The Most Effective Science Based Shoulder Workouts


The Most Effective Science Based Shoulder Workouts

One of the most visible parts to an outstanding physique is round boulder shoulders. We’re going to tell you the most effective (per EMG activity) and anatomically best exercise to craft the best shoulder workouts for you.

We’ll also cover how to programme them, exercise selection, resistance profiles as well as the anatomy of the shoulder and its intended movement patterns to help you get the most out of your training.

Anatomy of the shoulders

The shoulders (deltoids/delts) form part of a group of muscles around the shoulder joint. Other muscles sit within or overlap the joint, namely, the muscles within the rotator cuff, the lattisimus dorsi and biceps, however for the purpose of effective training of the shoulders, we’re going to be covering the three main elements of the shoulder and their movement patterns.

  1. Anterior deltoid
  2. Medial deltoid 
  3. Posterior (rear) deltoid

Anatomy of the shoulder

The actions that they control are as follows;

  • Anterior deltoid – shoulder flexion – forward elevation of the arm
  • Medial deltoid – shoulder abduction – outside arm elevation away from the body
  • Posterior deltoid – shoulder extension – movement of the arm behind the body

However the shoulder joint can also complete adduction, rotation and circumduction, which makes it the most vulnerable joint, but also the most free moving joint in the body. 

In terms of exercise selection, we again will focus on the primary movements. 

Which are the best shoulder exercises?

To determine what are the most effective shoulder exercises, we’re going to look at some literature and draw on EMG activity. 

(Electromyography (EMG) measures muscle response or electrical activity in response to a nerve’s stimulation of the muscle, and is the most accurate way to tell which exercise exerts the most stimulus on a target muscle.) 

Because the function of the shoulder for each muscle is split into 3 areas, we’re again going to look at the most effective exercises for each movement pattern. Flexion, abduction and extension. 

There of course will be crossover work with the delts in other exercises i.e. rowing movement with the rear delts, pressing movements with the front delt etc but we’re looking for the most effective movements here. 

Anterior Deltoid – Shoulder Flexion

In this table you can see that the clear winner in EMG output is the DB shoulder press from the exercises given, so on that note, you would say any variant of a shoulder press would be the most effective shoulder exercise for anterior delt development.

In terms of selecting the right exercise for you, pick the exercise that offers the ability to standardise form and increase load with standardised form most effectively. To that end, I would recommend a seated shoulder press machine to be the most effective anterior delt exercise.

EMG activity - anterior deltoid

Medial Deltoid – Shoulder Abduction

For the medial delt, EMG activity was shown to be highest on a 45 degree incline row, which is slightly converse to the effective movement pattern of that area of the delt and an exercise that would crossover with back work, primarily in scapula retraction, rhomboid and lat work, as such, I would programme the 2nd most effective exercise along a higher primary focus row movement to build the most balanced structure. As such, due to the resistance profile benefits of a machine led or cable led cuffed lateral raise, this would be my exercise of choice.

Medial delt EMG activity

Posterior Deltoid – Shoulder Extension

As we can see, EMG activity is highest during a rear lateral raise, again with row movements having a large involvement. As such, for a rear delt focussed movement, I would have rowing as a secondary driver due to other muscular involvement, and choose a primary fly movement as the selected exercise. 

Exercises I would recommend here would be a reverse pec dec and a cuffed cable rear delt fly due to the variance in resistance profile with a dumbbell vs standardised mechanical tension of cables and machines.

EMG activity - rear delt

Programming the most effective shoulder workout

Many studies have shown that the most effective drivers of hypertrophy are volume and frequency, along with progressive overload. As we discussed in the previous section, we are selecting exercises that allow for standardised increase in load without form variance so the drivers we will look at here are training frequency and volume. 

In terms of exercise frequency, studies have shown that training a muscle every 48-72 hours is optimal to allow sufficient time for recovery As such, programming for shoulder work twice per week in a PPL, Upper/Lower or full body split would be optimal for growth.

In terms of set volume, again studies have shown that optimal set volume is anything above 10-15 sets per week for a target muscle, the delt in total being the target muscle here, with negligible return as the volume of sets increases, as such a focus on higher intensity output in this set volume would be advantageous.

Rep range wise, with hypertrophy occurring across all rep ranges, we again would programme across rep ranges. Due to the muscle fibre type within the delt, we would not programme in lower end rep ranges and stick to median rep ranges in the 6-15 range for optimal output. 

In terms of how I personally programme, if a trainee is following a push, pull, legs split, anterior and medial delt work is programmed on push day, with posterior delt work falling on pull day. 

If a trainee is following an upper/lower split, then movements would be performed on upper days. Finally if a trainee is following a full body split, compound movements would be the chosen exercises with delt focussed exercises on each training day, separated by rest days.

In terms of set volume per week, I would look to programme a minimum of 4 sets for each part of the delt in any given week. 

As a sidenote, male trainees generally have overdeveloped front delts in comparison to medial and rear delts due to the volume of pressing movements, so there is a lower requirement for an overhead press movement and direct anterior delt focussed exercises vs the requirement for medial and posterior delt work. As such, in terms of maximising overall shoulder development, I would prioritise medial delts (to give the boulder shoulder appearance) and posterior delts to create symmetry in a balanced physique.

I hope you have found this article useful and that you can incorporate it into your training to get the most effective science based shoulder workout for you.

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