How Do Powerlifters Train Shoulders? (Definitive Guide)

Training shoulders should be a high priority for powerlifters.

However, training shoulders like a bodybuilder won’t improve your powerlifting performance. This is because powerlifters are more concerned with how the shoulders contribute to lifting as much weight as possible versus how aesthetic they might look with their shirt off.

So how do powerlifters train their shoulders? Powerlifters train their shoulders through a combination of compound and isolation movements that focus on building strength in the bench press. As well, strengthening the rear delt will maintain overall shoulder health, improve posture, and help prevent ’rounded shoulders’ in the deadlift.

In this article, I’ll discuss the benefits of training shoulders for powerlifting, some tips for how to structure shoulder training, and shoulder workouts that powerlifters should add to their program. First though, I want to talk about why some powerlifters don’t prioritize shoulder training.

You might also be interested in my article on Does Overhead Press Help With Bench Press?

Why Do Powerlifters NOT Prioritize Shoulders?

Powerlifters don't prioritize their shoulder training

Some powerlifters get caught in the trap of thinking that the only exercises that matter are the competition movements, the squat, bench press and deadlift (don’t let that person be you).

These powerlifters spend 90% of their time focused on those movements exclusively, maybe only including small variations of them, and rarely do any other arm, shoulder, back, or leg work.

There are two reasons why powerlifters don’t prioritize their shoulder training and other accessory movements more generally. Both are valid reasons, but they don’t outweigh the benefits (which we’ll discuss later).

Reason # 1: Economy of Training

The economy of training principle states that if there are only a set number of hours that you can spend in the gym, then you need to prioritize your tasks according to those time restrictions.

For example, if you only have 4 hours to work out each week, then you’ll want to focus on the tasks that have a direct and measurable impact on your training goal. There is no room for ‘fluff’ in your training program if your training time is limited.

Read about the difference in training between bodybuilding and powerlifting.

Reason #2: The Principle of Specificity

The principle of specificity states that the stimulus you provide the body should be as specific as possible toward your training goal.

For example, strength is a specific quality. Meaning, if you want to get stronger at the bench press, you must bench press, and not expect to see improvements in strength by only doing shoulder raises.

This is the case from both a physiological and technical perspective.

Physiologically speaking, you need to work the muscles in the exact range of motion that is required to produce force.

Technically speaking, you need to get used to how the weight feels in a certain bar path, and then practice becoming more efficient at that exercise by leveraging your own individual mechanics.


For these two reasons, powerlifters neglect their shoulder training. However, there are times throughout the program where prioritizing lagging muscle groups, that don’t get enough stimulus in the powerlifting movements, can be beneficial. Let’s talk about those benefits now.


4 Benefits of Training Shoulders For Powerlifting

There are 4 benefits of training shoulders for powerlifting

1. Builds Strength In The The Bench Press

Training shoulders can increase strength in bench press

In my article on the muscles used in the bench press, I explained that the shoulders are primarily responsible for pushing the barbell through the mid-range of the bench press. With weak shoulder, you will fail in the mid-range of motion every time.

The shoulders will also play a more important role in the bench press if you have a lower touchpoint on the chest. This might occur because you have long arms and it feels more natural to touch lower, closer to your sternum versus at or above your nipple line.

Additionally, if you take a wider grip on the bench press, then you’ll get more shoulder activation than compared with a narrow grip.

So if you fail in the mid-range, have longer arms, or take a wider grip on the barbell, then you’ll want to increase your overall shoulder strength to assist with the bench press.

Read about the 10 Best Accessory Movements For Bench Press

2. Maintains Shoulder Health

Training shoulders can increase your shoulder health for powerlifting

The powerlifting movements require a high-level of shoulder stabilization, especially in the bench press where the position of the shoulder can make or break the lift.

The shoulder stabilizers are four small muscles that make up the “rotator cuff”, which run from the shoulder blade to the upper arm.

The role of these stabilizers is to keep the shoulder joint in a safe and effective position, while the larger muscle groups (lats, pecs, delts) help move the arms around the body in the intended direction.

It’s extremely hard to work the shoulder stabilizers by simply performing the powerlifting movements. Without direct shoulder stabilization work, your larger muscles will become stronger without the adequate level of stability required to accomplish the task.

Eventually, this lack of shoulder stability can lead to injury or shoulder pain.

Check out my article on the 9 Best Overhead Press Alternatives

3. Increases Control of Shoulders Positioning

Training shoulders can teach you how to control your shoulders better for powerlifting

The safest position for the shoulder to be in while bench pressing is retracted and depressed. In other words, when the arms are pulled back and the shoulder blades are pressing down.

This is because the shoulder structure is like a “ball and socket”, and the ball inside the socket doesn’t have much room to play. If the ball starts to rise up or move forward then it will cause a shoulder impingement.

In order to prevent this from happening, you can actively pull your shoulder blades “back and down”, which “sets” the shoulder blades on the rib cage. This position allows the arm to efficiently and safely produce as much force as possible.

However, it’s not natural for lifters to know how to pull the shoulder blades “back and down”. For example, if I tell a lifter to “set their shoulders”, would they be able to do that without instruction? For newer athletes, certainly not.

Therefore, the more direct shoulder work you do, the more it teaches lifters how to “set the shoulders” properly on the rib cage.

So, by training shoulders, you can increase the control and awareness of your shoulder positioning relative to the load.

4. Prevents “Rounded Shoulders” In The Deadlift Lock-Out

If you train shoulders as a powerlifter you can prevent rouded shoulders in the deadlift

One of the key positions in the deadlift is to have the shoulders back.

