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Nick Mitchell: My Shoulder Training Program Secrets

My Grandfather once warned me, in the broadest possible Yorkshire that would no doubt sound like a foreign language to most of you, “Don’t listen to advice from people who have it too easy, lad!” This is why I like to flatter myself into thinking I know a little bit about shoulder training programs and building up deltoid muscles, because believe me when I tell you that genetically I’m one narrow shouldered guy with no muscle there at all!

Way back in the 1980s when I first started weight training I thought all muscles were the same and therefore did everything the same, all the time. With a bit of experience and a few years close observation of some great bodybuilders under my belt, I realised the error of my ways and started to train a few body parts more differently than others (awful high repetition quad training springs immediately to mind), although the general principles, low volume, heavy duty never ever varied at all. This approach pretty much remained a constant and served me through my competitive bodybuilding days and beyond into my metamorphosis as a recreational weight trainer, albeit one who still liked to smash himself up the gym a few times a week. The big change for me in terms of adopting different training styles came when I really started to read Charles Poliquin’s work. A lot of people misinterpret what Poliquin is about and try to pigeonhole him to one training approach, “oh, he is the tempo guy/the German Volume Training Guru” (all of which could be worse and far more limiting, he could try and pass himself off as the “Glute Guy” for example). One of the things learning from Charles really did for me was that it gave me a real understanding of the bigger training picture, and rather than locking me into one, or even one hundred training protocols, it opened my eyes to seeing that many, many approaches work for a period of time so long as they are executed properly. Poliquin made me see how rapidly the body adapts to a given stimuli, especially with a training age as high as my own, and that constant but, measured and formulated change were an imperative if one wanted to progress.  

Female working rear delts/rear shoulder - UP

There should be many weapons in your shoulder training program arsenal!

I find these “Poliquin Principles” to be nowhere more apt than when putting together a shoulder training program. My old self-used to hoist up, not flex up but hoist – all wrong, monumental poundages across all deltoid exercises (80lb dumbbells for lateral raises anyone), in a supposedly muscle-building range of 6-10 reps. Now, if you are a genetically elite guy who gets a pump in his biceps just by cleaning his teeth, then this way of lifting weights will work for you. In fact, pretty much anything works for you, and most of you will not believe the astonishingly impressive physiques I have seen who train abysmally/ lazily/stupidly/like your geriatric Grandma. Sometimes life is a bit unfair, but those of us who have to struggle for every ounce of muscle also tend to appreciate it that little bit more, and have quite a few tricks up our sleeves. And if optimal hypertrophy of the deltoid muscles is your goal, there are a few tricks and nuances we can apply to potentially massive effect!

There are three key points to shoulder training programs that we should always bear in mind. Firstly, the deltoids are made up of a very wide range of both fast and slow twitch muscle fibres, so a varied repetition range is an absolute imperative. Secondly, there are not three deltoid muscles as we are widely led to believe. Without resorting to a google fact check (I’m writing this on the tube on my way home so no net resources are at hand), I think there are actually seven different muscles that comprise the deltoids. So we need to think way beyond the mere anterior, medial, and posterior, and what this means is that we should incorporate a multitude of angles into our deltoid training regime. Think about the incredibly diverse range of motion we have when we move our shoulder joint and you’ll have an idea of the seemingly infinite number of exercise variations we can bring to bear in our shoulder workouts. And thirdly, when training for hypertrophy whilst some muscles do undoubtedly respond well to a certain amount of cheating and what we might call “power moves”, for most people these will do diddly squat for adding appreciable muscle and shape to the deltoids. A lot of novice trainers struggle to even get a pump in their deltoids, and the bottom line here is that if you are not feeling a movement deep in the belly of the muscle you are supposed to be targeting, then stop what you’re doing, lighten the weight, and FOCUS. If you can’t feel your medial deltoids when doing side laterals for example, have a friendly training partner (or personal trainer) lightly touch the area that you should feel working whilst you’re doing your set. This will improve the neuromuscular connection. Even better, go light, minimize momentum, close your eyes and focus only on the key muscles (your partner is lightly touching) that should be FLEXING AGAINST THE WEIGHT. When I finally learned this lesson, and it took me many years to swallow my ego and relentless quest to always lift heavier weights, my deltoids finally got that elusive “capped” look. I now typically use between 15-35lb dumbells for lateral raises, only 25-50% of what I used to heave up.

