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By Vince Martin, PT, CFT

The deltoid is one of the most vital muscles to develop in terms of bodybuilding competition. It provides the widest point of the "V taper" that is evident when you are standing either facing toward or away from the judges. It is considered the muscle that gives the upper body a pleasing, symmetrical appearance. Having well-developed deltoids, by adding width to the upper body, makes your waist appear much smaller than it actually is. For competitive purposes, then, it is difficult to have deltoids that are "overdeveloped".

In training, having strong deltoids is vital, for you use them in virtually every major exercise you do for the upper body. Weak deltoids, then, give you a"weak link" on your upper body exercises, making it more difficult to properly overload whatever the target muscle may be.


The deltoid muscle is named because of its resemblance to the symbol for "delta", which is a triangle. It has three distinct sections, each contributing to different movements of the shoulder. The origin, or beginning point of the deltoid, is the lateral third of the clavicle, the acromion process, and the spine of the scapula. The fibers then converge to insert on the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus (figures 1 and 2).


Because of its vast origin, the deltoid can be divided into sections, each of which is capable of different functions. The anterior fibers of the deltoid contract to raise the humerus in front of the body. The posterior fibers contract to move the humerus behind the body. The medial, or lateral, fibers contract, with help from both the anterior and posterior fibers, to raise the humerus directly out to the side.


When developing the deltoids, we must pay equal attention to the development of all three sections. As these sections all perform vastly differing actions, it is definitely possible to neglect and under-develop an aspect of this muscle. The most commonly neglected, and therefore underdeveloped, is the posterior section. Usually this is because the front and lateral sections are more readily visible, which leads most trainees to pay more attention to them. Also, the anterior and lateral sections come into play during exercises that target the chest muscles. Since most trainees place a high premium on pectoral development, it is not uncommon to see bodybuilders with ample front deltoid development and severely deficient side and posterior deltoid mass.


As different sections of the deltoid perform different functions, we must choose our exercises wisely, depending upon the section of the muscle we wish to develop. Generally speaking, we should place a premium on those exercises that target the lateral and posterior fibers. The anterior fibers get plenty of direct training when training the pectorals, but they come into play to a significant degree as well when exercises for the lateral head are performed.

Presses: Overhead presses are performed with the humerus in external, or outward rotation. This position is necessary in order to have the elbow down and the hand up so that the press can be accomplished. In this position, the section of the deltoid that is aligned to pull against gravity is the anterior (or front) section. Therefore, overhead presses target mainly the front section of the deltoid (with a small portion of the lateral section being involved as well). If you need no special work on this section, you will be better off targeting exercises that work areas of the deltoid that may be in more need of attention.

If you do wish to perform presses, consider this. First of all, they are better performed with dumbbells than with a barbell. A barbell has to move around your head. If it goes behind your head as in behind-neck presses, you have to bunch up the rhomboid/trapezius area so much that you limit your pressing strength. If it goes in front of the head, the presser tends to lean back to an uncomfortable degree. The shoulder also tends to fall out of the proper rotational alignment. Dumbbells, on the other hand, rest on each side of the head. The presser does not have to lean back, and the forearm can be kept perpendicular to the ceiling (vital for proper rotational balance of the shoulder joints).

When pressing the weight, only raise the arms until the humerus (upper arm) is slightly above parallel with the floor. Any higher, and the upper trapezius and serratus anterior muscles must disproportionately contribute to the movement in order to perform upward rotation of the scapula. This accessory muscle contribution provides a weak link, limiting the amount of adaptive overload you can apply to the deltoids. In other words, you can lift more weight if you only press halfway up, and this means more overload for the deltoids and other muscles don't get "in the way".

Dumbbell front raises: These target the front deltoids to the greatest degree, and when the dumbbell is held with the palm facing downward (placing the humerus in more medial, or inward, rotation), the lateral delts come into play as well. With the thumb facing upward the humerus rotates more laterally, aligning the deltoid fibers in such as way that the anterior portion bears most of the stress.

Dumbbell lateral raises: This very effective exercise targets the lateral deltoid to the greatest degree, but also involves cooperation from the anterior and posterior sections. Make sure that when performing this exercise the humerus travels out to the side and into slight medial (inward) rotation. The old description of "pouring from a pitcher" is a good one. Do not allow the humerus to travel past a position in which it is parallel with the floor, however, as medially rotating the humerus in such a position can cause a painful and disabling condition known as impingement syndrome of the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder.

