Training the Lateral Deltoid

The middle, outer, or lateral deltoid, often just referred to as the side of the shoulder, is among the larger muscles that trainees may fear gets underused on the bench press and the row. Without including overhead presses, lateral raises, or upright rows, they may feel like something is missing.

Powerful-looking shoulders are among the most prized symbols of strength, even outside of bodybuilding circles, so they rarely get neglected.

Working the lateral deltoid directly though will harm your shoulder joints. Those exercises lead to shoulder impingement and other issues, regardless of how you choose to perform them.

The anterior or front deltoid clearly works on a bench press. The posterior or rear deltoid clearly works on a row. Where does this leave the middle head?

Consider changing your perspective. Divide the lateral delt into front and back halves that assist with horizontal (transverse) pushing and pulling respectively. It also works to maintain whole shoulder stability on each exercise as well.

Since the fibers attach across a broad area, similar to the chest, it is unlikely that we need to view the shoulder as three units that function separately. Though these outer fibers undergo less range of motion on a bench press or a row, range of motion is not needed to create tension, the main stimulus for building muscle.

We know the lateral part is a stabilizer since it can move its limb laterally. Stabilizers are not meant to move but to resist movement. The body evolved to expect movement from these muscles only when it occurs lightly, briefly, or quickly.

Its large size compared with some other stabilizers comes from the long distance between the shoulder and the hand. This makes even a small weight feel heavy when held far away from your body. Its size does not mean it is meant to be a prime mover.

Consider these tips to ensure that your lateral deltoid gets trained well.

Tips

  • Stay close to horizontal.

Remain flat when performing the bench press. Though mostly determined by the angle of the bench, you can enter a decline when you hyperextend your lower back.

Maintain a natural arch instead. This will protect your shoulders and use more muscles as well. It also in part allows the middle deltoid to have a good angle of pull.

  • Keep a good angle of pull.

Use a medium grip. This will both allow contribution from the shoulder in general while placing the outer fibers in the right position. Once again, this also works the muscles best and protects the joints, including the elbows. This applies to all of the following tips.

Avoid doing an internal rotation shoulder correction that some powerlifters do. You want to avoid both extreme internal and external rotation.

Tucked elbows will place unusual stress on the shoulders, making things worse, despite what some say.

Avoid pulling back your shoulder blades as far as possible. This creates a tug-of-war between the muscles acting on the scapulae and the muscles at the glenohumeral joints. You still want the shoulder blades pulled back but just enough to have good posture and feel stable.

On the bench press and the row, make sure you lower or pull to the upper ribcage-lower chest area.

Using free weights alone will bring in its role as a stabilizer.

On the bench press and the row, you will not get the sensation of the whole shoulder bulging at once. Keep in mind that just one half of the middle shoulder will contract hardest at a time. This also seems less intense in part because the positions of the shoulder blades and the glenohumeral joints will make tension less obvious.

A good example demonstrating this is how some make the mistake of thinking the quadriceps work best at the top of a leg extension. This actually is a position of weakness where the muscle fibers are overshortened.

  • Consider adding a weighted carry.

Also known as a farmer’s walk, a weighted carry basically just has you walk with weight. You can use dumbbells held at your sides. Walking adds instability that involves the shoulders by preventing the weights from hitting your thighs or getting too far away from your body.

The weighted carry keeps the shoulders safe and works the lateral delt at an optimal length for tension. It also works the upper trapezii, the core, the gripping muscles, and many other stabilizers such as those of the outer hips, inner thighs, and calves. It would appear as the ultimate stabilizer exercise.

Since it uses so much muscle, it even could serve as cardio, though nothing compares with sprinting.

For progression, you could try walking for a distance that takes you about 1-2 minutes to complete at a decent pace. If you finish the length without having to drop the weights, add resistance for the next workout.

This is the only exercise outside of the barbell flat bench press, the barbell low-bar back squat, the dumbbell single-armed row, and the resisted sprint that has ever tempted me for inclusion.

Nonetheless, every exercise we add should have a specific purpose.

There are safety issues such as the risk of slumping or dropping a weight on your foot. At a dead-hang when holding the weight, it fails to work many muscles. The grip may give out prior to addressing many of the other muscles thoroughly. It overlaps with other exercises, such as the row done right, reducing efficiency.

These flaws can be mitigated. I think it is worth considering. It would seem to work the middle deltoid as meant to when handling a heavy weight.

Training the Lateral Deltoid

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

– Ken Robinson

Some experts become so vested in their theories that they push aside any evidence to the contrary. I never wanted to fall into this trap, but feel it is unavoidable to an extent. Still, I never want to ignore clear indications that the routine here is inadequate or incomplete in some way.

Can there exist a difference in how our body is meant to work versus what we desire from it? Can performance interfere with health? Could the process of developing muscles best require you to harm your joints?

Sure, and in our case, perhaps overhead presses, lateral raises, and upright rows are needed to train the middle deltoid best.

But this has not been my experience. Many past clients and readers here agree with me, but you need to decide for yourself. You are still free from the bias that develops through endless time spent within a field.

I have no doubt that the approach I recommend here is best for shoulder health. What about growth though?

Without choosing the right exercises, adopting the correct positions, and applying enough effort, the large muscles used on a compound exercise can overwhelm the smaller ones. For instance, the chest can dominate on the bench press. It seems the body does this to save energy.

You can follow the advice here to counteract this. Choose medium positions. Work hard by training to positive failure.

Are your shoulders getting bigger? Be honest with your results. If not, then look for a new solution if this is your goal.

Many find their shoulders grow just fine if not more so on the program here. Remember too that genes dictate muscle shape almost entirely. They also determine the possibility for size.

From my point of view, your strength and size everywhere will reflect your progress on the bench press, the squat, and the row. Any possible disadvantages could perhaps be mitigated by the advantages. The indirect effect, which likely happens due to hormones, plays an important role in muscle growth too.

Finally, keep in mind that the long moment arm it faces will ensure the middle delt gets worked often during everyday life. The growth of stabilizers seems to match the development of muscles used as prime movers. They seem to take care of themselves so to speak.

I suggest using only the bench press and the row, done correctly, to work the lateral deltoid. You can experiment with adding a weighted carry. This will keep your shoulder joints, along with the lateral deltoids, safe and strong.

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