In fact, if you’re a competitive powerlifters, it’s part of the rules that you have to follow if you want to pass a deadlift in competition.

Causes for disqualification of a deadlift:

Failure to stand erect with the shoulders back

International Powerlifting Federation

Therefore, if you’ve already done the hard work and have locked the weight out, but your shoulders fail to assume a ‘back’ position, then the lift doesn’t count.

This is why it’s important to strengthen the rear delts (back of shoulders), and other posterior muscles, which will help prevent the shoulders from rounding in the deadlift.

You may also be interested in How Powerlifters Train Their Arms or How Powerlifters Train Their Back.

Tips For Training Shoulders

There are five factors that you need to consider when training arms for powerlifting: type of exercise, technique, frequency, sets & reps, and load.

Type of Exercise

When training shoulders for powerlifting, there are different exercises that can be used depending on the goal.

Here are some examples:

STRENGTHHYPERTROPHYSTABILITY
EXERCISESBarbell Shoulder Press

Barbell Push Press

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

High Incline Barbell Bench Press

Wide Grip Seated Row (Pulling High)
Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Dumbbell Front Raise

Incline Powell Raise

Bentover Reverse Dumbbell Fly

Seated Machine Shoulder Press
Banded Pull Aparts

Incline Prone DB Trap 3 Raise

Seated Rope Face Pull

Kneeling Scapular Push-Up

Standing Scapular Wall Slides

Training for strength:

When the goal is training for strength, you want to make sure that whatever exercise you implement directly relates to increasing strength or technique on your powerlifting movements.

For example, if you lack strength on the bench press in the mid-range, then you will want to address a potential anterior deltoid weakness, which can be solved by doing several barbell and dumbbell shoulder variations.

Training for hypertrophy:

When the goal is training for hypertrophy, you want to make sure that you keep tension on the muscle through its full range of motion.

These exercises may not directly increase strength on the powerlifting movements in the short-term, but you’d be investing in developing more muscle mass, which can lead to improved strength over the long-term.

Training for stability

When the goal is to maintain shoulder joint health and function and to support the larger structures of the arm and shoulder, you will want to target exercises that activate muscles of the rotator cuff.

These exercises will include several isolation movements using light bands, cables, and dumbbells, where the focus is on taking out the larger muscle groups in favor of activating your shoulder stabilizers.

Technique

Of course, it goes without saying that with any exercise, you want to implement a high level of technical efficiency.

However, there is one aspect of your technique that is slightly different when training shoulders, which is the tempo of the movement.

If your goal is to build hypertrophy or shoulder stability, then you want to slow down the movement and focus on ‘squeezing’ your muscles and drawing your attention to the individual muscle being used.

You should not be focused on applying maximum force, but maximizing the muscular contraction.

Frequency

Depending on how many times per week you bench press, you will want to manage your shoulder frequency carefully. This is because your shoulders will already be targetted during your other pressing movements.

  • For strength work: 1 time per week
  • For hypertrophy work: 2 times per week
  • For hypertrophy/stability work: 2-3 times per week

Sets & Reps

You want to keep your reps lower for strength work and higher for hypertrophy/stability work.

  • For strength work: 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps
  • For hypertrophy work: 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps
  • For stability work: 2-3 sets of 12 to 20 reps

Load

No matter the goal of your shoulder work, you should not be pushing to failure. There is too high of a risk for injury if you’re consistently lifting at or near your max on a regular basis.

  • For strength/hypertrophy work: You only need to push 1 set to near failure one-time per week, and keep all other sets within two reps of failure.
  • For stability work: Keep all weights sub-maximal

Putting It All Together: Sample Powerlifting Shoulder Workout

Sample powerlifting shoulder workout

When you program shoulders, you have two options:

  • You can have a dedicated day for all your accessory movements. For example, having your powerlifting days where you squat bench press, and deadlift, and then having a separate day to do all of your shoulder, back, and arm work.
  • You can do a few of your accessory movements, like your arm work, following your powerlifting workouts. In this option, the number of exercises would be limited on a single day, but you do them multiple times per week

The following are three examples of a shoulder-focused powerlifting workout, where you’ll do some powerlifting movement, followed by the accessory movements:

Powerlifting Shoulder Workout #1

  • Band Pull Aparts: 2 sets of 20 reps
  • Wide Grip Bench Press (Pause on Chest): 4 sets of 6 reps @ 65-70% of 1 rep max
  • Wide Grip Seated Row (Pull High): 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Lateral Dumbbell Raise: 3 sets of 12 reps
  • Bentover Reverse Dumbbell Fly: 3 sets of 12 reps

Powerlifting Shoulder Workout #2

  • Kneeling Scapular Push-Up: 2 sets of 20 reps
  • Incline Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 5 reps @ 60-65% of 1 rep max
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Seated Rope Face Pull: 3 sets of 12 reps
  • Incline Powell Raise: 3 sets of 12 reps

Powerlifting Shoulder Workout #3

  • Standing Scapular Wall Slides: 2 sets of 20 reps
  • Barbell Shouluder Press: 4 sets of 4 reps
  • Machine Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Dumbbell Front Raise: 3 sets of 12 reps
  • Incline DB Prone Trap 3 Raise: 3 sets of 12 reps

Final Thoughts

The benefits of training shoulders for powerlifting are that you can develop strength in the mid-range of the bench press, increase shoulder stability and positioning, and prevent rounded shoulders in the deadlift. If you are going to implement shoulders into your training program, make sure to include exercises that target the front, side, and rear parts of the shoulder using a combination of strength, hypertrophy, and stability-based exercises and methods.