In strongman competitions, there are few events that are a better strength test than picking up a heavy weight and pressing it over your head. This strength emphasis is very apparent in the large number of events that test overhead pressing ability. Good examples of these demanding strongman tasks include the log press, axle press, block pressing, circus dumbbell pressing, and more. In all of these events it is obviously very important to have massive and brutally strong shoulders.
When trying to strengthen and add size to your shoulders it is important to make sure you use a well-rounded strength training routine. What does that mean, you ask? Well, it is well known among exercise physiologists and trainers that performing between 8–12 reps is best for shoulder hypertrophy (growth, to add muscular size). But after a series of warmups, using a rep range of 1–5 reps is ideal for building strength.
When trying to get stronger it is best to start with a major multijoint movement that is trained with lower reps. Multijoint movements for the shoulders include any type of press that involves movement at both the shoulder and elbow joints.With this movement you can work up in progressive sets using a max-ef ort type of protocol, where you add a little weight every set until you are unable to complete the desired number of reps. So, for example, if you chose to do sets of 3 reps each, you would work up in weight until you were physically unable to complete three reps.
I pick my weights and sets based on the last workout and where I am in my planning stages for competition. So if an upcoming contest requires a 375-pound overhead log press—like the Austrian Oak press at the last MHP Arnold Strongman Classic—I’ll do log and barbell presses in the 300- to 400-pound range, gradually working up over 4–6 heavy sets. This way I challenge myself to get stronger so that come contest time, I can easily press the log for 4–5 reps.
Following your first big strength-pressing movement, you want to then add in some volume work for your shoulders. This is where you would use a repetition range between 8–12 reps. For instance, if you started with standing barbell presses for your strength movement, you could follow that with seated dumbbell presses for volume. You don’t need a lot of sets, but 3–4 working sets (after a couple of warmups) should really finish of your front delts and triceps. It is a good idea to keep your body guessing with different movements and different rep ranges, especially as you become more experienced with lifting.
After your pressing movements are completed, you can then move on to fi nishing single-joint movements like front raises, lateral raises, and bentover lateral raises. For overall balance, 3–6 sets of 8–12 reps per exercise (taken to near failure) is essential. It is important that in every shoulder workout you don’t neglect training your rear deltoids. So it’s essential that you remember to throw in some rear delt flyes with either a machine or dumbbells. If you concentrate only on front delts and pressing, you will develop muscle and strength imbalances that will lead to injuries, strength plateaus, and eventually hitting a brick wall of halted progress.
One other point about shoulder training and health: It’s critical that you integrate rotator cuff exercises into your shoulder workouts. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to do these movements in every upper-body exercise. Most of the upper body power training we do (benching, shoulder pressing) involves internal rotation at the shoulder joint. But for balance in strength and range of movement, you need to work your external rotators. This involves the cable external rotation exercise.
Begin with your elbow at your side and bent at 90 degrees, holding a cable handle in your hand. With your nonworking side facing the weight stack, rotate your forearm outward as far as possible, keeping your upper arm tight to your side. You’ll feel this immediately in your rotator cuf muscles, especially in the back of your shoulder. Do a few sets of 10 reps and you’ll thank me down the road!
As far as scheduling your shoulder workouts, one session per week is more than enough if you’re hitting it hard. Remember, your front delts get hit hard on chest work; your rear delts will be stimulated on back rowing exercises. So do one hardcore shoulder session a week and be done with it.
No matter if you are an aspiring strongman, competitive bodybuilder, or just a hardcore lifter in your local gym, bigger and stronger shoulders is all about effort and smarts. Plan your workouts accordingly and keep training hard!