Short answer: The shoulders participate actively in pressing and pulling exercises. Many lifters develop decent deltoids without doing isolation work or dedicating a special day to the muscle group. But the high market share of the shoulder in big compound lifts does not make direct work obsolete. In some cases, extra focus on the area is needed to ensure joint health and aesthetic development.
Building Bigger Deltoids Without Isolation
Anterior deltoids. The anterior deltoids a.k.a. front delts are among the primary movers in every compound pressing exercise. Bench presses, dips, push-ups and overhead presses hit the area unapologetically.
But the shift of the front delts does not end here. It’s impossible to eliminate their participation even when “isolating” the pectorals. Every pec “isolation” exercise like flies activates the front delt. As a result, the anterior shoulder accumulates a lot of volume when training the chest and triceps.
If you follow an average bro split based on a multitude of exercises for the pecs and the arm extenders, you could easily overtrain your shoulders.
Ironically, the same applies to anti-bro routines like Starting Strength which stress the front delts three times a week.
Posterior deltoids. The posterior deltoids a.k.a. rear delts fire during every pulling exercise. Even deadlifts hit them because it takes effort to keep the bar close to the body. The good news is that it’s substantially harder to overwork the rear delts than it is to wreck the front portion of the shoulder.
A wider grip during rows and vertical pulling movements such as pull-ups increases the focus on the rear deltoids.
Lateral deltoids. The lateral deltoids a.k.a. side delts do not work particularly hard during horizontal pressing (bench press), but they are activated during the second part of the overhead press (read more).
What Are the Main Benefits of Removing Direct Shoulder Work?
Simplicity. Why do more when you can get the same result with less? If you’re already stressing your shoulders sufficiently when training chest, back and arms, what’s the point of overcomplicating your routine by adding exercises of dubious value?
Improved recovery. Volume is good only if you can recover from it. By overloading your shoulder with DB front raises and cable magic tricks, you are increasing the demand on the shoulder girdle and eating some of its recuperating potential. Many bros feel significant joint relief upon abandoning their shoulder day.
Training economy. If your shoulders are doing just fine without extra caressing, you can devote the freed time to another body part or skills that you would like to excel at.
What Are the Disadvantages of Removing Direct Shoulder Work?
Compromised shoulder health. The total elimination of direct shoulder work including overhead pressing renders the shoulder girdle inflexible, immobile and potentially imbalanced.
If you make the bench press your only pushing exercise, you could experience shoulder issues because the scapulae stabilizers won’t get all that strong.
During a proper bench press, the shoulder blades are retracted (pinched together) and pulled down – two actions accomplished respectively by the upper back and the lats. Hence why so many people talk about the back’s participation in the bench press.
The purpose of this technique is to “pack” the shoulder and connect it to the torso. Otherwise, it becomes very easy to hurt the rotator cuff when benching. However, that maneuver robs your scapulae stabilizers of work. The weakness of those muscles can trigger shoulder problems later.
But if your pressing routines include push-ups and dips, the scapulae issues that bench presses create are countered. During push-ups, the scapulae can move and some coaches even advise their athletes to protract them completely at the top to strengthen the serratus.
A pressing program consisting solely of benching has the highest potential to initiate shoulder problems, but if you are doing other movements like push-ups and dips the chances diminish significantly to the point where you could do just fine without overhead pressing.
However, the overhead press has one very valuable aspect besides strength – it promotes shoulder flexibility and mobility that horizontal pressing cannot provide.
The table below outlines measures needed to prevent shoulder issues depending on the chosen pressing system:
|Main Exercise||Measures Necessary to Ensure Shoulder Health|
|Bench press only||Back work + Exercises for the scapulae stabilizers + Mobility training|
|Bench press + push-ups +/- dips||Back work + Mobility exercises|
|Bench press + overhead press||Back work; Mobility exercises can still help, but if you can do an overhead press with good form, the exercise is powerful enough to guarantee a stable and flexible shoulder girdle.|
By the way, muscle imbalances are not as easy to develop as most people think. Plenty of bench press specialists live on the bench and do little pressing outside of benching without destroying their shoulders. How? Experienced coaches prescribe and monitor their training volume and intensity. Moreover, the pros take steroids to enhance their recovery and build up their work capacity over years.
Aesthetics. Pressing and pulling exercises can develop the front and rear deltoids, but in some cases, the side delts will need extra love.
Powerlifters are a good example of that phenomenon – they have big anterior deltoids as a result of pressing, but their shoulders sometimes lack width which can only come from the lateral deltoid.
That problem is more prominent in natural powerlifters. The juiced brothers often get 3D delts just from the androgenic effects of anabolic steroids like trenbolone.
But since natties do not enjoy the same luxury, adding a few sets of laterals just to see what would happen is a logical path to take.
Long Arms & Shoulders – Personal Observation
A long time ago, when I was training in a dirty powerlifting gym, a dude told me to show him how I bench. I replicated the motion while sitting without a weight. My shoulders popped under my T-shirt when I extended my arms. “You have good shoulders,” he said. At the time, I was only doing benches and overhead presses with pathetic weights. And yet this guy complimented me. Why?
This may come as broscience, but over the years, I’ve observed the following trend – many people with long arms, often ectomorphs like me, tend to have fine shoulders.
The following explanations come to mind:
Long arms. The humerus (upper arm) acts as a lever during pressing movements. The longer it is, the more stress there is on the shoulder. Hence why people with long arms develop decent anterior deltoids through pressing exercises.
Full muscle bellies. The shoulder has short tendons. It’s easier to make it stand out because there are no “gaps” to fill.
Small “wiry” arms. Thin arms make your shoulders look bigger. Many people with long arms tend to have a hard time filling out the area. The longer the arm is, the more mass you have to gain to increase the circumference. When you add short muscle bellies to the mix, you have a recipe for lagging arms and contrasting shoulders.
I don’t like lateral raises. The overhead press does not work my side delts enough. Any suggestions?
You can try the Larry Scott press. It’s an overhead dumbbell press modified to hit the side and rear delts while keeping tension on the shoulder.
Are pull-ups enough for the rear delts?
Yes. Pull-ups certainly work the posterior deltoids hard. Nonetheless, a back routine consisting solely of pull-ups has its weaknesses – it leaves the spinal erectors underdeveloped. The upper back may also lag. Hence why many people say that pull-ups build wide backs that lack thickness and detail.