April 27, 2020 10 min read

You’ve been hitting the gym for at least a few months now and you’re starting to get stares whenever you go out. You’ve worked hard for the body you now have—and it shows. While you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished, every time you look in the mirror there’s a nagging feeling that you’re missingsomething. Or maybe you just don’t feel as strong as you think you should be, especially when it comes to functional fitness and strength. Whatever the answer might be, there’s a good case to make for taking a closer look at your shoulders.

The deltoids are some of the most important muscles in your body that you use on a day to day basis. Not only for strength, but they’re also a key factor in aesthetics. If you’re like 99% of people, the v-shaped torso is what you’re going for and well defined anterior (front) delts will help in not only making your waist seem slimmer but also having a wider chest. Just like having a broad chest, broad shoulders make you look strong and confident, but for all these benefits they’re still one of the most misunderstood and oft-neglected muscles.  

The Physiology Behind the Delts

The shoulders aren’t just made up of muscles, but they’re rather comprised of 3 “heads”. These 3 heads are known as the anterior (front), medial (side), and posterior (back) deltoids. They’re incredibly important when it comes to overall strength, size, and healthy functionality—both in the gym and outside. Capable of flexion, extension, and rotation, the deltoids help us push, pull, and lift things.

Normally, the front delts aren’t a huge problem case when it comes to training since they’re hammered in all variety of pushing exercises, including the incline press, bench press, and push-ups. This means that more often than not, it’s the front delts that are trained more than the other shoulder muscles. While it’s important to keep the development of all three heads in line with one another for a symmetrical look, sometimes it is necessary to focus on the front delts in order to achieve your goals. We’ve included a number of exercises below that all do wonders in terms of getting well-developed delts.

A man doing front raises outside.

Results Guaranteed: Exercises that’ll Make You Feel the Burn

Front Raises

This classic lift is the bread-and-butter of training your deltoids. Not only does it train your front delts, but it also works the upper chest muscles. It’s considered an isolation exercise since you’re only really activating one joint and a limited number of muscle areas. This exercise can also be done in a number of ways. For example, doing front raises with a plate is excellent for building your front delts. You’ll want to grasp a weight plate with both hands, palms facing towards your body. With your back maintaining a straight position and a slight bend in your knees and elbows, you’ll want to raise the plate until it’s at head height. At the top of the rep, hold it for one second and then slowly lower the plate back down.

It’s also a good idea to use a cable when doing the front raise, since it maintains tension on the anterior delt for the entire duration of the set, unlike the plate and dumbbell variations. One drawback is that this isolation lift mostly activates the back and side delts, rather than the front. Nevertheless, it’s still an excellent option when wanting to train up the shoulders. You’ll want to be facing the weight stack with a straight-bar or single-hand attachment to the cable machine. Grabbing the attachment with a pronated grip (overhand), keep the knees slightly bent and the feet shoulder-width apart. Slightly bending your elbows, raise the bar up and away until it gets to about eye level, then slowly lower it back down while exhaling through the motion.

The last of these is the dumbbell front raise, and it’s recommended you do it seated. It really is a bread-and-butter mass builder for the front delts. The addition of sitting during this movement forces even more activation in the delts. While there is the option to stand, what normally ends up happening is that you use some momentum to bring the weights up since you’re able to swing them. In a sitting position, this isn’t an option anymore. You should be sitting upright, without a slouch and a pair of dumbbells that you’re using an overhand grip to hold. You can either raise one arm at a time, or simultaneously, but the latter is less common. You want to raise the arms in front of you until they’re at least horizontal, but you should go slightly higher to maximize anterior delt activation.

If you want to take the front raise to the next level, set up an adjustable bench to somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees. Sitting back down on the bench, let your arms and weights fall to the side—holding onto the weights with either an overhand or underhand grip. Then, slowly raise your arms all the way overhead, pause, and then let them come back down. These willburn, and the stretch you feel in the deltoids will be phenomenal. But remember to keep the weights light at 5 to 10 lbs. Since this movement takes the shoulder from near full extension to complete flexion, the risk of injury is higher.    

