Learning how to grow your delts will probably be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made. You’ll stand out amongst other lifters as few people have well-developed deltoids. It’s true that no one muscle group can be the key to a great physique, but if there were a title to be taken, I’m pretty sure an impressive pair of shoulders would take it.

Women tend to be pretty weak in the shoulder girdle area, and so do some men, training your shoulders with the correct exercises will add width and shape to this area.

The Shoulder Joint Explained

You’ve probably heard of the shoulder joint being called the ball and socket joint. Looking at the shoulder joint from the front, you will see very little in the way of the socket (the glenoid fossa cavity). The glenoid Fossa looks like a shallow saucer-shaped depression formed on the side of the scapula on which the head of the humerus rests and pivots in all directions.

shoulder joint with descriptions

It would appear that the humerus is unrestricted by the so-called ‘joint’ In fact, in bony terms, only your body and head prevent your arm from moving in almost every direction. The skeleton isn’t the whole story. Of course, ligaments are there to ‘strap’ the bone on, and muscles that cross the joint also aid in support.

The main muscles that cross the joint are the deltoids, latissimus dorsi, and pectorals. Still, the other muscles such as the supraspinatus, biceps and triceps, teres major, and others also exist. A lack of balanced training and stretching means that the muscles and ligaments reduce shoulder mobility to quite a high degree.

People are apt to get a little confused about the deltoid muscles. They are plural only by virtue of having two, one on each shoulder. Some people think you have six or three on each side. It is true that both visually and functionally, the fibers can be categorized into anterior, lateral, and posterior, but it’s still one muscle per side.

Actions of The Deltoid Muscle

The Deltoid muscle provides a variety of actions.

  1. Abduction – Rasing arm out sideways, the entire muscle
  2. Flexion – Rasing arm forwards and up, anterior fibers
  3. Extension – Moving arm back and up, posterior fibers
  4. Horizontal flexion – Moving arm forwards at shoulders height (e.g., bench press or pec deck), anterior fibers
  5. Horizontal extension – Moving arm backward at shoulder height (e.g., bent-over laterals), posterior fibers

The anterior fibers of the deltoid can also assist abduction. Everyday moments and sporting actions don’t necessarily use precisely one or other of these moments, and a mixture will be used. For example, lateral and anterior fibers will be bought into play in the overhead press.

How Should We Train The Deltoids?

It’s pretty evident from the range of actions performed by the deltoids that the muscle is bought into play whenever the arm is moved away from a hanging position at the side. As mentioned earlier, it is also used in lifting and carrying to hold the humerus into the shoulder joint. So pulling, pushing, throwing, pressing, and hitting are all arm actions that involve the deltoids.

They will be called into play in exercises performed for other body parts, e.g., bench press – anterior fibers, seated rowing – posterior fibers. Training the deltoids can be divided into single (single joint) movements or compound movements which involve the elbow.

How to Grow Your Deltoids – Exercises

1. Front Raises

This can be done with either a barbell or dumbbell. If using a barbell, I suggest you place your feet forward and back for extra stability. Also, tilt very slightly towards and hold that position as a precaution against arching the back at the top of the movement. A slight forward lean also places a little more emphasis on the top of the movement, which should not be more than about head high to maintain resistance.

Extra negative reps can be done by pressing out to an angle of 45 degrees to horizontal, lowering, clean to the chest, and press out, lower, and so on. Using a straight bar means a palms-down grip.

The anterior deltoid works better with the humerus rotated slightly out from this position as is palms facing inwards, holding dumbbells vertically. Again, for this stability, I favor the alternate, crossing over method, to both arms together. The outer range of the muscle’s action is not stressed as the weights, starting from the sides, are moving across gravity. This can be overcome by doing the movement with dumbbells lying on a bench, palms inwards: or using a low cable machine and facing away from the pulley. Both methods will work the muscle from an arm position behind the body. Adjusting the bench or body angle allows you to move the emphasis around the outer and mid-range.


2. Lateral Raises

A lot of cheating goes on here, and the following recommendations are to maintain form and effect. I suggest a slight forward lean to prevent cheating with the back and maintain an inward rotation of the humerus to keep the little finger edge of the hand higher than the thumb. Some trainers say, ” think of pouring a kettle.” Bring the weights again only to just over head height, lower smoothly to just outside the thighs. Elbows should be just “off lock” for comfort. For outer range work, i.e., from an arm across the body position, cables are the answer, one hand or two-handed. If doing them single-armed, it is best to take a firm stance and stabilize with the other arm.


3. Bent Over Laterals

Maintaining body position is the problem here. It is not that difficult, but the energy you put into your legs and back could be put to better use. Some gyms are fortunate enough to have benches, flat or incline, with sufficient clearance to perform the exercises lying face down, the body being thus supported. Try, if free standing, to avoid dipping the chest and using momentum. Remember also that the closer you bring your elbows towards the sides, the more you bring in your lats.


Compound Movements

The main shoulder exercises are overhead pressing movements and upright rowing. The best advice is to perform pressing exercises seated, if possible, with feet braced in front, against the wall, or some fixed object. There is a tendency to arch the back, putting pressure on the lumbar discs if a military press or press behind the neck is performed standing.

The extreme cases in the Olympic ‘clean and press’ led to it being dropped from the discipline. The back arch is lessened by the seating, but lifting the legs forward rotates the pelvis upwards and forwards, making the lumber arch almost impossible.

People who are stiff in the shoulder will find the military press difficult to perform as it leaves the bar too far in front at the top of the movement. For this reason, many people favor the barbell press behind the neck and dumbbell press with rotation ( dumbbells move from parallel at the shoulders to end at the top). Ensure that the elbows move fully down to the sides, or the deltoid action will be limited. Sometimes this can be caused by too closer grip.

Some more advanced trainers advocate an incomplete movement when pressing, .ie—stopping a few inches before lockout. This is to maintain the effort of the deltoids, as behind a certain angle, say 60 degrees from the horizontal, the arm is bought to vertical by the scapular rotation (trapezius) and elbow extension (triceps) with the deltoids performing a holding action. Most people, however, perform the whole movement.

All pressing actions involve the triceps, of course. If you have been bench pressing previously and hope to do specific tricep work later, you might want to give them a break. In this case, you could use a combination of simple movements and upright rowing. The elbow joint is still involved but in flexion, which means the biceps.

Keep a fairly close grip on the upright rowing as a wide grip has the arms starting well away from the sides and limited movement results. Simple, followed by compound, is the basis of pre-exhaust.

To Sum Up

For general development for beginner and intermediate, I suggest you perform just two of the exercises mentioned above, lateral raise and seated dumbbell press ( with upright rowing as an occasional alternative to the press), as all the fibers are worked to some extent in these exercises with extra stress coming from bench pressing, rowing cleans and so forth. The seated press should, of course, be done with back supported by an upright bench.


References and Excerpts

Jim Cloth Article Instructors corner ‘Deltoids’ Sport & Fitness magazine