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August 29, 2021
Whether you call them lateral deltoids, side delts, or middle delts this muscle of the shoulder can make your upper body look strong and athletic. You need to start giving this muscle more attention if you want to develop proper 3D shoulders. In this post we will give you some tips on how to grow your side delts and provide you with 21 of the best lateral deltoid exercises. We’ll also give you pointers on how to deploy side delt exercises into your workout programming. Time’s a ticking so let’s get this show started..
The deltoids are a triangular shaped muscle that sits over the shoulder. It gets its name from the Greek word delta as this letter is a triangle shape. It is comprised of three sections of muscle fibers or heads that are commonly thought of the shoulder muscles or the delts. Let’s have a high-level look at each deltoid and the roles they play in the human body:
Anterior Deltoid or front deltoid: The front delt is located on the front of the shoulder and its main function is internal rotation of the shoulder joint and flexion and horizontal flexion. This deltoid is involved in many pushing chest exercise.
Lateral deltoid or side deltoid: The side delt is found on the outer side of the shoulder and its main function is abduction of the shoulder joint thus making it possible to lift your arm up and out to the side. The lateral deltoid gives the shoulders a wide look which can help achieve the coveted tapered V silhouette .
Posterior deltoid or rear deltoid: As the name suggests, the rear delt is found on the back of your shoulders opposite to the anterior deltoid the main function is external rotation of the shoulder joint, extension and horizontal extension.
The lateral deltoid’s main function is the abduction of the arm along the frontal plane. The lateral deltoid has a number of monikers including: lateral delt, side deltoid, lateral head of the deltoid, middle deltoid, medial deltoid, outer deltoid and side delt. As touched on before the main functions of the lateral deltoid are:
The lateral deltoid is located between the posterior deltoid and the anterior deltoid and lies over the insertions of the teres minor, supraspinatus and infraspinatus. The side delt starts at the acromion process (bony point at the end of the shoulder) on the scapula and inserts into the upper arm at the deltoid tuberosity (large prominence on a bone where muscles or ligaments are attached). The main difference in the muscle fiber of the lateral deltoid compared with the other deltoids are that it has multipennate (diagonal muscle fibers are in multiple rows) fiber orientation whereas the other two deltoids have parallel fiber.
At one time or another you might’ve searched online "how do I grow shoulders?". That’s because the deltoids are one of more stubborn muscles when it comes to growth, especially the side delt and rear delt. The front delt is usually more developed than the other two deltoids because it’s involved in many pressing exercises. Genetics play one of the larger roles in how your delts look. However, you can definitely build strong side delts with the right training routine and nutrition.
Big strong, rounded shoulders have numerous benefits besides just looking good. The deltoids are amongst the most important muscles in the body as we use them in everyday life activities to push, pull and lift objects over our head. For the purpose of this post, we we’ll narrow it down to the benefits of having strong side delts.
Reduced Risk of Injury: Many people experience shoulder pain or injuries at some point in their lives because the shoulders move through a large range of motion. Strengthening the side delts help to stabilize the shoulders which can help prevent future injuries.
Improve Lifts: The lateral deltoids play a part in stabilizing the weight when performing bench press or overhead press. By working directly on the lateral deltoids there will be a transfer of strength to your other lifts.
Makes Upper Body Broader: One hallmark of someone who’s in shape is having wide toned shoulders. The lateral delts are on the outside of the shoulder so if you work on building them up so can change the look of your overall body. Wider shoulders contribute to making the waist look smaller too!
Exercises that move your arm up and away from your body directly target the side delts. We put together a list of exercises that hit the middle delts some are isolation and others compound exercises. Upright rows and their variations are good compound exercises that involve the side delts while a variety of lateral raises are great isolation exercises. In both cases you should be hyper-aware of the mind-muscle connection when doing these exercises otherwise you might injure yourself or perform the movement incorrectly thus reducing the effectiveness on the side delts.
