood into the area and push your triceps to their limits.”

Now, let’s get to it!

Try the workout below, and check out the rest of the Old-School Strong series HERE

The Old School-Bodybuilding Delts & Arms Workout

Bodypart Exercise Sets Reps
Shoulders Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press* 1 10, 9 ,8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Shoulders Standing Reverse Cable Flye 3 15
Biceps EZ-Bar Preacher Curl** 2 10, 6-8, 10-12, 15-20
Biceps Cross-Body Alternating Cable Hammer Curl 3 15
Triceps Weight Plate Lying Skullcrusher 3 15
Triceps Cable Rope Pushdown 3 6-8, 10-15, 10-15

* This is a descending-rep set, where you do one less rep each round, with 30-second rest periods between each bout.

** First set is a warmup, and the second is a drop set, where you’ll do 6-8 reps to start, then drop the weight three times total while doing the rep ranges listed.

Exercise How-tos

Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Denise’s Instructions: “Grab a set of dumbbells where the weight is light to moderate — pick a weight with which you could normally finish 10 reps with a slight struggle by the end. Have an extra lighter pair on hand too, just in case your form falters and you need to switch to them to finish the set. You’ll do one long descending set, starting with 10 shoulder presses followed by 30 seconds of rest; then 9 presses followed again by 30 seconds of rest. Continue that pattern until you’re at one final rep.”

How-to: Assume an athletic “ready” stance holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level, palms facing forward, knees slightly bent and feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your core tight and elbows aligned under your wrists, press the dumbbells straight overhead in a natural arc toward each other to full elbow extension. Reverse the motion to return to the start.

Standing Reverse Cable Flye

Denise’s Instructions: “Using a cable crossover machine, do 3 sets of 15 standing reverse flyes, focusing on squeezing your shoulder blades together at the end of each rep and bracing your core throughout. Keep your rest periods between sets to one minute or less.”

How-to: Attach D-handles to the upper pulley of a cable machine. Facing the machine, grasp the left-side handle in your right hand, then step over and get the right-side handle in your left before stepping to the center, equidistant from each weight stack. Straighten your elbows without locking them out, holding them out in front of you at shoulder level.

From here, pull each handle across to the other side by engaging your rear delts (the opposite of a typical flye movement), bringing your arms in an arc out to your sides as you keep your arms at the level of your shoulders and elbows fixed. When your arms are fully outstretched to the sides, reverse the motion to bring the handles back to the start position. Note that one hand will cross over the other at this point — it doesn’t matter which is high and which is low, although you can switch from set to set if you prefer.

EZ-Bar Preacher Curl 

Denise’s Instructions: “Do a warm-up set of 10 just using the empty EZ-curl bar. Then you’re ready for your drop set. First, add weight to the bar, enough to complete a challenging set of 6-8. Rest for a minute or less, using that time to drop the weight by 10% to 15%, then complete 8-10 more reps. Again, rest one minute or less as you drop the weight by another 10% to 15% and do 10-12 reps. Finish the set off by resting a minute or less and doing 15-20 reps with the unloaded bar.”

How-to: Set up a preacher bench so that the top of the pad fits securely under your armpits. Take a shoulder-width, underhand grip on the EZ-bar, holding on the inner curl of the bar so that your palms slightly face inward. Keeping your feet flat on the floor and your head straight, flex your biceps to bring the bar as high as possible without allowing your elbows to flare out.  Squeeze your biceps for a one-count at the top before slowly returning along the same path, stopping just short of full-arm extension and starting the next rep.

Cross-Body Alternating Cable Hammer Curl

Denise’s Instructions: “You can do these on a standard cable pulley apparatus or a FreeMotion cable machine, setting both pulleys to the lowest positions. To achieve a hammer grip, where your palms face toward your body, you can grasp the little ball at the end of the cable without a handle attached, or if your gym has them, you can use the solo one-hand strap attachments. Between each set of 15 reps, try to keep your rest periods to less than 60 seconds.”

How-to: Stand in the middle of a cable crossover with the pulleys adjusted to the lower position on each side, holding the end of a cable in each hand. Your arms should be down, your elbows at your sides, your palms facing toward your body, and the weight stacks slightly lifted to put tension on your muscles. Keeping your elbows in place, curl one arm, bringing it directly in front of your torso toward the opposite-side shoulder, keeping your palm facing you the whole time. Hold the fully contracted position for a one count, then slowly extend the elbow to return to the start and immediately start curling with the other arm. The weight should be heavy enough to be challenging, but light enough so that you don’t have to twist or contort your body to lift it — the only motion should be taking place in your upper arms.

Weight Plate Lying Skullcrusher

Denise’s Instructions: “You can do these with dumbbells, a barbell or an EZ-bar, but I like the feel of a weight plate for this particular movement. I also like doing them on the floor instead of a bench, with a yoga mat. Whichever mode you choose, do three sets of 15 reps apiece, and keep your rest periods under a minute.”

How-To: Lie faceup on a flat bench or the floor with your feet flat on the floor. Have a partner hand you a weight plate with handles and grasp it like a steering wheel with your hands at the 9 and 3 position. To start, the weight should be held straight overhead, but with your arms angled slightly back instead of perfectly parallel with the ceiling, as this will immediately engage the triceps. From here, slowly lower the plate down toward the top of your head. When you reach a 90-degree angle in your elbows, pause for a moment, then forcefully extend your arms and return to the starting position.

Cable Rope Pushdown

Denise’s Instructions: “You’ll do another drop set here, since we’re at the end of the workout and you can go to total burnout. You want to focus on good form here even though you’ll be tired — your elbows stuck to the sides of your body and pulling the ends of the rope toward your pockets.”

How-to: Stand in front of a high cable pulley and grasp the rope attachment with a palms-facing-one-another grip. With your legs slightly bent, lean forward slightly at the hips and position your elbows close to your sides with your lower arms parallel to the floor. Flex your triceps to press the rope downward until your arms are fully extended, turning your hands outward at the bottom. Squeeze your triceps and hold for a one-second count before returning to the start position.