While the shoulder is not a large muscle overall, its positioning on the body makes it rather unique in terms both function and aesthetic. As a result, it is important to train the shoulders well, for purposes of practical mobility—and of course looks, too: hypertrophied shoulder heads can have outsized impacts on silhouettes and complement adjacent muscles, including the chest, arms, and back.
One novel aspect of the shoulder lies in its three heads: anterior, medial, and anterior. Many other muscles have multiple heads, but not in the three-dimensional way of the deltoid. Its front, side, and rear components create a 3D effect around the perimeter of the upper torso. This is why a physique without rounded shoulders is considered incomplete; there is no angle at which the shoulder is irrelevant or invisible.
AT THE FRONT
The Front Delt is typically the most developed, as it is involved in most pressing movements, such as the Bench Press and Military Press. Of course, the same can be said of triceps, and still we isolate them—sparingly and strategically. Do the same for your front shoulders: limited, lightweight accessory work that does not risk overtraining.
Overly strong anterior deltoids relative to their posterior counterpart can contribute to a forward-leaning posture and other kinetic chain issues. Avoid this by keeping the shoulders and chest mobile with regular stretching (during warmup and cool down) and rolling, and by maintaining equal strength along the posterior chain.
Our favourite exercises: Military Press, Incline Bench Press, Dumbbell Overhead Press
AROUND THE SIDE
The Side Delt is not directly targeted by any common compound movements and therefore demands isolation work. The ultimate exercise for this head of the shoulder is the Lateral Raise. This simple movement can be performed with dumbbells, cables, or even resistance bands. Keep the weight light, or bigger muscles like the traps will quickly involve themselves.
The Side Delt often prefers higher volume and can recover fast; aim for 10 to 15 reps per set and twice-weekly training. Start slow and controlled to develop a mind-muscle connection with this single head.
Our favourite exercises: Cable Lateral Raise, Arnold Press, Dumbbell Lateral Raise
FROM THE BACK
The Rear Delt is the most commonly neglected head of the shoulder, and that can be explained for multiple reasons. It is mostly out of sight, which is often enough for us to ignore the importance of a muscle; and it is relatively small, which can make it under-utilized in compound movements and challenging to isolate.
Varieties of Rear Delt Flies—particularly with the smallest finger outward and triceps flexed—can tax this muscle with few others able to join the fray. As for compounds, implementing higher or wider position on an upright cable row can ensure the Rear Delt’s participation.
Like it’s brother, the Side Delt, the posterior head can handle high volume (bodybuilder John Meadows suggests sets of 30 reps) and recovers fast (Meadows: hit ’em twice weekly). Just be sure to place ego aside. If your poundage is too big for a small muscle to lift alone, bigger muscles will always engage.
Our favourite exercises: Banded Face Pull, Machine Rear Delt Flys, Cable High Row