Build Stronger, More Secure Shoulders
Broad shoulders are synonymous with strength and power. Louis L’Amour’s main characters always have them, as did John Wayne and Conan. They’re symbols of masculinity, and every youngster who’s been bitten by the weight-training bug wants them. They’re even more impressive when they sit on top of a wide back and tree-trunk legs. While big arms and chests are often hidden under layers of clothing, wide shoulders can never be concealed.
Even before I got hooked on lifting weights, I admired anyone who possessed a wide shoulder girth, but it wasn’t until I visited the old York Barbell Gym on Board Street that I saw shoulder development of a magnitude that overwhelmed me. That afternoon, in the cramped upstairs weight room, I met Vern Weaver, Steve Stanko and John Grimek. They were ideal examples of manhood, and although all facets of their amazing physiques were eye-popping, my attention kept returning to their extrawide shoulders.
How in the world did they build such powerful shoulders? I wondered, yet I knew the answer. Years and years of very hard work. At that moment I vowed that I would also put in as much time and effort as it required to come close to the development that those three had achieved. That day I changed my training focus. Sure, like any other beginner I wanted arms and a chest that would do a tank top justice, but my goal was to get wide shoulders. I’m certainly not alone. Broad shoulders are high on the list of every strength athlete and bodybuilder. The trouble is, they put too much emphasis on the wrong exercises.
In a nutshell, they do too many exercises lying on a bench rather than standing. Flat- and incline-bench presses are the primary upper-body exercises in most routines. Standing movements for the shoulder girdle are seldom done, except for a few relegated to auxiliary status. That’s why you don’t see many members of gyms sporting broad shoulders. In fact, it’s rare to see any trainee with exceptional shoulder development, even those who have big arms and thick chests. The reason is that flat benches and inclines hit the pecs more than the deltoids. Along with lack of shoulder development come injuries to the shoulder joints due to the amount of work put in on the benches. At the same time the other groups that help secure the shoulder joints, especially the traps and rear deltoids, get little attention. So while the pecs and front deltoids get bigger and stronger, the groups supporting the rear portion of the shoulder joint lag behind, creating a disparity in strength. When the disparity becomes significant, problems result. Initially, it may just be minor discomfort in one shoulder or both. If nothing is done to change the disproportionate strength, the pain escalates to the point where all exercises that involve the shoulders have to be curtailed. Or worse, medical attention—and sometimes surgery—is necessary to remedy the situation.
I need to point out that the bench press per se is not to blame but, rather, the way it’s used. It’s basically too much of a good thing. I’ve watched countless people in commercial gyms spend 75 percent of their workouts benching and inclining at every session while completely neglecting the rear portions of their shoulder girdle. Flat benches should not be given priority in a strength program but should be relegated to an ancillary role and worked diligently only once a week.
Given a choice, I much prefer the incline bench over the flat version. The incline is more a pure shoulder exercise in that it involves the deltoids to a much greater extent. It’s also more difficult to cheat on than on the flat bench. Cheating moves—rebounding and bridging—will sooner or later take their toll on the shoulder joints. I also like the fact that inclines hit the higher part of the chest, which helps secure the joints, whereas flat benches work the lower and middle chest. Unlike flat benches, inclines are rarely overworked. I guess that’s because no one ever asks, “How much can you incline?”—except me because I consider it a truer test of upper-body strength than the flat bench.