Luckily there have been some studies conducted to determine the best exercises to stimulate the various deltoid muscles. This study had subjects perform 5 reps of multiple shoulder exercises at 70% of their 1RM. The EMG data was collected for the concentric and eccentric phase of each lift. The results concluded that the 45-degree incline row and bent-arm lateral raise elicited the most muscle activation of the exercises tested.
Most people who lift have probably done their fair share of lateral raises to grow the side delts but people are often unaware that the traps frequently take away some of the tension off of the side delts. In the starting and ending portion of the lift is where most people engage their traps to help out the side delts. It’s paramount to isolate the side delts in order for them to grow. So, next time you’re doing lateral raises focus on using your side delts to lift the weights rather than the traps. To do this, keep your traps depressed and concentrate on moving the weight out to the side rather than focusing on moving the weight up.
The side delts are comprised of slightly more slow twitch muscle fibers than fast twitch muscle fibers. This equates to moderate to higher rep ranges of 6-20 reps to get the best results. The side delts don’t seem to respond that well to heavier weights at low rep ranges most likely because form starts to breakdown if lifting too heavy. It’s absolutely necessary to keep strict form if you want to hit the lateral deltoids properly as slight deviations from the correct range of motion and hand/arm positioning can remove the side delt’s involvement from completing the lift.
You should directly train the side delts at least twice a week. Being that the side delts are often difficult to grow for many people, it’s important to target them with enough direct volume in your workout routine. You can choose 2-5 side delt exercises at least twice a week with sets ranging from 3-5 each session. Because the goal here is to grow the muscle, we want to train for hypertrophy so rep ranges should be in the neighborhood of 6-20 and sometimes even more up to 30 reps. Side delts recover quickly, you can try to increase the weekly volume to see how your body responds.
We compiled 21 of the best exercises to work the lateral deltoid. These middle delt exercises should be incorporated into your normal workout schedule. The side delts are a muscle that recover rather quickly so you should strive to work them at least twice weekly if you want to make any real progress. Keep in mind that you should always consult with your doctor before attempting new workout plans especially concerning shoulder exercises. Make sure to properly warm up before starting your workout and don’t try to overdo it.
The first 3 bodyweight side delt exercises are great as a dynamic warm up before you begin weighted the lateral delt exercises. The side delts will respond best to mid-high rep ranges, don’t let your ego get in your way. Many of the middle delt exercises below can be done with various equipment including dumbbells, cable machine, resistance bands, barbells and kettlebells.
This is a good warm up exercise to get the blood flowing. You could use wrist weights or light weight dumbbells for a little added resistance.
Note: Move arms in a controlled manner and pause at the top of the movement for added contraction.
Muscles Worked: Front Delts, Side Delts, Rear Delts, Traps, Serratus Anterior
Another great dynamic warmup exercise to increase the blood flow and circulation to the delts.
Note: Move arms in a controlled manner and pause at the top of the movement for added contraction.
Muscles Worked: Front Delts, Side Delts, Rear Delts, Traps, Serratus Anterior
This is a classic exercise to warm up the shoulders. You can do arm circles with both arms at the same time or one arm at a time. We suggest you do 5 small circles, 5 medium circles and 5 large circles in both directions to get the entire shoulder region warmed up and stretched.
Note: Move in a slow controlled manner to avoid injuries.
Muscles Worked: Delts, Traps, Pecs
The king of all shoulder exercises, the overhead press enables you to push the heaviest loads which can help to jumpstart muscle growth. There are many variations of the overhead press using different tools lincluding bands, kettlebells, dumbbells and smith machine.
Note: Keep core engaged throughout the movement. This exercise can also be done seated.
Muscles Worked: Delts, Serratus Anterior, Traps, Triceps, Pecs
This is one of the most common exercises to strengthen the side delts. It can be done with dumbbells, bands or cable machine and with one or both arms. Although this exercise seems rather straight forward, there are subtle nuances to take note of to keep the emphasis on the delts rather than the traps. There are multiple variations including bent arm lateral raises, incline lateral raises, bent over lateral raises and if you do them properly you should see some gain in the side delts.
Note: Focus on the delts doing the work not the traps and rotate wrists so your pinkies are at the top for maximum muscle contraction.
