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13 Best Side Delts Exercises (Broaden Your Shoulders Fast)

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: June 15, 2022

I like to call the deltoid muscles the glory muscles of the arms because they can make or break your physical arm and shoulder appearance.

And depending on the current shape of your arms, doing some targeted isolation side delt exercises could help you better sculpt your upper body. Not only that, but a dedicated delt exercise could also help with shoulder mobility.

So, through my experience as a personal trainer and years of research into isolating the side deltoids, I’ve been able to come up with a list of ideal exercises.

Here’s what you need to know.

Quick Summary

  • Targeting the shoulder muscles with only 1 or 2 exercises might not be enough for an ideal-looking appearance.
  • You could also risk repetitive strain injuries by doing the same side delt exercises all the time.
  • By switching around my 12 favorite side delt workouts, you should be able to build muscle in a controlled manner.

How Do You Isolate The Side Deltoid Muscle?

shirtless man working out using dumbbells

Here are my 12 favorite shoulder exercises that specifically target the lateral deltoids.

1. Dumbbell Lateral Raises (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

The dumbbell lateral raise should be your go-to exercise:

  1. Your starting position is to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Start the dumbbell lateral raises by lifting up the dumbbells to each side with your arms straight.
  3. Once you reach shoulder height, slowly lower them down again to the starting point.

2. One-Arm Dumbbell Upright Rows (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

man doing One-Arm Dumbbell Upright Rows

This is a variation of standard bent-over dumbbell rows:

  1. Start with a dumbbell in one hand and your stance shoulder-width apart.
  2. Slowly pull the dumbbell up into your armpit and hold it for a second.
  3. Then lower the dumbbell back down again.
  4. Complete one set before switching to the other arm.

3. Behind The Neck Press (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

This isn’t the easiest one to start with, but it’s highly effective:

  1. Get into the starting position with a barbell resting on your shoulders as if you’re starting a squat.
  2. Use a wide grip on the bar to reduce the strain on the shoulder joints.
  3. Push the bar up over your head until your arms are fully extended.
  4. Lower the weights back down again slowly until it’s resting on your shoulders again.

4. Seated Arnold Press (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

man using dumbbells in the gym

Named after the most famous bodybuilder of all time, the seated Arnold press is another favorite of mine:

  1. Sit at the end of a bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Lift the dumbbell up into the top position of a bicep curl and the palms facing you.
  3. Push the weights straight up above your head while rotating your arms so your palms are facing away from you.
  4. Slowly lower the dumbbells down again to the starting point.

5. Barbell Upright Row (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

The upright row with a barbell is a bit more of a compound exercise but still great for the lateral deltoids:

  1. Your starting position is with your stance shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab hold of the bar in an overhand grip with your palms facing you.
  3. Now pull up the bar to your chest and hold it there for a second.
  4. Lower it back down again in a slow movement to extend the time under tension.

6. Overhead Press (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

man using a barbell

This is an easier version of the behind the head press above:

  1. Your starting position is with the barbell under your chin, slightly resting on your pecs.
  2. Hold the bar with your palms facing away from you.
  3. Lift up your chin and push the bar up over your head until your arms are fully extended.
  4. Slowly lower it back down to the starting point.

7. Barbell Upright Row (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

The upright row with a barbell is a bit more of a compound exercise but still great for the lateral deltoids:

  1. Your starting position is with your stance shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab hold of the bar in an overhand grip with your palms facing you.
  3. Now pull up the bar to your chest and hold it there for a second.
  4. Lower it back down again in a slow movement to extend the time under tension.

8. One-Arm Cable Raise (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

woman using a cable machine

Some people prefer working with a cable machine to free weights, and this is a great alternative to a normal lateral raise:

  1. Set up the cable machine so that there is very little slack and with the cable mechanism at the bottom.
  2. Stand sideways to the machine and hold onto the grip with a bit of tension already on it.
  3. Start the cable lateral raises with slow movement until you reach the height of your shoulder.
  4. Slowly lower your arm down again.

9. Behind-The-Back Cable Lateral Raise (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

While you’re at the cable machine, you can switch things around a bit with a behind-the-back cable raise:

  1. Set yourself up in the same way as the cable raises above but with the cable behind your back.
  2. This slightly alters the tension on the lateral deltoid as you slowly pull your arm up.
  3. Hold at the top for a second, and then lower your arm back down again.

10. Face Pulls (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

man using a resistance band

You’ll either need exercise bands or a cable machine to do these:

  1. Your starting position is with the handles face-height and straight in front of you.
  2. Make sure your arms are fully stretched out with palms facing down and a bit of tension on the bands or cable.
  3. Pull the handles towards your face with the hold position of a handle next to each ear.
  4. Slowly let the tension release from your shoulder blades back to the starting point.

