Bulletproof Shoulders

Build this stubborn bodypart with a foolproof plan of attack.

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I wish my shoulders would shrink and flatten out … said no one ever. Shoulders are one of those bodyparts that you are continually trying to sculpt and that continually refuse to shape up. Time for a shock treatment.

This program incorporates multiple advanced techniques — movement prep, pyramid sets, partials and burnouts — to make your delts wake up and stand at attention. Pair the workout with the 360-Degree Flex moves preworkout and postworkout and you’ll build rock-solid shoulders in just four to six weeks. Here’s how:


The first two exercises are designed to prepare your body for the upcoming strength moves. Though it might seem the odd man out in a shoulder routine, the dumbbell incline chest press does a killer job of warming up your front delts on the concentric (pushing) portion of the rep and your rear delts on the eccentric (lowering) portion. And the 180-degree barbell front raise uses all three heads of the delts in the frontal plane of motion, heating up the rotator cuffs and the supporting muscles in your back, sides and chest to increase mobility and decrease the risk of injury.

For both moves, use light weight and focus on executing smooth, controlled reps. Between sets, do some dynamic stretches (see the 360-Degree Flex sidebar) to further warm up and prepare for battle.


Dumbbell Incline Chest Press

Setup: Sit on an incline bench with your feet flat on the floor and hold a set of dumbbells straight up over your chest, arms perpendicular to the floor.

Move: Bend your elbows and slowly lower the weights, keeping your wrists stacked over your elbows and stopping when your arms make 90-degree angles. Forcefully press the weights back to the start.

Tip: A bench set to 45 degrees or a little more is the perfect angle to warm up your anterior and rear delts.


180-Degree Barbell Front Raise

Setup: Hold a barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart in front of your thighs. 

Move: Without shrugging or using your back for momentum, raise the barbell up smoothly in an arc until it is directly overhead. Lower back to the start, using control.

Tip: Keep your core braced and avoid arching your back to focus the work on your shoulders.


The meaty move of this workout is the standing Arnold overhead press, which hits all three heads of the delts while also working your arms in rotation. Using a pyramid format, in which you build in weight as you drop in reps, means a push toward your 1RM (one-rep max = the most weight you can lift for an exercise) as you move through your sets, pushing your limits in terms of poundage. Start with a moderate weight and build to something heavy in sets four and five.


Standing Arnold Overhead Press

Setup: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a set of dumbbells at your shoulders with your palms facing rearward, elbows down, core braced.

Move: Press the weights straight up overhead, twisting your wrists as you extend so that at the top, your palms are facing forward. Reverse the steps to return to the start.

Tip: Performing an overhead lift standing rather than seated requires your core to work double-time. Make sure your pelvis is in neutral to avoid overarching your back.


With a lateral raise, the sticking point is in the bottom half of the move — that range of motion where you can’t quite muscle it up and are tempted to use momentum for help. Partial reps can build strength in this zone, eventually enabling you to lift heavier. Do these using heavy weights — more than you would typically use for a lateral raise — and use slow reps to maintain continual tension. Rest up to two minutes between sets to fully recover.


Standing Partial Lateral Raise

Setup: Stand with your feet together and hold a set of heavy dumbbells at your sides, palms facing inward.

Move: Keeping your shoulder blades anchored and your arms straight, lift the weights up and out to the sides about a third of the way through your normal range of motion. Pause briefly, then return to the start.

Tip: Use this advanced technique to power through a sticking point and accelerate your results.


The final two moves in the program are for endurance and hypertrophy (muscle building). Use a more moderate weight for higher reps and good form, and rest less between sets to exhaust the fast-twitch muscle fibers in your shoulders — those responsible for growth and shape. To really empty your tank, do these moves as a superset, performing them back-to-back with no rest in between.


Seated Lateral Raise

Setup: Sit on the end of a flat bench with your feet flat and hold a set of dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing inward.

Move: Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise the dumbbells up and out to the sides until they reach shoulder height. Pause briefly, then lower slowly to the start.

Tip: To make this move a little more challenging, turn your thumbs down at the top as if pouring water fro ma pitcher to further strengthen the shoulders in rotation.


Incline Bench Reverse Pull/Flye Combo

Setup: Lie facedown on an incline bench and hold a set of dumbbells with your palms facing rearward, arms extended.

Move: Drive your elbows up and back and squeeze your shoulder blades together to execute the pull. Slowly return to the start, then immediately raise the weights up and to the sides, keeping them in your peripheral vision, until they reach shoulder height. Lower to the start and continue, alternating moves.

Tip: When performing a prone lift on an incline, make sure your upper body is fully supported to protect your back and spine.