When someone says they want bigger shoulders, generally, they’re referring to building bigger delts. The delts can be stubborn to grow at times, but with strategy and enough know-how, everyone can build bigger shoulders (delts).
In our front, lateral, and rear delt training guide, we’re going to cover handfuls of variables that will help you progress your shoulder training. Each of these muscles requires a slightly different stimulus and attention, so understanding their subtle differences can go a long way for making steady gains.
In this delt training guide, we’re going to cover all of the variables you’ll need to properly train the front, lateral, and rear delts, along with some awesome variations to implement into your training routine.
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Delt Anatomy and Muscle Function
Before we dive into the training variables, let’s first look at some basic anatomy of the delts and their muscle functions.
The deltoid muscle is the triangular muscle that sits at the top of the arm over the shoulders. When lifters refer to the “delts”, what they’re actually referencing are the different heads that make up the deltoid muscle. There are three major deltoid heads and these include the front, lateral, and rear deltoid.
The heads of the deltoid all play major roles in assisting with most upper body movements that involve the glenohumeral joint. Essentially, the delts will always be assisting with shoulder stability, elevation, and arm movement fluidity. The different heads will each play different roles depending on how the arm is moving through space and time.
This is why it’s important to get a firm grasp of the deltoid’s function, as then we can direct different movement patterns towards specific deltoid muscle heads. The major functions of the deltoid include:
- Shoulder Abduction (lifting arm laterally away from the body)
- Shoulder Flexion (lifting the arms in front of the body)
- Shoulder Extension (lifting the arms behind the body toward the spine)
- Horizontal Shoulder Abduction
To take it a step further, if we break down each of these movements above and look at how the arm is moving, then it’s pretty easy to identify which deltoid muscle head will be assisting the most.
- Shoulder Abduction = Lateral Delts
- Shoulder Flexion = Front Delts
- Shoulder Extension = Rear Delts
- Horizontal Shoulder Abduction = Rear Delts
It’s important to note that there will likely be some level of delt head involvement in all of the movements listed above, but the emphasis of their involvement will shift, so when we reference lateral delt exercises, what we really mean is emphasizing our focus on this muscular head — despite the other two being involved to lower degrees.
As we progress through the variations below, remembering this key element can help you further direct your exercise selection and training strategies.
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Delt Training Intensity and Volume Recommendations
Generally, when we program intensities for the different delt heads, we need to maintain both a topical and granular view of our training program and goals. Essentially, this means remembering the bigger picture of our training, then identifying gaps and establishing realistic expectations.
Front Delt Intensity and Volume Recommendations
When we perform pressing exercises like the bench press and shoulder press, the front delt will be involved and handling high levels of load. This creates a need for higher training intensities when trying to isolate this deltoid head, as it’s used to being loaded fairly heavily when assisting with pressing exercises.
For anyone trying to improve and isolate their front delts, we suggest limiting direct isolated training if you’re already pressing 2x+ a week with a good amount of volume. Generally, that amount of pressing volume and frequency will provide this delt head with more than enough work.
However, let’s say you’re pressing 1x a week, then performing 6-10 sets with moderate to heavier loading could be useful for building the front delts. We would recommend sticking between 8-20 reps and dictating your intensity on the reps and exercise you’re performing.
Lateral Delt Intensity and Volume Recommendations
The lateral delt is much more lucrative with how much we can train them, as they often don’t receive enough attention in traditional training programs.
Since the lateral delts are a smaller muscle group, we can train them with a higher frequency because they’ll recover relatively quickly compared to larger muscles like the quads. Generally, the lateral delts will respond best to higher volumes and lower intensities.
By keeping intensity low and volume high, we can make the accrument of volume our metric for progression. We recommend performing between 10-20 sets of dedicated isolated lateral delt work with loading that lands between the 8-20 rep range.
You can add a couple of sets in on each training day and that should suffice to cover the scope of the 10-20 sets that we recommend. If you’re newer to training, then air on the lower side of the above recommendation, so starting with 10 isolated sets each week, then adding more as time goes on.
