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The 21 Best Lateral Deltoid Exercises to Develop Full Shoulders

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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A set of well-developed boulders shoulders is often a coveted goal for fitness enthusiasts aiming to achieve an athletic and sculpted physique. Not only do strong and defined shoulders contribute to a balanced appearance, but they also enhance overall upper body strength and functionality

There are countless ways to train the lateral deltoids, like dumbbells, resistance bands, cable machines, or body weight exercises. 

A muscular man doing lateral deltoid exercises using two dumbbells
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This article will explore the top lateral deltoid exercises that can help you build impressive shoulders reminiscent of the iconic physique sported by the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.

Deltoid Muscle Anatomy

Before you dive into shoulder mass-building exercises or lateral deltoid exercises, it’s wise to have a basic understanding of deltoid anatomy

The deltoid muscle is the largest in the upper body and plays a vital role in movement, stability, and flexibility. The deltoid muscle has three distinct muscle heads:

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  • The anterior deltoid (front) 
  • The lateral deltoid (sides)
  • The posterior deltoid (rear)
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Each part originates from different areas of the shoulder, joining to create a single tension attaching to the upper arm bone. 

The different heads have specific functions, allowing you to move your shoulder up, down, and to the sides. 

Anterior Deltoid or Front Deltoid

The anterior or front deltoid is situated at the front of the shoulder. It originates from the outer third of the clavicle (collarbone) and connects to the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus (upper arm bone). 

  • Primary function: Shoulder flexion, raising the arm forward and upward.
  • Assists in horizontal adduction: bringing the arm across the front of the body.
  • Plays a role in the internal rotation of the shoulder: rotating the arm inward.

The primary function of the anterior deltoid is shoulder flexion, which involves raising the arm forward and upward. It is heavily involved in movements like front raises and overhead presses.

Lateral Deltoid or Side Deltoid

The lateral or side deltoid is positioned on the side of the shoulder. It originates from the acromion process of the scapula (shoulder blade) and connects to the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus. 

  • Primary function: Shoulder abduction, lifting the arm out to the side and away from the body.
  • Assists in shoulder flexion and extension.
  • Contributes to shoulder horizontal abduction: moving the arm backward from a forward position.

The lateral deltoid primarily performs shoulder abduction, which involves lifting the arm out to the side and away from the body. Movements such as lateral raises and shoulder presses target and engage the lateral deltoid.

Posterior Deltoid or Rear Deltoid 

The posterior or rear delts are located at the rear of the shoulder. It originates from the spine of the scapula and connects to the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus. 

  • Primary function: Shoulder extension: moving the arm backward.
  • Assists in shoulder horizontal abduction.
  • Plays a role in the external rotation of the shoulder: rotating the arm outward.

The rear delts are responsible for shoulder extension, which involves moving the arm backward. Movements like reverse flyes and bent-over rows primarily target and activate the posterior deltoid.

A man doing lateral deltoid execises with a cable machine
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The Benefits of Training Lateral Deltoids

Broad shoulders are typically seen as an integral component of an aesthetic physique. The lateral delts are the most prominent deltoid muscle, contributing to the highly sought-after V-taper figure. 

But strong side delts have more benefits than looking good without a shirt. 

Training the middle delts carry over to other compound exercises, creates healthier shoulders and improves shoulder mobility. 

Reduced Chance of Injury

The shoulder joint is the most complex and flexible joint in the human body. There are three bones, several muscles, ligaments, and tendons allowing you to move your arm. 

Because of the complexity, the shoulder joint can be unstable and prone to injury.  

Lateral delt workouts can contribute to shoulder strength, reducing the chance of injury or strain. The right shoulder exercises can improve shoulder mobility and stability, helping you in daily activities and sports. 

Enhanced Range of Motion

Just like reducing the chance of injury, training the lateral head can enhance shoulder stability. The right delt exercises and stretches may improve your range of motion, reducing the chance of injury or pain even further. 

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A higher range of motion will help you perform daily activities, like lifting something overhead or carrying groceries in from the car. More flexibility will also improve other upper body exercises and athletic performance. 

Carry Over to Other Lifts

The middle deltoid is used in countless lifts, like overhead presses, incline bench presses, and pull-ups. The lateral delt works as a primary mover or a supporting muscle, depending on the exercise. 

Having stronger deltoid muscles will carry over to these lifts, helping you stabilize heavier weights and build more mass. 