Effective deltoid training is a lot more complicated than just dispensing a few tips, as with any specific body part it is worthy of a full guide in itself, but if you digest the aforementioned points you can potentially make a lot more progress with your training. Here are also three tips from my own personal bag of tricks for ramping up your shoulder training effectiveness to new levels!


1) My Favourite Exercise For Shoulder Training

Do you know the Scott Press, named after the first ever Mr. Olympia Larry Scott? If not, you are in for treat, as it can be a massive boost to your shoulder training program. However be warned, it is a movement that takes a bit of practice to perfect. In fact, I am going to shoot some video this week and post this up as soon as possible because words are not as useful in this context as seeing it for real. 

Shoulder training scott press - UP

Me coaching Silvio Simac on the Scott Press.

Start with a pair of dumbells in your hands in a semi-supinated (palms facing each other) position and have your humerus (upper arm) facing forward from your torso. Then arc your arms up and back at the same time until you go to about ¾ of the way up in height than you would performing a regular overhead dumbbell press.

To keep tension on the deltoids and away from the triceps try to tip the dumbells a littte bit so that the handle sits on the meat of the palm of the hand and that your little finger is higher than your thumb. Do not arc and then press (if you do it will morph into what is called an “Arnold Press”), instead focus on pulling your arms as far to the rear as possible whilst at the same time extending upward so that at the top of the movement your hands are just above your head.

This pulling/arcing back of the dumbells really activates the medial and posterior deltoids. You can also lighten the weight up a bit and bring your elbows low and tucked right in front of you if you want to hammer the rotator cuff a bit more, although care needs to be taken with this variation as the rotator cuff is very fragile and doesn’t want crucifying with overly heavy weights and looser form.

I’ll reiterate the two key points of the Scott Press – it’s an arc up and back, not a press; and keep the little finger higher than the thumb to maintain tension at all times on the deltoids. 


2) The Optimal Repetition Range for Shoulder Training

The deltoid muscles are made up of a wide mix of both fast and slow twitch muscle fibres, which means the old bodybuilding style of banging them with ever increasing poundages will not work optimally. Instead, I have found that the best shoulder training programs incorporate a lot of volume (high sets, minimal rest intervals, giant sets) and broad repetition range, starting at 5 reps for certain pressing movements, and then (on occasion) going as high as 100 repetitions on certain lateral movements!

The bottom line is that the best shoulder training program will have you moving quickly, doing a range of repetitions (10-25 probably being where the rep range should sit most often), and (on most exercises) not caring about the weights that you lift and instead focusing on feel and getting the deepest most dastardly “burn” possible.


3) The Right Way to do Lateral Raises

Most people are aware of the “pouring a jug of water” analogy for performing side lateral raises. What they almost always miss out on is the degree of internal rotation that is really needed to hit the side deltoids, that internal rotation is even more important on bent over laterals for the posterior deltoids, and that turning your wrist down (as in pouring a jug of water) does not actually constitute the right type of internal rotation!

To best activate the medial/rear deltoids in your shoulder training program you need to internally rotate at the humerus, not the wrist. You will feel the difference best on bent over lateral raises, so next time you try these out internally rotate the upper arms so that your thumbs face each other at the bottom of the movement. This will enable you to isolate the posterior deltoid muscles much more and take out the rotator cuff. And the trick here is to externally rotate into the more regular palms facing inward position once you can no longer do a full rep in internal rotation, because this will allow you to eke out a few more reps and get the most bang for your buck from any given set. The same principle applies, if slightly less acutely, with side laterals, and I always feel it is a good idea to get the “feel” of internally rotated side laterals because that will teach those who have just been internally rotating at the wrist what they have been missing out on! It is less important to internally rotate the entire way on side laterals, but it is vital to internally rotate at the humerus on the top half of the ascent of each repetition.

Male doing lateral raises - UP

Bent Over Lateral Raises…UP style!

If you haven’t tried out any of these strategies in your shoulder training program do give them a try as I find they consistently reap great muscle building rewards. And as ever, if you have any questions please feel free to add a comment/and if you liked this post and advice do please show your support by “sharing/liking” with the Facebook/Twitter buttons on the left of this screen.

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