Muscles Worked: Lateral Delts, Anterior Delts, Serratus Anterior
This exercise is great to do with resistance bands or the cable machine as they provide constant tension on the side delts. Use a slow controlled eccentric during the exercise so that the side delt gets the most out of the lift.
Note: You can also perform this exercise by standing on the band if you don’t have an anchor point. Don’t lock out elbow and keep core engaged throughout the movement.
Muscles Worked: Lateral Deltoid, Anterior Deltoid, Serratus Anterior, Erector Spinae
Face pulls can be done with resistance bands or the cable machine. This exercise can be a good one to hit the middle delt and it improves overall shoulder strength and stability. Your posture should improve by adding this exercise into your workout routine as it will help to draw your shoulders back.
Note: Perform this exercise with lighter resistance so that you can focus on form to really wok on contraction of the muscles.
Muscles Worked: Lateral Delts, Posterior Delts, Rhomboids, Traps
The upright row can be done with bands, dumbbells and barbells and is a fantastic exercise to work the side and front delts. If you take a wider grip you will emphasize the rear delts more while a narrower grip with hit the traps more. Proceed with caution as this exercise can cause some people pain so keeping proper form is absolutely necessary.
Note: Don’t raise your elbows above parallel position to avoid shoulder impingement, start with a lighter resistance and focus on the form.
Muscles Worked: Lateral Delts, Anterior Delts, Traps, Forearms, Biceps
This exercise puts near constant tension on the deltoids and moves your shoulders through multiple planes of motion which recruits more muscle fiber activation. Perform this exercise with light weights until you get the movement and form perfected.
Note: This exercise can also be done while lying down on a bench and following a similar motion.
Muscles Worked: Delts, Pecs, Traps
Unlike a normal military press or overhead press the Arnold Press moves your shoulders through multiple planes of motion to recruit all three heads of the deltoid. This increased range of motion leads to more time under tension thus stimulating more potential muscle growth. This exercise also makes the stabilizer muscles work harder to move the weight through the proper motion. There’s a reason why this exercise is named after one of the most prolific bodybuilders in history, it works!
Note: You can also do this exercise standing but is better to do seated as it helps to limit bad form. Push your head slightly forward at the top of the movement so that your hands can reach as high as possible resulting in the full range of motion.
Muscles Worked: Front Delts, Side Delts, Serratus Anterior, Triceps
This is a great isometric exercise that puts constant tension on the anterior and lateral deltoid as well as multiple supporting muscles. There is a small amount of internal and external rotation of the shoulder so it could help strengthen the rotator cuff.
Note: Keep your core engaged throughout the movement, start with a light weight if this is a new exercise for you.
Muscles Worked: Front Delts, Side Delts, Traps, Forearms
This exercise can be done with loop resistance bands, band with handles, dumbbells(on an incline bench), cable machine and suspension trainers. The Y raise is a perfect exercise to blast the middle delts. To get the most of this exercise you should have some degree of external rotation so the side delts are shortened. This exercise will work great when done properly even with light weights or resistance.
Note: To make this exercise more isolated perform lying down on your stomach on an incline bench.
Muscles Worked: Lateral delts, Anterior Delts, Traps, Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus, Teres Minor, Pecs
A staple in the Strongman competitions this exercise will test your shoulder strength. Seeing how you probably don’t have access to the same apparatus that the Strongmen do you can use dumbbells or kettlebells. The main point is you will try to hold the objects out to your sides as long as possible, keeping your arms parallel to your shoulders.
Note: Try not to lean back too far because at that point your chest will be taking on more of the resistance.
Muscles Worked: Delts, Lats, Teres Major/Minor, Traps, Serratus Anterior, Triceps
This exercise was created by Larry Dee Scott who was the first winner of Mr. Olympia in 1965. The Scott press activates all three heads of the deltoids so it’s a great movement to build 3D shoulders.
Note: This is a short range of motion but it’s extremely effective, form is everything here.
