10 Great Side Delt Exercises To Grow Your Shoulders (Tips and Videos)

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Key to achieving that “bowling ball” look on your shoulders, the side delts are an important yet often overlooked muscle. Developing this muscle will make some of the biggest changes in your physique giving lifters that powerful looking build. 

One reason it is neglected is that many lifters are unsure what the best exercises to build these notoriously hard-to-grow muscles are.

No fear, our complete and in-depth guide to building powerful side delts is here. 

The 10 best side delt exercises are:

With 10 exercises including step-by-step guides, video walkthroughs, and coaching tips, you will be rocking boulders shoulders in no time.

Why Is The Side Delt So Difficult To Grow?

It’s a question personal trainers around the country are asked regularly. The reality is that the side delt isn’t that difficult to grow, lifters just tend to do exercises that don’t target it. 

Leaving Side Delts For The End

The first problem is that a lot of lifters can neglect the shoulders leaving them till the end of the workout. The legs, chest, and back are the biggest areas that will provide the most mass and strength, hence I come across a lot of lifters whose daily workout focuses on these muscles. 

Obviously, if you treat your shoulders as an afterthought, it’s likely they won’t grow as much as they can.

No Variation In Exercises

Another problem is that lifters tend to include a lack of variation in their shoulder exercises.

Our shoulders are equally made up of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. Therefore they will respond optimally to your standard explosive, low-rep movements combined with low-weight, high-rep training. 

By incorporating both types of training into your workout, you will have a much better chance of building your shoulder muscles.

Targeting The Wrong Delt

The last problem I see is a tendency to focus on the front delt. It’s often forgotten that the shoulder is made up of 3 different muscles. The front, side, and rear delt all are equally important to developing big shoulders. These are also known as the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids.

A lot of lifters will focus on their shoulder presses which activate the front delt

Commonly used vertical movements build muscle in the front delt but overlook the side delt. By not including lateral raises, your shoulders are left looking imbalanced and will feel hard to develop.

Side Delt Activation

To activate the side delt we need to think laterally. A lot of shoulder exercises use vertical movements meaning they only train the frontal delts. 

Lateral movements and shoulder rotation can help activate the side delts building all-round shoulder strength.

10 Best Side Delt Exercises

To help you maximize your side delt development, we’ve handpicked 10 exercises to incorporate into your upper body workouts so that those side delts aren’t neglected.

1. Side Plank With Lateral Raise

One of my favorite exercises as it works both shoulders as well as activating the core as a bonus.

The side plank on its own will work your lateral deltoids however you will struggle to get significant growth using just your body weight. By including the dumbbell and raise, you add weight and work the other shoulder.

Planks are a great way to improve core strength. Core strength is important during big lifts such as squats.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Lie on your side in a straight line from head to feet. Place your elbow directly below your shoulder and lift yourself into the side plank position.
  • Maintain the plank position slowly raising your non-supporting arm. For extra difficulty use a dumbbell.
  • Hold for a few seconds at the top of the rep, then return to starting position
  • Repeat for recommended number of reps then switch sides.

Coach's Tips

Make It Harder

If you find this exercise too easy or you feel you aren’t getting enough slow down your reps, use a heavier weight, and hold for longer at the top.

You can also lift your leg to make an X-shape for extra core activation.

Make It Easier

If you struggle to stay balanced during the exercise consider a progression first. A good one is to do the exercise without being in the side plank position.

Once mastered try it again in the side plank position with no weight. As you get stronger and more controlled you can add and increase the weight.

2. Seated Arnold Press

You know you’ve conquered the bodybuilding world when you have an exercise named after you. Popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger, this variation of the standard shoulder press takes the shoulders through a greater range of motion developing all-round shoulder growth.

The primary activation though is the side delts making these a big favorite for achieving rounded shoulders. As the name suggests, they are hard to master and incredibly painful, but the benefits are worth it.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Sit on the bench with the backrest at just over a 90-degree angle. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Bring the dumbbells to your upper chest, resembling the end of a bicep curl. This is your starting position.
  • Drive the dumbbells upwards whilst rotating your arms so that when you reach the top they are facing outwards. The top of the rep should resemble a standard shoulder press.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat for recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Keep The Pressure On Your Lats

If you extend fully at the top of the rep, you end up relieving pressure on your lats which can limit their growth. Extend to about 90% extension to avoid this and work the lats to their max.

Keep Your Back Against The Pad

By keeping your back flat against the pad throughout the exercise you can ensure isolation of the shoulders avoiding activation of back muscles.

3. Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

A big favorite for anyone looking to grow side delts. It's beginner-friendly and can achieve big strength and shape in shoulders.

Combined with the vertical shoulder press you can isolate front and side delts, maximizing growth in both.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand upright with feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Hold arms by your side.
  • Keeping the rest of your body still, lift your arms away from your body until they are parallel to the ground.
  • Hold at the top of the rep before slowly lowering them back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Keep Arms Straight

For maximum side delt activation try to avoid the temptation to bend your arms as you raise and lower them. Keeping them straight isolates the delts and stops other muscles from getting involved.

Breathe

Exhaling as you raise your arms and inhaling as you lower your arms can help you lift more weight and control the movements.

4. Barbell Upright Row

With a narrower grip, this exercise can primarily activate the trapezius muscles. To target the side delts just use a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.

