Maximize Your Delts

Photos by Per Bernal

“I WASN’T ALLOWED TO LIFT WEIGHTS. SO I’D WAIT UNTIL MY PARENTS WENT TO SLEEP, AND THEN I’D GO OUT IN THE BACKYARD AND DO PUSHUPS AND LIFT CHAIRS.”

Such were the humble bodybuilding beginnings of Maxx Charles. Emigrating from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Long Island, NY, with his family when he was 12, Charles was always fascinated with muscle. From lifting whatever he could find around the house, he eventually made his way to a local gym, lying to his mom and dad about his whereabouts at first until they finally relented when he was about 15 and started to at least grudgingly support his ambitions.

“After a while, they gave up and said, ‘Well, it’s what he wants to do, just let it be,’ ” Charles recalls. “I think they finally figured out it was harmless. I wasn’t doing anything bad, I just wanted to go somewhere and work out.”

Today, that “somewhere” is the East Coast training mecca, Bev Francis’ Powerhouse Gym in Syosset, NY. On this particular day, Charles is gearing up for his weekly delt session, a gantlet of free-weight and machine exercises that will annihilate each of the three heads of the target muscle.

Like his physique, it’s a workout that took shape over years of not only hard lifting but also an unorthodox approach to determining what movements actually delivered results for him and which did not. With marathon-length regimens, often abrupt ranges of motion, and a penchant for inventing his own particular exercises, Charles may not be the standard-bearer of by-the-book lifting, but his results demand attention.

 

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“YOUR BODY ISN’T COUNTING HOW MANY REPS YOU’RE DOING, IT ONLY KNOWS HOW MUCH YOU’RE BEATING IT UP. THAT’S WHY I DON’T COUNT REPS, I JUST GO.”

BEHIND-THE-NECK IN EFFECT

Maxx Charles hasbeen known to carry as much as 300 pounds in the off-season, while still retaining much of the proportion that has garnered him accolades throughout his career. The 5'11" 265-pounder made his presence known with a wide, thick back and an upper body perched atop an impossibly narrow waist, creating a V-taper to be envied. 

Once his warmups are in the books—he does a few sets of cable pushdowns and overhead cable extensions to warm up his troublesome elbows—Charles heads to the Smith machine for what he deems his favorite shoulder builder: behind-the-neck presses.

“Some are scared of these because they think there’s a bigger chance of injury, but to me that’s not because of the movement, it’s because people pick up a weight without knowing how to keep the tension on the muscle they’re training,” Charles contends between sets. “They just bounce it up and down, and it makes them feel uncomfortable. But do it right, and it’s really effective.”

Charles sits upright on an adjustable bench inclined to its highest setting, with his broad upper back in contact with the pad. He takes a grip in which his palms are directly aligned over his elbows, then unlocks the safeties with a twist of his hands. From here, with his chin down, he lowers the weight until it is about ear level behind his head before reversing to push the bar up as he exhales through gritted teeth, stopping before elbow lockout at the top. All told, his reps cover about half the typical range of motion by design, as that’s what he has settled on after years of trial and error.

Today, he does three sets of 20 reps and a fourth in which he reaches failure at 15. Although he doesn’t do so on this day, “about 80% of the time, I’ll finish behind-the-neck presses with a dropset, where I’ll drop the weight three to four times, going to failure each time,” he says as he heads to the nearby Star Trac Seated Shoulder Press machine.

 

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MUSCLES CAN’T COUNT

Here is where Charles’ unique approach comes into clear focus. Known for his instinctive, highvolume style, he’s constantly evaluating the angle of push or pull and how to engage the intended muscle group most directly. (“Doing a little geometry,” as he calls it.) On this machine, those thoughts prompted him to flip over, lying facedown on the angled press machine to press instead of on his back as the manufacturer intended.

“I found that facedown targets my front delts more,” Charles says. On this, he’ll pyramid up the weight over three sets, ranging up to 50 reps on the final set as he guns for failure once again.