Muscles Worked: Deltoids, Traps, Serratus Anterior, Infraspinatus, Teres minor
This is a shoulder press variation that focuses the tension on the lateral and anterior deltoids. Your elbows are in a fixed position during this exercise taking your triceps out of the equation. Start light with this one.
Note: Don’t use a swinging motion, move the weights in a slowed controlled manner.
Muscles Worked: Side Delts, Front Delts, Serratus Anterior, Traps, Supraspinatus, Pecs
This is one of the best isolation exercises for the side delts. There’s no cheating in this exercise as your body is braced against the bench so you should start with a light weight. This exercise also gets the rotator cuff involved as the supraspinatus is responsible for the early part of the abduction.
Note: Start with a light weight and use a slow controlled motion.
Muscles Worked: Side Delts, Supraspinatus, Traps
If you’re at home and don’t have any weights to work with this bodyweight lateral raise can be an amazing exercise to target the side delts. If you want to work your side delts without weights then this is a must try exercise.
Note: Stand farther from the wall/door to make the exercise more difficult and closer to make it easier.
Muscles Worked: Lateral Deltoids
This is a great exercise to that hits the side delts and is similar to the upright row but puts less stress on your shoulders. This exercise also known as a monkey row will work both the side and rear delts at the same time.
Note: You can perform this exercise after a bigger lift in a superset to exhaust the side delts.
Muscles Worked: Side Delts, Rear Delts, Biceps, Serratus Anterior
Not all gyms have a lat raise machine but if your gym does have one then you should hop on there to run through some reps of lat raises. This machine is great for isolating the lateral deltoids as the weight is placed on the upper arms.
Note: Don’t let the weight stack to rest, keep constant tension on your muscles. You can also do this exercise with dumbbells as in bent arm lateral raises.
Muscles Worked: Side Delts, Front Delts, Serratus Anterior, Pecs
Battle rope circles are an amazing exercise to strengthen the shoulders and scapula stabilizer muscles. You can perform both inside and outside circles that will hit your arms, shoulders, lats, traps and pecs. The side delt is responsible for the abduction of the arms so doing battle rope circles will have the side delts burning in no time.
Note: You can follow these same steps but move your arms in the opposite direction to create inside circles.
Muscles Worked: Delts, Lats, Pecs, Arms, Forearms, Core
This is an explosive exercise that works the delts, pecs and arms. Focus on contracting your side delts as you bring the ropes out to your sides.
Note: Stay in the athletic stance throughout the movement don’t cross your arms over each other.
Muscles Worked: Delts, Lats, Pecs, Arms, Forearms, Core
Related: Best Battle Rope Exercises
Are Lateral Raises Bad For Shoulders?
Lateral raises done right are great for your side delts assuming you don't have any shoulder issues. Only lateral raises done improperly are bad for your shoulders. This seemingly easy exercise is often done incorrectly because people tend to try to overdo it with weights that are far to heavy. Common mistakes are lifting too heavy, using the traps to help lift the weight or using the momentum of the weight to lift it. To fix these issues start with a light weight and pause at the bottom of the movement to re-stabilize before lifting the weight again.
Train Rear Deltoids: The front delts get enough work through various pushing exercises but the rear delts are often forgot about, one of those out of sight out of mind things. Try to mix in some exercises that work both the side delts and the rear delts like bent over flys. The side delts definitely make your shoulders bigger from the front and back but to have 3D shoulders it’s important to hit all delts. This will also help to avoid muscle imbalances in the deltoids.
Range of Motion: Shoulders are a complicated joint that move in almost every direction. When working out many bodyparts we usually recommend moving through full range of motion. When training the shoulders, especially the side delts, too much range of motion in exercises like lateral raises and upright rows can lead to injury or shoulder impingement. Be aware of how your body reacts as you should lift the weights in a ROM where there isn’t any pain. If you do experience a little pain, don’t go as high and try to switch up your grip.
Variation: You should try to incorporate 1-2 side delt specific exercises in a training session. Side delts should recover faster than some other muscles so you could target them at least 2-3 times a week. Use a mixture of 2-5 different exercises then try to stick to the ones that work best for you. Make sure to reassess your progress before determining if you should switch up your side delt training. If you’re not experiencing pain and your lifts are improving in weight then there’s no need to change things up. If you find a certain exercise isn’t yielding good results and/or you have a poor mind-body connection then make a change.
