Well-built middle delts are anatomical gold for physique-minded athletes, enhancing the overall shape of the shoulders and providing the illusion of a smaller waistline. But how should we best train these muscles? Well, the argument could be made for lateral raises, which allow you to target the middle delts in relative isolation. However, that same isolation limits how much intensity (read: weight) you can train with. A better bet, as with most muscle groups, is to start with a compound move that targets the middle delts. Enter the overhead press.
Free-weight overhead presses allow for the use of more weight due to the contribution of other muscle groups, which directs greater tension to the middle delts. As such, overhead presses should come first on most shoulder days, with targeted lateral raises for the middle, front and rear delts following close behind.
But which version of the overhead press is best for emphasizing the shoulder-widening middle delts? Does it matter whether you use dumbbells or barbells? Let’s examine the facts and determine which move is best for keeping those middle delts capped out.
Dumbbell Overhead Press
Arguably the greatest benefit of dumbbells is that they allow a greater range of motion than a barbell does. With that comes greater time under tension and recruitment of the traps, which act to raise the shoulder blades. Using dumbbells also summons more stabilizer muscles to perform the move. In other words, more total muscle fibers are hard at work to perform the dumbbell overhead press. Most of the time this exercise is done seated, but you can also perform it standing, which allows you to go slightly heavier by using your lower body and core to a greater extent.
Barbell Overhead Press
The barbell overhead press is a great multijoint exercise that works all three delt heads. If you don’t have a military bench, try to work inside a power rack where you can adjust the safeties up or down so it’s easy to rack the bar at the end of each set. Take a wide, overhand grip on the bar and be sure to wrap your thumbs around it for safety. If you’re new to this move or you’ve relied mainly on dumbbells for your overhead presses, be aware that you’ll have to lean your head back slightly on each rep to get your chin out of the way of the bar. However, be careful to avoid leaning too far back because that could cause undue stress on your lower back and cervical spine.
WINNER: Dumbbell Overhead Press
Both moves are multijoint in nature and typically done first in your shoulder routine. Two or more sets of muscles and joints work together, in this case the muscles that attach to the elbow and shoulder joints, so the triceps assist. In case you missed it above, dumbbells require the most coordination but also allow the most freedom. Because you keep your elbows out to your sides during standard dumbbell overhead presses, the emphasis remains primarily on the middle delts. In contrast, the standard barbell overhead press requires you to bring the bar in front of your face to your upper chest. If you follow the path of the elbows, you’ll notice that they travel a bit more forward, calling upon the front delts to a greater extent. So although you can move more weight with a barbell, the winner in the middle-delt category is the dumbbell version.