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This Is the Perfect Shoulder Workout Routine for Big and Strong Delts

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This Is the Perfect Shoulder Workout Routine for Big and Strong Delts

If you want to know what the best shoulder workouts are for building bigger, stronger shoulders (delts), then you want to read this article.

Key Takeaways

  1. The three rules for proper shoulder training are: 1. Do exercises for each of the three deltoids (shoulder muscles). 2. Focus on lifting heavier weights. 3. Emphasize progressive overload.
  2. The best shoulder exercises are those that allow you to safely progress toward heavier and heavier loads, including the military press, dumbbell side lateral raise, and dumbbell rear lateral raise.
  3. If you’re an intermediate+ weightlifter and you want to get the most out of your shoulder training, work in multiple rep ranges and with weights ranging from 70 to 90% of your 1RM.

No matter how big your arms, chest, or back are, an upper body just isn’t complete without well-developed shoulders.

They “frame” your physique, widen your V-taper, and provide proportion to your arms.

There’s a problem, though.

Unless you’re on a few grams of weekly #dedication, it can be incredibly hard to build big, strong shoulders.

They’re small, stubborn muscles that never seem to grow as fast as we’d like, and that’s why you see countless shoulder workouts online, all promising to deliver cannonball delts faster than you ever thought possible.

Well, this article isn’t another one of those.

Honestly, even when you do everything right in the kitchen and gym, it’s going to take time to gain significant amounts of shoulder size and strength. More time than you probably want.

The good news, though, is it can be done, and doing the right workouts is a major piece of the puzzle.

Case in point, here’s a picture of me taken many years ago:

shoulder workouts

Not bad, but not exceptional either. And especially not after putting in seven years of consistent (albeit misguided) work in the gym.

Then, I got my act together and followed the advice I’m going to share with you in this article, and after a few years of doing things the right way, I looked like this:

best shoulder workouts

That’s more like it. 🙂

Honestly, my shoulders are still a work in progress, but as you can see, they’ve come a long way from their humble beginnings. At least they don’t play a distant third fiddle to my biceps and pecs anymore.

Now, it shouldn’t have taken me so damn long to get here, but hey, I’m not complaining. Live and learn, right?

Anyway, in this article, I want to teach you how I did it, and how you too can build shoulders you can be proud of.

By the end, you’re going to know the most important aspects of shoulder training and how to build effective shoulder workouts, and you’re also going to get a ready-made shoulder workout routine that you can put into immediate use in the gym.

Let’s get to it, starting with the three most important rules of shoulder training.

The 3 Most Important Rules of Shoulder Training

Ask most people what you should do for your shoulder workouts, and they’ll probably tell you one of two things:

  1. Blast them hard and often with every dumbbell, machine, and cable exercise you can think of, from every angle possible, with as many reps as you can possibly stand (to really “make them burn” and “bring out the definition”).
  2. Don’t worry about isolation exercises. Just stick with heavy bench and overhead pressing and your shoulders will come in just fine.

And for some people, these approaches can work. For most of us, though, they won’t. The first often leads to injury or burnout, and the second often leads to underwhelming size and strength.

Fortunately, there’s a third, better way, and it can be summarized like this:

  1. Do exercises for each of the three deltoids (shoulder muscles).
  2. Focus on lifting heavier weights.
  3. Emphasize progressive overload.

Let’s look at each.

Shoulder Training Rule #1
Train Each Shoulder Muscle Effectively

Your shoulders are comprised of several muscles, and the three most prominent ones are the deltoids:

shoulder anatomy

There are also smaller muscles that hold the ball-shaped head of the arm bone in place in the socket of the shoulder blade, allowing it to spin and roll. These are known as the rotator cuff muscles, and here’s how they look:

rotator cuff muscles

As far as size and strength go, the deltoids are king. These are the larger, more visible muscles that you want to emphasize most in your shoulder training.

(Exercises for the rotator cuffs are mainly for keeping your shoulder joints healthy, not for making your shoulders bigger or stronger.)

Now, the bottom line is if you want to build big shoulders, you must work hard to develop each of the three deltoids.

Most people make the mistake of focusing mostly on the anterior (front) deltoids with exercises like the bench press, shoulder press, and front raise, and neglect the medial (middle) and posterior (rear) deltoids.

This makes for flat, underwhelming shoulders that lack the “capped” look that makes the shoulders “pop” out from the torso.

Shoulder Training Rule #2
Focus on Lifting Heavier Weights

I used to think that heavy, lower-rep lifting was for building strength, not gaining size.

