The delts have to be one of the most underappreciated muscle groups in the body. The pecs, arms and abs seem to get all the love — and even the legs command a lot of attention on squat day — while the shoulders are often an afterthought in the average guy’s training program. But why? The delts are what fill out your T-shirts and dress shirts and pop out of your tank tops to confirm to everyone who sees you that, “Yes, I’m in shape, and yes, I can throw around lots of weight.” And in addition to how awesome they make you look, the shoulders are implicated in a lot of other moves, from bench pressing to throwing a football. So stop putting them on the back burner. It’s time to get back to some hardcore, dedicated deltoid training, and we’ve got two great workouts for building bigger, more striated shoulders.
One of the worst mistakes you can make when designing a shoulder-training protocol is to ignore the vast array of delt exercises at your disposal. There’s no shortage of movements and variations that can be performed for this muscle group — from all different angles of raises (lateral, front and rear) to any type of equipment you can think of (barbells, dumbbells, cables, bands, etc.). The list goes on and on.
Yet as critical as variety is to keeping your delts guessing — and growing — the basics always have and always will be effective in building bigger, stronger shoulders. In other words, when in doubt, start your routine with an overhead pressing movement (aka military press). Using a barbell or dumbbells is great for this, but selectorized Hammer Strength and Smith machines are also effective because they allow you to overload the delts with more weight because not as many stabilizer muscles are required for those moves.
After presses, move on to raises and/or upright rows, varying the path of motion so you hit all three deltoid heads (anterior, posterior, middle). The traps are a smaller muscle group that are good to train with delts, preferably at the end of the workout because they’re involved in virtually every shoulder exercise you do. A few sets of shrugs to isolate the upper traps should suffice.
The shoulders are near the top of the list when it comes to commonly injured joints in the weight room. There are two primary reasons for this: (1) The shoulder is by nature a very unstable ball-and-socket joint, technically the same type as the hip but way easier to dislocate; and (2) the shoulders tend to be overtrained in the gym because they’re also called on to assist in many chest and back exercises. There are also a number of smaller, weaker muscles involved in moving the shoulder (namely the rotator cuff) that can suffer from inattention and excess strain when other muscle groups come up faster.
Because of this, keep a close eye on your training volume (total number of sets you do) for shoulders. In the below routine, the delts can be trained twice a week, but you’ll notice that volume is significantly lower in Workout 2 than Workout 1. After a few weeks of doing these workouts, you may want to consider training shoulders just once a week for a little while.
Also, be mindful of when you train chest and plan your training split accordingly. For instance, it’s not advisable to train delts the day before chest, or vice versa, because the shoulders will need time to recover after being worked intensely. One logical solution is to separate chest and shoulder workouts by at least one full day. Another option is to train chest and delts in the same workout. This way, you’re doing the brunt of your shoulder work in one session, which will maximize the number of days you rest these vulnerable joints.
The two workouts we’ve designed will hit all three deltoids, as well as the traps, with a combination of familiar exercises like overhead presses and dumbbell shrugs and novel variations of lateral raises that will stimulate the muscles to grow by isolating them from different angles.
Standing Barbell Overhead Press
Single-Arm Dumbbell Lateral Press
Single-Arm Cable Rear-Delt Raise
Start: Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides with your arms extended. Keep a slight bend in your knees.
Action: Keeping your chest up and abs tight, shrug your shoulders straight up toward the ceiling, squeezing your traps at the top. Slowly reverse the motion to lower the dumbbells back down.
Rear-Delt “Swings” From Incline Bench
Start: Lie facedown on an incline bench and grasp two relatively heavy dumbbells. Begin with your arms extended down toward the floor.
Action: Keeping your palms facing backward and your elbows slightly bent, lift the dumbbells up and out to the sides about halfway to parallel with the floor, then let them fall back to the start position before going right into the next rep. Do each set as a continuous swinging motion back and forth without letting the dumbbells stop at any point.
Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press
Start: Sit on a low-back seat holding a dumbbell in each hand. Begin with the dumbbells just outside and above your shoulders with a pronated grip.
Action: Press the dumbbells straight up overhead until your elbows are extended but not locked out. Slowly lower the weights back to the start position.
Single-Arm Cable Rear-Delt Raise With Rope
Start: Put a rope attachment on the lowest pulley setting on one side of a cable-crossover station. Stand sideways to the weight stack and grab the rope with the outside hand. Bend over at the waist and begin with your torso close to parallel with the floor and the working arm extended straight down, palm facing behind you.
Action: Keeping your body still and your working arm extended but not locked out, lift the rope up and out to the side until your arm is parallel with the floor. Slowly return to the start position, rep out, then, facing the opposite direction, repeat with the other arm.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Start: Stand holding a dumbbell in one hand at your side, with your other hand holding on to a stable structure.
Action: Keeping only a slight bend in your elbow, lift the dumbbell up and out to the side until your arm is parallel with the floor. Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the start position, rep out, then repeat with the other arm.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Lateral Raise on Incline Bench
Start: Lie in the fetal position (on your side, knees bent and together) on the bench so that your body is at roughly a 45-degree angle. Hold a dumbbell in your top hand and begin with that arm extended at your side.
Action: Keeping your working elbow extended but not locked out, lift the dumbbell up toward the ceiling until your arm is parallel with the floor. Hold for a count, then lower back to the start position without letting the dumbbell rest on your leg at the bottom. Rep out with that arm, then, facing the opposite direction, repeat with the other arm.
Smith Machine Behind-the-Back Shrug
Start: Rack the bar of a Smith machine at a low setting (below your waist). Stand with your back to the bar so that it’s right behind your thighs. Grasp the bar with a shoulder-width grip, palms facing behind you, and unrack it. Begin with your arms fully extended and your chest out.
Action: Shrug your shoulders straight up toward the ceiling, keeping your arms extended throughout. The bar should travel straight up the backs of your thighs and glutes. Squeeze your traps for a count at the top, then slowly lower back to the start position.
Standing Barbell Overhead Press
Start: Grasp a barbell in a squat or power rack with a shoulder-width, pronated (palms facing forward) grip. Unrack the bar, step back from the rack and stand with a hip-width stance and the bar at shoulder height.
Action: Keeping a slight bend in your knees and your core tight, press the bar overhead until your elbows are extended but not locked out. Slowly lower the bar back to the start position.