Build Shoulders Like an Olympian

by Gareth Sapstead and Shelace Shoemaker

5 Delt Exercises You Need

Here's how Shelace Shoemaker, IFBB Pro, builds her Olympia-worthy delts, plus some smart programming tips.

I’ve had the privilege of training IFBB Pro Shelace Shoemaker, who pushed hard to ultimately achieve two back-to-back Olympia contests. And she did it while managing old injuries and not beating her body up in the process.

Today, we’ll share some insights into how we’ve built Olympia-worthy shoulders, along with some of Shelace’s favorite exercises. We’ll also give some context on how we program certain exercises to get the most out of them. Let’s jump straight into the exercises.

1. Supported Cuban Press

Cuban presses are a great option to kick off your workout. They’ll prepare and prime your shoulders, send blood to all the right places, and build strength in your rear delts and shoulder external rotators.

Do them from an incline. Just set your bench to anywhere between a 30 to 45-degree angle. Compared to the standing variation, Cuban presses on an incline bench target your rear delts even more, keep the movement strict, and place your shoulders in a more comfortable position.

How To Use It

Do 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps at the very start of your shoulder workout. Gradually ramp up the weight until it’s a challenge. Just make sure it’s not so heavy that you lose form.

2. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Nothing beats consistency on the big basics. Over time, you may hit a plateau, and while many regard them as a negative, plateaus are a good reminder that you’ve stuck to an exercise long enough to reach the point that you can’t squeeze much more out of it.

At that point, layer in a new key indicator lift, like a barbell shoulder press. Work hard at progressing it and reaching a plateau. Then try going back to the dumbbell shoulder press after a month or two, or do a completely different exercise.

We prefer seated dumbbell and barbell shoulder presses because of the slight difference in pressing angle at the shoulder joint.

For Shelace, the seated version is easier on the low back compared to standing variations. Shoulder presses tend to target the anterior delts a little more than other areas, so it’s important to consider that when structuring the rest of your training plan.

How To Use It

If you’re training effectively, you shouldn’t need to use more than one shoulder press variation per workout. Maybe two. But, if that’s the case, the second variation should be from another angle to fatigue those delt fibers slightly differently.

Lifters that include too many presses in one workout end up with various shoulder issues in the long run. Those that don’t tend to be the ones that have won the genetic lottery with their shoulder anatomy and/or do a great job at maintaining good structural balance around their shoulder joints. Most do not.

Start your shoulder workout with exercises that strengthen your shoulder external rotators, rear delts, and deep stabilizers, then put your key indicator lifts more towards the middle of your workouts.

In physique sports and when training to look great naked, no one wins a prize for the heaviest shoulder press. You’re judged on looks alone (on the beach, too), and if you can keep your shoulders healthy when building them, then you’re winning both on stage and in life.

3. Seated Barbell Shoulder Press

You can also use seated barbell shoulder presses as a key indicator lift. The downside to barbell pressing is your lack of freedom with a stiff, straight bar. Your joints aren’t always as well aligned as they might be with dumbbells.

However, the advantage of the barbell is that it lends itself to progressive overload and adding the smallest weight increments available. You can “encourage” load progression rather than force it.

How To Use It

When training for aesthetics (and with longevity in mind), perform your heavier pressing exercises towards the middle of your workouts rather than first thing.

Do anywhere from 3-5 top sets of 5-12 reps. Your sets and reps will depend on the phase of your training and time of year (competition prep versus offseason etc.). If working in the lower rep range (5-7 reps), slow the tempo and emphasize eccentric control. We want to always “dominate” that eccentric phase open every rep!

4. Chest-Supported Lateral Raise

Lateral raises are a staple if you want to isolate your delts. When you’re trying to build a great physique, wider shoulders look better and give the illusion of a smaller waistline.

Chest-supported lateral raises put you in the perfect position and arm path to target your medial delts. They also help eliminate body English. Using the scapular plane and raising the dumbbells about 30 degrees forward also better aligns your shoulder joints for maximal stability and health.

How To Use It

Lifters often switch between dumbbell and cable lateral raise variations and will sometimes use different varieties in the same workout. While dumbbells place maximal load on your delts more toward the top of the movement, cable lateral raises tend to overload the middle and bottom of the movement more, depending on how you set them up.

So try adding a brief pause at the top of each lateral raise when using dumbbells or at the bottom to emphasize the stretch during cable variations. If medial delts are your weak point, then consider placing them toward the start of your workouts.

Many elite physique athletes pump up their medial delts first before doing their presses. This works well. Or you can place them in the middle or near the end of your workouts if they’re not much of a priority. Lastly, you can use a few lateral raise variations in the same workout and do them at different points. Just make sure you’re working different angles or points of maximal load.

If you’re still not sure where your delts are getting hit the most, use these two lists as a quick reference point:

PML = Point of Maximal Load

PML Near the Top (Contracted/Shortened)

  • Chest-Supported Lateral Raise
  • Seated or Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise
  • Lateral Raise with Kettlebells
  • Lean-Away Lateral Raise
  • Cable Lateral Raise Variations: Where the cable is coming straight up, as opposed to across your body

PML Near the Bottom (Stretched/Lengthened)

  • Cross-Body Cable Lateral Raise
  • X-Cable Lateral Raise
  • Bench Side-Lying Dumbbell Lateral Raise
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: Where purposeful momentum is used at the bottom (e.g., delt swings)

Bonus Tip: Well-designed lateral raise machines offer relatively even loading throughout.

5. DeFranco Shoulder Shocker

Named after T Nation Coach Joe DeFranco, there are plenty of combinations you could try here. It’s generally 3-5 exercises, each performed one after the other in a mechanical drop-set fashion.

Start with your weakest exercise, then switch to one a little stronger, then to your strongest. By the time you get to that final exercise, your delts will be screaming. Generally, these target multiple areas of your shoulders, but that depends on the exercises you choose.

Here’s one of our favorite shoulder shockers we came up with. Try to keep up:

  1. Constant Tension Alternate Lateral Raise
  2. Alternate Raise (Seesaw Raise)
  3. Seated Lateral Raise
  4. Eccentric Lateral Raise
  5. Partial Lateral Raise (Bottom Half)

Start with somewhere between 8-15 reps. The weight you’re using should be directed by your strength in the first exercise in the series.

How To Use It

You’ll want to leave the gym after doing these. Or at least spend the next 10 minutes admiring your delt pump in the bathroom mirror. So, best keep these for the end of your workout.

MD-Buy-on-Amazon

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Note: Gareth and Shelace are popping into T Nation HQ this summer. Stay tuned…

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I’ll be dropping in with some friends. Looking forward to it!

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On the seated barbell shoulder press, why are the wrists flared?

I’ve always tried to keep the back of the hand linear with the forearm to prevent injury.

Why is the technique better, as demonstrated?

Thanks

This is one of those cases where I suggest just going with what feels most comfortable for you. Some find your grip/wrist position to put some extra stress on the thumbs, or don’t feel as secure with it. On the other hand with the wrists too extended and passively allowing the weight to pull them back can cause wrist issues. Shelace is using the wrist position that’s most comfortable for her and feels strong.

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Thx :+1:t4:

I am leveraging this article to balance out my shoulders. For any readers out there, the Cuban shoulder press is the real deal. This lit up my rear delts, and I had to train with the muscles I had (not my ego).

FWIW, those look like 15s or 20s in the demo - in perfect form I might add.

That athlete is a beast!

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this is amazing

Completely agree. those Cuban presses are a humbler!

thanks. hopefully plenty of ideas to sprinkle into your own training.