I was wrong. Very wrong.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the last decade of studying, training, and coaching others is this:

As a natural weightlifter, your number one goal should be increasing your whole-body strength.

So long as you make that your primary focus in your training, you’ll always keep the needle moving in the right direction.

Now, what’s the best way to do that?

Well, the evidence is clear: heavy resistance training is the most effective way to get stronger, and that’s why natural weightlifters need to do a lot of heavy lifting if they want to gain significant amounts of muscle and strength.

This applies to every major muscle group in the body, as well, not just the “big” ones.

Therefore, if you want to gain shoulder muscle as quickly as possible, then you want to focus on heavy dumbbell and barbell pressing, as well as moderately heavy side and rear lateral raising.

“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does a billion reps in his shoulder workouts and has 3D cannonballs… What gives?”

Unfortunately, steroid use is rampant in this space, and especially among competitors and models, and these drugs change everything.

With the right drugs, you can sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing set after set, exercise after exercise, and your muscles will just get bigger and bigger. (A bit reductive, I know, but more accurate than inaccurate.)

You’ve probably also noticed that (open or obvious) steroid users have abnormally large shoulders, traps, and pecs (and upper chests in particular).

This is because these areas of the body are quite dense in androgen receptors, which are proteins in cells that respond to various hormones (including anabolic hormones like testosterone).

Thus, when large amounts of anabolic steroids are introduced into the body, the shoulders, traps, and pecs grow very quickly and can reach freaky levels of size.

Don’t be discouraged, though.

You can build great shoulders drug-free with a bit of know-how, hard work, and patience.

Now, what do I mean “heavy” weights, exactly?

Well, I mean working primarily with weights in the range of 75 to 85% of your one-rep max (1RM), or in the range of 8 to 10 (75%) to 4 to 6 (85%) reps, with a little work in the range of 2 to 3 reps (90+%).

If you’re new to proper weightlifting (less than one year of training under your belt), you could focus exclusively on the 4-to-6 rep range and do fantastically.

Once you’re an intermediate weightlifter, though, you can benefit from adding some higher-rep work into your routines. (There are several reasons for this, but they go a bit beyond the scope of this article. If you want to dive into the physiology, though, check out this article to learn more.)

Shoulder Training Rule #3
Emphasize Progressive Overload

As you now know, if you stop getting stronger, you’ll eventually stop getting bigger.

That’s why you must make progressive overload the key focus of your training.

In simple terms, this refers to progressively increasing tension levels in the muscle fibers, and the most effective way to do this is to gradually increase the amount of weight you’re lifting over time.

You can do all of the drop sets, supersets, eccentric sets, and other fancy training techniques you want, but if you don’t get progressive overload right, you’re always going to struggle to gain muscle effectively.

This is yet another reason why getting stronger is so important.

Now, some exercises lend themselves to progressive overload better than others. That is, some exercises allow you to safely progress toward heavier and heavier loads, while others don’t, and those that do should comprise the bread and butter of your training.

With that in mind, let’s look at the shoulder exercises that are going to work best.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

The 7 Best Shoulder Exercises

best shoulder exercises

Like with most muscle groups, there are scores of shoulder exercises you can choose from but only a small handful are really necessary.

These are the exercises I’ve used to dramatically improve my shoulder development, and they will help you do the same.

Seated or Standing Military Press

Barbell and dumbbell pressing form the foundation of effective shoulder training.

These movements emphasize the anterior deltoids but heavily involve the other two deltoids, as well as the rotator cuff muscles. They also lend themselves particularly well to heavy weightlifting.

Some people say that barbell pressing is better than dumbbell, or vice versa, and EMG studies have shown that dumbbell pressing may be slightly superior in terms of muscle activation, but the effects were small and EMG isn’t without its flaws.

Based on my experience, I wouldn’t say either the dumbbell or barbell press is fundamentally “better.” Both require a large amount of upper body strength and stability, and I’ve found them complementary and have done both for years.

Specifically, what I’ve done is repeat cycles of 6 to 8 weeks of starting my shoulder workouts with barbell pressing followed by the same period of starting with dumbbell pressing.

I recommend you do the same.

Here’s how to properly do the seated barbell military press:

And here’s the dumbbell press:

Here’s how to do the standing barbell military press correctly:

And the standing dumbbell press:

Arnold Press

The Arnold press is a variation of the traditional dumbbell press that increases the range of motion.

Here’s how to do it:

Dumbbell Front Raise

The dumbbell front raise is a good exercise for isolating the anterior deltoids.

