Training To Achieve Well-Developed, Cannonball Shoulders

A question and answer roundtable on how to overcome obstacles to build powerful, thick and balanced shoulders. Let's get started.

Q: My shoulders are definitely my hardest muscle group to work, and noticeable gains have been minimal. I may have even injured my right rotator cuff sometime in the last few years—at least I think so because when I do military presses, I feel excessive pain and a bit of a "pop" in the joint as I am passing horizontal on the way up and down. I try to stick to dumbbell movements to prevent further injury yet still train heavy. Any suggestions on this or on "jump starting" growth in a slow-responding area like the delts?
Thanks, StoneSour

A : Back off training the anterior (front) deltoid. I say that because I strongly believe too many of us have over-developed front delts because it is almost always recruited in the majority of chest, triceps, and back exercises. And an over-developed front delt can result in chronic rotator cuff pain and that all-too-common protracted (forward extension), "hunched-over" look. If you have shoulder pain or a previous rotator cuff injury (you need to see a doctor to confirm your injury), you should focus only on strengthening the four small muscles of the rotator cuff and the posterior (rear) delts. Shoulder presses often recruit too much of the front delt, so I wouldn't recommend them unless you work with very light weights. Rear delt training, on the other hand, is crucial, and we've seen many bodybuilders dramatically improve their bodies just by developing the rear delts. Stronger rear delts result in retraction of the shoulders, a substantial increase in bench press, improved aesthetics, and stronger back muscles.


Q: Hey! Speaking of shoulders... How does one get the nice cap on the shoulders? Someone in the gym last night told me that you need 'roids to achieve this. I don't believe that for one minute! Any comments?
A: This is an interesting question. Of course we all know that anabolic steroids can increase the rate of muscular growth, but it is not the determining factor for the classic “capped” look on the shoulders. This look is amplified by a full muscle belly; however that is achieved by consistently building the lateral or side deltoid over time. The movement to natural training and competitions has shown time and time again that the capped look can be achieved with hard work, proper supplementation and an aggressive diet strategy. Before you go adding extra exercises and sets, it's critical to analyze your current shoulder development. Genetics, training techniques, and injuries are a few factors that affect and can limit shoulder development. I recommend trying the following two tests:
  • Stand sideways in front of a mirror and look at the position of your shoulders in comparison to the rest of your body. If you see that your shoulders fall in line with your ears and they stay retracted, then you have balanced shoulder development. If your shoulder is pulled forward and is positioned more toward your nose than your ears, then you have some rehabbing to do. Protraction is a sign of underdeveloped rear delts, rotator cuff muscles, and rhomboids. It's also a sign of over-developed lats and front delts, which can lead to injuries as well as poor aesthetics. (Who wants to look like a hunchback?!)
  • Next, standing straight in a relaxed, normal position in front of a mirror, immediately look at the position of your palms. If your palms face forward with your thumbs in a slight outward rotated position, then you can go ahead and work all three heads. If your palms are facing your body with thumbs pointed forward, then you have a little work to do to correct your protraction. But if your palms face behind you with thumbs in an internally rotated position (toward your thighs), then you should focus your training on rear delts and decrease emphasis on front delts until your imbalance is corrected.
It may sound minor and irrelevant if your shoulders are protracted or retracted, but you can greatly advance your physique development and reduce the chances of injury by making the following changes to your routine:
  • Stop working front delts so much! Believe us, if you back off them for an entire year, you won't notice a difference in their size or strength! It will allow you to focus on the overall ballance
  • Take rear delt training serious. Work your rear delts harder and more focused than any other muscle group, and concentrate on contracting the rear delt for proper development. Place them first in your routine so you can put a very focused effort into them.
  • For every biceps exercise you do, do an extra triceps exercise.
  • Always take time to stretch your chest and biceps. Protraction is often the result of working too much chest and biceps (the show-off muscles). Flex your biceps and chest right now, look where your shoulders go... forward! Tight pecs and biceps pull your shoulder girdles forward which is not good. Loosen them up so your hard work on rear delts will pay off.
  • Train your rhomboids harder than your lats. Make your rhomboids the strongest part of your back... strong rhomboids will pull the shoulder girdles back, and you'll also notice greater chest strength. (Again, take a moment and flex your lats as hard as you can. Notice where your shoulders go... forward.)

Bottom line: it's time to start working those important muscles you can't see!


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Q: What exercises would you recommend for the rhomboids? I am now thinking about doing upright rows instead of a second back exercise on "back days." I am a former TOS (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome) sufferer. My condition has gotten much better from listening to advice like that discussed above, but my posture could still use some improvement. I haven't done upright rows in years, but maybe they would help too.
- DR

A: For those of you who don't know TOS consists of a group of distinct disorders that affect the nerves that pass into the arms from the neck and various nerves and blood vessels between the base of the neck and armpit. Thoracic outlet syndrome is a combination of pain, numbness, tingling, weakness, or coldness in the upper extremity caused by pressure on the nerves and/or blood vessels in the thoracic outlet (a space between the rib cage and the collarbone through which the main blood vessels and nerves pass from the neck and thorax into the arm). It's extremely painful and can take anywhere from weeks to years to rehabilitate.

Back to DR... all of the tips that were mentioned in the previous questions will help considerably, especially working your rhomboids. Rhomboids are located under the trapezius and aren't that great in size. Unfortunately, its small structure makes it easy for the front delts and pecs to compensate and over-power the rhomboid many times over. Also take notice of where the rhomboid attaches to the shoulder blade, holding it firmly retracted into position. Someone whose shoulders are rolled forward in an ape-like position would have underdeveloped and weak rhomboids, causing the shoulder blades to roll/pull forward.

When someone is in great shape but can't seem to take their physique to another level, they often target training or nutrition. Trying a new training program or getting extra strict on the diet may have worked when you were out of shape... but now it's time to consider the possibility that your physiology needs some adjustments and improvements. Ideal exercises for stimulating the rhomboids are any types of rows (bent over, cable, machine, dumbbell, barbell), but remember to pinch your scapulae (shoulder blades) together during the exercise. Keep your elbows in-close/tight to your sides and pay attention to good form, focusing on quality contractions.

One exercise used for rehabbing the rhomboid muscle (which also works the traps) is seated shrugs. You can't stimulate the rhomboid unless you've fully retracted your shoulders (once again pinching the scapulae together) and look forward during the shrugging motion. Most importantly, use variation. Adjust your grip and pull the weight from different angles to ensure maximal recruitment of weak fibers.

Before beginning a back workout, don't forget to stretch out your biceps and pecs. Although "little" tips, like the position of your thumb, may seem irrelevant (especially if your condition isn't serious right now), if you start adopting these smart training techniques, you'll soon discover serious changes in your strength and symmetry. So, as you can see, to get the “capped” look to your shoulders, you need to focus on balance, positioning and opening up all nerve and blood flow pathways. It may seem counterintuitive to back off so much on your front delt, but over time it will allow the rear and side delts catch up and round out the whole area for that “Cannonball” look.

When you are training the shoulder, form is critical because of the sheer complexity of the joint and muscle group. Focus on form before weight and over time, the results your looking for will come and you'll never look back.


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