The Best Shoulder Tri-Set Routines For Mass!

The deltoids are one of the most complex muscle groups in the entire body. Research shows that the deltoids actually have 7 different muscle heads rather than just 3!

The deltoids also have a healthy mix of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. If you want to grow your shoulders as much as possible then you have to use many different types of exercises as well as different rep ranges and time under tension techniques.

One of the best training methods for building huge shoulders in record time is called “tri-sets.”

Tri-sets are a training method where you perform 3 exercises in a row for the same body part with 0-10 seconds rest in between exercise. For example here is what a tri-set looks like for the shoulders:

Shoulders Tri-Set Training Protocol

  • Step 1: Perform shoulder exercise #1, rest 10 seconds
  • Step 2: Perform shoulder exercise #2, rest 10 seconds
  • Step 3: Perform shoulder exercise #3, rest 2-3 minutes, repeat!

Tri-sets are so effective for building huge shoulders because they dramatically increase the time under tension of the set.

You are taking very little rest between exercises so the tri-set feels like one long extended set even though you are performing 3 different exercises.

Tri-sets also let you train the shoulders with 3 completely different exercise angles and rep ranges.

This is very helpful for stimulating growth because the shoulders are such a complex muscle group and require lots of different exercise angles and rep ranges for maximum growth.

One of the easiest ways to design a shoulder tri-set is to perform 1 exercise each for the front delts, side delts and rear delts.

This strategy gives you a massive pump in all 3 heads of the delts and is more effective for stimulating growth than performing all of your sets for each exercise before moving onto the next one.

Here is IFBB pro Ken Jackson giving a perfect demonstration of this type of shoulder tri-set:

Talk about an intense set! If you’ve ever performed banded rear delt flys in the gym then you know how intense the rear delt pump had to be at the end of the tri-set.

Here is how you could design a workout using Ken Jackson’s shoulder tri-set:

Ken Jackson’s Shoulder Tri-set

  • A1: Barbell front raise, 3-5 x 8-12, 1/0/1/0, no rest
  • A2: Standing DB lateral raise, 3-5 x 8-12, 1/0/1/0, no rest
  • A3: Band rear delt fly, 3-5 x 8-12, 1/0/1/0, 2-3 minutes rest

As you can see Ken Jackson performs 3 different shoulder exercises in a row for his front, side and rear delts.

I recommend you perform this entire tri-set 3-5 times with about 2-3 minutes rest between tri-sets. This means you will perform 9-15 total working sets for your shoulders which is a ton of work.

If you respond well to high-volume training programs then you could perform another 1-2 shoulder exercises before or after this tri-set to stimulate even more growth. Just be careful not to over-do it – 5 rounds of this tri-set will stimulate plenty of growth on it’s own.

Many modern-day bodybuilders like Ken Jackson use tri-sets in their shoulder routines but they were also used by old-school bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold had a shoulder tri-set that he loved to use in the last 1-3 months before the Mr. Olympia competition. He would perform barbell overhead presses, barbell upright rows and dumbbell lateral raises all in a row. For example:

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Favorite Shoulder Tri-Set

  • A1: Barbell overhead press, 3-5 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Standing barbell upright row, 3-5 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Seated DB lateral raise, 3-5 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 2-3 minutes rest

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise A3.

This is known as a “post-exhaustion” tri-set because you are performing a compound exercise first followed by isolation exercises. Technically the barbell upright row isn’t an isolation exercise but the point still stands.

Arnold was known for his high-volume workouts and often performed other exercises before and after this tri-set to stimulate even more growth.

Here is one of Arnold’s favorite pre-contest shoulder workouts:

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Pre-Contest Shoulder Routine

  • A1: Arnold press, 3-6 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 1 minute rest
  • B1: Barbell overhead press, 3-5 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B2: Barbell upright row, 3-5 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B3: Bent-over DB lateral raise, 3-6 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 1 minutes rest
  • C1: DB lateral raise, 3-6 x 8-12**, 2/0/X/0, 1 minute rest

**On your last set perform a “down the rack” drop set. Pick up a heavy pair of dumbbells and train to failure. Then pick up the next lightest pair of dumbbells and train to failure. Continue dropping the weight and going to failure until you are lifting the 5-10 pound dumbbells.

This is an advanced shoulder workout that is probably not appropriate for most beginners. That being said it worked like magic for Arnold and his superior recovery ability.

Arnold trained his shoulders 3 times per week when he was training for the Mr. Olympia competition and his results speak for themselves!

Post-exhaustion tri-sets are ridiculously effective for building the shoulders so let’s look at another example. Here is a shoulder tri-set performed by Nick Mitchell, the founder of the Ultimate Performance personal training company.

Nick does something really interesting with this routine: he performs very high reps on all of his shoulder exercises with a mix of “strict” and “cheating reps.”

