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Last Updated on October 3, 2016

Hoisting heavy iron overhead is the best way to build thick, striated shoulders. Here’s seven ways to keep it interesting.

Remember that story about how Arnold Schwarzenegger built his delts using nothing but dumbbell lateral raises?

Yeah. Neither do we.


That’s because maximizing growth on all three delt heads requires some degree of overhead pressing. Overhead presses allow you to overload your delts with heavy weight, which calls more total muscle into play and increases growth hormone release. Each of your shoulder workouts – unless you are limited by injury – should begin with one or two presses. This handy guide lays out some options that you can rotate in to keep things fresh. By swapping out your presses, you can slightly alter the muscular emphasis and keep your delts from getting too comfortable.

1- Standing Military Press

The Emphasis: Middle, front delts

The Breakdown: This foundational overhead pressing exercise has been around since before presses were cool. To many of us, this is the first variation of pressing overhead that we learn in our high school weight rooms and for a good reason. The standing military press blasts the shoulders but in order to stabilize the weight overhead, your core musculature (abdominals and erector spinae), lats and traps are called into play. If you have lower back problems, a weak core, and poor upper back strength, your strength and performance on this lift will suffer. The old school standing military press will never go out of style and is a tried-and-true, overhead strength builder for lifters of all levels.

The Plan: To best execute this lift, start with the bar in a power rack at shoulder height. This is a much safer alternative to cleaning it up to the front rack position. A split stance is also encouraged during this lift to maximize stabilization of the core and shoulder complex. You can use this as a shoulder strength and mass builder at the beginning of your workout by using a 3-8 rep range, for 3-5 sets. This exercise is also valuable as a finisher with lower weight and higher reps (8-15 reps), to cause maximum muscle stimulation to improve muscle growth.


2- Push Press

The Emphasis: Middle, front delts

The Breakdown: This exercise, which allows you to use your legs to assist in the lift, allows you to use a ton of weight to really help push your strength capacity. The dip-and-drive portion of the lift helps create momentum to press a high amount of weight. More weight pushed = more strength and muscle growth.

For the “dip” portion of the lift, be sure to dip shallow, dip slowly, and don’t dip back or forward – just straight down. Bend through the legs while keeping your torso straight. For the “drive,” keep your chest upright – let your legs and hips initiate the movement. Some people are over eager to start pushing with the upper body to quickly. This can screw up the whole pattern and diminish your power output, meaning less weight to be pushed.

The Plan: After mastering the military overhead press, this exercise should become your primary move because you’re able to handle greater loads which is ideal for growth promotion. Put this exercise earlier or, first in your workout while you are fresh. A rep range of 2-8 reps for 3-6 sets works best.

3- Arnold Press

The Emphasis: Front delts, rotator cuff, upper pecs

The Breakdown: This is the exercise made famous by none other than Arnold himself. Just about anyone who lifted a weight seriously has tried this variation of the overhead press. Unlike the previous two presses, this variation is best done in the seated position. My opinion is if you are sitting down to press some weight overhead, this is the only option – most other overhead presses are best done standing. This exercise is slightly tricky when using heavy weight and should not be done until you master the standard seated dumbbelloverhead press. You will start with the dumbbells in front of your shoulders in a supinated grip (palms facing you). As you press the dumbbells overhead, you will transition to a pronated grip. This portion of the lift is great for building the strength of the rotator cuff muscles and anterior deltoids. Then the focus shifts its tension to the medial deltoids, upper chest and the triceps, making it a great “bang for your buck” upper body strength and mass builder.

The Plan: This is a great hypertrophy (muscle-building) exercise that Arnold claims to be the main reason for his dramatic cannonball delts. Since the movement is complex, it should be done during the first part of your workout, and as a muscle builder and not a strength builder. A set and rep scheme of 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps works best for this exercise.


4- Standing Dumbell Overhead Press

The Emphasis: Front, middle delts, trapezius

The Breakdown: Since there is an even load on each shoulder, this exercise is a great complement to barbell overhead pressing movements. The standing dumbbell overhead press has been shown to activate more muscles in the shoulders as compared to the barbell overhead press due to your shoulder stabilizers becoming more involved in the movement. You also have the ability to change grip positions and elbow angles, making it easier to accommodate lifters that have shoulder injuries or mobility issues.

The Plan: The dumbbell overhead press is a great break from barbell presses, which are more taxing on the central nervous system. This makes it a perfect choice as a finishing shoulder exercise, or a nice break from heavier lifting. It can also be a great strength and mass builder, so its versatility is endless. Try 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps to really make your delts pop.


5- Machine Overhead Press

The Emphasis: Front delts, traps

The Breakdown: Machines have received a bad rap in the fitness world but the machine overhead press still holds tremendous value in your pursuit of bigger shoulders. By pressing overhead with a machine, you take out the variable of stabilizing the weight in the overhead position, making it the perfect option for the inexperienced lifter and lifters coming off an injury. It’s also great for lifters who train without the benefit of a spotter since you can really load up the weight without safety issues coming into play.

The Plan: One way to include this overhead pressing method is at the end of the workout to force as much blood into the muscles as possible when you are fatigued. Taking out the stabilization variable of the lift helps you keep continuous tension on the muscle, causing some great muscle growth by tapping into some muscle fibers that have not been stimulated by other shoulder movements.


6- Single Arm Overhead Press

The Emphasis: Front, middle delts, obliques

The Breakdown: This is the perfect overhead pressing exercise to help reduce asymetries. By only using one dumbbell, you are forced to recruit your lateral core stabilzers to help keep your body stabile and symmetrical. Incidentally, you may be able to press heavier dumbbells this way. Studies show that when you train one limb at a time, you may generate up to 20 percent more force. It is thought that the working limb senses the need to compensate for the non-working limb.

The Plan: This exercise is great to include if you have married yourself to only using the barbell. Include this exercise for variety and as a complement to the other overhead pressing movements in your routine, later in your shoulder workout. Try three sets of 8-10 reps for growth but take advantage of the additional force production by choosing a weight that triggers failure within that range.


7- One-Arm Bottoms-UP KettleBell Press

The Emphasis: All deltoid heads, scapular stabilizers

The Breakdown: Many people ditch overhead pressing movements if they have a preexisting shoulder injuries. This is the perfect exercise to get you back on track. This is basically an overhead press using a kettlebell, with the bulky part of the bell above the handle. This places the kettlebell in a precarious position, requiring a stronger grip and much more control of the weight throughout each rep. The plane of the scapula is generally much more shoulder friendly, making it safe for many people with a shoulder issue. This exercise also forces you to use less weight than usual by recruiting more of your shoulder stabilizers instead of the other three shoulder heads (anterior, medial, posterior). It also forces your grip strength to be challenged, and in return, forces your rotator cuff muscles to fire reflexively. As a bonus, you must stabilize the core to allow the scapula and humorous to move correctly.

The Plan: This exercise should be done when you are coming off a shoulder injury in the beginning of your routine to help stimulate your shoulder stabilizers and rotator cuff muscles. Think of it as a rehabilitative overhead pressing movement. You can also use this a complement to your current shoulder routine to help round out your shoulder development and improve shoulder health. Three sets of eight reps works best due to the stability demands of the exercise.

For more training info from Justin Grinnell, CSCS, you can go to, or visit his gym’s website at, his Facebook page, or check him out on Twitter.



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