- May 13, 2016
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9 Variations for Sure-Fire Shoulder Growth
It’s time to set your delts on fire and build width with myo-reps, forced reps, manual resistance, the dead-stop method, and more.
Lateral raises are among the best exercises for targeting the delts. (1) But if you’ve been doing traditional sets for months or years, your delts are due for a change-up. A fresh variation can spur new growth, flesh out different parts of your delts, or, at a minimum, re-ignite your motivation to train. (2)
Here are nine advanced variations to try:
1. Manual Resistance Lateral Raise“Manual resistance” means resistance applied by another person, so you’ll need a partner for this one.
Manual resistance has a major advantage over traditional free-weight training: accommodating resistance. (3) Accommodating resistance is varied throughout the exercise to constrain the movement to a constant speed.
For this, a partner applies more resistance during parts of the exercise when you’re stronger and less resistance when you’re weaker. The lateral raise is ideal for this because the movement has a steep strength curve. You’re much weaker when your arms are at shoulder height compared to the bottom position.
You’ll need an attentive training partner. Before the set, tell your partner how many reps you intend to do. Instruct them to:
- Apply resistance perpendicular to the arm, ideally at the outside of the elbow joint.
- Apply sufficient resistance to control movement tempo (like a two-second concentric/lifting phase and a two-second eccentric/lowering phase).
- Apply more resistance at the bottom of the movement than at the top.
- Apply more resistance during the eccentric phase than the concentric phase.
- Grade the resistance to achieve failure or the desired level of effort by the final planned rep.
Although research on manual resistance for muscle gain is sparse, there’s a strong case for its use. Manual resistance may result in superior strength and muscular endurance gains compared to traditional lifting. (4)
Practically speaking, the resistance is more consistently challenging throughout manual resistance lateral raises. For this reason, each rep tends to be more taxing, so do two or three sets at a lower rep range than you’d normally use, like 8-12 reps.
2. Lateral Raise with Forced RepsThis time, instead of providing resistance, your partner will allow you to reach failure and then assist you in cracking out additional reps. This is a set-extending technique; it allows you to sneak in extra volume that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Muscles are stronger eccentrically than concentrically, meaning you’ll fail during the “up” phase of the lateral raise. Specifically, failure occurs toward the top of the rep. This happens because the delts can produce force at the bottom of the lateral raise better than at the top. (5) (6)
The resistance torque from free weights dramatically increases at the top of the lateral raise. So your partner will help throughout the top portion of the concentric phase to “force” additional reps past failure.
Here’s what to do:
- Decide beforehand how many forced reps you’ll do. Aim for somewhere between three to five.
- Forced reps are a high-intensity technique, so reserve it for the final working set.
- As for load, choose dumbbells that’ll allow you to do moderate-to-high reps: 12-20.
- Then, grind out the final 3 to 5 reps with your partner’s help.
3. Lateral Raise with Myo-RepsA simple technique can revolutionize your training routine. For me, this technique was myo-reps 59.
This is a form of rest-pause training popularized by Norwegian strength coach Borge Fagerli. (7) Rest-pause refers to a technique where an initial set is taken to failure, immediately followed by 10-20 seconds of rest, then another set to failure, followed by another short rest, and another set to failure. This alternating process of failure, followed by short rest, is drawn out for the desired number of sets.
Among well-trained lifters, rest-pause 3 elicits superior muscle growth compared to straight sets. (8) However, a potential drawback is the sheer number of sets performed to failure in a given workout. It’s very taxing and may not be sustainable over time.
Myo-reps, however, don’t require repeated sets to failure. Here’s the basic technique:
- Choose an initial weight that allows for 9 to 20 lateral raises.
- Do your initial set of lateral raises to failure or stop one or two reps shy of failure.
- “Rest” for three to five deep breaths.
- Then do a mini-set of lateral raises to failure or one or two reps shy.
- Rest for three to five deep breaths.
- Repeat this process of alternating rests and mini-sets until you reach five total mini-sets or lose a rep in the mini-sets. For example, if the initial set was 16 reps, first mini-set was 6 reps, second mini-set was 6 reps, and third mini-set was 5 reps, you’d stop because you lost a rep. (7)
4. Dead-Stop Lateral RaiseThe dead-stop method makes the lateral raise more challenging by eliminating the stretch reflex, reducing the contribution of passive musculotendinous stretch, and minimizing momentum generated during the easiest portion of the movement. As a bonus, dead-stop training 9 is well-tolerated by lifters with banged-up shoulders (like rotator cuff-related shoulder pain).
Here’s what to do:
- Sit centered on a flat bench.
- Set the dumbbells on the bench, arm-distance away.
- Raise the dumbbells to shoulder height or slightly higher, then lower with control back to the starting position.
- Set the dumbbells down in a “dead stop” on the bench before beginning the next rep.
