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Developing the Deltoid Muscles: Shouldering the Load

Updated on May 9, 2017

Diagram of the Three Deltoid Muscles

The Deltoid Muscles

You really do not hear many people talking about the their shoulders. They do not get a lot of notoriety because they are not one of the "glamour" muscle groups. These days in society, the abs, quads, chest and biceps are the big shots and usually get the most attention. Lazar Angelov, a fitness model and personal trainer has quickly become synonymous with abs. Tom Platz, an old school body builder from back in the day, was famous for his huge quads and he made having big, muscular thighs cool before they were the "in thing". I guess it would be fair to say the deltoids are more of a blue collar muscle group and the majority of people that go to the gym will have underdeveloped shoulders. There are a couple of reasons for this, one, unless your just genetically predisposed to have big, wide shoulders, they are not going to grow as quickly as some of your other muscle groups, which may discourage some people to start focusing on other body parts. The other reason is that the shoulder muscle group can be very susceptible to injury. If you have ever had to fight your way through a shoulder injury, then you are well aware how drastically it changes everything you do in the gym. The shoulder consists of the anterior deltoid, posterior deltoid and the lateral deltoid. The four rotator cuff muscles (Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus, Teres Major and Teres Minor) are also a part of this group. Not quite as commonly known, smaller and not noticeable as the deltoids are, but the rotator cuff muscles are probably even more important as they provide stabilization and the ability to rotate with a wider range of motion. If you stick with the following principals and of course adjusting them to you and your body, there is no reason you can not build size and strength on your deltoids.

Deltoid Muscles


Fitness goals will vary, but if your goal is to develop bigger, stronger delts, then I would recommend you give your shoulders a workout day for themselves. Trying to get a good, intense deltoid workout after hitting your chest or back is pretty close to impossible. You may want to add some trapezius (traps) work in there, but some people like to train them separately. Your routine should consist of 3 to 4 compound movements with heavy lifting involved. Isolation movements are clean and assist in the defining the muscle group but are secondary to the compound work when it comes to growth. Your compound to Isolation ratio should lean heavy on the compound side. Some people tend to forget that the deltoids are a three headed monster. Presses are used for the front delts, side raises are used for the side delts, but more often than not the rear deltoid is left out. The rear delts give you that added thickness to the back, so make sure you are hitting them properly. Your body already has muscle stabilizers (rotator cuffs) built in the shoulder to balance and control the weight when you are lifting, so doing a lot of machine work is pretty much redundant. I would say keep a 70 to 30 free weight versus machine ratio, maybe even higher on the free weight side if your shoulders tend to be a bit more stubborn. Isolation movements like the cables are extremely effective, but for building mass, free weights are king. The muscle confusion principle should always be used, meaning you need to keep your body guessing by always changing your routine. If your body is unfamiliar with the workout, it will grow to adapt to the new demands put on it. Mix up the order of your compound movements. Using variation between cables, kettle bells, dumbbells, rep ranges, exercises, along with order that they are performed in being consistently changed and kept new and you will see your growth to be consistent and unfaltering.

Shoulder Training

Seated Dumbbell Press

Shoulder Exercises

Lets take a look at the movements that will assist you in building big, rounded deltoids. The additional shoulder strength will not only make you look wider, but will be advantageous and helpful in other lifts such as the bench press and dumbbell rowing.

Seated barbell/dumbbell press

These movements are considered king when it comes to building shoulders. Keep the weight heavier, but safe and do not allow the weight to drift behind your head, you do not want to put too much stress put on your rotator cuffs. Typically you should have a spotter with you whenever possible. Performing 4 sets with a weight heavy enough to pump out anywhere from 6 to 12 repetitions will probably be adequate. Your muscle fibers will respond and grow to accommodate heavier workloads. Of course you want the definition, but they need to be big first, so heavier workloads are absolutely necessary to grow. The Smith machine can also be used for shoulder pressing. It allows you to go heavier, with no balance required because the machine provides stabilization. You can train heavier and to muscle failure often with the smith machine.

Execution of the Upright row performed by

Upright Rows

Grabbing the bar shoulder width apart (a little narrower if that's where you are comfortable) pull the bar up to your neck, allowing your wrist to flex as the bar rises. This movement does put a lot of stress on your shoulder joints so a safe weight that can be controlled should be used. This exercise will hit all three heads of your deltoids, your upper back and traps. If it's a heavy day, train with a partner so your not rocking or swinging the weight. When you have a partner or partners, your sessions are going to last longer, so make sure your body has the proper aminos acids and carbs for the extended training sessions.

Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows

This movement is imperative for posterior deltoid (rear) development but is more often than not ignored by many people. The weight should be kept moderate and your focus should be more on using proper form. Knock out 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps should effectively have you own your way to a stronger, more defined rear delt. If your deltoids are not responding, there's nothing wrong with hitting them twice a week, as long as they are recovered from the first workout. Go heavy on the first workout and light on the second, or vice versa. Pay attention to your body and how it responds. Cardio is also helpful in revealing more muscle definition. A little cardio will reveal those ridges, but not too much that your not maintaining your muscle mass.

Shoulder Raises

Seated Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Cable/Dumbbell Raises

These isolation movements can be highly effective when used appropriately. You can use them in a variety of different ways and angles to hit each head of the deltoid and you will want to hit your deltoids from every angle possible. Cables provide continuous tension to your shoulders. Their effectiveness becomes even more prominent when the amount of weight is limited and the repetitions are controlled and with proper form. Isolation movements are intended to stimulate the fast twitch muscle fibers and fill your deltoids full of blood, giving you that monstrous, insane pump. When using the cables don't worry about the weight, and set numbers should be as many as your body needs. Higher rep ranges should be used when attempting to detail/define.

Form is King

Form is More Important than the Amount of Weight

There are many other exercises that can be used to develop your deltoids, these are simply just the basics builders/developers. None of these exercises are the reinvention of the wheel and are all pretty simple and will assist you in developing and growing your shoulders when used properly. You should never swing the weight during any shoulder movement, or an exercise for any body part for that matter when its not required. Swinging the weight results in your hips and back doing most of the work instead of your deltoids which defeats the purpose. Using both compound and isolation movements, heavy and moderate weights (when applicable), strict and proper form, and rep ranges that are specifically designed to your body, will have you on your way to developing bigger and stronger shoulders.


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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Good, clear instructions for the gym lovers and exercise buffs. Thank you.