1) Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press beats out the barbell version, but only by a nose. Either one can anchor a complete deltoid routine, and ideally, they would be rotated regularly with one another over the course of weeks or months, according to Hooper. That said, the dumbbell press allows the arms to flare out a little more to your sides, which targets the middle delts — and when it comes to width, mass and overall roundness (think “cannonball”), the middle delts are the most important of the three heads. Meanwhile, the barbell press relies more on the front delt, which is also important, but is usually already thicker in most guys, thanks to heavy incline bench pressing.
Main Areas Targeted: anterior, middle and rear deltoids
Strengths: While you can’t handle the same loads as you can with a barbell, the dumbbell press offers additional benefits. “The seated dumbbell press would require a little more coordination, and having two separate dumbbells always prevents any strength imbalances,” Hooper explains. “For example, in a machine, you can push more with one side than the other [to lift the weight]. You can’t do that with dumbbells; you have to complete each motion exclusively.”
How-To: Sit on a low-back bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand above shoulder level with a pronated grip (palms facing forward). Keep your head straight, spine aligned and eyes focused forward with your shoulders shifted back as you press the dumbbells overhead in an arc toward each other — but don’t let them touch at the top. After a squeeze, reverse the motion under control to the start position and repeat.
2) Upright Row-Bar or Smith Machine
In bodybuilding circles, you’ll come across your fair share of people who hate the Smith machine. Passionately so. To them, it represents a crime against weightlifting, taking a trusty barbell and putting it on a track. It’s like training wheels for the gym.
We agree in one sense — trading out all your free-weight barbell moves for the Smith versions would give you a less-effective workout overall. But then again, the Smith, when used judiciously, can help you gain strength, beat sticking points, learn body control in relative safety and, in the case of the upright row, even improve (gasp!) on the typical barbell version.
Main Areas Targeted: anterior, middle and rear deltoids; trapezius
Strengths: The upright row is often thought of mostly as a middle-delt exercise, but research has revealed that the wide-grip row engages the rear delts to some extent, as well. While you may assume a barbell or dumbbell upright row might be preferable — free weights get all the love — using the Smith machine in this case helps reduce unwanted stress on the back and shoulder joints because the bar is a bit out in front of you instead of in contact with your torso.
How-To: With your feet hip-width apart, stand upright, holding the bar of a Smith machine in front of your thighs with an overhand grip a few inches outside shoulder width. Twist the bar to release it from the safety latches and let your arms hang straight, maintaining a slight bend in your knees and a tight core. Flex your shoulders to pull the bar straight up toward your chin, keeping the bar close to your body throughout. In the top position, your elbows will be high and pointing out to your sides. Hold that spot for a second before slowly lowering to the start position.
3) Cable Front Raise
You could take the first four moves in this list, throw ’em in a bag and dump them out in any order you wish. Doesn’t matter — they’re all about equal in their benefits for the respective delt head they target. In the case of the cable front raise, you’ll call on the anterior delt to take on the load, benefiting again from that continuous tension the cable provides. One caveat: If your shoulder workout is heavy on presses, you’ll want to prioritize the lateral and rear-delt raises, but from a purely muscle-sculpting perspective, the cable raise to the front is brutally effective.
Main Area Targeted: anterior (front) deltoids
Strengths: The placement of the cable in side laterals across your body can cause some awkwardness because of the drag. That’s eliminated with front raises, which allow the cable to roam free during the range of motion. It’s a small benefit, sure, but it eliminates a minor distraction when repping.
How-To: With a D-handle in one hand, stand in a staggered shoulder-width stance with your back to a low cable pulley. Place your nonworking hand on your hip for balance. With your chest elevated, back flat and knees slightly bent, powerfully raise the cable up and out in front of you until your upper arm is about parallel with your working shoulder. Squeeze, then slowly lower your arm back to the start position (without letting the stack touch down) and repeat. Do all reps on one side before switching to the other.