Shoulder Press

The shoulder press is a compound exercise that you’ve probably seen before, if not already done. While there are a number of variations for the shoulder press, the most common are dumbbell and barbell shoulder presses. With the standing dumbbell press, you’ll be forced to activate your core more in order to make sure that you’re stabilizing properly. Furthermore, you’ll also have a better range of motion in this position. You’ll want to move the weight to shoulder level with the palms facing forward. Try to form a right angle with the elbows so as not to potentially damage your rotator cuffs. Then, press the weight up until the arms are extended but not fully locked, making sure to inhale as you do.

A barbell can be used as well. Unlike with the dumbbells, these don’t rely as heavily on stabilizer muscles and focus more on the middle deltoids. Since there’s a greater amount of stability, you should be able to use more weight than with dumbbells. It’s also important to note how wide your grip is. While a wide grip will focus mainly on the front and side deltoids, a grip that’s narrower will mainly activate the front deltoids and the upper chest. It’s recommended to use a backrest if you’re sitting in order to support your lower back and prevent it from arching. The main difference between these variations will be the amount that your core and stabilizers are activated. It’s up to you to decide whether to solely focus on the delts, or whether your goals call for some core tension as well. To add to the challenge, feel free to do one-arm presses, activating your stabilizers even further to prevent you from tipping to either side. Keep in mind that the further the elbow moves towards the front rather than the sides, the less the middle deltoids will be used.

Military Press

The military press is quite similar to the shoulder press, but much more difficult. To do this exercise your arms should be kept in front of your body (shoulder flexion) with your elbows out at a 45-degree angle to begin. Meanwhile, the shoulder press is meant to have your arms on your sides. The military press is more difficult as it starts from the chest, and hence, uses more upper body muscles than just the shoulders. Furthermore, there’s a strict form that comes along with a proper military press. It’s meant to be done standing up, with your body standing at attention and your heels together. The same primary muscles are involved, but the difference mainly lies with stability. Your narrower stance will mean that your body will have to fight harder to keep equilibrium, and therefore activate more muscle groups. As mentioned, the form for this exercise is very similar to the shoulder press, but the movement will start with your arms more towards the front of your body and elbows pointed towards the front.

This highlights the importance of variations in different presses. Even a small change in movement will have different effects on your body and muscle growth. This includes range of motion. Especially when working out with dumbbells, you should be keeping in mind how low you’re going at the bottom of the press. A deeper stretch at the bottom is an amazing way to boost your front delt development. This meansat least bringing the barbell or dumbbell down to the shoulder/clavicle level in many cases. While you might not be able to do as much weight the deeper you go, it will benefit the anterior deltoids more than more mass would. Not to mention the safety considerations when deciding to go for a heavier load.

Arnold Press

Named after the legend himself, this press is another variation on the presses above. This exercise can only be done with dumbbells, and it’s recommended to be sitting since you can focus on a higher weight and perfect form. As always, standing will activate your core as your body tries to keep balance. The Arnold press allows for the whole deltoid group to be hit—and even though you might be wanting to focus on the front delts, it’s important to keep up symmetry between your muscles.

You want to begin the movement much like a bicep curl. A pair of dumbbells held in front of you with your palms facing inward, and your elbows pointing straight out in front of you. As you push the load up, you want to rotate your shoulders and your wrists. Once you get to the top positioning with the weight above you, your palms should be facing outwards away from you, and your shoulders should be pointing out. Hold the load for a moment, and the lift at its peak will resemble a shoulder press. This twist effectively activates the entire deltoid muscle group and helps you cultivate a symmetrical physique. The Arnold press is a slightly more complicated exercise than the ones we’ve outlined so far, so it’s important to start slow and build up so you don’t risk injury and poor form. 