Physique and Posture

Last but not least, strengthening the shoulders through lateral delt exercises will contribute to a more athletic physique and improved posture.

Wider shoulders create a prominent physique, contributing to traditional V-taper aesthetics. A more pleasing figure can give you more confidence, helping you step out of your comfort zone. 

Lateral delt exercises can also balance out the shoulders and upper back, improving your posture. This will be especially noticeable in individuals with mostly sedentary jobs, like working at a computer.

A man doing lateral deltoid exercises with a barbell
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Barbell Exercises

There aren’t any barbell exercises that isolate the lateral deltoids. However, you can use a barbell to target the shoulder muscles, including the side and front deltoid muscles. The barbell allows you to use heavy weights, helping you build stronger shoulder muscles. 

1. Barbell Overhead Press

The Barbell Overhead Press is a classic exercise allowing you to use heavy weights and build muscle strength. There are several variations, like seated and incline options. The standing barbell overhead press will use more core strength and supporting muscles. It also carries over to Olympic lifts and competition environments. 

  1. Position the barbell slightly below shoulder level.
  2. Grip the bar with both hands, using an overhand grip, and the feet at shoulder width distance. 
  3. Take a deep breath, bracing your core muscles. 
  4. Now, press through your elbows up toward the ceiling until the arms are fully extended overhead.
  5. Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position to finish one repetition. Repeat the movement for your desired rep range.

2. Barbell Upright Row

The Barbell Upright Row is another fantastic exercise to target the front and lateral delts alongside the trapezius muscle. Adjusting to a narrow grip will engage the traps more, while a wider grip will utilize the middle delts. 

  1. Take an athletic position, with the feet around shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in the knees. Grab the barbell with an overhand grip. Use a slightly wider grip to target the deltoids. 
  2. Hold the barbell in front of the body around hip height.
  3. Now, lift the barbell up toward your chin until the arms are nearly parallel to the floor. Squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top of the movement. 
  4. Slowly lower the weight to the starting position to finish one repetition. Repeat the exercise for your desired rep range or 6-12 reps.

Dumbbell Exercises

Dumbbell shoulder exercises are one of the best methods for isolating the middle delts. There are countless movements you can incorporate into your workout routine, like the dumbbell raise, overhead press, and military press.

3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Lateral Raises are one of the most popular movements for developing strong side delts. There are countless lateral raise variations, like using a cable machine or resistance bands. The dumbbell raise is straightforward, but there are some specific details to keep in mind so you can engage the muscle thoroughly.

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells using an overhand grip. Hold them at the sides of your body with the palms facing the thighs.
  2. Keep your core tight and back straight in an upright position.
  3. Raise your arms until they are fully extended at shoulder height.
  4. Return the weight to the starting position to complete one repetition. Repeat the arm raises for mid-high rep ranges. 

You can also perform the dumbbell one-arm lateral raise for a unilateral variation. This allows you to target the shoulders one at a time, addressing any muscle imbalances or weak points.

4. Dumbbell Overhead Press

Overhead dumbbell presses are a variation of the conventional barbell OHP. The Dumbbell Shoulder Press is an excellent exercise, as it allows you to use less weight and focus on aesthetics rather than pure strength. It can be performed on a flat bench, standing, or at an incline. 

  1. Stand in an upright position with the feet shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Grab a dumbbell in both hands and lift them up to shoulder level. The palms should face away from the body.
  3. Now, take a deep inhale and keep the core tight.
  4. Press the weights toward the sky as you exhale. Ensure your arms are straight overhead.
  5. Take another deep breath at the top of the exercise and slowly lower the dumbbells to the starting position. 
  6. That’s one rep. Repeat the movement for your desired rep range.

5. Arnold Dumbbell Shoulder Press

You can do the Arnold Press while sitting on a weight bench or standing.

The added rotation of the exercise targets the entire shoulder, making it a must-do exercise for building broader shoulders. If you have an adjustable bench or incline bench, it’s even better because it targets the upper chest more when you’re standing.

  1. Sit on the weight bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Hold the dumbbells in front of your body, around face level, with your palms facing toward you.
  3. Now, push the dumbbells straight up over your head.
  4. While you’re lifting the weights, twist your wrists so that your palms face away from your body at the top of the movement.
  5. When your arms are fully extended, slowly bring the weights back down to the starting position.
  6. Twist your wrists again so that your palms face your body at the end of the movement.
  7. That completes one repetition. Keep making the same motion for the number of reps you want to do.

