Yes, you can build big strong shoulders without wrecking your joints. Here are three ways to do it.
Stop Pissing Off Your Shoulders
Years in the iron game can leave the shoulders beat to crap. The last thing you want to do is to piss off some of the most important joints in the body more than they already are. Your shoulder work should enhance the way this region of the body looks AND functions while improving your performance.
Here are three pain-free strategies to decrease joint stress while maximizing the pump effect for growth and strength.
1 – Use Bands With Dumbbells
Using bands and chains for accommodating resistance is usually reserved for the big lifts, but they should also be a staple in smart shoulder training. The only problem is the equipment restrictions. Bands are often too thick and chains are too heavy to complete enough full range of motion reps to get a good training effect.
The secret is to use the ultra-light, handled bands that have become popular in commercial gyms. These bands have much smaller diameters and thickness, allowing you to apply accommodating resistance when used in combination with dumbbells.
Holding the handles of the bands together with the handles of dumbbells works with the lateral raise and its variations. Staying consistent with the light band and increasing the dumbbell poundage allows you to train in strength, hypertrophy, endurance, and metabolic-stress based rep schemes without sputtering out on range of motion or losing control of shoulder stability.
Another advantage bands provide during lateral raises is the ability to train explosively without losing shoulder stability at the top of the movement. Because the load is lighter at the bottom of the range when your hands are down by your sides, you're able to engage the delts more explosively and have the speed of contraction slowed down by the increased resistance through the bands at the top. This is great for targeting the fast twitch motor units in the shoulders while also providing a novel, pain-free stimulus for shoulder training.
Remember, train the shoulders explosively with this method. Focus on increasing the contraction speed in the concentric (lifting) part of the movement while slowing down the eccentric (lowering) part of the exercise. Don't let the bands pull you down fast.
2 – Train Between the Usual Planes of Motion
Open up an anatomy textbook and you'll see that the deltoid is broken down into three distinct fiber orientations: the anterior, lateral and posterior. Though traditional training protocols have called for training shoulder flexion, abduction, and extension, it's not the most effective way.
Sure, isolating different parts of the deltoid is better than just barbell overhead-pressing yourself into an AC joint injury, but let's try to be better than the industry standard, shall we?
Training not only the three cardinal planes of motion, but BETWEEN these planes of motion is pivotal to finding what variation of shoulder raises fits your specific body type, while also taking into account things like functional instability, weakness, or even past injury. This strategy gives you endless angles to emphasize, adding novelty to traditional movement patterns while also minimizing chronic joint stresses commonly associated with sloppy lateral raises and overhead pressing.
Check out the dumbbell scaption raise that works between the sagittal and frontal planes, emphasizing fibers between the anterior and lateral heads of the deltoid.
Dumbbell Scaption Raise
There's a huge need for posterior and posterior-lateral direct deltoid training as many lifters place too much emphasis on vertical and horizontal pressing. To protect your shoulders and build some muscle in the posterior shoulder area, do 2-3 times more volume on the posterior shoulder than the anterior.
3 – Trigger the Metabolic Pump Effect
The shoulders don't traditionally respond well to heavy-ass loads. The deltoid is comprised of a majority of slow twitch muscle fibers, meaning that the average lifter will be more likely to get results from higher rep ranges of around 12-20 reps.
While this is based on individual presentation of fiber and body typing, higher reps can be advantageous to almost every lifter by decreasing external loads placed on the shoulder joint, thus decreasing cumulative joint stress over time. Less weight moved equals less stress on the joints. But this doesn't give you the excuse to get fluffy with your shoulder training and go light without challenging yourself.
Building strength and size in the shoulders requires placing an emphasis not only on progressively overloading staple movements, but also on eliciting a huge metabolic pump effect in the tissues. The pump has been crapped on for decades by elitist powerlifters and strength athletes who are usually chronically injured, but tapping into metabolic stress is one of the most intelligent training variables to exploit for performance, aesthetic, and orthopedic success.
There are a few key methods that will increase the metabolic stress of the shoulders that work extremely well for pain-free growth:
- Increase the rep ranges over 20 and really pump the muscle full of blood.
- Increase the overall volume by doing more sets.
- Do both of the above while decreasing rest periods to 20-40 seconds. This creates a cumulative fatigue on the tissues. It's brutal, but it'll get those shoulders growing without aches and pains in the joint.
Check out the video below of slightly bent-over dumbbell rear-delt raises for 30 painful reps and you'll quickly realize this metabolic stress thing is no walk in the park.
Rear Delt Raise, High Reps
I also recommend smart intra-workout supplementation like Plazma™ to spark recovery as quickly as possible to get the most out of this type of intelligent torture.