arnold shoulder workout

Build Monster Deltoids With Arnold Schwarzenegger's Shoulder Workout

By Andrew Heffernan

“Great bodybuilders have the same mind that a sculptor has," said Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1975. “You might look in the mirror and say, 'I need a little more shoulder, a little more deltoid, still to get the proportions right.' So what you do is you exercise and put those deltoids on."

When it comes to creating a visual impression of strength and power, Arnold — arguably the biggest star in bodybuilding history — was right on the money. The deltoids — the three-headed, triangular-shaped muscles that look like halved grapefruits on the shoulders of a longtime lifter — might be one of the most impressive muscle groups on the human body. They're visible from every angle. When developed, they give width to the chest and shoulders, which, along with a narrow waist, contributes to a powerful and athletic-looking “V taper" in the upper body.

So it makes sense that Arnold would spend plenty of time and energy building his shoulders. And it paid off. In photos from the early to mid-70s — his competitive prime — he looks like he has to turn sideways to fit through doorways. So impressive were his delts that he even had a shoulder exercise — “The Arnold Press" — named after him (more on that in a moment).

Want to build a set of delts worthy of an Austrian Oak? Here's how he built his championship-winning shoulders back in bodybuilding's golden era.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger's Shoulder Workout

Arnold was a fan of 'pyramiding': adding weight to the bar as you go along. Traditional approaches to this old-school technique are to add weight with each successive set of an exercise or, conversely, to start an exercise with your heaviest weight and reduce it as you go along. Arnold's take was unique: On a military press, for example, he might have started with 75-pound dumbbells for two sets of 12 reps, then gone up to 85 pounds for the third set and another ten for the fourth. Try this in your training, adjusting the weights accordingly.

  • For each exercise, perform four sets in the following manner:
  • On the first and second set, do 12 reps.
  • Increase the weight and do 10 reps.
  • Increase the weight again and do 8 reps.
  • Rest about two minutes between sets.

1. Seated Military Press

  • Sit upright, holding two dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing forward. This is the starting position.
  • Keeping your core engaged and back flat, press the dumbbells overhead until your arms are fully extended.
  • Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

2. Dumbbell Lateral Raises

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at arms' length by your sides, palms facing inward. This is the starting position.
  • Keeping your core engaged, back flat, and palms facing downward, raise your arms directly out to your sides.
  • Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Pro tip from Arnold: After completing your lateral raises, grab a pair of the heaviest dumbbells you can handle and hold them in the “up" position. Keep them raised as long as possible, fighting gravity as much as possible as the dumbbells slowly pull your arms downward. This will give your delts some more "time under tension"—a key growth stimulus.

3. Smith Machine Overhead Press

  • Place an exercise bench below a loaded bar set to shoulder height in a Smith machine.
  • Sit on the bench a few inches behind the columns, and grab the bar with an overhand grip that's just beyond shoulder width. Press the bar out of the safety catches. This is the starting position.
  • Press the bar overhead till your arms are straight.
  • Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

4. Seated Bent-Over Rear Deltoid Raise

  • Sit on a bench with your feet hip-width apart on the floor, holding a light dumbbell in each hand.
  • Bend forward at your hips until your chest is close to the tops of your thighs, allowing the weights to hang at arm's length toward the floor, palms facing inward (it should almost feel as if you're hugging your thighs). This is the starting position.
  • Keeping your back as flat as possible, raise your arms out to your sides as high as possible, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
  • Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

5. Upright Row

  • Stand tall, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm's length in front of your thighs, palms facing back.
  • Keeping your core engaged, back flat, and weights close to your body, lift the dumbbells until your elbows reach (but don't exceed) shoulder height.
  • Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Pro tip: This move has fallen out of favor with many lifters due to the unusual pressure it can place on the shoulder joints when you fail to use proper form. If you experience any discomfort in your shoulders, sub in the face pull.

6. Arnold Press

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your chest with your elbows tucked and palms facing back, like they would be at the top of a biceps curl. This is the starting position.
  • Keeping your back flat and core engaged, press the weights directly above your shoulders, rotating the weights so that your palms face forward at the top of the move.
  • Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Pro tip from Arnold: Arnold felt that lowering the weights into the "top of a curl" position in his eponymous move increased the range of motion and, therefore, the move's effectiveness. Select lighter weights than you'd use for standard presses until you master perfect form.

The Shoulders of an Oak

Many modern exercisers perform just one exercise for the shoulders each workout. And for casual lifters, that's plenty. But if you're looking for exceptional development — the kind that wins bodybuilding shows — you'll need additional work.

That's because the deltoids are a complex muscle group, consisting of three heads with distinct functions:

  • The anterior deltoid, which extends from the end of your clavicle to the top of your biceps, helps raise your arm forward and up when you're in a standing position.
  • The lateral deltoid, which originates at the outermost point of your shoulder blade and attaches to the side of your upper arm, helps raise your arm out to the side.
  • The posterior deltoid, which runs from the top of your shoulder blade to the back of your upper arm, helps raise your arm backward (i.e., behind the hips) and out to the sides, as well as externally rotate the arm.

Arnold understood that a lifter needed to work all three heads of the deltoids regularly for that classic rounded look.

So he did — in spades. The 1960s and 1970s were an age of “high volume" training. Pros worked out for many hours each day, performing dozens of sets for many different muscle groups, sometimes twice a day, up to six days a week.

And Arnold was the king of this approach, working out as much as five hours daily, hitting each muscle group three times a week in the months leading up to a major contest.

Arnold-Style Shoulder Training — With a Modern Twist

Arnold did lot of training — more than most modern bodybuilders do, and much more than most of us need. Unless you're blessed with world-class bodybuilder genetics (Arnold wouldn't have gotten far without those), this high-volume approach won't net you much progress. It may even injure you.

So take the Oak's old-school recommendations with a grain of salt, and adjust the number of sets to suit your goals and your current level of fitness. Instead of four sets, for example, try two or three. Or split Arnold's workout into two or three different workouts performed a couple of days apart. For most non-Terminators, such an approach is almost always preferable.


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