The Old-School Bodybuilding Delt Workout

Cap off your upper body with this high-intensity, dual-circuit shoulder slam.

Photo: Getty Images

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When it comes to bodybuilding, every ounce of muscle matters — and that means continuing to push your workouts well beyond your comfort zone.

Even if your dreams don’t include gracing the competitive stage and collecting trophies, you can still borrow a few favorite tactics from the pros to fast-track your own development, suggests Samantha Parker, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, a yoga, kinesiology and  movement specialist and CEO of Neoteric Movement Systems.

“Bodybuilders strive to increase the intensity of their training, and they do so by pyramiding their weight up from set to set as they lower their rep counts,” she says. “Add to that a circuit style that cuts down on your rest periods and packs more work into shorter periods of time, and you have a recipe for maximizing gains in every workout.”

In Parker’s shoulder session, you’ll do two circuits, the first consisting of an Arnold press, upright row and a push-up (which is thought of as a chest and triceps exercise but works the front deltoid head as well). The second runs through three cable raises, hitting the rear, middle and front delts, respectively.

The Old-School Bodybuilding Shoulder Workout

Circuit 1

“For the weighted movements of Circuit 1, you’ll first choose dumbbells you can get 12 clean reps with,” Parker says. “For the second round, pick dumbbells you can only get 8-10 reps before failure. You’ll do your third set with a weight you can only get 4-6 reps with before your muscles give out.”

Exercise Sets Reps
Standing Arnold Press 3 12, 8-10, 4-6
Upright Dumbbell Row 3 12, 8-10, 4-6
Push-Up 3 12, 8-10, 4-6

Circuit 2

The second circuit at the cable station doesn’t rely on pyramiding — since your form will quickly break down at heavier loads, due to the fact that these are isolation moves targeting just one head of the delt each. Instead, you’ll use another bodybuilder trick of the trade: peak contraction pauses.

“At the top of each raise, you’ll hold for a count of two seconds,” Parker says. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it can drastically take the same simple effective workout to another level of kick-ass intensity.”

Exercise Sets Reps
One-Arm Bent-Over Cable Lateral Raise 3 10
One-Arm Cable Lateral Raise 3 10
One-Arm Cable Front Raise 3 10

Note: Only stop long enough between exercises within a circuit to change to the next movement; rest 30-60 seconds between circuits. During each set of the second circuit, run through all three raises with one arm — bent over, lateral, and front —for 10 reps apiece, then do the other arm.

Exercise How-Tos

Standing Arnold Press

Assume an athletic shoulder-width stance, knees loose, holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level in a front “rack” position — palms facing you, elbows fully bent. With your eyes focused forward, core tight and elbows aligned under your wrists, press the dumbbells overhead in an arc while simultaneously rotating your wrists so that, by the time you reach full elbow extension, your palms are now facing forward. Reverse the motion to return to the start.

Sam Says: “The Arnold press is fantastic for helping to strengthen the smaller muscles in the shoulder thanks to the rotation of the wrist. Doing each rep slow and under control not only helps to strengthen the deltoids, but aids in building up your muscular endurance, too.”

Dumbbell Upright Row

With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand holding dumbbells in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing you. Maintain a slight bend in your knees and keep your core tight. Flex your shoulders to pull the dumbbells straight up until they’re level with your delts — your elbows should be high and pointing out to your sides at the top of the movement. Hold the top for a one-count, squeezing your shoulders, then slowly lower the dumbbells along your body to the start.

Sam Says: “This is great to not only strengthen your shoulders, but it helps you focus on mindful movement as well. As you lift the weights, thing about really pulling with the proper muscles firing — if you’re having trouble, try alternating, doing one dumbbell at a time instead. Throughout, you want to keep your abdominals contracted, which helps stabilize your torso and eliminates unwanted momentum.”


In a plank position, place your feet together, toes on the floor, with your hands wider than shoulder-width and flat on the floor and your elbows extended. Your body should be straight from head to heel. Keeping core tight, lower yourself by bending your elbows until your elbows reach 90 degrees, then press through your palms until your elbows are straight once again.

Sam Says: “Be mindful of placing your arms wide enough so when your chest is close to the floor, the elbows are at 90 degrees, your elbows are aligned over your wrists, and your nose is in front of your fingertips. This will help decrease the potential for shoulder strain, as ending up in odd angles tends to internally rotate the shoulder and add undo strain to the smaller rotator cuffs.”

One-Arm Bent-Over Cable Lateral Raise

Stand sideways at a low cable pulley station, holding a D-handle in your outside hand, and bend at the waist until your torso is between 45 degrees and parallel to the floor. The working arm should be extended directly beneath you with that elbow slightly bent. Keeping that elbow locked in the same position throughout, powerfully raise the cable up and out to your side until your upper arm is parallel with your torso. Squeeze your shoulder at the top, then return your arm to the start position, stopping before the weight stack touches down. Complete your reps for one side, then switch arms to complete the set.

Sam Says: “You can put your non-working hand on your hip for balance. Also, be sure to keep your head in a neutral position — if you’re looking at a wall, your eyes will be focused on the point where the wall meets the floor.”

One-Arm Cable Lateral Raise

Stand sideways to a low cable pulley with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a D-handle in your hand opposite the pulley. Your non-working arm can be on your hips or braced on the pulley structure. Keep your core flexed and shoulders shifted back. Under control, raise the cable out to your side in a wide arc, keeping your elbow and hand moving together in the same plane. When your arm reaches shoulder level, contract the delt, then slowly lower down along the same path. Do not allow the weight stack to touch down during the set.

Sam Says: “Always make sure you’re using proper posture. This will help to decrease the chance of injury — you don’t want to twist, bounce or incorporate momentum to assist in the lift. Good posture also lessens the risk of chronic low back, knee and hip injuries, and translates into higher daily function when doing all kinds of regular activities.”

One-Arm Cable Front Raise

Stand facing away from the weight stack, holding the D-handle in one hand next to the same-side thigh. With your abs held tight, chest out and working arm straight, raise the dumbbell straight up in front of you until it reaches a point parallel to the floor. Pause for a squeeze at the top, then lower to the start, again not letting the stack touch down between reps.

Sam Says: “It may seem like ‘more is better,’ but doing too many reps can be counterproductive. While there are benefits to doing high reps and lower weight at times, consistently doing a very high number of reps can lead to overtraining and excessive muscle fatigue, which drastically increases the risk of shoulder injuries. If the larger deltoid muscle gives way, the smaller stabilizer muscles, which are not designed to hold large loads, will take a hit and could strain or tear.”