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Photos by Per Bernal
To carve out all three heads of the deltoids and craft serious mass in his traps, Big Ramy has relied on consistency, intensity, and the measured guidance of trainer Ahmad Alaqi. Here are his four rules for steady progress in size, shape, and definition.
MANIPULATE YOUR SET, REP, & WEIGHT SCHEME TO AVOID PLATEAUING
For seated dumbbell presses, as well as any other shoulder press he may perform, Elssbiay goes “heavy” in the sense of a mere mortal—he can max out the available dumbbells on the typical gym’s rack. But for the usual workout, he’ll opt for moderate weights that he can do for at least 6 clean reps, and up to 15 reps depending on where he is in his progression.
Speaking of, that progression is key: Over the course of five weeks, his rep ranges (and concurrent weight selection) gradually change from 12–15 to 10–12 to 6–8 for shoulders, as well as his back, chest, and legs, returning to the 12–15 range for the sixth week. It’s generally three to four sets per exercise, enough to squeeze as much benefit as possible from the move without overtraining.
This approach is designed to avoid stagnation, nimbly keeping him from falling into a rut. Muscles, after all, respond to new stimuli, so a steady diet week after week of the same reps, weights, and exercises is sure to backfire over the long term.
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BASIC EXERCISES ARE STILL THE BEST
In addition to seated dumbbell, barbell, or machine presses as his anchor shoulder movement, Elssbiay opts for a range of tried-and-true exercises. That means standing dumbbell lateral raises for the middle delts and bentover dumbbell raises for the rear delts, as well as barbell and dumbbell shrugs for traps.
With a well-stocked gym like Oxygen at his fingertips, those aren’t his only choices, of course—in addition to basic free-weight moves like upright rows and front raises, machines and cables offer ample variety.
Every exercise comes with a spate of pluses and minuses, which is why over-reliance on one unwavering choice is a mistake. For instance, standing laterals—a classic, to be sure—offer the benefit of a direct line of pull against the middle delt. They can fit to any frame, whether you’re a rail-thin beginner or you’re barn-door wide like Big Ramy. And you can alter your wrist position, tipping the front of the dumbbell slightly down at the top for a deeper contraction.
However, dumbbells also invite momentum, and when lowered all the way to the sides between reps take all tension out of the muscle. A cable lateral, however, maintains tension throughout the range of motion, while a machine lateral provides for a longer range of motion, removes the need for stabilizer muscles, and depending on design may allow for the use of more resistance than free weights. The point is, all three are valuable, valid choices to include in a rotation.
MAINTAIN A STEADY, CONSISTENT CADENCE
Watching Elssbiay is akin to seeing an engine piston in slow motion. He’s most comfortable with a controlled, steady pace, with a two- to three-second lift, a brief flexed lockout, followed by a two- to three-second negative. The idea, he says, is to avoid resting too long at any point in the rep, which would allow the tension to dissipate from the working muscle.
His reps also mostly include an ample stretch, avoiding the tendency to stop a rep range short. By working a muscle through a longer range of motion, more fibers are engaged and thus will suffer the damage necessary for growth. If you tend to use faster reps—a common sight in gyms, as guys tend to want to speed up reps in order to handle more weight—you may want to initiate an experiment over the next two weeks. Without worrying too much about your weights, work on slowing down your reps, counting out two- to three-second concentric and eccentric contractions on every set. The increased time under tension (TUT) will provide an all-new stimulus that could leave you sore, showing just how much you’ve been missing by hurrying through your typical workout.
JACK UP THE INTENSITY TO FINISH THE WORKOUT STRONG
Some aspiring bodybuilders ladle on the intensity throughout the workout, creating a series of supersets, dropsets, partial reps, and other methods to extend every single set to its limits. Elssbiay, however, knows that the key to success is to use such techniques judiciously, not haphazardly. That means drop sets and rest-pause sets are saved for the end of a workout, focusing on straight sets up until that point, per Alaqi’s guidance. Too much intensity, after all, can tend to leave one ripe for injury, as muscular fatigue and damage compromise form. In addition to a final set of drops or rest-pause, forced reps may be used sporadically at the very end of a set, with Alaqi providing a light touch to help Ramy complete two to three extra reps that he could not finish otherwise.
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While a barbell shrug places the angle of pull to the front of your body, dumbbell shrugs move the resistance directly below the shoulder caps. This alters the recruitment just enough to make both versions of the exercise a smart component of your training regimen.
Follow a direct path upward and downward—do not roll your shoulders. Although it involves a relatively short range of motion, you can make the most of it by slowing down your reps and holding the peak contracted position for a couple seconds.
SEATED DUMBBELL PRESS
Ramy maintains a palms-forward grip and focuses on engaging his shoulder heads through the full range of motion, tightening the delt caps into blood-pumped cannonballs at the top. Concentration helps maintain form, while tight forearms and the aid of straps mean he can hoist heavy poundage without the wrist joint compromising his strength.
STANDING DUMBBELL LATERAL RAISE
Elssbiay maintains a bend in his elbows, thinking of his arms as links between the delt and dumbbell, engaging the middle head to contract to help lift the weight up to a point parallel with the shoulder complex.
DUMBBELL REAR-DELT RAISE
As with lateral raises, Elssbiay maintains a bend in his elbows. Doing the exercise on a bench provides a constant reminder to remove all momentum from the lift—without it, one tends to lift the torso up a few inches to assist in bringing the dumbbells up.
ELSSBIAY’S SHOULDER WORKOUT
Seated Dumbbell Press | SETS: 3-4 | REPS: 8–12
Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise | SETS: 3-4 | REPS: 10-12
Dumbbell Rear-delt Raise | SETS: 3-4 | REPS: 10-12
Shrug* | SETS: 3-4 | REPS: 8-12
*Alternate between barbell and dumbbell versions from week to week.