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Shoulder training: The Mountain Dog way

Schultertraining: Der Mountain Dog Weg

"Shoulders make up body development" is a common statement in the bodybuilding world.

And if I have the opportunity to expand on that statement, I would add "and if your shoulder development is reminiscent of Larry King's, then your shoulder training sessions require serious pain tolerance, perseverance, strength of character and a healthy dose of creativity."

Okay, that may not be the most elegant piece of prose ever written, but it sums up my approach to training stubborn shoulders pretty well. Let me share some background on my experience with this pesky muscle group.

My shoulder genetics are pretty lousy - made worse by the fact that I'm genetically blessed in terms of my neck muscles. My neck had a circumference of 47 centimeters in high school and 53 centimeters after college - and that's without any direct training. So during my early days, my body development was dominated by this thick neck that transitioned into narrow shoulders that hung down - basically, all I was missing was a pair of long arms for a true caveman look.

To top it all off, I have quite short collarbones and if you combine all this with a fairly wide pelvic belt, you have someone who will find it very difficult to look wide and trim-waisted.

As with my back, I've spent many years trying out the standard shoulder training programs you'll find in Muscle & Fiction. You know those programs: a lot of overhead pressing - which will bulk up your shoulders - and a lot of side raises - which will broaden your shoulders.

I regularly performed numerous variations of the shoulder press and incorporated enough side raises into my training to achieve the shoulder development of a champion, but somehow I couldn't seem to develop any significant mass or width in my shoulders.

My lower body grew and I was quite successful in bodybuilding competitions only because of my legs and ability to achieve good definition. However, when I saw the huge round and thick shoulder muscles of these guys at national level championships, I knew I had to find a way to achieve this look.

There was a moment that completely changed my shoulder training philosophy and made me realize that what I had been doing wasn't working for me and that I needed to get creative. It wasn't a program in some magazine, it wasn't anatomical studies, and it wasn't Eastern Bloc theories on muscle hypertrophy.

I was working out at the old Golds Gym in Columbus and Nick - an old friend of mine - came over for a chest and shoulder training session. If you've read any of my previous articles, you know that Nick was the guy who often competed in a powerlifting competition and a bodybuilding competition on the same day. I probably don't need to mention that he was a real animal: muscular and defined.

At the time, I was preparing for the national championships and when he saw me, he said these exact words: "Johnny, where are your shoulders?"

I didn't know what to say. Your mind is in a very fragile state before a competition, so I became quite disillusioned.

Then Nick asked me about my reps and the weight I was using in my shoulder workouts. I started babbling about doing sets of 8 reps with 25 kilos on side raises and 50 kilos on dumbbell shoulder presses, which didn't really seem to impress him, considering his next comment: "That's not going to do you shit."

Agonizing times

My shoulder training education began

Nick told me to grab the 7.5 kilo dumbbells and head to the incline bench so we could start doing incline bench barbell presses and training for the rear shoulder muscles.

Rear shoulders? I wasn't sure what he had up his sleeve as apart from the occasional set of heavy side raises for the rear shoulders that I'd read about in some magazine, I hadn't done much for the rear shoulders before.

We started with a few reps of presses on the incline bench to warm up. After this came his instructions: Just do sets of 5 reps of presses on the bench and then lie prone on the incline bench and do a set of side raises for the back shoulders with 7.5 kilo dumbbells and 60 reps.

Yes, 60 reps!

I thought he was joking - all the textbooks say that growth comes from 8 to 12 reps and that all high repetition training does is activate the slow contracting muscle fibers and turn me into a marathon runner. But I humbled myself and performed this set.

It was agonizing. I had never felt pain like this in my back shoulder muscles before in my life. Next, we increased the weight on the incline bench to 125 kilos. I did another set of 5 reps and noticed that it suddenly felt heavy. This was followed by another set of side raises for the rear shoulders with 60 repetitions.

The first set of 60 reps was extremely painful, but this one was even worse - it must have taken five minutes to complete. After a short break, it was back to the incline bench. This time I was almost crushed by 140 kilos. Nick found the whole thing quite funny and made his comments about how weak my shoulders were and how they no longer worked as stabilizers. And yet he made me do the last set of 60 reps.

After those three sets, my rear shoulder muscles were incredibly swollen and pumped up, but Nick had only just started. "Do you want to train with heavy weights now?" he asked me. I replied with an enthusiastic yes and he told me to grab the 27 kilo dumbbells.

"That'll be easy," I thought. Shoulder presses with 27 kilo dumbbells - those were baby weights for me - or so I thought.

"Heavy weights, high reps," he barked - the same message Tom Platz had tried to hammer into us during a seminar. Platz had said to forget these heavy weights for low reps and low weights for high reps philosophies and instead use a heavy weights and high reps approach for ultimate intensity.

We performed "swings" with the 27 kilo dumbbells. This was standing side raises with a very limited range of motion with a heavy weight. You simply put your head back and perform these swinging movements until you reach the set number of reps and we performed sets of 35 reps. Nick performed his reps with ease and laughed when he saw how much I was struggling with my reps - but I lasted all three sets.