He performs his first 10 reps or so on each exercise with very strict form. Then he starts to cheat the weight up to further fatigue his shoulders.

Here is the exact routine:

Nick Mitchell Post-Exhaust Tri-Set

  • A1: Standing cable rope face pull, 3-5 x 15-25**, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Standing cable rope upright row, 3-5 x 15-25**, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Seated DB lateral raise, 3-5 x 15-25**, 2/0/X/0, 2-3 minutes rest

**Nick Mitchell uses plenty of “body English” to get the weight moving starting on his 10th rep for each exercise.

Here is the training video for this workout:

I highly recommend you watch the video to get a feel for how Nick performs this workout. Nick is using these cheating reps to further fatigue his shoulders after he performs the first 10 or so reps for each exercise.

For example he manages to perform 27 total reps on the cable face pulls with a weight he can only perform about 10 reps on his own!

This is a powerful way to overload the muscle and stimulate growth. Just make sure you are feeling the target muscle work throughout the set. If you can’t feel your muscles working with these cheating reps then they are worthless!

If you are someone who has a really hard time feeling your shoulders work during compound pressing exercises then you may want to try a pre-exhaust tri-set.

Pre-exhaust tri-sets are the opposite of post-exhaust tri-sets: you start with isolation exercises and finish with a compound exercise.

Here is a sample workout that you can try. Check it out:

Pre-Exhaust Shoulder Tri-Sets

  • A1: 30 degree prone partial DB lateral raise, 3-5 x 25-30, 1/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Seated Poliquin DB lateral raise, 3-5 x 10-12, 3/0/1/1, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Hammer strength overhead press, 3-5 x 10-12, 3/0/3/0, 2-3 minutes rest

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise A3.

As you can see you are performing isolation exercises for your rear and side delts before moving onto an overhead pressing exercise.

This strategy works great for more advanced bodybuilders who have a hard time feeling their delts engage during overhead pressing exercises. It is also a great strategy for bodybuilders who are extremely strong and are already overhead pressing very heavy weights.

The bodybuilding coach Josh Bryant has worked with many bodybuilding clients who could overhead press the 160 pound dumbbells but still had lagging shoulders. Josh’s solution for these clients was to experiment with various pre-exhaust shoulder strategies to bring up their side and rear delts.

If you are at least an intermediate level bodybuilder then this type of shoulder pre-exhaust strategy is worth experimenting with.

If your shoulders are *really* lagging behind the rest of your body then you may want to design a shoulder workout with 2 separate tri-sets. This was one of Charles Poliquin’s favorite ways to design a hypertrophy workout.

For example you could perform 3 rounds of a tri-set targeting your rear delts and 3 rounds of a tri-set targeting your side delts. This approach works like magic if you respond well to higher-volume workouts.

Here is a “double tri-set” shoulder workout that Charles Poliquin wrote many years ago. Check it out:

Charles Poliquin “Double Tri-Set” Shoulder Routine

Tri-set #1

  • A1: Supine cable lateral raise, 3 x 8, 3/0/X/2, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Ez-bar upright rows, 3 x 12, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Seated military press, 3 x 12, 3/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest

Tri-set #2

  • B1: 45 degree bent-over cable lateral raise, 3 x 8, 2/0/X/2, 10 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable rope face pulls, 3 x 12, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B3: Reeves row, 3 x 12, 2/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise A3, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise B3.

For this routine Charles uses the pre-exhaust method for both the rear delt tri-set and the side delt tri-set. This workout features 18 hard working sets for your shoulders.

If this routine won’t shock your delts into growth then nothing will!

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Tri-sets are one of the best training methods you can use to build up your shoulders.

The main advantage of tri-sets is they increase the time under tension of the set which forces your muscles to work much harder than normal.

Tri-sets also let you train your muscles with three completely different exercises to target areas of the target muscle. This is very helpful when you are training the shoulders because they are such a complex muscle group.

In this guide I showed you how some of the world’s top bodybuilders and bodybuilding coaches including John Meadows, Nick Mitchell, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charles Poliquin use tri-sets to build bigger shoulders in record time.

All of these routines work as long as you are willing to push through a little pain in the gym.

Remember, tri-sets are very challenging. It’s hard enough to push yourself just shy of failure on 1 exercise in the gym. With tri-sets you have to push yourself just shy of failure on 3 different exercises in a row!

It takes a special kind of person to train all-out with one of these routines.

The lactic acid build up in your shoulders following an all-out tri-set is absolutely excruciating. However, if you have the guts to push yourself on any one of these routines then your shoulders will blow up faster than you can say “Phil Heath.”

Here is a great quote by Arnold Schwarzenegger to help put you in the right mindset before your next shoulder tri-set workout:

“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!


Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

What's going on! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen, I'm the creator of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to take your training to the next level, then you've come to the right place... My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world!

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