Training

6 Deltoid Exercises | The Best Shoulder Workout for Mass

Written by Adam Robertson

The Problem:

Unbalanced Shoulder Muscles & Shoulder Pain From Working Out

“Bodybuilders have front delts that are on average five times bigger than sedentary people. Their lateral delts are three times bigger, and their rear delts are only 10-15% bigger. That imbalance translates into supraspinatus tendon abnormalities and is a source of shoulder pain.” Michael Gundill in 2002 first wrote about the imbalances in the shoulder anatomy of trained individuals vs. their untrained counterparts.

However, to this day many still experience shoulder pain when training which is often a direct consequence of an unbalanced shoulder training regime. Therefore, we’ve created this workout to help you build more aesthetic AND healthier shoulders.

training water weight

How To Build Shoulder Muscles Correctly

Given that we need to shift our priority from the front to the back & the sides of our shoulders, this workout plan is the way forward. Due to the nature of the deltoids being a near perfect 50/50 split between fast twitch and short twitch muscle fibres, training shoulders in a variety of rep ranges will promote the greatest amount of hypertrophy, which is reflected in this workout!

Despite the need to emphasise the medial and posterior deltoids, the moves which will solicit the most significant gains in shoulder mass will be pressing movements given that the anterior deltoid has the most extensive capacity for growth. Consequently, training front deltoids at the start of the session is especially important for athletes given that strong front deltoids have a high degree of athletic carryover.

Standing Military Press

Consequently, the first move in this workout is the standing military press. This is because the front deltoids are best trained in a vertical position and opting for a barbell will allow for the greatest possible weight to be lifted, stimulating maximum stress on the muscle and therefore strength and size gains.

Opt for a narrower than usual grip (only slightly wider than shoulder width) to protect your shoulder joint and opt for a range of motion which takes the bar all the way from the clavicle to locking out at the top. Perform four sets where you attempt to hit 8 reps, and when on your fourth set you can perform the full eight reps increase the weight by 5%.

Lateral Raises With Dumbbells

Secondly, to compensate for the front deltoid activation the session can shift focus, and the emphasis will be paid to the lagging muscle groups. The next exercise is the quarter rep lateral raise. Perform a standard side lateral raise in a 1/4 rep style, i.e., once you have raised a dumbbell to 90 degrees only partially lower it down before attempting to raise the weight back up to peak contraction.

After this added “second squeeze”, raise the weight back down to repeat the motion, that is one rep! Perform 6-8 reps for 3 sets, each rep you perform will have two peak contractions which will stimulate significant muscle tear.

dumbbell

Rope Face Pulls

Thirdly perform rope face pulls to engage the rear deltoids. Take an underhand grip and at the top of each rep attempt to bring the centre of the rope as close to your forehead as possible. In doing so you will be externally rotating the ends of the rope behind your body, thus engaging the rotator cuff which is vitally important for long-term shoulder health.

One variant to attempt is sitting on the floor to ensure you cannot cheat or use momentum to move the weight. Given the general underdevelopment of the rear delts, it is beneficial to go lighter for 10-12 reps before attempting to load up on this exercise, perform for three sets.

Cable Side Lateral Raise

Fourthly, we move back to the side deltoids to attempt the cable side lateral. Whilst it is principally the same move as the 1/4 side lateral suggested above, going lighter and squeezing against the constant tension facilitated by a cable allows the medial deltoids to be worked much harder through a greater range of motion rather than merely at peak torque which would happen at the 90 degrees point of a normal side lateral. 8-10 reps for 3 sets here is ample given we have already trained this muscle once before in the workout.

Cable Rear Delt Fly

Lastly, the final exercise to work the rear deltoids is the cable rear delt fly. Set the height of the handles at shoulder height to ensure the traps or lats cannot take over. From a crossed hands position pull the handles away and squeeze the rear delts for a moment and then lower the weights back down.

As the rear delts are often ignored, opt for low weight and focus on the squeeze at peak contraction, to synthesize a sound mind-muscle connection, before attempting to go up in weight. As the rear delts will already be fatigued from the face pulls, perform for 12-15 reps for three sets to vary the weight and volume requirements to allow for optimum growth.

Cuban Press

While this is not strictly a deltoid move, it is a critical component of excellent shoulder health. Given the number of rotator cuff injuries, isolating this muscle with very light weights at the end of the session will benefit you in the long run. Grab a light barbell and start by performing an upright row. When your upper arms are parallel to the floor rotate the barbell up and above your head. From this position press the barbell above your head before lowering down and repeating the motion.

standing military press

Our Mass Building Shoulder Workout:

The session should look like this:

  • Military Press: 4 sets x of 8 reps
  • 1/4 rep Side Laterals: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Face Pulls: 3 sets of 10-12
  • Cable Side Lateral: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Cable Rear Delt Fly: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Cuban Press: 3 Sets of 20 reps

All sets should be taken to failure so if you can do more reps than the specified rep range, slowly increase the weight.

The Key To Building Shoulder Mass

If you think your shoulders might be imbalanced, performing this workout routinely will start to shift the volume of your training towards the more neglected muscles which make up the shoulder. This workout still has athletic carryover given we’ve prioritised the military press.

However, the training volume being attributed to the sides and rear deltoids will be beneficial at improving your shoulder health and your shoulder aesthetics, such sessions will help build rounded 3-D delts which will look amazing!


Gundill, M. Pressing Issues: Building better shoulders with overhead presses. Ironman. August 2002, pg. 42.

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