When it comes to building mass and definition, nothing stands out like a set of nice shoulder boulders. This complex muscle group and joint have many moving parts that contribute to your upper body’s overall look and strength. While compound exercises are effective for building muscle, targeted isolation exercises are what create definition.
If your goal is to build big shoulders, targeted deltoid work is the way to do it. Here are seven of the best deltoid exercises and how to get the most out of your training.
What to Know About Deltoid Muscles
First, let’s start with some basic deltoid anatomy. The deltoid is the triangular muscle that acts as your shoulder cap and is responsible for aiding in the movement of the glenohumeral joint underneath.
There are three heads of the deltoid muscle: anterior at the front, mid or lateral in the middle, and posterior in the back. While you can target one head more than the others with certain movements, it’s important to understand that there’s no true isolation in shoulder exercises; everything works together.
As everything is interconnected, proper form should be a top priority when building your deltoid muscles. Improper positioning can shift the onus of the movement to your trapezius (traps) or pectoral muscles (chest)— especially if those muscles are dominant.
With that in mind, here are seven effective deltoid exercises to build muscle mass.
1. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Dumbbell lateral raises are one of the most popular deltoid exercises, and you can’t go wrong with this classic for building muscle. Lateral raises primarily target the mid (or lateral) deltoid when done correctly. If you extend above the desired range of motion, the movement will shift to your traps. As you bring the dumbbell up, pause when your arms are at 90 degrees— your fist should never be higher than your shoulder.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells in an overhand grip and stand with feet shoulder-width apart, dumbbells resting at your side.
- Brace your core and slowly extend your arms upward and outward to your sides.
- When your arms are parallel with the floor— slightly below shoulder height— pause and release back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Another common error with this deltoid exercise is using momentum with a swinging motion. Prevent this by pausing at the end of each rep. Start with a lighter weight and incorporate 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps into your training.
2. Pike Push-Ups
Push-ups are a versatile compound bodyweight exercise that helps build shoulder muscles without equipment. However, while your shoulder blades are engaged during push-ups, most of the work comes from the triceps and chest muscles.
Pike push-ups are a variation of the traditional push-up that puts more onus on the shoulder muscles, particularly the front and medial delts.
- Start in a plank position with hands shoulder-width apart. Walk your feet in while lifting your hips until your body is in a triangle position with arms and legs extended straight.
- Brace your core and bend your elbows, allowing your head to lower toward the floor.
- Pause when the top of your head is about an inch above the floor, then reverse the motion back to the starting position.
Pike push-ups are a challenging exercise. Beginners may be unable to move through the full range of motion or complete many reps. Aim for a range of 2-3 sets of 5-8 reps.
3. Kettlebell Shoulder-to-Shoulder Press
These lesser-known shoulder exercises are an amazing way to smash the front and medial deltoid muscles. While it’s a little different from the typical shoulder workout, the differences make it so effective. With shoulder-to-shoulder presses, both arms are engaged, but the nature of the movement presents as a unilateral exercise. As such, the primary mover and stabilizer switch back and forth between each shoulder. The benefit of this type of movement is enhanced targeting of each shoulder muscle.
- Hold a kettlebell upside down with your thumbs hooked through the handle and palms wrapped firmly around the base. Start by holding the kettlebell just over your right shoulder with elbows bent.
- Press the kettlebell overhead, reaching your arms to full extension. Pause.
- Lower the kettlebell to just over your left shoulder, bending your elbows as needed to complete the rep.
Continue going back and forth, pausing at each shoulder and overhead. Try to complete 3-5 sets of 10-16 reps, dropping the weight if needed.
4. Dumbbell Around the World
Another uncommon-yet-effective deltoid exercise is the dumbbell around the world. As the name implies, this is one of the few exercises that hit the posterior, medial, and anterior deltoids in equal measure. This movement also strengthens the stabilizers in your rotator cuff muscles and engages your pectorals.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells in a neutral grip with feet standing shoulder-width apart. Start with your arms straight and each dumbbell resting on the front of your thigh.
- Keeping your arms extended, raise the dumbbells out and away from your body, making a circle until your hands meet overhead. Your palms should face forward the entire time.
- Pause when the dumbbells meet overhead, then reverse back to starting position. That’s one rep.
Start with light dumbbells and go slow and controlled for this movement. If you feel any pain in your shoulder joint, stop immediately. Do this move for 3-5 sets of 8-16 reps.
5. Plate Steering Wheels
Plate steering wheels are a variation of plate raises, which only hits the middle delt muscles. With this modification, you can engage the front of the shoulder as well. As this movement is an isometric hold, it’s best to start with a lighter weight.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, gripping a weight plate in front of you, resting against your thighs. Your hands should be at the 3 and 9 positions.
- Keeping your arms straight, brace your core, and lift the weight until it reaches chest height with your arms extended.
- Steer the plate left until your hands are at 12 and 6 positions, then steer back to the right until the opposite hands reach the 12 and 6 positions. That’s one rep.
Keep your arms as straight as possible throughout the entire movement. Be sure to keep your core braced to prevent lower back pain. You can make this even more challenging by doing a plate raise between each rep. Try 2-3 sets of 24-30 reps with a lighter weight for best results.
6. Incline Rear Delt Shoulder Press
Targeting the rear deltoids can be incredibly challenging. However, these muscles aren’t just for show. Strengthening the posterior deltoids will contribute to bigger lifts, like your bench press and deadlift. This exercise may feel awkward to start, but the positioning helps isolate the rear delts as the primary mover and pushes your lateral delts to a secondary position.
- Set up an incline bench at a high incline. Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand with one foot on either side of the incline bench with a slight bend in your knees, your chest resting against it.
- Holding the dumbbells in an overhand grip, bend your elbows and position them above your shoulders as you would for a traditional shoulder press. This is your starting position.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and press the dumbbells overhead until your arms are fully extended.
- Pause and reverse the movement. That’s one rep.
These are a great variation to both the dumbbell and barbell shoulder press if you feel your posterior deltoids are lacking. Aim for 3-5 sets of 12-16 reps.
7. Dumbbell Arnold Press
You can’t talk shoulder boulders without mentioning the Arnold press. If you’re looking to hit all three deltoid muscles with one movement, this is it.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand with feet at shoulder-width. Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle in front of you with palms facing toward you and dumbbells held at face height. This is your starting position.
- In a fluid motion, rotate your elbows outward as you press up to full overhead extension with your palms facing away from you.
- Pause and reverse the motion. That’s one rep.
Take your time with this movement to protect your shoulder joint. Start with a lighter weight until you perfect the form to prevent injury. Aim for 3-5 sets of 12-16 reps
Did You Know?
The deltoid gets its name from the Greek letter delta, which shares the same triangular shape.
The key to building defined, balanced shoulders is using the exercises above in equal measure. If you notice your posterior deltoids are falling behind— a common issue for bodybuilders— swap out some lateral raises for incline rear delt shoulder presses.
Building muscle requires a combination of consistent training and proper nutrition. Use these exercises to take your training to the next level so you can build epic shoulder boulders.