6. One-Arm Dumbbell Upright Row

The One-Arm Dumbbell Row is an isolated shoulder exercise, perfect for strengthening the outer part of your shoulder muscles. It’s a unilateral exercise, which means you focus on one side of your body while the other side stabilizes you.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab a dumbbell of your preferred weight with one hand.
  3. Slowly lift your shoulder towards your ear as if you’re shrugging. When you reach the top of the shrug, hold that position and contract your muscles. Lift the weight until it reaches the height of your chest.
  4. Slowly lower the weight back to your side.
  5. Repeat this movement for the number of reps you want to do.
  6. Switch to the other arm and do the same exercise to complete a set.

7. Standing Dumbbell Around the World

The Standing Dumbbell Around the World movement keeps your shoulder muscles engaged throughout and moves them in different directions, which activates more muscle fibers. When you’re starting out, use light weights to practice the movement and get the form right.

  1. Hold dumbbells in front of your body with an underhand grip.
  2. Raise your arms up and out to the sides in a big circular motion. Keep your arms straight with a slight bend in the elbows.
  3. As your arms move up above your head, rotate your wrists and the weights so your palms face away from the body.
  4. Stop when the weights meet above your head, with your arms fully extended.
  5. Slowly bring the weights back to the starting position, using the same circular motion and rotating your wrists.
  6. That’s one repetition. Repeat the movement for the number of reps you want to do.

Cable Exercises

Cable machines are highly effective for targeting the lateral deltoid and shoulder muscles. Cable pulleys offer unique benefits that can enhance your shoulder workout regimen in a similar way to dumbbell shoulder exercises.

When it comes to isolating the middle delts, the cable pulley machine provides consistent resistance throughout the entire range of motion. This constant tension helps engage and activate the targeted muscles more effectively.

8. One-Arm Cable Lateral Raise

The One-Arm Cable Lateral Raise is a variation of the dumbbell lateral raise, but instead of using dumbbells, you use a cable machine for resistance. This allows you to isolate and focus on one side of your body at a time.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and position the cable machine on either your left or right side.
  2. Attach a single handle to the cable and set it at the lowest position.
  3. Reach across your body and grasp the handle with a neutral grip (palms facing each other).
  4. Start with your elbow slightly bent and then lift the handle laterally, pulling it across your body.
  5. Keep your elbow slightly bent throughout the movement.
  6. When your arm is raised to shoulder height, hold that position for a second.
  7. Slowly lower the handle back to the starting position.
  8. Once you complete the set, switch to the other side by facing the opposite direction and repeat the exercise.

9. Cable Machine Y-Raise

The Y-Raise exercise is fantastic for targeting the middle part of your shoulder muscles. You can do this exercise using loop resistance bands, bands with handles, dumbbells on an incline bench, a cable machine, or suspension trainers.  

To make the most out of this exercise, it’s essential to slightly rotate your arms outward so that the side shoulder muscles are engaged. Even with light weights or resistance, this exercise can be very effective when done correctly.

  1. Attach the band close to the floor or use the appropriate equipment.
  2. Stand facing the attachment point and hold the band with both hands using an overhand grip.
  3. Raise your arms up and back behind you in a wide “Y” shape.
  4. Pause briefly when your arms are at the top of the movement, then slowly lower them back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat this motion for the number of reps you want to do.

10. Behind the Back Cable Raise

The Behind the Back Cable Raise is quite similar in setup to the one-arm cable raise. However, instead of the working arm being in front of your body, you will be pulling the line behind your back. By pulling the cable behind your back, this exercise targets your shoulder muscles from a different angle. It helps to strengthen and shape the rear deltoids effectively. 

  1. Stand next to a cable-pulley machine with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Make sure to have a slight bend in your knees and your toes facing forward.
  2. Adjust the cable to the shortest height and grab the handle with your outside arm. This time, reach behind your back to grab it. Use your other arm to hold onto the cable machine for support.
  3. Lift the handle up and to the side behind you, continuing until you reach shoulder height.
  4. Pause briefly at the top of the movement.
  5. Slowly and carefully lower the weight back down.
  6. Repeat all the repetitions on one side before switching to the other.

11. Cable Machine Upright Row

As mentioned earlier, the cable upright row is a fantastic exercise that targets the shoulders and upper back. It’s a valuable addition to your lateral deltoid workout routine as it helps develop muscles in the front and side delts, as well as the traps and rhomboids. 

