The shoulder is a complex muscle. It consists of three heads – front (anterior/front deltoid), side/middle (lateral/side deltoid), and rear (posterior/rear deltoid) – each of which performs a different function. To develop thick, round, three-dimensional shoulders, you need to give all three heads enough attention. But the development of the middle shoulder head, i.e. the lateral delt, leaves much to be desired for many. About the main cause of this ánd the solution.
ABOUT THE LATERAL DELTS
The lateral delt, side delt or middle shoulder head is a small muscle that nevertheless fulfills a number of important functions [ i ] :
- abduction, in which the arms are moved sideways from the body;
- flexion, in which the arms are raised forward;
- transverse abduction, in which the arms are moved outward from the center.
From an aesthetic bodybuilding standpoint, well-developed ‘laterals’ are especially important for the frontal view of the physique. Combined with well-developed lats, they give you that coveted wide look.
The fact that many bodybuilders do not have impressively broad shoulders is because the lateral delts are often – unconsciously – not trained (well) enough. So, for example, it is not the case that the side of the shoulders grows more difficult or slower than the other parts of the muscle. With the right ‘treatment’ you too can develop excellent lateral delts within a short time.
WHY THE LATERAL DELTS OFTEN LAG BEHIND
In many bodybuilders, the anterior (or front) delts are well developed, but the lateral (or side) delts lag behind. There are two possible reasons for this.
1. TOO MUCH FOCUS ON THE ANTERIOR DELTS
The front shoulder heads get a lot of work in most training programs. Multiple variations of the bench press, for example. Remember that the bench press is a chest and shoulder exercise (and a triceps exercise also). And as far as shoulders are concerned, the anterior delts are mainly used. Many bodybuilders have two bench press exercises in their schedule (flat and oblique), which means that those anterior delts are bombarded with twelve sets every week. Let alone if they also do chest dips, where the anterior delts also have to do a lot of work.
In addition to bench press, shoulder press is also part of almost everyone’s routine on push day. Finally, the shoulder press (aka military press), with barbell or dumbbells, is known as a basic exercise for the shoulders. But the fact is that this exercise also mainly stimulates the front of your shoulders. So all presses, from horizontal to vertical, are essentially an anterior delt affair. The lateral delts only function as an auxiliary muscle, while the posterior delts do not participate at all.
If you do both bench and shoulder presses, you can easily get to 15-20 sets per week for the anterior delts. That is more than enough for most and probably even too much for beginners. It’s not for nothing that coaches often advise against doing front raises, the isolation exercise for the anterior delts. You can include these in your schedule if you do the dumbbell chest press instead of the classic version with a barbell. With the dumbbell variant, the anterior delts are a bit more out of the question.
Training volume for the lateral delts
How many sets should you actually do on a weekly basis for optimal development of the lateral delts?
Well, the lateral delts are involved to some degree in almost all push and pull exercises, especially horizontal pull exercises [ iv ] and vertical push exercises [ ii ] . So they already get some indirect training. But you will also have to train them in a targeted manner, as their role in regular shoulder presses is limited, as mentioned.
Beginners, according to coach Mike Israetel, usually have enough with six direct sets a week [ iii ] . For intermediates and advanced athletes this is usually no longer a challenge: they need 10-20 direct sets. This is possible with only lateral raises, although it is best to do several variants, as we will see.
Whatever your training status, first master the performance of the dumbbell lateral raise (see below). Maybe you have always done the exercise wrong and therefore never effectively trained your lateral delts. In that case you can suffice with 6-10 sets per week. Only when you no longer make convincing progress (while your recovery is in order), do add sets.
Some notes on calculating the number of sets. This number is in addition to exercises where the lateral delt is only trained as a secondary muscle, such as the conventional shoulder press. If you are doing an exercise that trains both the lateral and posterior delts, such as face pulls (see below), you should charge slightly less volume for the lateral delts than for exercises such as lateral raises and barbell upright rows.
6 sets of dumbbell lateral raises = 6 sets of lateral delts
3 sets of barbell upright rows = 2 sets of lateral delts
6 sets of face pulls = 4 sets of lateral delts
6 sets of shoulder press = 1 set of lateral delts
total = 14 sets of lateral delts
2. POOR EXECUTION OF THE BASIC EXERCISE
The basic exercise for the lateral delts is the dumbbell lateral raise. And although most bodybuilders have it in their exercise arsenal, they only get mediocre results with it. Cause: They’re doing the exercise wrong, so it’s not the lateral delts, but other muscle groups — especially the upper traps and again the anterior delts—doing most of the work. Usually you notice that because you can’t achieve a good mind-muscle connection with your lateral delts.
