Most of my fitness clients primarily focus on the muscles that garner the most attention — the biceps, abs, and glutes.
However, the often-overlooked middle delts deserve just as much attention in your workout routine.
To help you give your middle delts the attention they deserve, we have put together a list of effective exercises that will help you add size, definition, and strength to your middle delts.
Let’s dive in.
- The best middle delt exercises include the seated dumbbell lateral raises, bent arm lateral raises, cable lateral raises, strict overhead press, incline bench press, side-lying lateral raises, dumbbell L-raise, seated shoulder press, switch side pulses, and rear delt fly.
- The middle delts are located in the middle part of the deltoid muscle, and are crucial for shoulder abduction and overall shoulder muscle aesthetics.
- According to the National Institute of Health, strengthening the middle delts can improve posture and reduce the risk of shoulder injuries, as even a 0.5 kg hand load can increase shoulder muscle activity by 4%.
- In my professional opinion, prioritizing middle delt exercises is essential for achieving well-rounded shoulder development and improving upper body aesthetics.
10 Highly Effective Middle-Delt Exercises For a Stronger Back
Through years of experience and experimentation, I’ve developed a series of ten effective exercises that specifically target the middle delts and deliver results.
Before we dive into these exercises, let’s first understand what the delts are.
What Are the Middle Delts?
The middle delts, also referred to as the middle deltoid, are a component of the deltoid muscle group situated on the outer part of the shoulder, as stated by the National Institute of Health (NIH) .
These muscle fibers are responsible for moving the upper arms away from the body in a lateral motion.
10 Best Middle-Delt Exercises
The ten best middle delt exercises are explained in detail below.
1. Seated Dumbbell Lateral Raises
The seated dumbbell lateral raise is a strength-training middle delt exercise that helps to create broader and more defined shoulders.
To perform it:
- Sit straight on an exercise bench with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hold dumbbells at sides, palms facing in.
- Lift dumbbells to shoulder height and lower slowly.
- Do 10–15 reps.
“Your shoulders actually have three parts (or heads): your front, middle and rear deltoid. Lateral raises mainly target your middle delt.”
- Sandra Abla Leguede, Sports Nutritionist
2. Bent Arm Lateral Raises
The bent arm lateral raise is an exercise that targets the middle deltoids, with some involvement of the front deltoids and upper back muscles.
Follow these steps to do this exercise with perfect form:
- Hold two dumbbells while keeping your elbows tucked to your sides at a 90-degree angle.
- Maintaining a 90-degree angle, lift your arms to the sides until your dumbbells reach your shoulders.
- Lower the weights slowly to the starting position.
- Keep your deltoids engaged and repeat a great dumbbell arm workout for building muscle.
3. Cable Lateral Raises
Cable lateral raises maintain proper form and tension on your delts for optimal muscle growth without any breaks in the movement, resulting in a better pump and preventing mid-rep rests.
To perform them:
- Stand beside a cable machine with the handle set to its lowest, holding it with the farthest hand and the other hand on your hip.
- Raise your arm with a slight bend in the elbow until the handle aligns with your shoulder.
- Lower your arm and repeat for 10–12 reps on each arm.
4. Strict Overhead Press
This compound exercise works the delts, triceps, and upper back. It requires core activation, which can improve overall stability and balance.
“When performing an overhead press, the target muscle is the deltoid. The middle deltoid is dominant in this position while the anterior and poster assist in the abduction and stabilize the shoulder joint.”
- Cristian Cordova, Exercise Science Coach
Here’s how to perform it:
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and grab the barbell with a double overhand grip at shoulder height.
- Contract your deltoids to press upward.
- Slowly lower the barbell back down.
- Repeat while keeping your lower body still.
5. Incline Bench Press
The bench press allows for heavier weights than other middle delt exercises, making it an effective way to build strength and muscle mass in the shoulders.
To do the exercise:
- Set the bench to a 45-degree incline, and lie on it with your feet flat.
- Hold a barbell with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and lower it slowly towards your chest.
- Push the barbell to the starting position while contracting your middle delts.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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6. Side-Lying Lateral Raises
This middle delt exercise involves lying on your side with a dumbbell in your top hand and lifting it away from your body to shoulder height.
It improves shoulder stability and upper arm strength while also adding definition to the middle and lateral heads of the deltoid.