It can be a useful supplement to your pressing, but it’s not a good replacement for it because it just can’t deliver anywhere near the same results.

Here’s how to do it:

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

This is an extremely important and often neglected shoulder exercise.

It targets the side deltoids, which accounts for a lot of the shoulder roundness and “pop” that we want.

Here’s how to do it:

As your shoulders get stronger, you’ll find it harder to maintain proper form on your side raises because lifting two heavy dumbbells simultaneously can be awkward.

An effective way around this is a one-arm raise, like this:

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

The posterior (rear) deltoid is the smallest and weakest of the shoulder muscles, but it contributes significantly to the overall look of your shoulders (especially from the side and back).

The dumbbell rear lateral raise is a great exercise for targeting the rear delts:

You can also do this standing:

Barbell Rear Delt Row

The barbell rear delt row is another one of my favorite rear delt exercises.

Here’s how to do it:

Face Pull

The face pull is good for strengthening both the rear delts and rotator cuff muscles.

Here’s how it works:

So, now that you know what exercises you’ll be doing, let’s get to the workouts.

The Best Shoulder Workouts

In this workout plan, you’re going to train shoulders once per week, the same way you do in my Bigger Leaner Stronger (for men) and Thinner Leaner Stronger (for women) programs.

In those programs, though, you stick with one kind of shoulder workout throughout the plan.

This is well and fine for the sake of simplicity (and I wanted to make sure those programs were easy to understand and do), and also is just fine if you’re a beginner, but for those of us with more experience under our belts, we can benefit from more variety in our shoulder training.

That’s why this routine is going to have you rotate between three different kinds of workouts every week:

  1. Shoulder Hypertrophy Workout

In these workouts, you’ll work in the 8-to-10 rep range (~75% of 1RM) for all exercises, and have the option to include several rest-pause sets, as well.

  1. Shoulder Power Workout

In these workouts, you’ll work in the 2-to-3 rep range (~90% of 1RM) for your first exercise, and the 4-to-6 range (85% of 1RM) for the rest.

  1. Shoulder Strength Workout

In these workouts, you’ll work in the 4-to-6 rep range for all exercises.

Don’t let the names of these workouts throw you off, by the way. All three will stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth), power, and strength, but will emphasize different elements.

Here are the workouts:

Hypertrophy

Seated or Standing Military Press

Warm up and 3 sets of…

8 to 10 reps (~75% of 1RM)

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of…

8 to 10 reps

Optional: Turn your last set into a rest-pause set.

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

3 sets of…

8 to 10 reps

Optional: Turn your last set into a rest-pause set.

Face Pull

3 sets of…

8 to 10 reps

Power

Incline Bench Press

3 sets of…

2 to 3 reps (~90% of 1RM)

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps

Face Pull

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps

Strength

Seated or Standing Military Press

Warm up and 3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps

Face Pull

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps

And now a few odds and ends on how to do these workouts:

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.

This is how you ensure that you’re progressively overloading your muscles.

For instance, if you’re doing the Strength workout and get 6 reps with 135 pounds on your military press, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can press it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase.

Rest 4 minutes in between your 2-to-3-rep sets, 3 minutes in between your 4-to-6-rep sets, and 2 minutes in between your 8-to-10-rep sets.

Yes, this is going to feel like a lot of standing around, but resting properly is a hugely important part of heavy weightlifting.

This is the time where your muscles recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.

Make sure you’re eating enough food.

You probably know that you’re supposed to eat a fair amount of protein to build muscle, but total caloric intake also plays a major role as well.

Read this article to learn more.

The Best Shoulder Workout Routine

This shoulder workout routine is simple but effective.

For 12 weeks, I want you to rotate between these three workouts–hypertrophy, power, strength–doing one per week. Thus, you’ll do each workout a total of 4 times over the course of 3 months.

I also want you to deload as needed.

Once you’ve completed this 12-week training block (mesocycle), you have two options:

  1. You can keep following the routine if you’re seeing good gains.
  2. You can change it up for the next 12 weeks, doing the Hypertrophy workout for 4 weeks, followed by the Power workout for 4 weeks, followed by the Strength workout for 4 weeks.

The first option is straightforward–you just keep plugging along.