More on how to correctly perform the dumbbell lateral raise (and variants) in a moment.
THE BEST EXERCISES FOR THE LATERAL DELTS
The only “MUST do” movement in bodybuilding would have to be a DB lateral raise. [ v ]
Was signed, renowned natural bodybuilder Cliff Wilson. A somewhat controversial statement, but the fact is that the lateral raise is the only move that targets the side of the shoulders . Although it also comes into action with a handful of other exercises. Let’s list them.
1. DUMBBELL LATERAL RAISES
The indestructible classic, also called side raises (‘side lateral raises’ is double up).
We said it before: dumbbell lateral raises are still shockingly wrong, with the result that not so much the lateral delts, but the anterior delts and upper traps are trained. While those are precisely muscle groups that come into action in so many other exercises.
To really feel and stimulate your side delts, you need to:
- lean slightly forward (10-20 degrees);
- keep your arms slightly inward, but not too much (15-30 degrees);
- pushing the dumbbells sideways away from you instead of lifting them;
- go parallel or slightly higher;
- hold the top position for one second;
- carry out the eccentric phase in a controlled manner;
- do not use heavy weights.
You may use our checklist for correct implementation.
2. CABLE LATERAL RAISES
Because of the tension curve in dumbbell lateral raises, some think that the cable version is better. With dumbbell lateral raises, the tension increases as the dumbbell rises – a matter of gravity. There is almost no tension at the bottom. The cable variant does offer constant tension, so also at the bottom of the movement. The tension also remains the same as you move upwards.
Are cable lateral raises therefore more effective than those with dumbbells? No, not necessarily. The stimulus is just slightly different, hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld also thinks: with the cable variant the challenge lies in the even tension, with the dumbbell variant in the increasing tension.
Our advice: include both variants, with dumbbell and with cable, in your schedule. This way you can be sure that your side delts get the most complete and therefore most optimal training stimulus.
You can perform cable lateral raises with the cable in front of or behind you. The rear would put a little more tension on the shoulders. Others argue in favor of running the cable between your legs, so that you can perform the movement optimally sideways. Experiment and find out what works best for you.
3. BARBELL UPRIGHT ROW
The upright row is ‘that other’ compound exercise for the shoulders, in addition to the shoulder press. A rowing exercise, so not a push but a pull exercise. And where you address the front shoulder head with shoulder presses and the middle head remains largely untouched, both shoulder heads come into action in the upright row. According to Exrx.net, the lateral delt is even the main target muscle of the exercise (we do see the risky execution on that site, more about that in a moment). The anterior delt therefore plays a supporting role, just as we want it to be.
Yet you see the upright row performed much less often than the shoulder press. This may be partly because the exercise is considered risky by some. But for people without shoulder problems, the upright row is considered safe by most leading coaches today, provided you do it in the following way:
- Keep the bar close to your body;
- Use a wide grip (1 to 1.5 times shoulder width);
- Pull the weight up from your elbows, not from your wrists;
- Do not raise the bar above the point where your elbows are in line with your shoulders.
This version is not only safer, but also puts the emphasis on the lateral delts and not on the trapezius (as is the case in the version with narrow grip and high lift).
The advantage of the upright row compared to the lateral raise is that you can train the middle shoulder heads with heavier weights. But don’t overdo it: choose a weight that fits the range of 8 to 12 reps.
You do not necessarily have to perform the upright row with a barbell. Some prefer the cable plus rope version (see the halfway video below).
A special variant of the upright row is the 45-degree incline row. In an EMG study (research with electrodes) a few years ago, this emerged as the exercise in which the lateral delts are activated the most. But because you lean forward, the rear shoulder heads (posterior delts) are also well trained. For the posterior delts, the 45-degree incline row turned out to be the second best exercise, after the seated rear lateral raise.
The 45-degree incline row seems ideal if you train the middle and rear shoulder heads in one session. Add face-pulls to that (see next exercise) and you’ve already tackled those two heads with just two exercises. Many, including us, train the posterior delts at the back, however, on a different day. But because you can train both shoulder heads often, you certainly don’t have to ignore 45-degree incline rows and face pulls.
