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How to Get Big Deltoids - Get Huge Shoulders

Updated on May 25, 2014

Why You Want Big Deltoids

A lot of people tend to associate upper body musculature with development of the pectoralis muscle. While this is a great muscle to target, in part due to its naturally large size, I feel that the deltoid (shoulder) muscles are superior. This is especially true for underdeveloped weight trainers who are looking to improve the look of their physique. The main advantage of focusing heavily on the shoulders is that they will make your body appear wider and are often more aesthetically pleasing when fully developed.

In addition to the aesthetic benefits afforded by large shoulders, you'll also benefit in that having strong deltoids will improve the strength of the relatively vulnerable shoulder joint. Compared to the pectoralis major, the deltoids are generally considered to offer more functional strength in athletics, which is why most strength training coaches prefer the standing overhead press to the bench press.

The Deltoid
The Deltoid

The Deltoid Muscle

The shoulder muscle, most generally, is referred to as the deltoid.  Contrary to what some people believe, the deltoid is actually a single muscle with three distinct heads.  Each head of the muscle can contract independently, giving the deltoid full control over the shoulder joint.  The three heads of the deltoid are the anterior, lateral, and posterior heads.

The anterior head is primarily used for shoulder abduction when the upper arm is held out from the body.  To put it simply, it is most often used for pushing things above the head.  In addition to this, the anterior head is under heavy stress during shoulder flexion and transverse flexion.  The bench press makes use of transverse flexion.  The anterior head can be found on the front of the shoulder.

The lateral head is also used for shoulder abduction, although the upper arm is not rotated when it is activated.  This muscle can be found on the side of the shoulder and is one of the more difficult to build up.  With that in mind, most activities that make use of the anterior head will also stress the lateral head, so it's not essential to try to isolate this muscle.

The posterior head is at the rear of the deltoid.  This muscle is primarily used for transverse extension, which is essentially pulling something toward the body with upper arms held out to the side.  Additionally, the posterior head is under heavy stress during external rotation and transverse abduction.  This is an often under exercised muscle that can lead to problems if left to atrophy.

Deltoid Exercise Selection

When it comes time to put together a routine for getting large deltoids, I suggest being careful in how you select your exercises.  One common problem that a lot of people have is focusing too much on the anterior and lateral heads.  This can be a problem because the posterior head will not strengthen at the same rate, which can lead to a muscular imbalance and shoulder issues, including impingement, subluxation, and sprains.

For most inexperienced weight lifters, I'd suggest using two or three shoulder exercises total.  I like to keep routines short and sweet with no more than four to six exercises on any given day.  For the shoulders, I recommend using one compound exercise, supplemented by two more isolation exercises for the posterior and lateral heads.

Below, I discuss some of the more common shoulder exercises in depth.

Standing Overhead Press

This exercise goes by many names and has many variations. You may have heard of it called the shoulder press, military press, standing shoulder press, dumbbell overhead press, or any other name. While most of these denote some small differences, the general idea remains the same: you take a heavy weight and push it over your head.

You might notice that I include the standing distinction in the title. It's not absolutely necessary that you stand while doing the exercise, but I recommend it. It'll help strengthen your posterior chain and core in addition to the shoulders, which'll lead to larger gains in functional strength.

When performing the standing overhead press, I suggest arching your back slightly but not so much as to put it in a vulnerable position. I personally prefer using dumbbells, but a barbell works fine as well. There is little difference between then two movements if you keep your palms facing out.

This exercise is good for building up the anterior and lateral deltoids. It is generally thought of as a more functional exercise than the bench press and will actually cause the weight in it to increase.

This exercise should be in every shoulder routine.

Upright Row

This is a less popular exercise that is great for building up both the anterior and lateral deltoids.  It's important that you start off with a low weight when performing this exercise because it's pretty easy to damage your shoulder if it's done incorrectly.  If you find it difficult to use even the bar, then use a smaller 25 or 35lb barbell.

When performing this exercise, try to avoid rocking back and forth to gain some momentum.  You'll also need to be careful about using hip or knee extension to help "yank" the weight up.  The more you cheat, the less you'll get out of the lift.

If you include this exercise with the standing overhead press, then make sure your third exercise focuses on the posterior deltoids.

Flies and Reverse Flies

Flies and reverse flies hit the front and back of the deltoid.  The traditional dumbbell flies are usually done on a bench with arms fully extended.  You let your arms fall down as far as they go and then bring them back up in a wide arc above your chest.  Reverse flies do the same thing except you're weight bent over or lying on your stomach instead of your back.

The main distinction between reverse and normal flies are the muscles they hit.  Flies are used for targeting the anterior head, while reverse flies are used for targeting the posterior head.  Since the standing overhead press hits the anterior head already, I suggest only incorporating reverse flies into your routine unless you're looking to bodybuild.

Rear Delt Raise

This is my favorite exercise for the posterior head. It's a very uncommon lift that you'll rarely see anyone doing. Most people, if they are even wise enough to hit their posterior deltoids, will instead do rear delt rows or reverse flies. While both of those exercises are very good, the rear delt raise generally allows you to lift heavier weights and isolate the posterior head more effectively. In order to enhance this exercise, you can also curl your wrists up - this helps increase forearm activation.

One word of caution I have about this exercise is to be careful about hitting your back with the barbell. While this shouldn't cause any spinal injuries unless you're a straight up maniac, you can scrape or bruise your lower back with the barbell. It's a good idea to pull the weight away from the back when lifting it as opposed to coming straight up.

This exercise is pretty hard to find online, since most people think that the rear delt raise is the same as the reverse fly.  This isn't the case.  In order to perform the rear delt raise, grasp a barbell behind your back and lift it up along the plane of your back by pushing your upper arms back and contracting the posterior head of the deltoid.

Exrx has a good .gif here: rear delt raise

Lateral Raises

This is a similar motion to flies, except that it is done while standing up with the torso erect and arms at the sides.  You hold the dumbbells in your hands and lift your arms up from the side of the body.  This is a good exercise for isolating the lateral head of the deltoid.

It's a good idea to start off with a small amount of weight and to keep your arms as extended as possible.  It's actually preferable to have a slight bend in the elbow but, again, it should be relatively straight. 


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    • Jalapeno10 profile image

      Jalapeno10 6 years ago

      This is an informative hub. Great!

    • TheMMAZone profile image

      TheMMAZone 6 years ago from Kansas

      This is a great hub! There is nothing like that V taper which the deltoids are a huge part. I am going to try your suggestions and let you know how it goes.