Training programs heavily tax the anterior (front) deltoids from the vast horizontal pressing. A chest workout may involve 3-5 chest exercises consisting of multiple sets with a separate day attacking the shoulders again.
Muscular imbalances in the shoulders are not uncommon among regular gym fanatics with over dominance of the front deltoids. Unfortunately, shoulder imbalances can lead to various problems like joint impingements.
This is why it’s so important to target the less loved muscles of the shoulder, such as the side delts. To do this, we need to understand shoulder anatomy, so here is a quick rundown.
Anatomy Of The Shoulder
The shoulder is made of three muscles:
- Anterior deltoid (front)
- Medial deltoid (side)
- Posterior deltoid (back)
The side delts, also known as the lateral or medial deltoid, are sandwiched between the anterior and posterior deltoids. Because of the side delts location, it’s responsible for shoulder abduction, which is the arm being raised to the side of the body .
As such, exercises that raise the arms to the side will preferentially target the side delts. But that doesn’t mean this is the only movement that activates the side delts. So, here are 11 powerful side delt exercises for bigger shoulders.
11 Best Side Delt Exercises For Wide Shoulders
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The staple side delt exercise is the lateral raise. The dumbbell lateral raise is the most common and accessible exercise that will light your side delts up, giving you shoulders so wide you need to walk through doors sideways.
You’re loading the exact movement the side delts are responsible for. Due to the strength curve, the hardest part of the exercise is when your arms are raised to 90°. When we dive into the research, we see the most significant activation of the side delts is during the lateral raise exercise compared to any other exercise [1,2].
Here is how to do the perfect lateral raise:
- Stand with the dumbbells at your side or in front of your body. Have a soft elbow, so it is slightly bent. You’ll get a better side delt contraction with a slight arm bend vs. a straight arm.
- Lead with the elbows as you raise your arms to the side until your arms are parallel with the floor.
- This means your elbows should be higher than your wrists through the movement. To do this, as you raise the dumbbells, think about pouring two drinks, so you’re rotating your thumbs down slightly.
One big mistake is focusing on the hands above the elbows when lateral raising. This won’t give you the same feeling.
Heavy Partial Dumbbell Lateral Raise
I got this variation from the great John Meadows, and it is a side delt killer. It has been shown repeatedly that a full range of motion is superior for building muscle than partial reps. However, when you try these heavy partial lateral raises, you’ll feel why they are so effective.
You put tremendous tension on the side delts as you get halfway up. If you don’t have dumbbells heavy enough, you can also use a resistance band. Here’s how to do it:
- Start with heavy dumbbells by your side.
- Initiate the lateral raise. The dumbbells should be heavy enough that you can’t get past halfway no matter how hard you try.
Cable Lateral Raise
Staying with the lateral raise theme, you’re not stuck with dumbbells. Cable lateral raises are just as great as a side delt destroyer. It shows similar side delt activation to the dumbbell lateral raise .
Using the cable changes the strength curve. Once your arm is perpendicular to the cable (90° from the cable), this is the hardest part of the movement. This means approximately halfway up the lateral raise is the most difficult to stress the side delts from different angles. Here’s how to do it:
- Stand so the cable stack is on your left. Place the cable attachment to the bottom and grab the handle with your right hand.
- You can have the cable in front or behind your body. Both are viable options. Some people like to stagger their legs and have the cable come between their legs. The choice is yours.
- Raise your arm to the side with a soft elbow until your arm is parallel to the floor.
One nice benefit of using the cables is you can get a massive stretch on the side delts at the bottom as your hand can come right across your body.
Other cable lateral raise variations include the lean away cable lateral raise. This can provide some variation.
One of the most popular Chinese Olympic Weightlifters, Lu Xiaojun, made these famous a few years ago. You can see why by his massive shoulders. These are full range of motion lateral raises where the dumbbells or plates finish overhead.
You’ve probably heard the argument not to go past horizontal because the upper traps take over. But who cares. You probably want big traps too! So, nail them both with this exercise. The execution of the Lu raise is quite different from the traditional lateral raise, so here’s how to do it:
- Start with dumbbells or plates at your side.
- Initiate the lateral raise with straight arms. As you raise your arms, slowly rotate your hands so your thumb is facing up (palms facing forward) when you’re at the horizontal position.
- Continue until your arms are overhead.
Seated Barbell Shoulder Press (Elbows Flared)
The way I teach, perform, and recommend the shoulder press (overhead press) to be done is much different from how you’d use this exercise to target the side delts. If you are undertaking a side delt specialization program, this can be an option.
However, I would stick to the overhead press technique detailed in the link for every situation where the elbows are further in front.
But this technique of having the elbows flared to the side shows very similar side delt muscle activation to the lateral raise [1,2]. But it does take heavier loads to do this. Here’s how to alter the shoulder press, so it targets the side delts:
- Hold the barbell with an outside shoulder-width grip. Your elbows should be at a 90° angle with your upper arms directly out to the side.
- Press vertically and slightly push your head through so your arms are in line with your arms at lockout.
