The exercises presented in this article have been selected based on two main factors: EMG tests which measure the amount of electrical activity in the deltoid muscles and an how well the exercise can accommodate a specific load. For example, you may be able to perform an overhead barbell press with 190lbs but you’ll only be able to use 40lbs dumbbells doing lateral raises.
Some exercises are simply a better choice, like the press in our example, even though the lateral raises light the EMG much more. For each of the exercises below, we’ll give a thorough explanation of why it made the list and how to best use it to your advantage.
Barbell Push Press
The push press is a movement which allows you to load more weight compared to a strict press (or do more reps). That’s because you can use a bit of a leg drive to get the weight moving straight off the bottom position. It’s considered to be a whole-body movement for developing explosive power, so it may not fully isolate and engage all the deltoid heads compared to if you do it seated or as a strict press.
With the barbell firmly placed on your upper chest, bend the knees slightly and with the balls of your feet firmly pressing the floor, explode with the barbell upwards. Your entire lower body, core, triceps, upper pecs, and delts are involved.
As already mentioned, this is more of a power/strength movement than a classic bodybuilding exercise, however building strength here can have big carry over to many other movements and help you load up more plates on them. What’s more, performing movements which engage multiple muscle groups at the same time boost muscle-building hormones’ release better than movements that don’t.
Since this press variation engages so many muscle groups, you shouldn’t be doing it every workout. Doing compound movements such as these too frequently can quickly fry up your CNS (Central Nervous System). That is why, when you do use them, do them first in your workout, after a thorough warm-up, of course. This isn’t an exercise you should be doing each shoulder training session, but it’s a great choice when you’re trying to increase power and strength.
Standing Military Press (Barbell or Dumbbell)
When you see how the standing military press is performed, it’s a push press but without the leg drive. This makes it a better isolation exercise, however not entirely so. It is a quite demanding exercise which involves several muscles, as well as several joints. It can be placed between the push press and the seated press, as it still allows for a bit of momentum to be used, as well as increased muscle activation when lifting the weight compared to the seated press.
Hold the barbell placed onto your upper chest, and press it straight overhead, finishing just short of elbow lockout. Keep your knees slightly bent to absorb any “wobbles” in your center of gravity and relieve some of the stress placed on the lower back muscles.
Barbell and dumbbell variation are both included here. Studies have shown that doing the dumbbell version triggers a greater degree of EMG activation, however, performing this exercise with dumbbells is a lot harder and it does not allow for a greater weight to be lifted. Always make sure that you maintain a neutral hip position. Getting the hips forward or sticking the butt back can cause real damage to your lumbar spine in the long term.
Just as the push press, the standing military (strict) press is a multi-joint movement, which means it substitutes many other pressing movements, some of them included in our list. After a good warm-up, choose a relatively challenging weight for you, but not one so heavy that you’ll lose your form. If your triceps are a bit weaker, get a pair of dumbbells instead of a barbell, since they don’t engage the triceps that much.
Dumbbell incline rows
You might be a bit surprised how this one made the list. How could a rowing movement help with shoulder development? Doesn’t it train just the back? Well, the answer is no. Rowing movements also engage the rear deltoids to a significant degree.
Since rowing appears to target rear deltoid heads pretty well, it would seem like a good addition to your regular shoulder workout. Research is scant in regards to using other rowing movements and their effectiveness in shoulder development. That’s why it’s not possible to say whether any other rowing movement would be equally as effective, although there are several variations to choose from, such as supported T-bar rows and standing (with the torso bent at a 45-degree angle to the floor) T-bar rows. To get the best results on the machine variation, use a wide grip.
When you pair shoulders and back in the same workout session, this exercise will provide a smooth training transition between the two muscle groups. If you include it in your shoulder workout, you should do the overhead presses first. Always do the multi-joint movements before the single-joint.
Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press
Using dumbbells instead of a barbell for the overhead presses will work each shoulder independently, making the exercise more challenging and engaging the tiny stabilizer muscles to help control the weight. What’s more, the range of motion is a bit longer (in a semi-circle fashion) as you press the dumbbells together above your head. It is recommended that you don’t let them touch and bounce off each other. Keep them an inch apart.
When you do this exercise seated you exclude the lower body muscles from lifting the weight. Since the upper arms go straight out to the sides while lifting the weight, you will feel your middle deltoids heavily engaged, with far less stress on the rear deltoids compared to when you lift a barbell in front of your head.
Do this exercise first in your shoulder session. You will usually be able to handle a much heavier load on the seated dumbbell press than the standing one because the support base is much larger. When lifting heavy, it is recommended that you use a seat back which will allow you to press your spine into it and increase your safety. You should also use a spotter who will help you get the dumbbells into the starting position, control the dumbbells’ path so that they don’t go astray and help you just a little bit on your last one or two reps.
Getting the dumbbells to the starting position can be harder than it looks. For those who are beginners you can try this: when you prepare to get the dumbbells overhead, grad one in each hand, sit down, place them on your thighs closer to your knees, and then quickly lift one knee upwards toward the shoulder to help yourself hoist the weight. Then do the same with your other knee.
Seated Overhead Barbell Press
Pressing in a seated position not only makes it hard to use body momentum, but it also provides a solid base from which to lift the weight. Using a barbell puts a greater emphasis on the triceps than using dumbbells. If you experience soreness in your shoulders after the workout, try keeping the barbell in front of you. When you lower it to the front, you’ll notice how the upper arms no longer move out to the sides. This is an indication that the front deltoids are picking up a part of the load. This is pretty evident in muscle activation patterns, which show significantly greater activation in the front delts when using a barbell compared to dumbbells.
Some people prefer lowering the barbell behind their head, claiming that it stimulates their middle delts more directly. This approach is highly discouraged, as it can become quite painful and cause serious shoulder problems in some lifters in the long term. Do them first in your workout and use some heavier weights. Use a seat back for better support when doing heavy sets.
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