We could point out plenty of flaws in the dumbbell lateral raise. The level of resistance is uneven at various points of the range of motion, and there’s even a dead spot if you bring the weights down in front of your body to start each rep. With some action at the hips, cheating via momentum is all too easy. And honestly, it’s one of the most abused exercises at the gym, with guys hoisting way too much weight in what is supposed to be a precise isolation exercise. That said, though, the lateral raise is still a must-do movement for wider, more impressive delts. You just need to focus on doing it right.
Main Area Targeted: middle deltoids
Strengths: We’ve listed its weaknesses, but don’t let those dissuade you. Lateral raises put an impressive amount of tension on the middle delts, even if you do end up cheating a little on your final few reps approaching muscle failure. That’s because they attack the target muscle in exactly the way they’re intended to function, bringing your arms upward and out, away from your body. By adjusting your grip just a little, angling so your thumb side is a little lower than your pinkie side (as if you were pouring water out of a jug), you engage the middle head even more.
How-To: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your abs tight, chest up and shoulders back. With your head straight, hold the dumbbells at your sides with a neutral grip. Without using momentum, raise the dumbbells out to your sides in a wide arc, keeping your elbows and hands moving together in the same plane. Raise the dumbbells just above shoulder level and hold momentarily in the peak contracted position. Slowly lower the dumbbells down along the same path and repeat for reps.
5) Seated Barbell Shoulder Press
If you dream of having huge, barn-door shoulders and you haven’t tried a barbell press, here’s a reality check: You ain’t trying hard enough. This press isn’t for sissies — it’s challenging, somewhat uncomfortable and in all ways a high-intensity activity. That said, it’s also one of the best, most efficient ways to get from Point A to Point B in your deltoid development.
Main Areas Targeted: anterior, middle and rear deltoids
Strengths: “For a heavier load, the barbell is more appropriate [than a dumbbell press],” says David Hooper, MA, CSCS, doctoral fellow in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Connecticut. “It would be perfectly safe, for instance, to go to a three- to five-rep-max load and perform the barbell press, while that would really not be appropriate for the dumbbell press — it would just be awkward getting the dumbbells into place, for one.”
How-To: Find a barbell press station — not all gyms have one, so you may have to make one yourself using a low-back bench set inside a power rack. Sit erect, keeping your lower back slightly arched and your feet flat on the floor. Grasp the bar outside of shoulder width with a palms-forward grip, elbows pointing down and outward. Carefully unrack the bar and hold it at shoulder level. In a smooth, strong motion, press the bar straight up to just short of elbow lockout. Squeeze, then lower the bar under control to a point right at your upper chest and clavicle area. Be sure to pull your face back as the bar passes to avoid giving yourself an impromptu nose job.
6) Bent-over Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Some would argue that the one-arm bent-over lateral raise — allowing you to focus all your effort on one side at a time — is superior to the two-armed version. We disagree. The unilateral version increases the ability to cheat, allowing you to rotate more at the waist when repping. Doing both arms at the same time cuts down on that kind of momentum, putting more pressure on your rear delts to carry the load.
Main Area Targeted: rear deltoids
Strengths: The bent-over raise is versatile and can be performed either standing or seated at the end of a flat bench leaning over your knees. And the use of dumbbells means other muscles come into play for stabilization — which may not mean a heck of a lot for your rear delts but does help create a more functional physique overall.
How-To: With a dumbbell in each hand and your chest up, back flat, knees slightly bent and eyes fixed on a point on the floor just ahead of you, bend over at the hips until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor. Let the dumbbells hang directly beneath you with your elbows fixed in a slightly bent position. From there, powerfully raise the dumbbells up and out to your sides in an arc until your upper arms are about parallel with the floor. Pause at the top for a squeeze, then lower the dumbbells back along the same path, stopping just before your arms go fully perpendicular to the floor, and start the next rep.