Your shoulders are probably your most noticeable body part. Whether you are wearing a suit, t-shirt, or workout vest, good shoulders really stand out. Well-developed shoulders give your upper body its width and make you look powerful and strong.
However, the shoulders are also a complex body part, capable of lots of different movements. That’s because, rather than just one muscle, the shoulders are made up of three muscles; the anterior, posterior, and medial deltoids, or delts for short.
Of the three, the medial deltoid is most responsible for the width of your shoulders. In this article, we will discuss how the medial deltoid works and the best exercises for increasing its size.
Deltoid Anatomy 101
Most bodybuilders have a shoulder training day. This usually involves a pressing exercise or two and some shoulder isolation exercises. While such an imprecise workout program CAN work, it’s a bit hit or miss.
That’s because the shoulders are made up of three individual muscles, often referred to as heads, and each one has different functions. Subsequently, if you want to work your shoulders correctly, you need to take a more targeted approach.
The three deltoids are:
Anterior deltoid – located on the front of your shoulder, this deltoid head is responsible for flexion, horizontal flexion, and medial rotation of your shoulder joint. It works alongside your pecs in all chest exercises.
Posterior deltoid – located on the back of your shoulder, this muscle is also called the rear deltoid. Its functions are extension, horizontal extension, and external rotation of the shoulder joint. Of the three deltoids, this head is usually the most underdeveloped.
Medial deltoid – also known as the side deltoid, this head has just one function, which is the abduction of the shoulder joint. This means it lifts your arm up and away from the side of your body. The medial deltoid is responsible for shoulder width.
Overhead pressing exercises, the most common way to train the shoulders, work all three deltoid heads. However, by choosing specific exercises, it’s possible to emphasize each deltoid separately.
Working your medial deltoid will help broaden your shoulders, creating a more impressive V-taper. If you want to make your shoulders wider, build your workouts around the following best side delt exercises.
10 Best Side Delt Exercises:
Get the most from these exercises by using the right weight and set and rep scheme. It’s okay to occasionally train outside of these parameters, but the bulk of your workouts should match your goal.
- To increase strength, do sets of 1-5 reps using heavy weights, resting 3-5 minutes between sets.
- For hypertrophy, do sets of 6-12 reps with moderate weights, resting 60-90 seconds between sets.
- To improve endurance, do sets of 13-20 reps with light weights, resting 30-60 seconds between sets.
Also, remember to warm up before you start working out. A few minutes of light cardio plus some dynamic stretches will help, and you should also do a couple of light sets of your main exercises to fully prepare your joints and muscles for what you are about to do.
Here are the TEN best side delt exercises!
1. Dumbbell Lateral Raises
The dumbbell lateral raise is a basic free weight exercise that targets your medial deltoids. It’s relatively straightforward to perform, which is part of its appeal. Get more from this exercise by using light to moderate weights so you can lift the dumbbells with control and without swinging them up. Extra leg or back movement can make this exercise less effective.
Dumbbell lateral raises are also perfect for muscle-building drop sets. Just line up a few pairs of progressively lighter pairs of dumbbells, and rep out with each set in turn, for example:
- 10 reps @ 40lbs (can’t manage an 11threp)
- Reduce the weight
- 6 reps @ 30lbs (can’t manage a 7threp)
- Reduce the weight
- 5 reps @ 20lbs (can’t manage a 6threp)
Dumbbell lateral raises can also be done seated. This provides you with some extra back support and also makes it harder to cheat the weight up.
2. Cable Lateral Raise
If dumbbell lateral raises have a disadvantage, it is that there is very little load on your muscles when your arms are down by your sides. It’s only as your arms move away from your body that the side delt muscles have much work to do.
Using cables instead of free weights means your deltoids are under tension from the start to the end of each and every rep. This means that, potentially, they’re more effective than the dumbbell variation.
Does this mean you should ditch the dumbbells forever? Absolutely not!
