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March 26, 2021 10 min read

Broad shoulders are one of the most aesthetically important things on a guy.

A set of powerful, wide, caps will make your chest look larger and add to the v-taper look when properly developed. There’s no doubting that the shoulders add a lot when it comes to looking powerful. 

And broad, strong-looking shoulders not only look good but are also critical for functional movements and athletic feats. Keeping them in working condition is key for avoiding injuries and maintain your health.

So, you’ve been doing the overhead press and upright rows religiously the past few weeks to get those big, broad shoulders—and you’re seeing good results but there’s something missing. The deltoids are a complex part of your body that is capable of doing a lot of things when it comes to movement.

But when it comes to the breadth of your shoulders, there’s one part of the delts that takes the cake—the medial deltoid.

This “middle” part of the shoulder is essential for getting broad shoulders, hence why we’ll be targeting it with five of the best exercises.

Benefits of a Strong Medial Delt

It’s necessary to prioritize the side delts in your gym sessions because the front delts already get a lot of engagement with many compound lifts, such as the bench press.

Adding some isolation exercises that target the middle delt is important for a well-rounded development in the shoulder region.

Your front delts (or anterior deltoids) are responsible for the flexion ad medial rotation of the shoulder joints. Because of this, it often works alongside your pecs in chest workouts. Opposite the anterior delts are the posterior delts.

Located at the back of the shoulders, the rear delts are used for extension, horizontal extension, and the external rotation of the shoulder joints. This tends to be the most underdeveloped head of the delts since it’s rarely engaged enough in your other, heavier compound lifts. However, it’s extremely important along with your postural muscles in the upper back, and developing it can have carry-over effects on your bigger lifts.

And lastly, we get to the muscle of the hour—the medial deltoid.

The medial (also known as the side delt) is the head of the muscle that’s furthest to the sides of your shoulders—as the name would suggest. This is why it’s important to give this delt head some attention if you’re looking for broad shoulders.

The only function of this head of the shoulder is to abduct the shoulder joint. This looks like lifting your arms upward and away from either side of your body. So, while shoulder press exercises remain some of the best for developing the deltoid muscles, it’s possible to give each head one-on-one attention—this is especially important for the less developed posterior and middle deltoids.

Below we’ll look at some of the best shoulder exercises you can do to get shoulders like boulders with a bit of hard work and a good routine.

As always, it’s important to warm-up the muscle group you’ll be training. This is especially important for the rotator cuff and shoulder blades.


Lateral Dumbbell Raise

The lateral raise is one of the best exercises you can do for building the shoulders—especially when it comes to targeting the medial delts.

It’s so good that we had to include three variations on this list for you to try. The first is the conventional lateral dumbbell raise.

It’s a simple movement, only requiring you to raise weights up to the sides until you get to the shoulder level, then lowering again. However, while it sounds simple enough to do there are plenty of form tips to keep an eye on— and the movement itself is more difficult than it sounds as well.

The benefit of the dumbbell lateral raise is both in terms of the aesthetics of broader shoulders, but also when it comes to functional movements and shoulder mobility. Shoulder mobility is key when it comes to several other exercises, allowing you to take advantage of the full range of motion of lifts.

Furthermore, since you’ll be standing the core will get a workout as well. You’re going to need to maintain balance, and bracing the core is the way to do that. You should also feel some burn in your upper back, neck, and arms after doing a few sets.

How to Do the Lateral Dumbbell Raise

To begin, stand with a dumbbell in each hand, keeping them at your sides. If you’re doing this for the first time, choose a weight you think you’ll be able to use and then go slightly lighter. The first rep might be easy, but by rep 8 you’ll definitely be gassing out your shoulders.

Maintain a straight back and keep your core braced throughout the entire movement. Only keeping a slight bend in your elbows, bring the weights up to the side until your arms are parallel with the ground. Once at the top of the movement, pause for a moment before slowly bringing the weights back down. The key here is to go slow and steady.

Going slow will be more difficult, but it should help you avoid accidentally cheating by shrugging the weights up with your traps. You want to be feeling the majority of the engagement from your delts—nothing else. You’ll also want to ensure that you’re keeping your arms straight out (with that slight bend in your elbows). If they start coming closer to the front of your body, it’s time to choose a lighter weight.

One pro-tip is to turn your wrists as you approach the top of the movement, so as to have your pinky fingers at the very top.

This twist at the top of the exercise will effectively place more of a focus on your side delts, rather than the other delt heads. As you reverse the movement back down, return your wrists to the starting position.

Partial Side Lateral Raise

Moving onto our second lateral raise for the lateral delts, we have partial side lateral raises.

And while the regular dumbbell lateral raise is already good for isolation the medial delt—especially with the twisting of the wrist technique—the partial side lateral raise goes a step further in bringing you massive shoulders.

The “partial” part of this exercise refers to the fact that you won’t be going through the full range of motion like you would with a regular lateral raise.

Yes—we know—we spend a lot of time talking about going through the full range of motion with exercises to maximize their benefits and gains, but sometimes it’s useful to only go halfway but go heavier instead.

With the decreased range of motion with the partial raise, you’ll be able to use much heavier weights. Furthermore, even more of an emphasis will be placed on the lateral delts since you’ll only be training with the portion of the movement that relies heavily on the activation in this region of the shoulder.

The cable machine is a good variation; done as cable laterals, it’ll help to maintain a constant amount of tension throughout the full movement.

How to Do the Partial Side Lateral Raise

So, you’ll want to choose a pair of dumbbells that are slightly heavier than those you would use for full lateral raises. Just like with the conventional laterals, start with the weights by your side and your core engaged throughout the entire movement. You should also maintain a slight bend in your elbows.