To do a side-lying lateral raise:
- Lie on a bench on your side and hold a dumbbell in one hand.
- Place the weight on your upper leg and bend your elbow slightly.
- Raise the dumbbell to parallel your body.
- Lower it back down slowly to the starting position.
7. Dumbbell L-Raise
The dumbbell lateral raise is a middle delt exercise that increases shoulder strength and stability, improves posture, and enhances upper body aesthetics to produce broad, wide shoulders.
Follow these steps to perform a dumbbell L-raise:
- Hold dumbbells at your sides and bend your elbows to 90 degrees.
- Pull your shoulders down and back as you do so.
- Lift the weights parallel to the floor, keeping the angle of your elbows constant.
- Bring them back down to your sides and repeat.
8. Seated Shoulder Press
This popular shoulder exercise produces a strong muscle burn by using heavy weights. The bench’s support enables the deltoids to exert more effort, making it a valuable exercise for building mass.
To perform a seated shoulder press:
- Set the bench at a 90-degree angle and sit with your back against the seat, holding dumbbells on your knees.
- With an overhand grip and bent arms, lift weights just above shoulders, elbows pointing out.
- Push weights up above you, but don't lock your arms out.
- Lower back down to shoulders and repeat.
Also Read: Best Barbell Shoulder Exercises
9. Switch Side Pulses
This workout for the middle deltoids focuses on creating tension for a long time to cause the breakdown of muscle fibers in the lateral deltoid region.
Here’s how to perform it:
- Raise your arms straight above and below your shoulders by contracting your middle deltoids.
- Pulse your arms up and down with your palms facing up.
- Alternate the position of your palms and continue pulsing for the desired number of reps.
10. Rear Delt Fly
This exercise is highly effective for targeting the middle and posterior deltoid as they bear the primary load in controlling the weight throughout the range of motion.
To perform a rear delt fly:
- Stand with your knees slightly bent, holding dumbbells in front of you.
- Keep your arms straight and extended while hinged forward.
- Raise the dumbbells, slightly bending your elbows until they align with your torso.
- Lower the weights to the starting position and repeat.
Why Should You Work the Middle Delts?
Working the middle delts is important because it contributes to rounded shoulders, enhances posture, and boosts upper body power, making it a crucial aspect of your fitness routine.
Strengthening the middle delts can also improve posture, as, according to NIH, these muscles are crucial in stabilizing the shoulders and keeping them healthy .
In my experience as a trainer, I've found that focusing on the middle delts with my clients significantly improves their upper body power and enhances performance in bench and shoulder press exercises.
Impact on Other Compound Exercises
Strengthening the middle deltoids, or middle delts, plays a crucial role in enhancing performance in various compound exercises. These muscles are key stabilizers in movements involving the shoulders and arms.
When the middle delts are strong, they significantly improve the execution and effectiveness of exercises like the overhead press, bench press, and barbell rows.
This improvement is due to the increased stability and power in the shoulder joint, allowing for better control and force generation during these exercises.
Additionally, strong middle delts contribute to a more balanced muscle development, reducing the risk of injuries and ensuring a more symmetrical strength gain across different muscle groups.
A middle delt workout split should include seated/standing dumbbell lateral raises, lateral cable raises, dumbbell L-raises, and compound exercises like an upright row and strict overhead press.
According to NIH, varying the exercises and rep ranges can help avoid plateauing and encourage muscle growth while keeping middle deltoid workouts fresh, interesting, and effective .
Aim to perform 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps for each exercise, with 60–90 seconds of rest between sets.
Increase weight and reps as you progress to challenge your muscles and avoid plateauing continuously.
Tips To Maximize Your Shoulder Gains
To optimize your shoulder gains, start with compound exercises that target the entire shoulder complex. Follow it up with isolation exercises that focus on the middle delts.
Use progressive overload, increase weight and volume gradually. Incorporate adequate rest and recovery time between workouts, especially during heavy lifts.
Also, fuel your body with adequate protein and nutrients to support muscle growth and repair.
What Does the Middle Deltoid Do?
The middle deltoid is responsible for shoulder abduction, i.e., moving the arm away from the body in the lateral direction.
What Exercise Hits All 3 Deltoids?
The exercise that hits all three deltoids is the overhead or military press, which targets the rear, middle, and anterior deltoid fibers.
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