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October 09, 2020 10 min read

Broad shoulders earn respect no matter who you are. Be that as it may, the deltoids are a muscle group that is sorely taken for granted by many who spend more time on sexier muscle groups such as the abs, core, biceps, or glutes. Delts are the prime responsible movers of the arms and if you take time to build muscle in your shoulders you can enjoy a full range of motion at your rotator cuffs with a severely reduced risk of injury. 

The deltoid muscle is divided into three separate sets of muscle fibers, each with its construction and function. The names given to these three sets are the anterior deltoids, intermediate deltoids, and posterior deltoids. They have several different names including a few that are inaccurate, but for simplicity’s sake, we can refer to them as the front delts, side delts, and rear delts. 

While still very important for good posture, the rear delts’ main function is to pull the shoulders back and so they’re commonly outshone by the front delts and the side delts.

The front delts, by comparison, work alongside the pecs in pretty much every single action that presses onto your chest or raises your arms above your head or stretches them straight out in front of you. The side delts, so-called because they extend onto the sides of the shoulder, are imperative for raising your arms out to the side and bring them back down again. 

Working out the deltoid muscles will not only make you look more buff, but it will also help improve your bench press, deadlift, and other similar exercises. If you’re into bodybuilding, the deltoids are some of the most important muscles you should already be targeting. 

Dislocation of the shoulder is most common in the front delt by a huge margin. Shoulder instability, or the susceptibility to having the shoulder be dislocated or the tissues of the deltoid torn, can be reduced through exercise. Of course, if you overwork the deltoid or fail to take the proper safety precautions like warming up or cooling down at either end of a shoulder workout, you can cause injury as well. However, properly executed shoulder exercises go a long way strengthening the deltoids and preventing the likelihood of injury happening there. 

You can also use some of these shoulder exercises to retrain the shoulder muscles after an injury, although you should always consult with your doctor or physical therapist before doing so. In more fortunate scenarios, these exercises will give you squared, muscular shoulders and greatly improve the range of motion in your arms. 

Most of these exercises require the use of dumbbells or a barbell. If you’re able to get to the gym, working out the delts with a cable machine, incline bench, and heavier weights can take your deltoids to the next level. Plus, many of these exercises double as workouts for your pecs and other chest muscles, making them a great part of any upper-body workout routine. 

Whether you experience some form of shoulder instability, you want upper body gains, or you want to enjoy the full range of motion in your arms, these shoulder exercises are the best ways to do so from the gym or during a home workout. Throw a few of them into your next arm day and you’ll start to see results in no time. 

Deltoid Muscles and the Rotator Cuff

It’s easy not to notice how often the rotator cuff comes into play in our daily lives. Essentially, any movement you make with your arms requires the tendons and muscles in the rotator cuff. Your shoulder socket is more shallow than you’d imagine and without a strong rotator cuff, the shoulder joint could very well pop right out, causing a dislocation. 

If you do get a torn rotator cuff, the deltoid muscles will have to greatly compensate to preserve a full range of motion, something that is not always possible. Strains in the deltoids similarly affect the function of the rotator cuff. By far the most common cause of a rotator cuff or deltoid injury is overworking these muscle groups or failing to warm-up or cool down properly. 

Safety and Shoulder Workout Warm-Ups

Because many of these exercises require the use of cable machines, barbells, and heavier weights than bodyweight exercises and the majority of home workouts, it’s important to take some safety precautions to prevent injury and make sure you’re getting the gains you set out to get. 

The most important thing you can do to prevent injury any time you use heavy weights and gym equipment is to take the time to learn how to use everything properly. Even if it’s a little embarrassing, ask someone to explain how a new machine works. Trust me, it’s going to be even more embarrassing if you injure yourself trying to do a shoulder exercise. 

There are a few shoulder exercises that will help you both warm-up and cool down on either end of the workout. Before we get to the best exercises for your front delts and side delts, take the pre-workout from your Beach Bod Stack, and let’s take a look at a few ways to prime those muscles. 

Straight Arm Circles

In this simple exercise, all you need to do is lift one arm at a time until your shoulder is level. Slowly rotate your shoulder to make circles with that hand. Try going both backward and forward about 10 times before switching sides. 

It’s very important to keep your hips fixed and your core muscles engaged throughout this warm-up to make sure it’s done correctly. It will get your rotator cuff and deltoid primed for more activity and grease up your full range of motion. 

Front & Reverse Rotations

Continue to open up the shoulder joint with this simultaneous left- and right-arm movement. Rather than sticking your arms out straight like in the previous warm-up, this shoulder exercise requires you to make a wide circle at the rotator cuff. Think of it as the opposite of the first shoulder exercise. Spin your arm so that your hand makes a wide circle around the center where it was before. 

Spin your right arm clockwise and your left arm counterclockwise and then switch after ten rotations or so. 

Shoulder Corkscrew

This is a slightly different movement but it works on a similar principle as the first two shoulder exercises. To understand how the movement in this warm-up is meant to look, it might help to concentrate on your palms. Hold one arm out to one side with the palm facing up. Try to rotate your shoulder so that the palm is facing the ground and then keep going to make the palm face-up again. You won’t make it the whole 360° most likely but move as far as you can. 

While you do this movement, lift and raise your arm at the shoulder joint. This combination of actions will feel strange at first and very likely cause some shoulder fatigue, but it’s one of the best ways to open up the shoulder joint. 

Rolling Shoulders

Loosen up after these warm-ups by moving your shoulders in circles simultaneously. It will help them recover after the more unusual movements of the shoulder corkscrew and ensure that the shoulder joint is warmed up in every direction. Keep this simple motion in mind for your regular shoulder workout as well because it is a great way to fill your rest time without letting your shoulders cool down too much. 

