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Some young bodybuilders have access to expert help when they first learn how to weight train—an experienced training partner, for example, or a qualified personal trainer. This is a great advantage, providing the “expert” involved is genuinely knowledgeable. However, the world is full of people who claim qualifications they don’t actually have, so it’s always a case of “buyer beware.”
But ultimately, every bodybuilder is responsible for learning how best to train and diet in order to make the most of their genetic potential. And one of the most important aspects in becoming an expert at training is developing an understanding of what the muscles do, how the body works and mastering the mechanics of each exercise.
Take shoulders, for example. The shoulder joint is the most mobile (and most vulnerable) joint in the body, being able to rotate the arm through a full 360 degrees. The movement of this joint is controlled by the deltoids, of which there are three muscles—the front (anterior), side (middle) and rear (posterior) deltoids, or delts. These muscles, working individually and in combination, have one basic function: they lift the arm.
Every progressive resistance exercise for the shoulders involves lifting the arm. But although the result is a lifting of the arm, the actual action involved is rotation of the shoulder joint. With few exceptions, all movements are the result of the rotary movements of one or more joints. When you know which joints are involved and what they’re doing, you will be able to understand the mechanics of individual exercises and how to do them correctly.
In the case of shoulders, there are two basic types of movements:
Presses are “compound” exercises, since they use more than one joint—the triceps as well as the deltoids. You can use more weight doing presses because you have a leverage advantage and more muscle is involved, so they tend to be better for building maximum mass and strength.
Raises, or “laterals”, are isolation exercises, as they involve only the shoulder joint and no other muscles than the deltoids. Laterals are excellent for working and shaping the individual heads of the deltoids and can be done (more or less) to the front, side and rear to stress specific areas of the shoulder muscles.
The following are some examples of the different kinds of shoulder exercises, and suggestions as to how to do them most effectively. There are additional alternatives but these descriptions cover the basics. Just remember, no matter the particular movement, try to be conscious of what the shoulder joint is doing, concentrate on feeling the rotation involved and keep the exercises mechanically correct to avoid limiting the effectiveness of your shoulder training. It takes a certain amount of skill to isolate the deltoids as a group and even more technique to target individual deltoid heads.
Presses can be done using a barbell, dumbbells or with various types of machines. In all cases, you begin by holding the weight at about shoulder height, palms facing forward, elbows underneath for support. The exercise is performed by lifting straight up overhead, pausing at the top, then lowering the weight back, under control, to the starting position.
Doing presses with a barbell or machine, your hands are locked into place. This tends to somewhat limit the amount of rotation of the shoulder joint compared to pressing with dumbbells. Depending on the equipment involved, you can position your hands further apart or closer together to hit the shoulders from a variety of angles. In general, the closer together your hands are placed the more involvement there is from the triceps; the further apart your hands, the less triceps are involved.
Another way of looking at this is by thinking in terms of the elbow joint. The longer the range of motion of the elbow, the more it bends and straightens, which means the more the triceps become part of the exercise. When the elbows are less involved, so are the triceps.
Barbell Presses can be done to the front (military press) or with the bar behind the neck (behind-the-neck presses).
From a standing position, “clean” the weight (lifting it with a reverse curl movement) or take the bar off a rack holding it with a palms forward grip and hold it across the upper chest. Press the bar upward, locking out the elbows on top, and then lower the weight, under control, back to the starting position.
Position the bar across the back of the neck, holding it palms forward. Press the bar upward, locking out the elbows on top, and then lower the weight under control back to the starting position. This can be performed either seated or standing.
Dumbbell presses can be done standing, seated on a flat bench or on a bench that gives you back support. “Clean” the dumbbells and hold them at shoulder height to each side, palms facing forward. The most common way to do this exercise is to press the weights straight up overhead without locking out the elbows, and then lower the dumbbells under control back to the starting position.
But there is a somewhat more effective way of doing this movement. Keeping in mind that the action of the shoulders is rotation, try holding the weights out to either side and then bringing them up in an arc, where the dumbbells come together at the top, then bring them down in a similar arc to the starting position. Using dumbbells rather than a barbell means your hands are not locked into position, and lifting them in an arc (similar to that which you use for chest doing dumbbell flyes) allows for extending the range of motion of the exercise.
No matter what kind of machine you use, the basic technique of pressing a weight or resistance overhead, extending the triceps during the movement, is the same. Concentrating on how much rotation you’re getting from the shoulder joint during the movement and how much the elbow is involved will give you a good idea of exactly what kind of movement the machine is allowing you to do.
Remember, in most cases machines don’t allow for building as much mass and strength but often allow you to do a stricter movement, and in some cases work through a longer range of motion. One negative aspect of machine presses is that they don’t allow for strengthening all the support tissue around the joint to the degree that is possible with free weights.
Laterals involve lifting the arms up and out to the side with the arms kept more-or-less straight so that there is no involvement of the elbow joint or the triceps. You can do laterals to the front, side or rear, although there are specific techniques involved with each type of movement (to be described below). Laterals can be performed using dumbbells, cables and various kinds of machines.
Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand hanging down by your side, palms facing inward. Lift your arms out to each side, elbows slightly bent, until the weights are level with the top of your head. Pause at the top, then lower the weights under control back to the starting position.
You’ll see bodybuilders starting with the weights held together in front of them, using fairly heavy dumbbells and then “swinging” the weights up to either side so that momentum helps with the lift. This kind of “cheating” can be useful for advanced bodybuilders, but it can easily get out of hand and diminish rather than increase intensity. So be wary of using this technique.
Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, held at arm’s length in front of you, palms facing backward. Lift one arm forward and up and bring it toward the middle, palm remaining downward. The reason for bringing the weight up toward the middle is to help isolate the front deltoid. You can pronate the hand, rotating the thumb downward slightly, to further isolate this muscle. Raise the dumbbell so that it’s directly in front of you and slightly higher than the top of our head, pause for a moment at the top, then lower it under control back to the starting position. Repeat using the other dumbbell. This movement is usually done by alternating arms but can also be done lifting both dumbbells at the same time.
Bend over from the waist holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms length below you, palms facing inward. Keeping your body steady, lift the dumbbells out and up to either side and (this is important) slightly forward so that the weights end up beside your ears rather than back even with your shoulders. This helps transfer the stress to the rear delts and away from the side delts. Pronate the weights by rotating your thumbs down slightly. Lift as high as you can, pause at the top, then lower the weights under control back to the starting position.
The three basic types of laterals can be done using a cable and handle attached to a low pulley and in some cases two such cables and handles.
Upright rows involve lifting a barbell or handle attached to a cable and low pulley up in front of you in order to target the front deltoids.
Stand holding the bar with an overhand grip arm’s length down in front of you, hands a foot or two apart. Lift the bar up, keeping it close to your body, to a position just below your chin. Pause for a moment at the top, then lower the bar under control to the starting position.
There are a variety of machines that allow you to do side lateral exercises and a few with which you can target the rear delts. The basic movements have to be the same, no matter the equipment used, if the target muscles are going to be trained. Read the instructions posted on individual machines for more information or ask a gym employee.