Shoulder days are a favourite for fitness enthusiasts, mostly because of the simplicity with which you can activate your shoulder muscles. But one must understand that this muscle group does not consist of just the topmost part of your arm (or the deltoids, which are above the biceps) which eventually join with the sides of the neck (or the traps).
The shoulder muscle group also runs into the back, with the scapulas (situated around the shoulder blades), and the teres minor and major (just below the scapula). Some parts of the triceps and even the lats get activated when you perform exercises targeting the shoulder muscles. Working all these muscles can be achieved using the most basic movement of lifting weight (with proper technique) from your chest to an overhead position: The shoulder press.
For preparation: Apart from other warmup moves, the press is a perfect move to do before you start lifting. Resistance band lifts can be performed with different grips and in a way that will help you add strength to your primary lifts on shoulder day. This is when you concentrate on form, on muscle activation, and on descending with resistance rather than hypertrophy or mass building. Slow easy reps will give you signs of weakness in the shoulder too, so you can tailor your programme accordingly.
For mass and hypertrophy: The strict military press is brilliant when it comes to isolating the shoulder muscles. It can be done either sitting or standing, the key to a good military press is reducing momentum to aid the lift. While you may not want to entirely lock out your knees and hips, perform the exercise in a slow controlled manner with core activation. You can use a rack of a free barbell to do this, but starting with the former is a good idea since it keeps things aligned.
The Arnold Press is another favourite when it comes to building mass. One of the body building maestro’s gifts to the fitness world, the Arnold Press starts with a pull and ends in a push, providing a different challenge for your upper body.
For explosive strength: The push press is an overhead press with an allowance to use momentum generated from the lower body with a hip hinge. It adds a drive that can bring you on your toes to add a little acceleration to the lift, meaning you can add some more weight to this compared to a strict overhead press. While descending, you can bend your knees and cushion the downward momentum of the barbell.
Used extensively in athletic training and CrossFit, the push press must be done only if your shoulders are not suffering from an injury or weakness. Those playing sport will see the effects of a push press on their jumping, sprinting, and dynamic movement.
For stability and imbalances: With the shoulders being a mechanical marvel of rotating muscles which play an important role in daily functioning, it is prudent to work on their stability and erase any imbalances. The Z-press is an overhead press performed in a sitting position with the legs straight ahead of you. This means that you are essentially doing the press in an L-sit. This removes the lower body from the equation, making it a bigger challenge for your shoulders to push weight overhead. Lighter weights, with a slower tempo, is the way to go.
The kettlebell offers a bigger challenge than dumbbells or the barbell due to its purposely uneven shape and unique grip (called the “rack position”). This forces you to stabilise the shoulder before pressing. The other advantage is that the kettlebell is that it encourages a ‘unilateral move’, which means both sides of your body are working independently so you can work on any imbalances.
For those with shoulder issues: Shoulder injuries are common due to how often they are activated, not just in the gym, but also in daily activities. But that doesn’t mean you can completely stop working on it. The single-hand landmine is excellent to nurse your shoulder back to health, or even work on your shoulder strength while the physiotherapist has asked you to refrain from overhead movements.
The video (above) shows how to perform variations of the landmine press, which is essentially a barbell lift while it is attached to a 45 degree angle on the ground or a base. Some gyms will have a barbell attached to a landmine base which can also help you perform T-rows on back day. The partial shoulder press can also help you build back strength—this is a press where you don’t have to lock out your arms overhead, instead focusing on regaining the ability to do so.
In case you are wondering how to fit these press variations into your workout, then one tip would be to focus on your primary lift of the day. If your push/shoulder day has the military press as the big compound lift, start there and pick a couple of variations as auxiliary exercises of the day. It is important to keep shoulders strong and mobile, so these muscles must, at the end of the day, also be eased out with enough mobility and stretching work.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.