When asked why he does such high rep ranges when typical bodybuilding protocols call for eight- to 12-rep sets, he answers simply, “Your body isn’t counting how many reps you’re doing; it knows only how much you’re beating it up. That’s why I don’t count reps—I just go."

“I BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO DO YOUR SET UNLESS YOUR MUSCLE IS READY TO GO. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU JUST SIT AROUND—WHEN YOU’RE RECOVERED AND IT’S TIME TO GO, YOU GO.”

IT’S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT

Dumbbell laterals follow for three sets of 20 to 30 reps apiece. His approach is slightly unconventional, at least as compared with those who will keep their arms nearly straight as they rep.

“The best way I can explain it is this: Think not like you’re doing laterals but that you’re shrugging your delts, so you’re squeezing them as you bring them up,” he says. “I’m still moving the weight like I’m doing a lateral, but my elbow is bent and I’m shrugging my delt as I’m bringing the dumbbell up. Basically, I’m keeping all the tension on my shoulder and not on my arms and elbows. When you have your elbow straight, there’s no way you can hit your shoulder the way you’re supposed to.”

The next three exercises are done at a cable station with a long angled bar attachment (the one normally used for seated pulldowns). Charles starts with two sets of upright rows, followed by a set of front raises, and finally brings over a low-back chair that he sits in while facing the weight stack for two sets of high-elbow pull-ins for his rear delts. All sets are to failure, which occurs within the 20- to 30-rep range.

 

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USE IT SPARINGLY

Notable in Charles’ routine to this point is a relative lack of intensity techniques—which is by design. “I’ll usually do that one dropset on the press, but that’s it,” he admits. “I think people use them too much. It’s like when you’re running fast and you run out of air, you need to catch your breath. It’s the same with your muscles—if you’re doing too many dropsets, supersets, it can fatigue the muscle too much, and it’s now shrinking instead of growing. One good round of dropsets is more than enough for a workout.”

DOUBLE UP ON YOUR REAR

With the nearly three-hour workout grinding toward its conclusion, Charles takes up residence at the reverse-pec station for three sets of rear-delt flyes, then isolates each rear-delt head with rear-delt pull-ins back at the cable station, where he just grasps the end of the cable and pulls it toward his ear, one arm at a time, keeping his elbow elevated throughout and his nonworking hand on the machine for support. Here, each set is a “double”—he’ll rep with the right arm to exhaustion, then do the left, then immediately switch back to the right to rep to failure again before giving the left one more go. That completes his first “double” set of two.

 

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WRAP IT WITH TRAPS

Charles wraps up the proceedings with two sets of dumbbell shrugs, also high rep to the point of absolute trapezius obliteration. “I keep my head slightly down but looking forward, and I keep my elbows bent as I shrug with my traps,” he explains. “I see some guys pick up the weight, and their arms are doing too much of the work. I just keep the weight at my waist. The only thing moving is my shoulders, up and down as my traps contract.”

 CHARLES’ MAXXIMUM DELT ROUTINE 

  • Seated Behind-the-Neck Press*: 4* sets, 10–20 reps
  • Prone Shoulder Machine Press: 3 sets, 30–50 reps
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets, 20–30 reps
  • Upright Machine Row: 2 sets, 20–30 reps
  • Machine Front Raise: 1 set, 20–30 reps
  • Machine Rear-Delt Row: 2 sets, 20–30 reps
  • Reverse Pec-Deck Flye: 3 sets, 20–30 reps
  • One-arm Rear-Delt Cable Pull-in**: 2 sets, 20–30 reps
  • Dumbbell Shrug: 2 sets, 20–30 reps

Note: Before he begins, Charles does a few uncounted sets of cable triceps pushdowns and overhead pushdowns to warm up his elbows. Rep ranges are noted here, but Charles doesn’t count reps—he goes to failure, which tends to be in the listed ranges.

*The final set is a dropset, in which he lowers the weight after failure and immediately continues repping for three to four drops total.

**These sets are “doubles”—he’ll do one arm to failure, then the other, then immediately fail with each arm again. That’s one set.