Training shoulders usually involves plenty of presses, and because of this heavyweight reputation, lots of lifters feel like they should train this smaller muscle group with the same volume and intensity as leg day. This is a huge mistake.
Even if you’re experienced with weight training, you might not know: your shoulder joints and muscles are not just smaller, but much more delicate than other commonly-trained body parts, and therefore we can’t put the shoulders through the heavy rigors like other muscle groups.
“Shoulder training seems simple: You think you’re going to go into the gym and just like any other body part—you’re going to choose three to four exercises, you’re going to hit it hard, and all of a sudden your shoulders are going to grow,” he says Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, CSCS “But the truth is, shoulder training is not that simple.”
The first step toward safe, effective, and consistent shoulder training is avoiding these four misguided workout myths.
Shoulder Training Myths to Avoid
You Need to Flare Your Elbows Out
Whether you prefer barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or some other piece of equipment, getting your delts to grow normally requires some sort of overhead press. Performing these exercises however, requires a mid-back stability. Lacking the necessary stability can lead to your arms tipping forward, flaring your elbows, which can land your shoulders in a compromised position.
Instead, focus on keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle, which puts you within the scapular plane. This can be done safely with any pressing style, and is a lot safer over the long term—and you’ll be able to move more weight.
You Need to Do Lateral Raises High
Lateral raises are great move for hitting the outer head of the deltoids—when done properly. However, some people feel the need to raise their arms too high, which is plain wrong and useless.
Bottom line: When it comes to lateral raises, remember that the point of greatest tension on the outer head of your delts is when your wrists are parallel with your shoulders. Lift your arms any higher and this now becomes a traps exercise. Just focus on keeping your wrists slightly below your shoulders, even pause momentarily to get maximum results from lateral raises.
The ‘Empty Can’ Myth
Hopefully, if you’re still new to lifting, you haven’t learned this deltoid-training principle. Some bodybuilders believe that flipping your thumbs downward while doing lateral raises—otherwise known as the empty can technique—will target your rear delts as well. What this worthless move really does is accelerated shoulder pain and injury by putting your shoulders into internal rotation. Forget this move at all costs, and instead stick to exercises that do not promote internal rotation of your shoulders, like rear-delt flys or old school back exercises.
You Need to Train Your Shoulders as Much as Other Muscle Groups
It all goes back to the intro: The shoulder is a delicate joint. It’s also getting trained pretty heavily each time you bench press or work your back, and even play a stabilizing role when you’re doing any kind of barbell squat. So hitting the standard three to four shoulder exercises at three to four sets each once or twice a week in addition to the complementary work on the other days is just overworking your shoulders.
Instead of having one or two days devoted to shoulders, tack on one or two exercises at the end of chest or back day. Try an overhead press variation for power and couple it with a detailed accessory move, like a lateral raise or rear-delt fly, at the end of a workout. You’re still building strength and power in your shoulders without the unnecessary volume.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.