Rear Delt Intensity and Volume Recommendations
The rear delts are much like the front delts, in the respect that they’re worked with larger compound movements fairly frequently throughout routine training weeks. Instead of pressing movements though, the rear delts are worked will pulling movements.
Exercises like rows, pull-ups, and so forth will all work the rear delts to various degrees. Note, horizontal pulling will generally work the rear delts more than vertical pulling (ex: barbell row vs lat pulldown). With this being said, like the front delts, if you’re performing a lot of pulling work throughout the week, then your rear delts are most likely covered.
However, there are always exceptions to this rule. Let’s you’re only horizontally pulling 1x a week, then it might be worth performing 6-10 sets of isolated rear delt work to bump up your training volume. Sets between the 8-20 rep range with loading that matches the rep scheme will be best.
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Delt Exercise Variations
When adding direct delt work into your training program — whether it’s front, lateral, or rear — we need to make sure we’re using variations throughout the week. Basically, don’t be that person that only does dumbbell lateral raises when targeting the lateral delts!
Below, we’ve provided some of our favorite front, lateral, and rear delt exercise variations that we like to perform on a week-to-week basis.
Front Delt Exercise Variations
Again, keep in mind that you’ll target your anterior deltoids very frequently with exercises such as the bench press, OHP, or any other pushing movement, so always adjust the total weekly training volume of this muscle group based on your progress and recovery.
If instead, that doesn’t sound like your training program, then programming front delt exercises can often be a good idea, especially when coupled with rear delt movements to create a balanced ratio between shoulder flexion and extension.
- Seated/standing overhead press
- Seated/standing DB shoulder press
- Front delt raise with dumbbells
- Front delt raise with cable
- Chest support front delt raise with dumbbells
- Isolated front delt holds with dumbbells (use time to dictate set intensity)
Lateral Delt Exercise Variations
When isolating the lateral delts, remember to implement multiple types of variations. If you can, try opting for more lateral cable delt raises, as these can generally provide a higher stimulus compared to dumbbells.
- Lateral delt raise with dumbbells
- Lateral delt raise with cables
- Leaning away delt raise with dumbbells
- Dumbbell upright row
Rear Delt Exercise Variations
For a quick rear delt crash course, check out Coach Jake’s recent video covering his favorite rear delt exercises.
- Chest supported rear delt fly
- Chest supported single-arm cable rear delt fly
- Bent-over rear cable delt fly
- Face pull
- Bent-over rear DB delt fly
- Vertical chest supported rear cable delt fly
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Delt Training FAQs
Have more questions about delt training? We answered handfuls of questions about the delts and their training below!
What are delts?
The “delts” are the three heads that make up the deltoid muscle. The deltoid muscle is composed of the front, lateral, and rear deltoid heads. Each of these heads contributes to various movements at the glenohumeral joint.
When should you train the delts?
The delts should be trained in a manner that allows you to progress their growth without limiting your performance in compound exercises. The lateral delts can be trained on nearly every training day and we’d recommend putting your lateral delt work at the end of your session. The front and rear delts can be trained on pushing and pulling days, respectively, and we’d suggest adding them to the end of your workout.
My delts will not grow, what should I do?
For stubborn delts that are not growing, try increasing your effort and frequency and volume slowly, then add in different variations to provide the delts with a novel stimulus on a regular basis. Track how many sets you’re performing for each delt head on a weekly basis and remember to perform high-effort sets for each session, ideally, between the 8-20 rep range.
Why are the delts important?
The delts are important because they assist with shoulder stability and play large roles in shoulder abduction, flexion, and extension. Generally, strong delts will lead to healthier shoulders and more fluidity and stability of the upper body when elevating the shoulder and performing upper pressing and pulling movements.
Delt Training Takeaways
The delts can be labeled as stubborn muscles to progress, but in reality, it’s usually a lack of strategic programming that’s causing this “stubborn” nature. We hope this delt training guide helps guide your programming as you progress as a lifter to make even more gains.
If you have any questions about delt training, drop them below in the comments or reach out to myself or Coach Eugen.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]