Use cable lateral raises AND dumbbell lateral raises to give your side deltoid workouts variety and to prevent boredom.
You can also do cable lateral raises with the cable behind you. This reduces front deltoid recruitment, meaning your side delts have to work harder. But, on the downside, this variation could put more stress on your shoulder joint, so use it with caution.
3. Barbell Wide Grip Upright Row
Upright rows don’t look a lot like lateral raises but, if you ignore what’s going on at the elbow joint, you’ll soon see that this barbell exercise actually involves the same movement – shoulder abduction.
Upright rows work your medial deltoids and also your upper trapezius and biceps.
This exercise CAN be hard on your joints and could even lead to shoulder pain. However, using a wide grip and not pulling the bar higher than your mid-chest can help mitigate these problems. That said, if upright rows hurt your shoulders, you should skip this exercise and seek out more shoulder-friendly exercises.
4. Cable Wide Grip Upright Rows
Here at Fitness Volt, we LOVE free weight exercises, but we also know that you need plenty of variety in your workouts to keep things fresh, productive, and interesting. That’s why we also like to include cable exercises in our workouts. It’s this variety that helps avoid workout ruts and progress plateaus.
Cable Wide Grip Upright Rows work the same muscles as the barbell version but are just different enough to provide the variation you need to keep making gains. You may also find the cable version somewhat easier on your shoulders.
5. Dumbbell Armpit Row
The dumbbell armpit row, also known as the monkey row, is not a common or popular bodybuilding exercise. It’s something of a throwback to the golden era of bodybuilding. Despite its lack of modern-day popularity, this unusual exercise is a useful side delt builder that is easier on the shoulders than regular upright rows.
Get even more from this exercise by supersetting it with dumbbell lateral raises. Grab your dumbbells and do lateral raises to failure. Then, without stopping, switch to armpit rows and pump out as many reps as you can. This is a pre-exhaust superset, which involves doing an isolation exercise and a compound exercise for the same muscle group. Supersets are a form of training system.
6. Dumbbell Iron Cross Walk
Weighted carries are useful for burning fat, building muscle, increasing fitness, and developing mental toughness. There are lots of weighted carries to try, and this one targets your medial deltoids.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Lift your arms up and out to your sides, so your arms are parallel to the floor.
- Turn your wrists, so your thumbs are pointing upward. Alternatively, you can also do this exercise with your palms facing the floor. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
- From this starting position, walk around your training area while keeping your arms raised. Continue until you are unable to keep your arms up.
7. Lean Away Dumbbell Lateral Raises
This lateral raise variation increases tension on the medial deltoid as you raise your arm. In short, it increases the overload at the top of each rep. It also stabilizes your upper body, making it harder to cheat.
Use this exercise to add variety to your side delt workouts. It’s not necessarily better than regular dumbbell lateral raises, but variety is often helpful for maintaining progress and avoiding training plateaus.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in one hand and grasp a pole, rail, squat rack, or cable machine with the other.
- Lean out to the side and let the dumbbell hang down toward the floor. Your palm should be facing your leg, and your elbow slightly bent but rigid.
- Raise the dumbbell up and out to shoulder-height. Keep your body stationary.
- Lower the dumbbell back down and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on each arm.
This exercise can also be done using a cable machine.
8. Side-Lying Dumbbell Lateral Raises
In regular lateral raises, there is very little resistance to overcome at the start of each rep.
This lateral raise variation increases the load when your arm is by your side. As well as working your deltoids, this exercise increases supraspinatus activation, which is the rotator cuff responsible for initiating shoulder abduction.
How to do it:
- Set the backrest on an adjustable bench to 30-45 degrees. Sit sideways on your bench and then lean your upper body against the backrest. Hold a dumbbell in your free hand.
- Keeping your elbow slightly bent but rigid, raise your arm up until it’s perpendicular to your body.