Volume: To gain muscle on the side delts you should get at least 8-10 sets of direct work per week which would amount to 4-5 sets per training session if you hit them twice a week. Side delts recover fast so if you want to turn up the intensity by all means go for it but just be cognizant of how you’re feeling and if any soreness persists then you can tone down the training a little.
Modalities: There are a number of training styles that can be deployed when training the side delts.
Loading: The side delts will respond to weights that are within 30-80% of your 1RM and a rep range of 6-20 and sometimes even more if you’re training to failure with lighter weights. Most muscles respond well to diverse rep ranges but the side delts tend to favor the higher rep ranges perhaps due to the muscle being slightly dominant in slow twitch muscle fiber. You need to see what rep range work best for you but the general rule of thumb here is to do your heavier lower rep lifting before the lighter higher rep range lifting. So, if you train side delts twice e a week then the first session you should do stick with 3-6 sets with a rep range of 6-12 then the next session that week you choose a different side delt exercise to do 4-8 sets with rep ranges from 15-30 reps. At the end of the day, you need to find works best for you.
Be Aware: Certain shoulder issues may make it difficult to perform some side delt exercises. If you have had shoulder impingement problems then you should stay away from upright rows. The shoulder can be a problem area for many people so it’s vital to know your limits before attempting exercises like lateral raises where the weight is far from your body thus creating high amount of tension on the side delts.
We’re assuming that you will follow our advice and work the side delts at least twice a week. With that said you can choose the days of the week but leave at least 24 hours between side delt workouts so that the muscle can recover fully. In this sample side delt workout programming we are mixing up the exercises and the set and rep range.
Note:Take 60-90 seconds rest between sets or as needed. Complete each exercise and each rep following a rest/pause method where you will pause at the top and bottom for 1 second to make sure you’re getting maximum contraction while following strict form.
Monday or Tuesday
Thursday or Friday:
Want a shoulder-only workout? This is The Ultimate Dumbbell Shoulder Workout.
Shoulder pain is a common issue that plagues millions of people every year which frequently stems from rotator cuff injuries. Deltoid pain or a pulled deltoid muscle isn’t as common as rotator cuff issues but nonetheless a strain in the deltoid muscle can be a real nuisance. Deltoid strains can are graded by the severity of the strain as follows:
To treat deltoid pain, you should ice immediately after injuring to reduce swelling. Follow a 15 minute on/off 2-3 times a day until pain dissipates. It’s also important to get enough rest to let the muscle heal. Cold and heat treatment can help to relieve pain.
Upper Crossed Syndrome or sometimes called proximal or shoulder girdle crossed syndrome is when muscles in your neck, shoulders and chest are imbalanced, some might be too weak while other too tight. From a side view of the body these muscles form an X shape thus leading to the name of the condition. Upper Crossed Syndrome can directly impact the lateral deltoid by inhibiting and lengthening the muscle. UCS is usually caused by excessive pushing exercises or long stretches of time being hunched over.
If you are suffering from UCS and your lateral deltoid is inhibited or lengthened then you can take a few steps below correct it.
The the deltoids can be prone to discomfort but a little self-massage and myofascial release can usually relieve and release the tightness and/or pain. You can try some of the following static stretch and trigger point therapy to maintain the mobility in your side delts.
To release side delt pain with a massage ball follow these steps:
Here are some more great deltoid stretches for before and after your workouts.
Side delts can really help to define your upper body look giving you broad shoulders but they’re not the easiest muscles to build. You will have a fighting chance of adding some size to your lateral deltoids if you incorporate some of the 21 exercises we listed above into your workout regimen. To sum it up you should hit your side delts directly at least 2 times a week but if you’re lacking in this area you might want to work them more often than that. Try to stay under 20 sets a week in total while making sure to have a holistic approach to the rep ranges you use.
More shoulder exercise content:
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