  1. Set the cable at its lowest setting and attach a bar to it.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and grasp the bar with both hands using an overhand grip. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart.
  3. Exhale as you pull the bar up towards your body, leading with your elbows. Keep the cable close to your body until your elbows reach shoulder level.
  4. Inhale slowly as you return to the starting position, lowering the bar back down.
  5. Repeat this movement for the desired number of repetitions.

12. Cable Face Pulls

Cable Face Pulls often receive negative feedback, but this exercise is actually perfect for strengthening the muscles that often become strained during daily activities like looking down at a computer or driving a car. 

When performed correctly, face pulls work to strengthen the shoulders and upper back, which can help improve posture and reduce rounded shoulders. Additionally, face pulls can be beneficial for addressing shoulder issues and strengthening the rotator cuff.

  1. Set up the cable at a high point and attach the rope to it.
  2. Grasp the rope with both hands, ensuring that your thumbs are pointing backward.
  3. Keep your elbows positioned below your shoulders, and then pull the rope back while slightly turning your body to engage the rotator cuff muscles. At the end of the movement, when your hands are close to your ears, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat this exercise for the desired number of repetitions.

Machine Exercises

Machines can be a valuable piece of gym equipment to incorporate into your lateral delt workout. There are dedicated machines for shoulder workouts, like the lateral raise and overhead press. 

Otherwise, you can use the Smith machine to perform overhead presses, especially if you don’t have access to free weights. We’ll cover a few variations to consider adding to your shoulder workouts below.  

13. Machine Lateral Raise

While not all gyms have a lat raise machine, if your gym happens to have one, it’s worth trying it out for some lat raises. This machine is handy for isolating the lateral deltoids since the weight is positioned on the upper arms.

It’s crucial to maintain strict form and control throughout the exercise. Adjust the weight according to your fitness level and focus on performing the movements smoothly and with proper form.

  1. Get into position on the lat machine, ensuring your core is engaged, and your back is straight.
  2. Adjust the weight on the stack to your desired resistance level, then grasp the handles so that your arms are resting against the pads.
  3. Lift your elbows out and upward to the sides, focusing on engaging your lateral deltoids.
  4. Pause briefly at the top of the movement, feeling the contraction in your shoulder muscles.
  5. Slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat this exercise for the desired number of repetitions.

14. Seated Smith Machine Overhead Press

Another way to get use out of the Smith machine is to perform the Seated Smith Machine Overhead Press. The seated variation will take less stress off your lower back and core muscles, allowing you to isolate the shoulders. 

  1. Place an exercise bench inside the Smith machine and adjust the backrest to a 90-degree angle.
  2. Sit on the bench and position yourself so that the bar of the machine comfortably comes down just in front of your face.
  3. Add the desired amount of weight to the bar while remaining seated on the bench.
  4. Un-rack the weights and slightly bend your elbows. This initial position is the starting point for the movement.
  5. Lower the weight slowly until the bar reaches just below chin height. Take a brief pause at this point.
  6. Lift the bar back up to the starting position without locking your elbows out entirely at the top of the movement.
  7. Repeat this sequence for the desired number of repetitions.

Resistance Band Exercises

You don’t need any fancy equipment if you have resistance bands. Exercise bands are a fantastic piece of equipment for developing 3D shoulders. Similar to cable machines, banded exercises provide consistent tension throughout the entire movement.

The additional tension challenges the muscles, recruits more muscle fibers, and provides more time under tension. Not to mention, they’re convenient, affordable, and accessible. 

16. Resistance Band Lateral Raise

The Resistance Band Lateral Raise engages the side delts, helping to improve shoulder stability, strength, and range of motion. You can incorporate the movement into your shoulder routines as a warm-up or a dedicated exercise. Focus on maintaining proper form throughout the training and control the action as you raise and lower your arms.

  1. Place a resistance band underneath your right foot and stand with a staggered stance. Keep your right foot forward and your left foot slightly back. Make sure to have a slight bend in your knees.
  2. Grab the ends of the resistance band and let your arms hang by your sides.
  3. Raise your arms out to the sides until they are fully extended at shoulder height. This movement targets the side deltoids.
  4. Slowly lower your arms back down to the starting position, completing one repetition.
  5. Repeat the movement for your desired number of reps, or aim for around 10 to 12 repetitions.

17. Overhead Pull-Apart

The Overhead Pull-Apart is another excellent exercise for engaging the upper back and shoulder muscles. Again, it can be used as a warm-up to improve posture, shoulder stability, and arm strength. 