- Lower the dumbbell back down and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on each side.
9. Dumbbell and Band Victory Raises
This highly unusual exercise works all three deltoid heads with an emphasis on your medial deltoid. It’s also useful for increasing lower and mid-trap strength, and it’s good for shoulder joint health too. If you only have time for one delt exercise, this is the one to do!
How to do it:
- Loop a resistance band around your wrists and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Start with the weights in front of your hips, palms facing inward.
- Lift the dumbbells forward and up while pushing your arms out to form a V overhead.
- Lower the weights back down, allowing your hands to come back together in front of your hips, but do not relax completely; keep some tension on the band at the bottom of each rep.
- Go light; emphasize pushing your arms out against the band rather than lifting heavy weights.
10. Power Lateral Raises
With most lateral raise exercises, we recommend using light to moderate weights and doing medium to high reps. You should also try to keep your legs and torso stationary to keep the tension on your side delts.
This exercise is different because you’re going to purposely use your legs and back to lift the weights. This allows you to use heavier dumbbells, which will increase your strength. Think of this exercise as a cheating version of regular lateral raises.
You can do power laterals at the end of a regular set of dumbbell lateral raises to help you crank out a few more reps. This is a sort of mechanical drop set.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs. Your elbows should be slightly bent but rigid.
- Lean forward slightly and bend your knees.
- Stand up and use this momentum to help you lift the weights up and out to the side. Don’t worry if you can’t lift the dumbbells up to shoulder-height; just lift them as high as you can.
- Lower the weights and repeat.
- Try to control the descent of the weights, but don’t expect to lower them under complete control. Just put the brakes on so they don’t fall back down to your legs.
Important Side Delt Training Tips
Use these tips to get the best results from your delt-building workouts:
1. Prioritize your side delts
If you are serious about beefing up a lagging muscle group, make them a training priority. Hit your side delts first when you train your shoulders and consider training them twice a week on non-consecutive days using different exercises. It may also be useful to drop overhead presses from your shoulder workouts, so you’ve got more time and energy to spend on your side delts.
2. Play the angles
Get more from your side delt workouts by training them using a variety of angles. Don’t just do standing lateral raises; try side-lying and lean away laterals too. Also, combine free weight and cable exercises to attack your deltoids from even more angles.
3. Try lateral raise/overhead press supersets
Intensify your workouts by doing lateral raise/overhead supersets. The lateral raise movement will pre-fatigue your side delts, while overhead presses will exhaust them further. This is a good shock tactic for triggering new deltoid growth. Lateral raise and upright row supersets can be similarly effective.
4. Use a holistic approach to reps and weights
Holistic strength training involves using various weights and rep ranges to ensure that you work every available muscle fiber for maximum growth. In simple terms, this means doing both heavy compound exercises and lighter isolation exercises. Don’t just do the standard three sets of 8-12 reps for every movement.
Instead, try something like this:
- Power lateral raises – 3 sets of 5 reps
- Wide grip cable upright rows – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Dumbbell lateral raises – 3 sets of 15 reps
- Side-lying dumbbell lateral raises – 3 sets of 20 reps
5. Try the continuous tension method
With the continuous tension method, you avoid locking out at the top and resting between reps. This creates an incredible pump, and that can have a significant impact on muscle growth. For example, when doing lateral raises, don’t lower the weights all the way down to your sides. Instead, stop each rep with your dumbbells about 12 inches away from your legs.
You won’t be able to use as much weight when using the continuous tension method, and it burns like crazy, but you’ll LOVE the results!
If you want bigger side delts, these are the exercises for you! Some are isolation exercises, while others are compound movements. Build your shoulder workouts around these exercises and make side delt training your priority. If you work hard, you’ll soon be on your way to sculpting your best shoulders ever.
After all, whether you are wearing clothes or at the beach in your bathing suit, your shoulders are one of the first things people notice about you. Make them something to be remembered!
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