That was the end of that training session and the next day I had probably the worst shoulder muscle soreness of my life. But even the fact that I felt soreness in my shoulders was something amazing for me, as it had always been very difficult for me to provoke any soreness in that area. I have used this lesson ever since in my approaches to high reps from different angles for the shoulder muscles.

Other things that have happened over the years have steered me towards my current shoulder training philosophies, many of which will be very different from what you are used to. However, you should remember that this is what has worked for me and I'm not saying that shoulder presses or regular repetition ranges are useless. I'm simply saying that sometimes you need to be creative in order to reach your full potential, which is exactly what I did.

First, let's look at my key concepts for shoulder training.

Training for the posterior shoulder muscles

My first piece of advice is to train the back shoulder muscles. Just training your back is not enough to develop really big posterior shoulder muscles unless you are hugely blessed genetically. The development of the rear shoulder muscles is crucial for the side view. When the rear shoulder muscles are fully developed, you get that thick 3-D look that sets you apart from everyone else.

Train the rear shoulder muscles with high reps - at least most of the time

I've found over the years that the rear shoulder muscles respond very well to high reps. This can be very painful and test your willpower, but if you can do it, they will grow. Try the repetition pattern below for a month and you'll see what I mean.

Four weeks typically looks like this for a chosen posterior shoulder exercise (the exercise can change from week to week):

  • Week 1 - 4 sets of 35 reps.
  • Week 2 - 4 sets of 20-25 reps.
  • Week 3 - 4 sets of 12-15 reps.
  • Week 4 - 4 sets of a traditional reverse pyramid: 35 reps, 25 reps, 15-20 reps, and then 8-12 reps. Increase the weight on each of these sets.

Use a heavy weight with high reps once a month to shock your muscles:

How do you do this with the rear shoulder muscles? I use the following once a month during the off-season and twice a month during competition preparation:

Finish your shoulder workout with a "destruction set" of hang and swings( This exercise is similar to the standing swing I described above, but now you lie prone on an incline bench and let the dumbbells hang down. Use a pair of heavy dumbbells and handles.

Here is the repetition pattern for the set:

  1. Perform 60 repetitions with heavy reps over the partial repetition range of Hang and Swing.
  2. After performing 60 reps, drop the dumbbells and grab a pair of dumbbells that are half the weight. Perform 30 more repetitions of Hang and Swing.
  3. Drop the dumbbells again and grab a pair of dumbbells half the weight. Perform 10 repetitions with these through the full range of motion, engaging your rear shoulder muscles hard for 2 seconds at the highest point of the movement.

Training for the lateral/middle shoulder muscles

There are some excellent intensity techniques that are safe and will help you achieve amazing results with the lateral shoulder muscles.

Use heavy eccentric weights in side raises on the machine:

This exercise is phenomenal. The correct way to perform this exercise is to perform the positive/concentric portion of the exercise alone, while a training partner applies additional pressure during the eccentric phase as you try to resist this pressure to the maximum.

I love this technique because, unlike many other negative repetition protocols, it can be performed safely (which most negative repetitions are not) and works the lateral, middle muscle fibers of the shoulders hard.

Use heavy weights for high reps:

This brings me back to the standing side raise, where I used the swing technique from the lowest position with very heavy weights. Your arms should only be minimally bent while performing this exercise. Sets of 25 to 35 repetitions seem to be optimal.

Descending sets of side raises:

This is one of the exercises you probably already use, so I won't spend much time describing it. You can do these on a machine or with dumbbells.

Combined training for the front/side shoulder muscles

I don't usually do much isolation training for the anterior shoulder muscles and instead focus on exercises that work both the anterior and lateral shoulder muscles.

Perform weekly incline bench presses:

If you remember my chest training article, you'll know that I like incline bench presses for shoulder width. I've noticed that my shoulders lose width and volume from the side when I stop doing incline bench presses. This is very obvious. I like a standard pyramid workout with this exercise and don't lower the weight all the way to my chest to avoid putting unnecessary strain on my rotator cuff. I like to train shoulders and chest on the same day.

Perform "Six Ways" (

This is just one of those combination exercises that really delivers. You do seated side raises and swing your arms in front of your body during the contracting phase. Then raise them above your head before reversing the movement. Bring your arms back in front of your body, swing them to the side and lower the weight back to the starting position. This entire movement is considered one repetition.

I use 5 kilo dumbbells in this exercise - so don't think you'll be able to use heavy weights. I typically perform sets of 10 repetitions.

Use shoulder presses sparingly

Doing heavy shoulder presses every week had devastating effects on my joints and I will never do them again. I use shoulder presses occasionally for fun as I think it can be effective, but it's just too easy to overdo it with this exercise. Remember that a big part of my philosophy has to do with staying healthy and in one piece. There are 3 variations of the shoulder press that I particularly like:

Overhead and back(

As the name suggests, you press the barbell from behind your head, just over your head in front of your body and then reverse this movement. Overhead forward, lower and back corresponds to one repetition. Perform this exercise standing and use a repetition range of 8 to 12 repetitions. This exercise is similar to the Bradford Press.

