30 August 2004

Bravely shouldering on

Plenty of guys work on their upper arms in their quest for a better build. But don’t neglect your shoulders.

Plenty of guys work on their upper arms in their quest for a better build. But don’t neglect your shoulders.

Before you discourage yourself so much that you bypass the gym and head for the pub for beer and buffalo wings, consider this: there are many massively built in the world. Most of the people who admire them are other massively built men, the inner circle of bodybuilders and those for whom adding massive bulk is a matter of lifestyle, competition or even profession.

If that’s what you’re into, fine. But it’s an extreme that many blokes hoping to improve their body image aren’t willing to go to. Ask women about the build they like on a guy and many will say it’s not about biceps like Arnie’s or oiled, hairless and steroid-enhanced mountains of muscle. Most prefer toned, defined, well-proportioned and athletic physiques.

Weight training and healthy eating a winner
Yes, some upper body bulk is definitely a plus, but many of the Olympic male physiques setting hearts aflutter at the moment are achieved, not by bench-pressing twice your own weight and living on protein shakes, but by combining weight training with healthy eating, aerobic workouts with the – very occasional – beer and buffalo wings. That’s sustainable and fulfilling, and you won’t feel like you’re cheating yourself.

Some time ago we wrote about ways to get a V-shaped torso, and that’s one way to get small waist and a powerful - powerful-looking - build. Another one is strong shoulders. These not only look good, they’re useful.

Strong shoulders help, whether you’re playing some beach volleyball, casually flinging a squealing, delighted toddler skyward and catching them again or hauling luggage across Düsseldorf airport. Without them you can’t mow the lawn or carry a damsel to safety while a burning building collapses around you. Strong shoulders look good too, whether you’re wearing a tuxedo jacket, business suit or baggies and a layer of sunscreen.

This is no anatomy lesson, but you’ll find it useful to know that the deltoids are a set of muscles that form a cup over your shoulder. The whole area is ingeniously designed: if it had the same sort of hinge-joint as your elbow it’d only move in one direction. A ball-and-socket arrangement like that of your hip would mean you could move it forward, backward and about level with your ear, if you were agile.

Shoulder like a suspension bridge
But the shoulder’s joint is a modified ball-and-socket, with an array of tendons, ligaments joints and even a bone that floats free at one end – the shoulder-blade. This configuration uses muscles like a suspension bridge, allowing an incredible range of movement, along with speed, power and endurance when necessary.

That’s why you can scratch your own back a bit and why Pete Townsend can windmill his arm while playing guitar.

Moves to strengthen your shoulders
So here are a few moves to strengthen your shoulders:

  • Get into fights. Not the sort outside bars, involving alcohol-fuelled tempers and broken bottles, but the civilized sort. A punching motion as employed in any of the martial arts will give your shoulders a workout. Some people use wrist weights when practicing Tae Bo moves. There’s an added benefit of an aerobic workout here. Punching a bag will do;
  • Swimming. Look at champions like Amanda Beard (Okay, you can stop looking now) and Ryk Neethling and you’ll see what swimming does to their shoulders. The beauty of water is that it provides constant resistance. Many blokes who can run a decent half-marathon find that they struggle to keep up with a fit swimmer after a few swift lengths. Other water sports like surfing, rowing, boardsailing and kiteboarding will also build your shoulders. One word of caution, though: if you start to feel a pain around the shoulder joint while swimming, you may be developing a strain of the rotator cuff. The pain is different to the post-exercise stiffness that we’re all familiar with. If you feel it starting, speak to your doctor. Don’t try to work through it.
  • Barbell lifts. Start light with this one; overestimating your abilities might earn you a visit to the chiropractor. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with a barbell on the floor in front of you. Bend your knees, keep your back straight and grab the barbell in an overhand grip at about shoulder-width. Lift the barbell up to your chin, keeping your elbows high and your hands close to your body. If you feel you’re about to totter forward, decrease the weight. You should feel the strain in your deltoids and upper back when you lift. Remember to stand erect and to inhale as you lift and exhale as you lower the weight. Don’t fling the weigh upwards, rather lift it steadily, hold, exhale, then lower. Do four sets of 10, or do each set to failure if you’re reasonably fit.
  • Dumbbell shoulder press. If you’re familiar with the military press you’ll recognise similarities to this move. But using dumbbells allows a freedom of movement that your muscles have to work harder to control. Start by sitting on an upright bench, feet squarely on the floor, with a dumbbell in each hand at about shoulder level, arms bent and your palms facing toward you, thumbs outwards. Keep you chin up and your back straight, then push the dumbbells smoothly upward until your arms are straight. Don’t lock your elbows. As you lift, you’ll feel the dumbbell rotating, so that by the time your arm is fully extended your thumbs are facing inwards. Lower the weights steadily, fighting against gravity. Do four sets of 10 or to failure if you’re fit.
  • Lateral raises. Stand erect, feet apart, with a dumbbell in hand, knuckles facing the ground. Keeping your arms straight, raise them outwards until you’re standing in a crucifix position. Hold for the count of 10 and lower. Do four sets of 10 or until failure. Do the reps slowly and you’ll benefit the most. Once you’ve mastered that, try raising you’re arms slightly above shoulder height.
  • Upright rows. Most gyms have an upright rowing machine, or use the lower pulley on a lat machine to do upright rows, although you won’t have the benefit of a sliding seat. Choose you weights sensibly, making sure it’s your shoulders that do the work, not your knees. Work to failure. (William Smook)

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