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#23: Sculpting the Shoulders

  • Written by Denis Pedneault

Denis PedneaultEither in a crowd or onstage, broad, round shoulders automatically stand out and bring attention to the physique. However, if you don’t have predisposed genetics for them, they might be hard to get, as it will take hard work, dedication, and, most important, precision. Paying attention to details is essential if you are looking for a balanced development of the whole shoulder complex.

With that said, you might guess that “good exercise form” will once again be quite important here. I am known to be very meticulous in my approach to training, as I am very picky about form and this couldn’t be truer for the muscle group that makes up the shoulders. The shoulder complex, which consists of five different joints working collectively, is rarely well understood and carefully used. It requires deep knowledge of many anatomical principles as well as functional biomechanics and posture. A very common situation that proves my point is that you will hear that a certain exercise hurts or is bad for the shoulder simply because a lot of people will experience some kind of pain as they perform it. While some might have difficulty with the form of a specific exercise due to many factors (lack of mobility, proprioceptive abilities, etc.), the problem resides more in how you perform the movement rather than the exercise itself. The situation, as I have pointed out many times, is that most trainers lack the kind of knowledge needed to assess the problem and simply perpetuate the usual exercise forms and/or myths instead of showing logical, critical aptitude by questioning and putting things in perspective. Other than that, a lot of trainees just don’t train shoulders in the way they should be trained; that is, according to the appropriate function of each different joint or muscle. The mobility of the scapulae (shoulder blade) is often the most overlooked and compromised in chronic shoulder problems. As soon as there is an inappropriate positioning or use of the shoulder blade, you are exposing yourself to injuries. 

In this article, I will describe two rather unusual exercises I use to sculpt the delts and the surrounding muscles of the shoulder girdle without compromising its structural components. These are what we will call the modified Arnold press and the modified Gironda lateral raise, named after Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vince Gironda respectively. Take note that I used the term “modified” on both, as I don’t have them done the way they are typically done – and I’ve once again made drawings so that you can visualize the exercise.

The Arnold press

This exercise is well known to many bodybuilders, but not in the way I teach it. Many finish the exercise at shoulder level (keeping the elbows up high with palms facing the head), or with arms to the sides about shoulder width (with palms facing the deltoids). If you search the Internet for this movement, this is probably what you will see. The first way of doing it (see #1 in illustration below) will only overuse and irritate the anterior part of the glenohumeral joint over time. People who perform it often complain about either too much development of the front delt or acute pain in the anterior portion of the arm. Most of the time, as it builds up, this discomfort will even propagate on other pressing movements. The second way of doing it (see #2 in the illustration below) is not necessarily bad but is simply limitative, as stopping at the sides prevents you from getting the benefits of bringing the arm to maximum adduction which would stretch and activate the other muscles of the shoulder girdle (i.e., traps, rhomboids and the rotator cuff muscles).

Figure 1

So if you have followed my line of thought, you will have guessed that the only twist we will make to the second form will be to complete the movement by bringing the elbows in full adduction as they go down below shoulder level until they meet in the middle and the weights are touching each other. By performing the exercise this way, you work the glenohumeral area (delts and rotator cuff), as well as the scapulothoracic (traps and rhomboids) joints, thus transforming the movement into a two-punch combo. In fact, that’s the functional way to work your traps, as a stabilizer of the scapulae, not by doing shrugs (which I never recommend, by the way). Note that you should still see your entire face in the mirror in the bottom position and feel a stretch between your shoulder blades. Your head should be in line with your erected torso at all times, which means that you look straight forward with your chin pulled in. It is not necessary to touch the weights at the top, but do bring your elbows to full extension without any elevation of the scapulae. If you feel a pinch in your shoulder as you elevate the arms, it means you didn’t bring your shoulder blades back and down as you went up.

Figure 2

If you understand this correctly, you understand that the full pressing movement is, in fact, now divided into two different subsequent “motions”: the opening of the scapulae (#1 to #2 in the illustration above) followed by the pushing of the arm (#2 to #3). Figure 3You should visualize the two different motions even though they should be joined smoothly one after the other.

There can be a combined motion of the ribcage to further emphasize the stretch, as you would open wide on the way up or round back as you go down. In that case, you won’t stabilize your back on a bench to allow for the small postural adjustments required: keep the head high (#1 in the illustration right), pull your chin in (#2), slightly round your upper back (#3), and pull yourself backward as you move the elbows forward (#4) and close the weights together (#5).

The modified Gironda lateral raise

Yes, once again we get back to the late, great master! Vince was considered by many to be the greatest trainer who ever lived.

This one is a mix of two exercises formerly proposed by Vince Gironda, namely the Scott press and the Gironda lateral raise. I won’t go into details about these two and will go directly to the one I prefer to use: the modified Gironda lateral raise. I use the word "modified" because I changed it a bit.

You start the movement the same way you would perform the aforementioned Arnold press, and can even enhance the stretch by exaggerating the adduction at the elbow (#1 in the illustration below). Then, instead of pressing up, you will open to the sides (#2) just as you would for a usual lateral raise but stop where you would have ended an upright row (with arms slightly turned in). At this point you should focus on literally squeezing the delts with a small inward rotation of the arm (#3).

Figure 4

Take note that in this exercise the weights simply turn while remaining at the same level. Since the mobility of the glenohumeral joint is limited to about shoulder level in abduction, the contraction and the feeling of tightness in the shoulder should be very intense around this point. In fact, this might be the most effective exercise I’ve done that emphasizes the peak contraction of the deltoid muscle. As I tell my clients, on all lateral movement you should focus on bringing the elbows wide to the sides, not up high, which causes the shoulder impingement. You then reverse the motion by bringing the elbows back together in front as you try to go as close as possible to once again increase the stretch of the posterior area of the traps and rhomboids and benefit again from the additional work of the whole scapular area of the shoulders.

Integrating movements like these two in your routine will help you preserve functional range of motion of the scapulothoracic joint and keep you away from shoulder problems. Remember that you might need to regularly stretch each specific muscle related to your postural patterns if you lack mobility. If you read my last article on the bench press, you have some idea of the complexity of the biomechanics of the shoulder girdle and its close interactions with other body parts (i.e., neck, head, rib cage and spine). I know it can sound like I repeat myself, but it is very important to be as precise as possible and maintain strict functional form when training the shoulder complex. If you do it correctly, though, you will not only experience better results, but you will also be able to do so for years without exposing yourself to injuries.

So now you can say that you are working for a balanced development of the shoulder girdle.

Class dismissed! It’s now time to go back to the gym and do your homework.

. . . Denis Pedneault
Physique Canada Tier 1 Elite Athlete
CBBF Canadian Champion 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011

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