You won’t be able to lower the barbell under your chin with this technique. So only go as low as you feel comfortable. Generally, having the upper arms parallel to the floor is a good reference point.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press (Elbows Flared)
You can do the same technique with dumbbells. You’ll often see YouTube bodybuilders performing the dumbbell shoulder press. Again, like the barbell variation, I recommend having the elbows slightly forward. Hence, the upper arm is in line with the shoulder blade.
However, since we are targeting the side delts, having the elbows flared to the side is how this will be performed. The dumbbells will provide an added layer of difficulty as you’ll need to control each individually, increasing the stability component of the exercise.
Here’s how to do it:
- Hold the dumbbells in by your shoulders with your palms facing forward, your upper arms parallel to the floor, and your elbows at 90°.
- Press the dumbbells directly overhead.
Behind The Neck Press
The behind the neck press has gotten a bad rap as a shoulder wrecker. But this is not accurate. The main reason it’s fallen out of favor is the gradual shift in lifestyle to many office working hours. This has slowly eroded postural integrity, where the norm is forward head posture, slumped shoulders, and immovable thoracic spines.
If you suffer from any of these, the behind-the-neck press is not for you. But for those who can comfortably press a barbell from their traps, you’re good to go! Here’s how to do the behind the neck press effectively:
- Unrack the barbell on your traps like you are back squatting. Regarding grip width, I find a grip between a snatch and clean grip is the most comfortable and where I’m strongest.
- Drive your elbows under the barbell as you press overhead. You must keep a big chest to do this.
Seated Behind The Neck Press Off Pins
I mentioned that those with poor posture would struggle with the behind the neck press. This seated behind the neck press variation off the pins is your ticket to improving your shoulder mobility and developing epic side delts.
I was taught this by strength coach Ed Cosner and have been using it ever since. Because you have the pins, you can set the starting position to any height. For those that struggle getting into position, position the pins, so the barbell is just touching your head.
You can start with the barbell at the top of your neck for those with better mobility. Here’s how to get the most from this exercise:
- Set a bench in the power rack and the pins (safety’s) to a height where the barbell is in a comfortable bottom position.
- Use a comfortable grip width and create full-body tension against the bar before pressing it.
- Press overhead. As you lower the bar, do so as slowly as possible. The goal is to make the least amount of noise possible.
Wide Grip Upright Row
The upright row makes a terrific lateral raise alternative to trash the side delts. In fact, using a clean grip width reduces the involvement of the biceps and increases the muscle activation of the side delts .
While the barbell is the obvious equipment choice, it can cause pain in the front of the shoulder for some lifters. Using dumbbells, kettlebells, or an EZ bar are better equipment alternatives to reduce this sensation.
Here’s how to do the upright row:
- Hold the implement in front of your body with your arms straight.
- Pull the implement vertically as close to your body as possible. It should be almost brushing your shirt. To do this, your elbows must point up and back.
- Once you reach approximately nipple height, lower the implement slowly to the starting position.
Reverse Pec Deck
You may be wondering why the reverse pec deck is in an article detailing the best side delt exercises. It turns out we see muscle activation close to the lateral raise [2,4]. Likely because the arm is in the abducted position parallel to the floor.
There are many different hand positions available with the reverse pec deck. Most common is having the palms facing down to target the rear delts. But since we want side delt action, holding the handles, so the palms are facing in is the grip you want to use and what was used in the study referenced above.
Here’s how to take advantage of the reverse pec deck for side delts:
- Adjust the seat so your arms are parallel with the floor when holding the handles.
- Perform a reverse fly motion with slightly bent arms until your arms are directly to your side.
The seated row is an epic builder of back muscle. However, it provides muscle activation of the side delts only approximately 15% less than the lateral raise [2,4]. So, it is well worth including the seated row when training your back for extra side delt volume.
But you need to modify the cable row slightly to target the side delts. Here’s how:
- You can use a cable row or a machine row for this. As long as you can adjust the height you are pulling, you’re good.
- Set the handles to perform a high row when you row. Your palms will be facing down, elbows in an abducted position (away from your sides), with a 90° elbow angle, and your arms will be parallel with the floor.
- Row with your elbows high, similar to how you would face pull.
These are scientifically and anecdotally the best side delt exercises you can do to build wide shoulders. One mistake to avoid is going too heavy on many of these exercises. You want to avoid body english so you can isolate the side delts.
1. Campos, Y. A., Vianna, J. M., Guimarães, M. P., Oliveira, J. L., Hernández-Mosqueira, C., da Silva, S. F., & Marchetti, P. H. (2020). Different shoulder exercises affect the activation of deltoid portions in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of Human Kinetics, 75(1), 5-14.2
2. Botton, C. E., Wilhelm, E. N., Ughini, C. C., Pinto, R. S., & Lima, C. S. (2013). ELECTROMYOGRAPHICAL ANALYSIS OF THE DELTOID BETWEEN DIFFERENT STRENGTH TRAINING EXERCISES. Medicina Sportiva, 17(2).
3. McAllister, M. J., Schilling, B. K., Hammond, K. G., Weiss, L. W., & Farney, T. M. (2013). Effect of grip width on electromyographic activity during the upright row. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(1), 181-187.
4. Franke, A. R., Botton, C. E., Rodrigues, R., Pinto, R., & Lima, C. (2015). Analysis of anterior, middle and posterior deltoid activation during single and multijoint exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 55, 714-721.