Bodybuilding for Wider Delts: Old-School Secrets

Everyone knows the deltoids have three heads, so you need a separate exercise for the fronts, sides, and backs of the shoulders to achieve that impressive 3D effect.

Don Howorth Bodybuilder Duke of Delts Wide Shoulders

Therefore, most trainees do a seated overhead press, a standing lateral raise, and a bent-over lateral raise, or more commonly in gyms today, a reverse fly on a rear delt machine for their shoulder workout.

While this selection is fine, rare versions of these exercises focused on the side head, alongside special techniques for unique structure of the deltoids, enjoyed popularity within classic bodybuilding. These practices have nearly died out today. 

Regardless, these old-school tactics will benefit anyone seeking wider shoulders.

Bodybuilding Secrets for Wider Delts

It was Steve Reeves who first brought to my attention the importance of working the shoulder structure as well as the delts themselves… The real clincher for added shoulder width is to immediately follow up your shoulder program with lat work. 

– Don Howorth

Overload the side delts at lower abduction angles.

This means having the resistance furthest away from you at lower abduction angles, or with the arm closer to your side, through exercises like incline, lying, and cable lateral raises done away from the stack.

Though the deltoid has an ideal internal moment arm relative to other muscles like the supraspinatus at higher abduction angles, the deltoid is still favored as low as 15°. This is important since the moment arm helps to determine which muscle receives the brunt of the work.

At lower abduction angles, the deltoid is more stretched.  This probably leads to more overall growth, since active tension is higher. The conventional standing or seated lateral raise has the resistance feels toughest when the middle deltoid is almost fully shortened, which limits active tension due to filament overlap.

These exercises have a long history within bodybuilding. Old-timers like John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Larry Scott, and Don Howorth used incline lateral raises on a 45° bench to work the side delts, obtaining a tremendous pump.

Bob Paris described the lying compound lateral raise in Flawless, mentioning it as one of his favorite exercises in his book Beyond Built.

Frank Zane loved cable lateral raises standing away from the stack for a shallower angle.

Lower angle overload likely also leads to more “capped” delts, since this stretches out the fibers leading to distal growth via more passive tension.

Be sure to abduct, or truly lift the dumbbell away from your body, and not to cross over your body which hits the rear delts. Consider other lateral raise tips. Finally, too low an angle emphasizes the supraspinatus and rotator cuff muscles, limiting tension for the deltoid due to a poor internal moment arm.

Here’s something to think about… this occurs for the front delt when bench pressing, in that it experiences a greater stretch and therefore more tension versus overhead pressing and front raises. Think on how much sorer and worked they get. We are applying this same principle for the side delts.

Work the side delts in 3 major directions.

Many trainees only work the middle delts in a single direction or groove while standing or seated, ignoring that instead of just raising them to the sides to focus on them, you can also go front-to-back and back-to-front, to address the rear side delts and front side delts respectively.

As a multipennate muscle, these fibers undergo tension more independently. Consider that the deltoid as a whole is a single muscle that has each head trained very differently. This applies beyond each aspect but for separate fibers too.

For overhead pressing, the behind-the-neck variation includes the front portion of the lateral delt more so, yet pressing from the front hits the serratus anterior and upper pec well. Both options should be included, and even a trap or hex bar could have value between these two extremes.

Rear delt raises can also be performed in a less bent-over position to increasingly address the rear side delt.

Going further, Vince Gironda promoted high pulls, circles, swings, and even cleans precisely for this reason, in that they developed the various strands of the deltoid more fully.

Incorporate variety.

Different tweaks for exercises can bring newfound growth by slightly changing the stimulus. The reasons for this are likely complicated.

Sarcomeres, or the smallest possible contractile units, differ in length. They may be stimulated actively and passively more or less optimally throughout a range of motion.

Muscle growth likely comes from multiple stimuli, not just active tension. Mechanical tension via stretch, metabolic stress, and muscle damage also seem involved.

Fibers within even muscle heads have different orientations meaning different moment arms, so play more or less a role depending on how directly they oppose the resistance.

Therefore, some exercises may work better generally yet there’s no perfect exercise.

Furthermore, bodybuilders have used higher reps than 8 for the side and rear delts, due perhaps to a greater slow-twitch fiber makeup. Many also go down-the-rack or apply strip sets as an advanced technique, doing a certain number of reps then immediately using a lighter weight set afterward.

Perhaps though it mostly works due to the short stroke for a lateral raise that affects muscle groups like the calves and forearms on heel raises and wrist curls respectively, to maximize time under full motor unit recruitment.

Widen the structure; support the illusion.

Wide shoulders depend not just on the musculature but on possessing wide clavicles, so both developing the non-muscular structure of the body. While this is mainly determined by genetics, we can still improve slightly.

A specific tip to note is to try training lats after shoulders, which allows for wider grips that may broaden the shoulders.

This also means accentuating shoulder width by limiting upper trapezius and waist size

Getting Wider Shoulders: Be Open-Minded

What could be more advantageous than to have opponents who have been taught that thinking is a waste of energy?

– Warren Buffett

I would encourage trainees to keep an open mind, studying the routines and methods of the past to glean insights.

These tips for broad shoulders are unconventional, but support is there from the most dedicated champions, along with studies that confirm much of what was figured out via trial and error.

Treat bodybuilding as an evolving science requiring specific training, with an art toward customizing it for your preferences, capabilities, and needs to reap the best results.

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