Just to make it clear, here’s what your first 12 weeks of training should look like:

best-shoulder-workout-plan

Then, let’s say you decided to do 4-week “cycles” of each of the workouts for the next 12 weeks. Here’s what that would look like:

best-shoulder-workout-routine

And in terms of fitting these workouts into your larger workout routine, here are a few pointers:

  • Don’t do a shoulder workout the day before or after a heavy chest/push workout (because your shoulders will be fatigued). Put at least one day in between these workouts (two is optimal).
  • If you want to maximize shoulder development, train your shoulders on your first training day of the week, when you’re freshest (and before you fatigue them with chest/push training).
  • If you’re rotating between the three workouts and miss one week for whatever reason, don’t skip the workout you missed–just do it the following week and carry on.

What About Supplements?

I saved this part for last because it’s the least important.

The truth is most supplements for building muscle and losing fat are worthless.

Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to make you muscular and lean.

That said, if you know how to drive muscle growth with proper dieting and exercise, certain supplements can accelerate the process.

Here are the ones I use and recommend:

ATLAS Mass Gainer

In an ideal world, we’d get all of our daily calories from carefully prepared, nutritionally balanced meals, and we’d have the time to sit down, slow down, and savor each and every bite.

In the real world, though, we’re usually rushing from one obligation to another and often forget to eat anything, let alone the optimal foods for building muscle, losing fat, and staying healthy.

That’s why meal replacement and “weight gainer” supplements and protein bars and snacks are more popular than ever.

Unfortunately, most contain low-quality protein powders and large amounts of simple sugars and unnecessary junk.

That’s why I created ATLAS.

It’s a delicious “weight gainer” (meal replacement) supplement that provides you with 38 grams of high-quality protein per serving, along with 51 grams of nutritious, food-based carbohydrates, and just 6 grams of natural fats, as well as 26 micronutrients, enzymes, and probiotics that help you feel and perform your best.

ATLAS is also 100% naturally sweetened and flavored as well, and contains no chemical dyes, cheap fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

So, if you want to build muscle and lose fat as quickly as possible and improve the nutritional quality of your diet, then you want to try ATLAS today.

RECHARGE Post-Workout Supplement

recharge creatine supplement

RECHARGE is a 100% natural post-workout supplement that helps you gain muscle and strength faster, and recover better from your workouts.

Once it’s had time to accumulate in your muscles (about a week of use), the first thing you’re going to notice is increased strength and anaerobic endurance, less muscle soreness, and faster post workout muscle recovery.

And the harder you can train in your workouts and the faster you can recover from them, the more muscle and strength you’re going to build over time.

Furthermore, RECHARGE doesn’t need to be cycled, which means it’s safe for long-term use, and its effects don’t diminish over time.

It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

So, if you want to be able to push harder in the gym, train more frequently, and get more out of your workouts, then you want to try RECHARGE today.

WHEY+ Protein Powder

Whey protein powder is a staple in most athletes’ diets for good reason.

It’s digested quickly, it’s absorbed well, it has a fantastic amino acid profile, and it’s easy on the taste buds.

Not all whey proteins are created equal, though.

Whey concentrate protein powder, for example, can be as low as 30% protein by weight, and can also contain a considerable amount of fat and carbs.

And the more fat and carbs you’re drinking, the less you can actually enjoy in your food.

Whey isolate protein powder, on the other hand, is the purest whey protein you can buy. It’s 90%+ protein by weight and has almost no fat or carbs.

Another benefit of whey isolate is it contains no lactose, which means better digestibility and fewer upset stomachs.

Well, WHEY+ is a 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate protein powder made from exceptionally high-quality milk from small dairy farms in Ireland.

It contains no GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk, and it tastes delicious and mixes great.

So, if you want a clean, all-natural, and great tasting whey protein supplement that’s low in calories, carbs, and fat, then you want to try WHEY+ today.

whey protein supplement

PULSE Pre-Workout

Is your pre-workout simply not working anymore?

Are you sick and tired of pre-workout drinks that make you sick and tired?

Have you had enough of upset stomachs, jitters, nausea, and the dreaded post-workout crash?

Do you wish your pre-workout supplement gave you sustained energy and more focus and motivation to train? Do you wish it gave you noticeably better workouts and helped you hit PRs?

If you’re nodding your head, then you’re going to love PULSE.

It increases energy, improves mood, sharpens mental focus, increases strength and endurance, and reduces fatigue…without unwanted side effects or the dreaded post-workout crash.

It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

Lastly, it contains no proprietary blends and each serving delivers nearly 20 grams of active ingredients scientifically proven to improve performance.

