Your shoulders are a relatively small muscle group, but said muscles are far from simple. True, there is a limited range of exercises designed to work these three heads, but that’s not to say you can’t employ numerous variations and specialty techniques to keep ’em confused and stimulate growth consistently. By nature, the shoulders form a ball and socket joint, which makes them almost unique in the human body (the only exception being the hip joint). Having a range of motion of nearly 360 degrees disposes the shoulders to a periodized sampling of specialty techniques.
One such technique is the principle of pre-exhaust. This principle of training has been around for decades and is widely attributed to the late fitness icon Robert Kennedy who popularized it in the ’70s and ’80s. After a light warm-up, you’ll essentially reverse the order of your usual shoulders workout, hitting them first with raises that involve keeping your arms straight, therein isolating the delts. From there, you’ll hit these tired muscles with compound (multi-joint) exercises that call for heavier resistance. By the time you pulverize them to a bloody pulp with seated barbell presses, your shoulders will be prime to grow into boulders!
The Power of Pre-Exhaust
Elite trainer Darrin Robinson is well-known for transforming potential fitness athletes into champions and superstars. He owns the renowned Emerge Fitness in Oakville, Ontario, and endorses the pre-exhaust principle for deltoid training. “Pre-exhausting the shoulders muscle group through isolation moves can help you avoid injury by requiring less weight for the bigger compound movements,” he explains. “This puts less stress on joints and connective tissues while making the deltoids work just as hard as they would with heavier weight prior to pre-exhaustion.”
Seated Dumbbell Press
Start: Grasp a pair of dumbbells with a pronated (overhand) grip and sit upright on a bench or chair. Your quads should rest at 90 degrees from your torso and your feet should be comfortably balanced about shoulder-width apart. Bring the weights out to your sides and to a level just above your shoulders. Inhale sharply.
Execution: Press the weights directly overhead, exhaling steadily. Stop the motion just before you lock out your elbows. Hold for one count, then lower the weights in a controlled manner back to the starting position as you inhale sharply again.
Tip: Don’t bring the weights together over your head at the top position. Also, make sure you use a weight that isn’t too heavy, as doing so might cause you to drop your upper back and turn this move into an unsafe type of incline press.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Reps: 12, 10, 8, 8
Start: Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, using a neutral grip (overhand, but facing in toward you). Position your feet shoulder-width apart for balance, knees slightly bent, and keep your chest and head up. Let your arms hang down freely and take a deep breath.
Execution: Keeping all other body parts motionless, raise the weights outward from your body to a level just above shoulder height. Exhale steadily during the raise and hold at the top for one count. Slowly return the dumbbells back to the bottom position.
Tip: Although you want to extend your arms as straight as possible to isolate the shoulders, use a very tiny bend in your elbow to remove any excess strain on the ligaments.
Alternating Dumbbell Front Raise
Reps: 12, 10, 8, 8
Start: Grasp a pair of dumbbells using an overhand grip and stand upright. Hold the weights in front of you, adjacent to your thighs. Have your feet about shoulder-width apart and knees bent slightly for balance. Keep your chest and head up, and inhale. Employ a very slight bend in your elbows.
Execution: Raise one of the weights in front of you to a level about shoulder height, keeping the other arm still. Exhale steadily during the range of motion. In the top position, hold this weight for a half-second to break momentum, then lower slowly back to the bottom as you inhale again. Then raise the other weight in a similar manner and lower back to its starting position. The combined two raises constitutes one repetition.
Tip: Avoid rotating your torso in the direction of the raise; yes, that is cheating. Keep your chest steady, facing forward, and focus on isolating your anterior (front) deltoid.
Dumbbell Upright Row
Start: Grasp a pair of dumbbells using an overhand grip and stand upright. Let your arms hang down freely in front of you, supporting the weights in front on your thighs with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight and your head up. Inhale.
Execution: Leading with your elbows, row the dumbbells vertically while you exhale, keeping all other body parts motionless. You should be able to bring them to a height of about your collarbone. Hold them for one count at the top, then lower them in a controlled manner down to the start position.
Tip: Don’t row the weights very far away from your body, which would erroneously involve your back muscles. Keep the dumbbells in tight to your chest, virtually grazing your upper body.
Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
Start: Grasp a pair of dumbbells using an overhand grip and bend forward from the waist. Let the weights hang down at full arms’ length. Keep your back straight and your head in line with your spine for safety (don’t drop your head or tuck in your chin). Bend your knees slightly for balance and assume a shoulder-width stance. Inhale.
Execution: Row the weights out and up, keeping all other muscle groups motionless. This exercise has a short range of motion; the top position should see your upper arms about parallel to the floor. Hold for a half-second and lower slowly to the start position.
Tip: Make sure not to weaken your wrists or exert any force from your forearms on the pull. This is mainly a movement to hit your middle lats, but your shoulders and biceps will also be involved.
Seated Barbell Press
Start: Sit upright in the chair with your back against the pad. Your legs should be bent about 90 degrees with feet flat against the floor. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip just a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Unrack the bar in front of your neckline and inhale sharply.
Execution: Press the bar directly upward, exhaling steadily. At the top position your arms should be fully extended but not completely locked out. Hold for a one-count overhead, then lower the bar in a controlled manner back to the start, inhaling sharply again.
Tip: If strength is of utmost importance to you, this heavy compound move is suited for use with negative reps, wherein you lower the bar very slowly for about five seconds. Watch your power soar!