5. Lateral Raise Jettison SetDrop sets are equally effective for building muscle compared to straight sets and are more time efficient. (9) But we’ve all seen lifters doing lateral-raise drop sets at the gym. They inevitably monopolize more than their fair share of dumbbells.
Looking for a less obnoxious lateral raise drop set? Consider the jettison technique. It was first described by bodybuilder and writer Ernest Cottrell. (10)
Here’s how to do it:
- You’ll combine band and free-weight resistance for the initial cluster of exercise.
- Hold a dumbbell and the end of a light band in each hand. The dumbbells should be approximately 60% of the weight you’d normally use for a straight set. The band is anchored under your feet.
- Start doing lateral raises.
- As you approach failure or reach your desired level of effort, drop (or “jettison”) the bands.
- Continue to do lateral raises until you approach failure or reach your desired level of effort.
- Set down the weights, grab the bands, and finish off your delts with band resistance only.
6. Bench-Supported Lateral RaiseWhen doing lateral raises standing, it’s easy to add a little trunk extension or hip sway to assist. To do it with strict form, try using support from a bench. The bench virtually eliminates the potential for body English, so your target muscles receive the full training effect.
Here’s how to do it:
- Set an incline bench to approximately 70-80 degrees.
- Lie with your chest supported on the bench and dumbbells held at your sides.
- Lift to shoulder height or slightly higher, and lower to the starting position with control.
7. Cuffed Lateral RaiseHere’s a trendy, albeit somewhat controversial, training technique: Perform your lateral raises cuffed.
“Cuffed” just refers to the use of Velcro wrist cuffs in conjunction with cable resistance. The setup eliminates grip from the equation. Although the cuffed setup has long been used in the management of medial and lateral elbow pain (think golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow), perfectly healthy lifters use it in their shoulder-building routines.
From a research standpoint, the technique is controversial, as some studies show decreased delt activity when grip is taken out of the equation, while others show increased deltoid activity. (11, 12)
From the simple Newton/Euler physics standpoint, having the resistance applied via a cuff above the wrist joint reduces the resistance arm, thereby reducing the resistance torque at the shoulder. It follows that any resistance used in cuffed fashion is apparently “lighter” from the perspective of the deltoid. However, deeper analysis and consideration of myofascial force-sharing across upper limb joints suggests this may not be the case.
Here are the biomechanics Cliff’s notes: Contraction of the grip muscles and wrist extensors occurs during a standard lateral raise variation since the lifter is forced to hold the weight or cable handle. When a muscle contracts, it pulls equally at both ends. So, the wrist extensors and long muscles of grip act at the wrist and hand and exert tension on the humerus and associated connective tissues or fascia.
This extra tension may ultimately assist the delt with raising the humerus up and away during the lateral raise, even though the delt didn’t directly generate the tension. So, using cuffs to eliminate or reduce the contribution of wrist and hand muscles during the lateral raise might better isolate or emphasize the delts.
Here’s how to do it:
- Place the cuffs above your wrists before attaching the cables.
- Then, attach the cables in a crossed fashion: cable from the left weight stack attaches to your right wrist cuff and vice versa.
- Then, perform lateral raises as you normally would, except try to keep your wrists and hands relaxed throughout.
8. Supine Cuffed Lateral RaiseDoing cable lateral raises while lying on your back or supine ensures cleaner form.
Combine the bench support with the cuffed technique and you’ll experience the purest form of medial delt training. Meaning, supine cuffed lateral raises will likely require the least weight (or fewest reps) to achieve productive, high-effort sets.
Here’s how to do it:
- Set your cable cuffs just above your wrists with the cables crossed in front of your body.
- Lie back on a flat or slightly inclined bench.
- Raise your arms just above shoulder height and lower to just below your waistline.
9. Lateral Raise with Inter-Set FlexingLong performed by bodybuilders, inter-set flexing refers to posing or performing isometric muscle contractions between sets of traditional lifts.
Sure, contracting the muscles targeted by the traditional lift could delay recovery between sets, but it may also enhance the mind-muscle connection and sequester metabolites, promoting hypertrophy.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld reported favorable effects of inter-set flexing on midthigh quadriceps muscle gain in a randomized controlled trial. (13) In the study, lifters in the inter-set flexing group flexed the target muscle for 30 seconds and then rested for 90 seconds, while the straight-set group simply rested for 120 seconds. (13) Notably, only multi-joint traditional exercises were used in the study: rows, pulldowns, bench presses, military presses, squats, and leg presses. (13)
For lateral raises, which are essentially a single-joint exercise, I recommend a shorter rest interval of 30-second inter-set flexing, followed by 30 seconds of passive rest. If you’re not well-versed in posing, practice in front of a mirror.
Here’s how to do it:
- To flex your delts, first engage your lats and other shoulder adductors by flaring your shoulder blades outward as you squeeze your armpits closed.
- While maintaining this tension, attempt to lift your arms away from your sides by contracting your middle deltoids.