So, if you want to feel focused, tireless, and powerful in your workouts…and if you want to say goodbye to the pre-workout jitters, upset stomachs, and crashes for good…then you want to try PULSE today.

pulse pre-workout

The Bottom Line on the Best Shoulder Workouts

Building bigger shoulders doesn’t require overly complex workout plans, endless hours in the gym, or drugs.

So long as you do plenty of heavy weightlifting, make sure you’re progressing to heavier and heavier weights over time, and train each of the deltoids adequately, you’ll do well. And that’s exactly what these shoulder workouts will do for you.

Let’s not forget the other important factors, though.

You’ll want to make sure you eat enough food and get enough sleep as well, and if you want an extra boost, take the right supplements.

Do all of that, and I promise you’ll be happy with the results.

Want More Workouts?

Chest Workouts

How to Get a Bigger and Stronger Chest in Just 30 Days

The Ultimate Chest Workout

This Is The Last Upper Body Workout You’ll Ever Need

Shoulder Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Shoulders in Just 30 Days

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The Ultimate Shoulder Workout

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4 Rotator Cuff Exercises That You Should Be Doing (and Why)

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Arm Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Biceps in Just 30 Days

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How to Get Bigger and Stronger Triceps in Just 30 Days

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The Ultimate Arms Workout

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Back Workouts

How to Get a Bigger and Stronger Back in Just 30 Days

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The Ultimate Back Workout

best back exercises

Leg Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Legs in Just 30 Days

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This Is The Last Lower Body Workout You’ll Ever Need

The Ultimate Legs Workout

best leg exercises

Butt Workouts

How to Get a Bigger and Rounder Butt in Just 30 Days

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The Best Butt Exercises for Building Head-Turning Glutes

best butt exercises

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like to hang out online! 🙂

What’s your take on shoulder workouts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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  • Briscan Andrei

    Hi Mike & Co !
    What do you think about the Barbell Push Press as an substitute for the standing/seated barbell overhead press ?
    Maybe I’m wrong but in the power workout are you sure that it’s incline bench press for 3 sets of 2-3 reps and not the seated or standing barbell overhead press ?
    Also , what about face pulls in the 4-6 rep range in the strength workout ? Usually you recommend to do them in the 8-10 to even 12 reps range .

    • The Push Press can be a good variation to include, particularly if you’re stuck on the military press.

      The incline bench is included in the Power workout on purpose. Overhead pressing in the 2-3 rep range gets really hard after a bit, and the incline bench will still hit your shoulder shard while providing some variety.

      Face pulling 4-6 reps is fine. You’ll hit different ranges if you follow the routine as I outlined. I hope this helps!

  • Jay L

    Hi Mike! Thanks for this, great shoulders are always something I wanted. My question is:
    I’m currently starting my second 8-10 week cycle of BLS; and once I’m done with that I planned to hit a deload week and then start BBLS. How then does these 3 workouts fit in the equation? Should I follow it or should I stick to my cycle of BLS > deload > BBLS?
    Thanks!

    • This workout format is a bit different from BBLS. It’s similar in that you’re working in different rep ranges, but the scheduling and periodization is different. If you’ve reached the strength milestones for BBLS, you can move onto it after the deload as you see fit. It’s really up to you which you want to follow.

      • Jay L

        Thanks for the reply Mike.
        What do you think if I stuck to the BLS workout and then on day 6 which I do weak point training, I will do OHP, side laterals and rear laterals in the 8-10 rep range instead?
        Which means every wk I’ll be hitting shoulders twice, once in the BLS 4-6 and once in the 8-10.
        What are your thoughts?

  • Mathew Zaid

    Not sure if anyone asked yet but would the same principle be good to use on the other muscle groups or sticking to bbls alternating rep range be better? I’m on year two and meet the requirements for BBLS. Thanks

    • Sure, you can give it a shot. The BBLS routine is periodized a bit differently and works really well, but so will this approach. Try both and let me know what you think!

  • Iván

    Hey Mike!

    Thanks for all your awesome content, the results following your advice are second to none!

    With shoulders I’m having more trouble progressing through the weights… I find it specifically hard to keep good form and move up towards heavier dumbbells. What usually happens is that I tend to bend my elbows, even if I do one arm lateral raises (as in the video in this article). If I try to get the weight down to build the strength with proper form I never seem able to go beyond something like 8kg dumbbells… Any thoughts?

    I’ve seen in other articles that bending the elbows may not be that bad (although I would say opinions seem divided) but I’m not sure what would be proper form in that case for this movement, so I wanted to check with you!

    Thanks a lot!

    Iván.

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