4. FACE PULLS
The shoulder joint is one of the most complex and mobile joints in the human body. This complexity and mobility make the joint unstable and prone to injury to a certain extent. It is in fact only four small muscles, which we collectively call the rotator cuffs, that stabilize the shoulder joint. This is where most shoulder complaints arise.
Face pulls, a favorite exercise of powerlifters, strengthen those rotator cuffs and keep your shoulders healthy. Not only that. The exercise also strengthens the often neglected posterior shoulder heads, rhomboids, and trapezius. In this way, face pulls even contribute to a stronger bench and shoulder press, and can even improve your posture.
There is another, not unimportant advantage: with face pulls you also train your middle shoulder heads. Although slightly less than the rear, but certainly enough to include the face pull in this list. In a personal EMG study by coach Bret Contreras, the band face-pull even came out as the most effective exercise for the lateral delts (more effective than lateral raises!), although this also had to do with the special way Contreras performed the exercise (sort of a mix of face-pull and pull-apart).
Anyway, with face pulls you kill several birds with one stone and one of them is the middle shoulder head. However, face pulls lend themselves more to your back training. But because you can train the lateral delts frequently, that should not be an obstacle when programming your training.
AND THE BEHIND-THE-NECK PRESS?
The behind-the-neck press (BTN press) is a variant of the regular shoulder press, where you lower the barbell behind your neck. The advantage compared to the normal shoulder press is that you address the lateral delts much more. As we have already seen, you mainly train the anterior delts with the shoulder press.
The BTN press is a much-discussed exercise, with fervent proponents and opponents. The opponents point to injury risks due to the unnatural external (outward) rotation of the shoulders that is required in this exercise, in combination with the resistance you have to offer against the weight. This puts a lot of pressure on the subscapularis muscle, one of the four muscles of the rotator cuff mentioned earlier. Proponents say that the BTN press is safe to perform under certain conditions and that it is extremely effective to get broad shoulders.
We have had the BTN press in our schedule in the past and experienced no problems with the exercise. But that doesn’t mean anything in itself: you can perform some exercises for months and even years without any problems, until you finally get the bill. That we found the BTN press to be a ‘nice’ exercise, which felt even better than the conventional shoulder press, can also be deceptive.
Yet we don’t see any need (anymore) to do the BTN press. With lateral raises (and any variations), upright rows and face pulls, we have more than enough tools at our disposal to get and keep our lateral delts in shape. A potentially risky exercise like the BTN press is better left for what it is.
Do you still want to do the BTN press? Then do this with a relatively light weight (minimum eight reps) and limit the range of motion by not lowering the bar beyond ear height.
Do not do the BTN press if you ever have problems with your shoulder mobility, nor if you have a pronounced kyphosis (a rounded upper back and hunched shoulders, also known as a ‘humpback’).
1. To get broad shoulders you have to develop the middle shoulder heads (lateral delts) optimally.
2. Many bodybuilders do not pay enough attention to the lateral delts. This is partly because the most popular shoulder exercise, the shoulder press, mainly targets the front shoulder heads (anterior delts). But also because the most important exercise for the middle shoulder heads, lateral raises, is often performed incorrectly, so that the anterior delts as well as the upper traps are mainly trained in that exercise.
3. In addition, lateral delts are often trained with too little volume. Beginners should do approximately 6 targeted sets for the lateral delts each week. Intermediate to advanced bodybuilders have a higher volume requirement: 10-15 sets per week.
4. Exercise frequency becomes more important the more volume you do. Ideally, you should do no more than 5-10 sets per muscle group per workout.
5. The most important exercises for the lateral delts are the lateral raise (which has many variants), the upright row and the face pull. The behind-the-neck press is risky for the shoulders and has no added value if you already do these exercises.
- [ i ] https://youtu.be/iUlOM2Kigpw?t=175
- [ ii ] https://www.amazon.de/Fitness-Krafttraining-besten-%C3%9Cbungen-Methoden-Gesundheit/dp/3499194813
- [ iii ] https://renaissanceperiodization.com/rearside-delt-tips-hypertrophy/
- [ iv ] https://edisciplinas.usp.br/pluginfile.php/3887013/mod_folder/content/0/emg_deltoide_diferentes_exercicios_silveira_lima_2013.pdf
- [ v ] https://youtu.be/IdNOahFD450