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab a band with handles and position it directly above your head.
  3. Begin by stretching the band apart as you lower it behind your body.
  4. Keep pulling the band until your arms are fully extended to either side.
  5. Pause briefly in this position.
  6. Return to the starting position to complete one repetition.

18. Cross-Body Lateral Raise

The Cross-Body Lateral Raise is highly effective when performed using resistance bands or the cable machine because they provide continuous tension on the side deltoids. To maximize the benefits for your side deltoids, it’s essential to focus on a slow and controlled lowering (eccentric) phase during the exercise.

  1. Anchor the resistance band close to the floor or set up the cable machine accordingly.
  2. Stand to the side of the anchor point and reach down to grab the band or handle with an overhand grip.
  3. Start with your hand positioned near your upper thigh area.
  4. Lift the band or handle up and to the side of your body until your arm is parallel to your shoulder.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position, keeping the body stable throughout the motion.
  6. Repeat this exercise for your desired number of repetitions.
  7. Switch to the other side and repeat the same movement to ensure balanced training.

Body Weight and Free Weight Exercises

Body weight exercises offer several benefits when it comes to targeting the lateral deltoid and shoulder muscles. Body weight exercises allow for functional movements that engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. 

When performing exercises like push-ups, planks, or handstands, the lateral deltoids and shoulder muscles are recruited to stabilize and support the body. Body weight exercises promote functional movements, improve coordination, engage the core, and offer versatility

Including a variety of bodyweight exercises in your routine can effectively develop and strengthen the lateral deltoids and shoulder muscles.

19. Side Plank Arm Raise

By performing the Side Plank Arm Raise, you specifically target and engage the lateral deltoid muscles, which are responsible for the rounded appearance of the shoulders. The side plank position helps improve shoulder stability and promotes proper alignment. 

Additionally, this exercise aids in improving overall core stability and contributes to a more toned and sculpted physique.

  1. Lie on the floor on your side, and rest on your left elbow for support.
  2. Activate your core muscles and lift your hips off the ground, relying on your left elbow. Aim to raise your body as high as possible while maintaining stability. 
  3. Keep your body in a straight line, with your right foot either on top of or in front of your left foot (the one supporting your weight).
  4. Extend your right arm, the one not touching the ground, straight up in the air. This helps target both sides’ deltoids at the same time.
  5. Lower your hips back down to the floor, and then lift them up again into the starting position. Complete your desired number of repetitions on one side before switching to the other side.

20. Crucifix Hold

The Crucifix Hold requires free weights, like dumbbells or kettlebells. By performing this exercise, you can effectively target and strengthen your shoulder muscles. The key is to hold the weights out to your sides for as long as you can, with your arms parallel to your shoulders.

  1. Grab the dumbbells or kettlebells with an overhand grip.
  2. Lift the weights up and out to your sides until your arms are level with your shoulders.
  3. Hold this position for as long as you can, challenging your shoulder muscles.
  4. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat this exercise for your desired number of repetitions.

21. Weighted Steering Wheel

The Weighted Steering Wheel is an isometric movement, placing constant tension on the deltoids and supporting muscles. It requires a bit of internal and external rotation, which helps strengthen the rotator cuffs.

  1. Grab a weight plate with both hands, using an overhand grip positioned at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions.
  2. Raise the weight plate up to shoulder level, ensuring your arms are fully extended in front of you.
  3. Begin rotating your hands back and forth as if you are steering a car. Each time both hands have switched positions once, it counts as one repetition.
  4. Continue this motion for your desired number of repetitions.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Exercises Work the Lateral Deltoid?

Several exercises work the lateral deltoid muscle, including side lateral raises, overhead presses, and upright rows. Movements that involve lifting weights up and away from the body will target the side delts.

How Can I Train My Lateral Deltoid at Home?

Dumbbells, resistance bands, and body weight exercises can do fantastic lateral deltoid movements. If you don’t have any equipment, try side planks with arm raises or pike push-ups. You can also load some heavy books or items in a backpack as a makeshift weight for exercises like side raises and overhead presses.

Is Overhead Press Enough for Lateral Delts?

The overhead press is a fantastic movement for deltoid development. It’s an effective workout for engaging the side and front delts alongside the traps and triceps. That said, it may not be enough, and incorporating isolation movements will help you build the lateral deltoids.

About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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