11. Weight Plate Steering Wheel (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

This is a great option to strengthen your side delt in a unique way:

  1. Start with your feet hip-width apart and a weight plate held with both hands.
  2. Stretch out your arms in front of you at about chest height like driving a car.
  3. Rotate the plate to the left and then all the way to the right to complete each rep.

12. Incline W Press (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

woman doing a dumbbell press

This is a modified version of the standard incline bench press:

  1. Set up your bench with the backrest at a 45-degree angle.
  2. Lean back with a dumbbell in each hand and raise them to shoulder height.
  3. Bend your elbows slightly so that your arms and head form a W shape.
  4. Raise the dumbbell above your head and then slowly lower them down again.

13. Seated Dumbbell Military Press (3 sets of 8-10 reps)

This is a simpler variation of the Arnold press:

  1. Sit down at the end of a bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Raise the dumbbells up next to your shoulders with your hands facing away from you.
  3. Push the weight up over your head until your arms are fully extended.
  4. Lower them back down slowly to complete the rep.

Related Articles:

What Is The Lateral Deltoid?

The lateral deltoid is the middle of the 3-headed deltoid muscle. This is the triangular-shaped muscle that sits on top of the rotator cuff and connects the arm to the upper back and spine [1].

It’s a key part of your upper body anatomy, and making sure that your delts are nicely rounded out is important for the overall appearance of your physique.

It’s this unique location and attachment to different parts of the back that makes it such a multifunctional muscle.

Let’s take a closer look.

What Do The Lateral Deltoids Do?

shirtless man touching his shoulders

The lateral deltoids are predominantly responsible for shoulder abduction [2].

This means that it’s critical to allow you to raise your arm sideways, front and back, and rotate it around the shoulder joint.

While the front, lateral and rear delts work together for these arm movements, it’s the lateral ones that tend to be engaged the most when you lift your arm straight up to the side and above your head [3].

How Often Should You Exercise The Side Delts?

Now, before you go off and plan out an entire workout just for side delt exercises, let me tell you what the better approach would be.

Number Of Training Days

The generally recommended approach to training your shoulders is twice a week [4]. The great thing is that you can combine it with other upper-body workouts. For example, you could add side delt exercises to your arm or back days, giving you more flexibility.

Sets And Reps

Assuming that you’re going to work on your delts twice a week, I would recommend that you aim for two different exercises and do three sets of each.

For muscle growth, aim to do 8 to 10 reps in each set, and for toning, you can push it to 12 reps.

Most importantly, make sure you go for maximum range of motion rather than more weights and don’t just do lateral raises.

“Don't just think about raising the weight up. This tends to get the traps involved. Instead, think about pushing the dumbbell out to your side as much as possible. The weight should only go up as a result of you actively pushing sideways.” - Jeremy Ethier, Writer at BuiltWithScience.com.

Regularly switch around the above exercise to avoid repetitive strain injuries [5].

And there’s something else you can do to avoid injuries.

Regular Side Delt Stretching Routine

Even when you regularly switch out the types of exercises you do for your upper body and delts, in particular, you should always aim to do some regular stretching.

You can do this as part of a warm-up or cool-down routine, but I like to do a full-body stretching routine on my rest days.

Here are some examples.

Dynamic Bear Hugs: Stand up straight with your arms stretched out to the side. Then bring each arm across your chest as if you’re giving someone a bear hug and then go back to the starting point.

Cross Body Shoulder Stretch: Stretch your right arm across your chest and grab hold of that shoulder with your left hand. Use your left arm to push your right arm into your chest to stretch the deltoid muscle.

Downward Dog Alternative: Lean up against a table or chair with your body straight. Then get into a downward dog movement by bending your hips so that your head moves down between your elbows.

FAQs

Does Working Your Side Delts Improve Your Posture?

No, working your side delts alone won’t improve your posture much. It’s mainly the rear delts that control your upper spine and shoulders to avoid a hunched-over position [6].

Are the Side Delts Difficult to Strengthen?

Yes, the side delts can be difficult to strengthen [7]. Most compound exercises target the front delts, and you need to do specific isolation exercises to target the side and rear delts.

Have You Started Targeting Your Side Delts?

If you want to achieve broad shoulders, I would recommend not just relying on the traditional lateral raises. Not only could the same exercise lead to a repetitive strain injury, but it’s also going to become a bit boring.

Instead, aim to add 1 or 2 of the above exercises to your shoulder and back days and see if you can feel the difference they make.

There are enough exercises to make sure that you won’t get bored and the results should be visible in a matter of weeks.


References:

  1. https://www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/the-deltoid-muscle
  2. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Deltoid
  3. https://exrx.net/Muscles/DeltoidLateral
  4. https://renaissanceperiodization.com/expert-advice/side-delt-size-training-tips
  5. https://www.sportsmd.com/sports-injuries/shoulder-injuries/deltoid-strain/
  6. https://www.wellandgood.com/rear-delt-exercises/
  7. https://builtwithscience.com/how-to-build-shoulders/

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