Open Shoulders

The movement for this shoulder exercise is a bit like a bird flapping its wings. You can also imagine King Kong bringing his hands together to smash a plane between his palms. Put your arms in a “field goal” position like a football referee, then stretch back at the shoulder joint to bring your arms backward. Your shoulder blades should come together. 

Next, bring your palms toward each other. Rather than letting them meet, bring each hand to the opposite shoulder. Repeat this complete movement 10 times.

5 Best Exercises for Growing Front & Side Delts

Now that you’re all warmed up, try these five shoulder exercises to get your deltoids Pumped AF.

A man doing dumbbell lateral raises.


1. Dumbbell Lateral Raise to Front Raise

The lateral raise and front raise are great for working your upper arms and upper chest muscles while also using the full range of motion of the shoulder joint. Combining them into one exercise will get you the benefits of both shoulder exercises and help maximize your workout time. 

The starting position for this exercise is very easy. Just stand with your feet hip-width apart holding a dumbbell in each hand. You can also use two kettlebells or any other kind of weight to make it more challenging, just remember that your hands are going to move separately from one another so you need a weight in each hand. 

To do the side lateral raise, start with your hands at hip-level. Lift them out to either side until the weights are at shoulder height, then return to the starting position. Do a similar motion with the dumbbells going out directly in front of you. You should start to feel the burn in your lateral delt after a few reps.

If you’re practicing this shoulder exercise at the gym, you can also try a cable lateral raise on one of the machines and get the same benefits.

2. Overhead Press

A favorite of powerlifters and gym rats everywhere, the overhead press is a compound exercise that works muscle groups throughout the body in a similar way to a deadlift. It’s also deceptively simple just like a deadlift is. Many people also call this move a dumbbell shoulder press or the Arnold press, so don’t get confused if you hear about it under those names.

To get into the starting position for an overhead press, you’ll need to lift the barbell off the rack and hold it on the front of your shoulders with your hands as close to parallel with your shoulders as possible. Don’t press the bar into yourself. You can use a few different grips but the easiest one is the overhand grip, which has your palms facing straight ahead. 

Inhale and lift the bar directly above your head. It helps to puff your chest out to give yourself more lifting power. When the bar has passed your forehead, move your chest forward. Your legs should be straight throughout this shoulder exercise, but don’t lock your knees. 

Once your arms are completely straight with the bar above your head, lock your elbows while shrugging your shoulders upward. Return to the starting position. This exercise requires you to hold a barbell up for an extended period, so try to keep to 5 reps or less depending on how much weight you’re using. The Ultimate Mass Stack will help maximize gains from the overhead press. 

After your shoulders and arms get exhausted with this exercise, try a drop set with a lower weight. Don’t continue to the point of injury, but a few reps after muscle failure to grow your front and side delts. 

3. Machine Shoulder Press

If you have access to a gym, the machine shoulder press is a great exercise that works the front delt and the medial one. It also helps relieve some upper and lower back pain since you’ll be seated at a machine with a chair that will give you some back support throughout the move. 

All you need to do once you set the weight on the machine is to take a seat and get into position. The machine for this shoulder press has two arms that come out in a V shape with the user sitting in a chair between them. When you take a seat on the machine, make sure your upper back and lower back are both touching the seat for the most support. 

Try this exercise with your palms facing straight ahead on the machine grips. If that’s too hard or you’re recovering from an injury, this move is slightly easier with the palms facing one another. Once you have a grip, push the arms of the machine upward until your arms are straight and then bring them back down to the starting position.

4. Behind the Back Cable Raises

This move is a fantastic isolation exercise for the middle deltoids. It might not seem like there’s much benefit to pulling the cable behind your back, but this decision causes you to lean forward and put your middle deltoid to work. If you like to finish your routine with some drop sets, this is a great option because the machine is easy to adjust. Just take some Hyperade to help your muscles recover afterward.

Grab one of the machine handles and turn so that the hand holding the grip is furthest from the machine. The cable should be behind you. After that, do a regular lateral raise without letting the weight on the machine go slack. This will give you a constant workout. 

Make sure you do the same number of cable raises on each side of the body to prevent uneven development. If you do want to give your front delt a workout as well, you can turn so that your back is to the machine and lift your arm directly above your head to mimic the overhead shoulder raise. 

5. Upright Rows

Upright rows are an incredibly challenging exercise. You must take the time to learn the proper form or you risk serious injury from doing this move the wrong way. If done correctly, though, upright rows will work your delts and upper back muscles including the trapezius. 

Grab a barbell with an overhand grip and let it hang down around hip level with your arms slack. Your hands should be at shoulder width on the bar. With the bar close to your body, lift it with your elbows leading. Take the bar up until your hands are level with your shoulders then hold the lockout position for a few seconds and return to the starting position.

It’s extremely important to work your way up in terms of weight when you’re doing upright rows. Even if your max lift is substantially high, the movement of upright rows can still mess up your shoulder joint if you do upright rows with too much weight. 

A man working out in a gym.

Taking Your Front & Side Delts to the Next Level

Shoulder workouts are one of the best ways to avoid common injuries like a torn rotator cuff that can severely limit your ability to complete everyday tasks, let alone continue with a strength training routine. Hypertrophy in the middle and front delt will not only give your shoulders a broad, strong appearance, but it will also help you take advantage of the full range of motion of your shoulder joint. 

Many people don’t do dedicated shoulder exercises, preferring to work out the bicep and tricep and assume the delts are benefitting. Most of the time, they are but the best way to build muscle in the shoulder is to try some shoulder isolation exercises. Try out one of the 5 best shoulder exercises and you’ll feel the difference.