Taking a deep breath, slowly raise the dumbbells to about 45-degrees—halfway between parallel to the floor and perpendicular to the floor. Use a neutral grip with palms facing in, to start.

Once at the top, pause for a moment before slowly reversing the movement and bringing it back to the starting position.

These work especially well if you superset them with regular lateral raises. Try going for 10 to 12 reps of the partial raises before grabbing a lighter pair of dumbbells and then gassing out your muscles with a set of full raises. This is sure to make you feel the burn.


Machine Lateral Raise

When it comes to specific workout goals—whether hypertrophy or strength training—free weights tend to be the direction that most people go in. They require more stability to balance, but they also lead to greater gains. However, that doesn’t mean machines should be written off—far from it, in fact.

The lateral raise machine is one of the best ways to train your shoulders, especially the side delts.

Most of the benefits from using the lateral raise machine are machine-specific benefits.

You’re effectively tied down to one motion throughout the entire exercise using the machine. That not only means really good form that’s easily achieved from beginner to expert, but it also means that you don’t have to waste any energy on stabilizing the weight. Most of the time this energy isn’t “wasted” per se, since stabilizers are still important, but by removing that out of the equation you can place a greater focus on the delts.

And what does this greater focus end up doing? It gives you greater delt gains.

How to Do the Machine Lateral Raise

Start by adjusting the amount of weight you’ll be wanting to use and also adjusting the height of the seat. You should sit down facing the machine with feet firmly grounded on the floor, about shoulder-width apart

Grip the handles of the machine and ensure that your arms are secured. Look straight ahead and keep a slight bend in your elbows

Moving only at the shoulders, start by pushing the weight upward. Keep going until your forearms are slightly above parallel to the floor.  At the top of the movement, contract your shoulders and pause for a moment before reversing the motion in a controlled manner

The machine is particularly good at doing drop sets

Drop sets are when you perform an exercise until you reach muscle failure, and then you continue using a lower weight, so on and so forth. It’s an excellent strategy for more hypertrophy and the machine is really well geared for it. Instead of taking up a bunch of dumbbells or other free weights, using the machine will allow you to quickly switch between lighter and heavier weights.

Military Press

The military press is very similar to the overhead press, and just like the overhead press, it’s sure to impart big gains on your shoulder muscles.

Along with your shoulders, you’ll also be engaging your chest, upper back, triceps, and the core.

The core especially plays an important role in the military press because of the way the military press is performed. The military press is extremely closely related to the overhead press, but it’s usually done with stricter form and with feet closer together.

The strict form is obviously a great thing for getting the most out of the movement in terms of gains, but the foot positioning will emphasize your core stability in keeping up the free weight. And by free weight, we mean either dumbbells or barbells—either one will do. Keep in mind that dumbbells will require even more stabilizers and each hand will have to move separately, meaning that your max weight will be lower when compared to using the barbell.

However, if you’d rather take some emphasis away from the core muscles and strictly focus on the delts, then feel free to adopt a wider stance during the lift. This should allow you to lift slightly more which will lead to greater gains.

How to Do the Military Press

Begin with the barbell in a squat rack so you don’t have to take it up from the floor—around chest height is good.

Grasp the bar with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip. Come up to the bar and slightly bend your knees, driving up through your legs to take the bar off the rack. Ensure that your glutes and core are braced.

Set your feet close together if you’re opting for the stricter form of the military press. Otherwise, you can adopt a wider stance.

Keep the bar level with your chin and ensure that your elbows are both pointing forward rather than to the sides. Furthermore, your elbows should always be slightly higher than the hands when compared to the side laterals. Maintain the elbow direction throughout the entire lift and it’ll help you place a greater focus on the side delts.

Breathe in and engage your core before pushing up explosively—breathing out as you do. As you reach the top of the movement, move your head slightly forward so the bar is right above you. This should help to prevent your back from arching.

Reverse the movement in a controlled manner, making sure to avoid hitting your head on the way down.

Arnold press

Arnold Press

Named after the legend himself, the Arnold press is a fantastic addition to your other deltoid exercises since it works all three heads of the muscle.

While we’re focusing on the lateral delt here, ensuring that you’ve got a set of well-developed shoulders means taking care of all three heads equally.

The Arnold press won’t allow you to use as much weight as with a standard overhead press, but it does keep your muscles under tension for a longer period of time—and time under tension is what we’re looking for when it comes to muscle growth.

How to Do the Arnold Press

Begin with a dumbbell in each hand. Start lighter than you’re used to, especially if this is your first time performing an Arnold press.

Your arm should be bent with palms facing you, similarly to how it looks at the top of a bicep curl. To begin, spread your arms to the sides of your body, keeping the same bend in your elbow.

Then, press the dumbbells upward while twisting your hands so as to make your palms face forward as you reach the top of the movement. Maintain constant tension in your core in order to maintain stability.

Ensure that your elbows lockout at the top and your head comes forward in order to get the full range of motion. Reverse the movement in a controlled manner and repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Tips for Shoulder Gains

These five exercises will put you well on your way to having a set of broad shoulders and side deltoids that work as impressively as they look. However, there are a few key tips to keep in mind to maximize gains.

The first is variation. The delts are a complex muscle and you should always try to switch things up a little to hit them from every angle to get all the muscle fibers. The stuff above is a good start, but there are dozens of other great delt movements to try out that’ll build muscle.

But between all of this working out, you also want to make sure that you’re giving yourself enough fuel in the form of whole, healthy foods. Putting a good routine together with a good shoulder workout will ensure that you’ve got the upper body of a chiseled Roman statue.