My dad is a construction wizard. I’m thoroughly convinced he could build a house from scratch. Once, when my wife and I were remodeling our condo, he freestyled a doorway arch worthy of a Spanish villa. We wanted ceramic tile, which he had never done before — no matter, though, he just quickly thumbed through one of those DIY books near the registers at Home Depot, made a few mental notes, and proceeded to singlehandedly replace the kitchen floor within the week, from the underlayment to expert cuts for the corners. Bob Vila has nothing on this man.
I inherited none of this talent. I can barely hang a picture on the wall. Make a straight cut with a saw? Forget it. Building is not my specialty… well, unless some easy, “You simply can’t screw this up” instruction is involved.
Consider the following then to be that foolproof manual. Here, we’re not building architectural wonders, although it involves a certain level of physical craftsmanship nonetheless. We’re offering the blueprint for the perfect delt routine, and in just three easy steps. In no time, you’ll be assembling muscle-building shoulder workouts like a pro.
Step 1: Prepare for the job.
With shoulders especially, a thorough warm-up is essential. The shoulder, or glenohumeral, joint is the most mobile in the body, with the ability to go 360 degrees in the sagittal plane. But that mobility also leaves it susceptible to injury, with the rotator cuffs (a collection of muscles and tendons that help stabilize the shoulder) taking on a lot of stress.
To combat this, you want to warm the entire area via blood flow, through whole-body actions, including cardio and more targeted exercises such as arm circles, rotator cuff raises, and a number of light sets of your first presses and lateral raises. Not so much that you tire out your delts before the main movements, but enough to ease into the heavier sets to come. A suggestion? Five to 10 minutes of jogging and the jump rope, followed by 5 to 10 sets of 15–25 reps of rotator cuff raises, light laterals and presses.
Step 2: Pick your presses.
The foundation of any effective deltoid routine is a press. You have a number of options at your disposal, including standing presses and seated presses with a barbell or dumbbells, as well as Smith-machine and other machine presses.
Which you choose depends on your goal, but variety over time is helpful. If you’re in a strength-building phase, the seated or standing barbell press is a powerful option, putting you in the best position to handle heavier loads. For mass building and to pursue more balanced development in both delts, dumbbells are the ideal tool. A solid exercise that hits the anterior (front) and side (rear) delt heads is the Arnold press — named after you-know-who — that involves a twist of the wrist. The dumbbells are in front of your face, palms turned toward you, at the bottom of the rep; as you raise the dumbbells, turn your wrists so that your palms face forward at the top overhead.
Step 3: Piece together — and prioritize — your raises.
The delt is made up of three heads, including the front (anterior), side (middle) and posterior (rear) sections. And your positioning during a raise, in which you hold your elbow straight and lift the dumbbell up in an arc to shoulder level, determines which head takes the brunt of the load. Lift the weight out in front of your body and you call on the anterior delts; raise it laterally to the sides and you target the middle delts; and bending over to lift the dumbbells out to your sides hits the rear delts.
You can use a dumbbell, or for the benefits of constant tension throughout each rep, the cable station. Some machines, such as lateral raise and the reverse pec-deck flye, are also options.
While the front head gets a lot of attention during any press, including incline and flat-benching exercises on chest day, the side and rear development can usually use a boost. So you’ll likely want to start with a side or rear raise, ideally rotating which one gets first dibs from workout to workout. Once you’ve worked the front and side to exhaustion, then and only then should you turn to the front delts.
Pride in Workmanship
Because this construction project targets not wood and metal but flesh and bone, results can require more patience. Over the course of weeks and months, the delts will take shape if you use a variety of exercises like we spell out here, and strive for incremental gains in your weights used and the reps you can do, among other measures of improvement.
Finally, unlike a house blueprint, this shoulder plan benefits from regular alterations as you proceed. You may want to alternate between, say, a month of lower-rep sets aimed at strength, with reps in the 6–10 range, followed by a higher-rep protocol of 12–15 reps per set with lighter yet still challenging resistance loads. At the very least, you’ll want to analyze your routine every four to six weeks, making tweaks as necessary if you’re not seeing appreciable progress.
In time, you will probably discover you’re much handier than you think, at least when it comes to bodybuilding. As for that home remodeling project you’ve been considering … well, you may not want to call someone else for help on that.
The "Perfect" Delt Routine
Standing or Seated Military Barbell Press
Seated Dumbbell Arnold Press
Rear-Delt One-Arm Cable Raise
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Barbell Front Raise
EZ-Bar Upright Row^
Note: warm up with a five-minute jog on the treadmill, five minutes of arm circles and rotator cuff raises with 5-10-pound weights, and 2-3 sets of 15 reps of very light presses before heading into the working sets listed above.
^This shoulder exercise is a solid addition to any program; here, we use it as a finisher.