A girl doing an upright row workout.

Upright Row

This next exercise is more advanced and dangerous than the ones above. The upright row is an effective exercise for those looking to develop their shoulders and upper back, however, the movement which this exercise takes you through puts a lot of strain on the shoulders. To do it, either grasp a barbell or dumbbells and allow them to hang in front of you, with your palms facing your body. Standing upright, adjust your grip so that your hands are no closer than shoulder-width apart. This is VERY important when it comes to preventing injury with this lift. Breathing in and bracing the abdominals, lift the barbell straight up in front of you towards your chin, leading with the elbows and keeping the bar close to your body. Your arms shouldn’t go any further than parallel with your shoulders. After a pause at the bottom of the lift, slowly lower it again and repeat.

While many exercises have their risks, it’s especially important to be cognizant of the dangers going into the upright row. Since there’s a substantial amount of rotational movement in the shoulders, this lift can cause pain to your muscles around this area and potential injury—which will set back any progress you might have made. One of the most common injuries in training, a torn rotor cuff, can be a serious possibility if this lift isn’t done properly at a responsible weight. Nevertheless, the upright row works your deltoids like no other, and it’s entirely possible to do them safely.

When you’re lifting, keep in mind these common mistakes. For one, your elbows should be kept above the level of your forearms to avoid shoulder impingement. As was mentioned, keeping a wider grip won’t strain the wrists as much—however, it’s also important to note that a wider grip will work your trapezius’ more, while a narrower grip will activate your delts. An EZ bar is recommended for this lift since it’ll allow you to grab the load at an angle, stopping your wrists from straining as much as they would otherwise. You can also use a Smith machine. It will improve muscle activation over just doing the standard upright row, and also reduce stress on the back and shoulders since the bar will be further out in front of you. Also, keep your back and torso stationary throughout the lift. There should be no movement in the lower body.

Shrugs

While most people know these for the way they activate the trapezius, shrugs are also a good way to develop your deltoids. While you can do them with most gym load equipment, it’s recommended that you use a Smith machine, at least if you’re just starting out. It’ll allow you to perfect your form while also allowing you to use heavier weights with a reduced chance of back injury. Not to mention the ease of use with a Smith machine.

If using a Smith machine, you’ll want to set your weight positioning at about mid-thigh. With your feet about hip-width apart, grab the barbell shoulder-width apart using a pronated (overhand) grip. Standing upright, make sure your back is straight and you feel your core engaging. Exhaling, use your shoulders to raise the barbell until your delts nearly touch your ears. After holding for a second in this position, slowly inhale as you lower the load back down to the starting position. If using something other than a Smith machine, you’ll want to deadlift the weight up to its starting position. Before you do this exercise, it’s important to spend some time warming up the neck area by rolling around the head. While doing the lift, make sure not to roll the shoulders at any point, since this will do nothing more than strain them.

Programming an Anterior Delt Focus

The front delts seem to recover slowly in most individuals, so programming in delt-focused training shouldn’t take up much of your gym time. As we’ve mentioned, the front delts take quite a lot of activation from pushing exercises. In the context of regular chest training, they might only need a direct exercise about twice a week for around 12 weeks—and this is if you want to really focus in on them. Obviously, it’s important to figure out what works best for you so you’re developing efficiently while also avoiding injury and overtraining.

The number of sets and reps you do will entirely depend on the goals you’ve set for yourself. Whether that be endurance, strength, or hypertrophy. You’ll also want to make sure that your front delts are well rounded with the rest of your shoulders. For the medial deltoids you can do some lateral raises, while the posteriors will benefit from some straight-arm cable kickbacks.

Don’t Forget the Basics

As always, the most important aspect of developing any muscle is both proper nutrition and rest. Broad shoulders and a barreled chest will have you looking powerful and confident, but it’s just as important to focus on what’s going on inside of your body. With the proper exercises, regime, and lifestyle, you’ll be crushing all your goals in no time.