Upright rows: This exercise can be performed with either a barbell or two dumbbells. During this exercise, the humerus travels into abduction just as in the lateral raise exercise, so it is an excellent exercise for this area. Over the years, this exercise has been the target of many "professionals" that state that the upright row causes impingement syndrome of the rotator cuff. These are the same people that were postulating years ago on how bad the squat was for the knees. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. The key is in the performance. Again, as in the lateral raise, DO NOT allow the humerus to abduct higher than parallel with the floor. This keeps the rotator cuff from becoming impinged. I rate upright rows, when performed properly, as one of THE best deltoid exercises there is.

Bent-over dumbbell lateral raises: This exercise, despite its popularity, is nearly worthless for building the posterior section of the deltoid. The reason is the fact that the movement in this exercise (presumed to be horizontal abduction of the shoulder) is actually mostly scapular movement that is carried out by the rhomboids and middle trapezius. Very little movement occurs at the actual glenohumeral (shoulder) joint. It is a good mid-back exercise and a poor one for the delts.

Incline posterior deltoid raises: This one may be unfamiliar to you, so I'll give a brief description. Lie on your side on a low-degree incline bench. Then, holding a dumbbell in front of you, raise it up and in front of your body until the dumbbell is overhead. This exercise is excellent for targeting the side and rear deltoid sections, as the extreme starting position forces the deltoid to move the humerus through a fairly large range of relatively isolated movement.

Incline bench deltoid rows: This is another new one. Lie face down on an incline bench. With a dumbbell in each hand, row them upward toward your shoulder area. This exercise is fantastic for the lateral and posterior sections of the deltoids.

There are definitely more effective deltoid exercises than I have listed above - as I have simply described my favorites. Keep in mind that you can do variations of the above exercises as well, such as machine lateral raises, cable upright rows, etc. The focus, however, should always be on selecting one to three exercises that target the areas of the deltoid that need the most attention.


Since the deltoids are always getting pounded whenever you train the upper body, it is vital that you avoid cumulative microtrauma (overtraining) in the area. This accumulation can lead to rotator cuff injury and worst and at the very least can lead to a cessation of progress.

Training, therefore, as in all other muscle groups, should be based upon the deltoid's recovery ability. Different types or formats of training should also be cycled in a periodic fashion. For example, it is a good idea to emphasize the eccentric phase of the exercises only every other training session. The sessions on either side of this eccentric emphasis session should be: One high rep only session to encourage recovery and build mitochondria and capillary networks within the muscle; and one session that includes both high, medium, and low repetitions in which the concentric part of the movement is emphasized and the eccentric, or negative portion, de-emphasized. This allows you to enjoy continuous gains without accumulating the microtrauma incurred by performing the very productive (and also very stressful) eccentric contractions too often.

If you choose to experiment with heavy eccentric exercise, be sure to adequately warm up with several light, submaximal sets beforehand in order to increase the internal temperature of you muscle tissue. Muscles are capable of generating their optimal force when contracting eccentrically, and therefore the risk of injury is higher, especially if the warmup is inadequate. Also, it is wise not to perform more than three heavy eccentric sets per bodypart, as massive accumulations of microtrauma can overwhelm your recovery ability.

There is one point that bears clarification. Some authorities are under the impression that those of us who advocate this type of cyclic training believe that "size" comes only from eccentric exercise and "strength" comes only from concentric exercise. This is not entirely the case. Since the maximum amount of microtrauma occurs during eccentric exercise, you do get the largest amount of hypertrophy as a result (via IGF/satellite cell fusion, which is beyond the scope of this article).

You get size (although not as much) from concentric-only work as well, however, for two reasons: First, you cannot TOTALLY avoid the occurrence of microtrauma during heavy concentric-only sessions. It is simply kept to a minimum due to the well-documented fact that the majority of such trauma occurs during the eccentric phase. Second, the myofibrils (actin/myosin filaments) that are produced as the result of concentric-only training do take up space and therefore contribute to increased size.

Since both types of training stress the myofibrils to a degree significant enough to force adaptive overload, both types of training (concentric and eccentric) increase strength. So, with a holistic approach to training as described above, go to the gym and build yourself a set of deltoids.

About the author: Vince Martin, PT, CFT is a lifetime drug-free bodybuilder, currently competing as a professional in the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF). He is publisher of the Scientific Bodybuilding Journal (SBJ), a bimonthly science-based publication. For more information regarding SBJ, Vince may be reached by email at or by writing to Scientific Fitness Systems, 11328 Avering Lane, Austin, TX 78754. Also, check out his web page at

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