Super wide shoulder press:

This exercise is a standing shoulder press where the hands are placed far to the side of the bar and the bar is lowered all the way down to the chest.

This exercise may feel uncomfortable at first as your shoulder muscles are not used to this range of motion, but as they loosen up, you may even enjoy this movement. Super wide shoulder presses are heavy and you won't need a lot of weight for this one. I like to do sets of 12 to 15 repetitions with only 30 to 35 kilos of weight.

Shoulder press in the rack (

This exercise is similar to standing shoulder presses, but performed in a rack. The difference is that you push the bar against the rack and upwards. This provides additional resistance but a fixed range of motion.

At the highest point of the movement, lean forward and consciously tense your shoulder muscles. A group of powerlifters at Westside Barbell taught me this exercise and I still use it occasionally. This exercise is also excellent for the trapezius.

Training volume

I keep the volume lower for shoulders than for larger muscle groups such as legs or back. Using the intensity techniques described, and bearing in mind that the shoulder muscles are relatively small, I don't think you need as many sets as with the legs.

As with all muscle groups, I prefer to gradually increase the training volume for the shoulders and then train with this volume for six weeks before reducing the volume again. The intensity doesn't change, but the changes in volume provide a kind of built-in periodization.

In terms of volume, my 12 week training program for shoulders looks like this:

Phase 1 - Weeks 1-3:

Use a medium volume approach. The number of sets ranges from 6 to 8 sets. In general, you should focus on two or maybe three exercises, one of which should always be for the posterior shoulder muscles. Use the intensity techniques described above.

Phase 2 - Week 4-9:

Use a high volume approach. Now we start to increase the volume from week to week. Your body will have become accustomed to the intensity from phase 1, which we will compensate for by increasing the volume and total tonnage over the course of these 6 weeks. The number of sets usually ranges from 9 to 12, with more high-intensity sets added each week. Again, use 2 to 3 exercises. During this phase you will work hard for 6 weeks.

Phase 3 - Week 10-12:

Use a medium volume approach using almost exclusively high intensity sets. The number of sets will range from 4 to 6. The overall volume will decrease in terms of the number of sets, but these sets will be the hardest sets you've ever done in your life. I generally recommend using two exercises during this phase.

Unloading phase - 2 weeks:

As with any heavy program, there is an unloading phase that you will benefit from in the long run as there will be a rebound effect of the cumulative neuronal fatigue that accompanies high intensity training.

However, everyone is different and I have had exercisers do this phase after as little as 6 weeks, while others can train at extreme intensity for over 30 weeks and still make steady progress. Two weeks of light training is my general recommendation after a brutal 12 weeks.

Example workouts

Here is a typical shoulder training session from Phase 1 of my program (8 sets total). Remember that I train chest first with barbell incline bench presses to help my shoulder development.

  1. Heavy side raises (partial reps): Grab a pair of very heavy dumbbells and let your arms hang straight down beside your body. Perform small swings. Perform 4 sets of 35 repetitions. Tilt your head back when performing this exercise and keep your arms straight. Make sure that the lateral muscle head of your shoulders moves the weight upwards.
  2. Rear shoulder muscles on the machine (reverse butterfly): 3 sets of 35 repetitions. Move the weight as far back as possible to maximize the range of motion.
  3. Side raises for the rear shoulder muscles on an incline bench: 1 destruction set. Grab heavy dumbbells and perform 60 partial repetitions. Drop the weight, grab two dumbbells of half the weight and perform the next set of 30 partial repetitions. Halve the weight again and perform 10 repetitions through the full range of motion, pausing for 2 seconds at the highest point of the movement.

Here is a typical shoulder workout from Phase II of my program (12 sets). I consider this to be high volume for a small muscle group like the shoulders.

  1. Barbell overhead press and back press: 4 sets of 12 reps. Hold the barbell in front of your body and press it up to just above your head and release it behind your head. Immediately afterwards, press the barbell back up to just above your head and then lower it towards your chest. This is one repetition. Don't overdo it with the weight and don't bash your head in when you get tired.
  2. Training for the rear shoulder muscles on the cable pulley: Pass the cable pulls over the top pulley and pause in the contracted position for 2 seconds on each repetition. Perform 4 sets of 25 repetitions.
  3. Six Ways: Just in case there's any life left in your shoulder muscles. Perform 4 sets of 10 repetitions.


I've never had the best hand when it comes to shoulder genetics. Instead, I had to experiment, trick and push my creativity - as well as my joke tolerance - to the absolute limit before I could start building serious muscle mass in the shoulders. However, this doesn't mean you have to take my long and winding road.

Remember that there will always be genetic freaks who will grow through practically anything, but I think you'll find my approach great if you're not one of those lucky people. I hope some of these techniques can help you as much as they have helped me.

From John Meadows


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