It’s another fundamental lifting exercise if you want to grow big shoulders and can result in some serious shoulder growth.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Hold the barbell in front of you with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • With your palms facing your body, slowly bring the barbell up keeping it as close to your body as possible.
  • Raise the bar until it reaches your chin. Hold at the top then lower to starting position.
  • Repeat for recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Lock Core And Keep Back Straight

Try to avoid the temptation of using momentum to row the barbell up. Locking your core and keeping your body still as you raise the bar will help you maximize the benefits of this workout.

Bend Elbows Outwards

As you lift send your elbows wide so they don't go too high. This can ensure you don't over-exert your shoulders risking injury or joint inflammation.

5. Incline W-Raise

A lesser-seen exercise in the gym, the W raise features a lateral movement that engages and activates the side delts. As you get stronger at this exercise you can gradually increase the weight and develop bigger shoulders.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Lie face forward on an incline at approximately 30-degree angle. Hold a dumbbell in each hand bending elbows so that the dumbbells are slightly in front of you.
  • In one smooth motion lift the dumbbells up and out to either side, keeping your elbows bent to form a W shape with your arms at the top.
  • Hold at the top for a moment before slowly returning to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Keep Your Elbows Tucked In

To avoid injury risk and muscle inflammation it's important to ensure your elbows stay tucked into your body for the duration of the workout. 

Move Slowly

To avoid using your momentum or engaging unwanted muscles, perform this exercise slow and controlled. Focus on correct form and posture as you complete the rep.

6. One Arm Lateral Raise

By isolating just one arm, this version of the lateral raise allows the lifter to take heavier weights through a larger range of motion and with increased control.

By activating just one shoulder, all the blood will rush to that side delt helping it repair and grow as you take it through the motions.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand upright with feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in one hand. Hold arms by your side.
  • Keeping the rest of your body still, lift the dumbbell away from your body until your arm is parallel to the ground.
  • Hold at the top of the rep before slowly lowering back to the starting position.  
  • Repeat for recommended number of reps, then do the same on the other side.

Coach's Tips

Use A Counterbalance

Holding a dumbbell in your other hand can help you control the movement by acting as a counterbalance. This can help you maximize the range of motion and isolate the side delts.

Keep The Elbow Bent

Try not to fully extend the elbow. Keep the elbow joint slightly bent to avoid injury risk and relieve the pressure on the joints.

7. Behind The Back Cable Lateral Raise

Not a name that flows off the tongue, but this exercise will certainly get the blood flowing to your side delts. 

Similar to the one-arm cable raise (see no.8), this exercise has you pulling a cable away from your body. The difference here is that the working arm is behind your back rather than in front of your body.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand next to a cable pulley machine with feet set hip-width apart and a slight bend in your knees.
  • Set the cable to the shortest height, then reach behind your back and grab the cable. Use your free hand to hold onto the machine for extra support.
  • Lift your working arm away from your body. Stop once it is parallel to the ground ad pause for a moment.
  • Lower back to the starting position and repeat on both sides for recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Start With Lighter Weight

When trying this out for the first time it’s important to use a slightly lighter weight to avoid activation of other muscles. Lighter weight will be enough to stress the delt without the need for support from other muscles.

Slight Bend In The Arm

Keep a slight bend in the arm to engage the side delts and avoid joint inflammation.

8. One Arm Cable Raise

I find this one slightly less effective than the behind-the-back raise as your momentum can sometimes take your arm in different directions. This limits how much stress your side delts are under and engages more muscles. 

On the other hand, it is easier to master than the behind-the-back variation, and when performed correctly can isolate and activate the side delts.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Stand next to a cable pulley machine with feet set hip-width apart and a slight bend in your knees.
  • Set the cable to the shortest height, then with your outside hand reach across your body and grab the cable. Use your free hand to hold onto the machine for extra support.
  • Lift your working arm away from your body. Stop once it is parallel to the ground and pause for a moment.
  • Lower back to the starting position and repeat on both sides for recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Don’t Go Too High

Raising your arm above shoulder height will relieve stress on your side delts and activate the traps. If you want to keep the focus on delts, then stop and hold once you reach shoulder height.

Raise Your Hand Directly To The Side

As I mentioned in the intro, this exercise can tempt you to raise your hand out in front of your body or just behind it. Doing either of these will activate the front and rear deltoids, so try to keep the rise in line with the plane of your body to engage the side deltoids.

9. Seated Behind The Neck Barbell Press

Another exercise that doesn’t come off the tongue easily. It’s quite difficult for beginners so be sure to practice the movement with less weight first to perfect the form.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Un-rack the barbell place behind your neck just on top of the traps.
  • Using an overhand position with hands just over shoulder-width apart, grip the bar.
  • Keeping your back straight lift the bar straight up until your arms are fully extended. Hold at the top.
  • Slowly return to starting position and repeat for recommended number of reps.

Coach's Tips

Safety

If it’s your first time trying this exercise be sure to use a lighter weight and/or a spotter to avoid serious injury. Remember your lifting the bar past and above your head!

Lock Your Core

Engage your core and keep your back straight so that the shoulders stay fully activated and engaged throughout the exercise. This will also mean your back isn’t stressed which can lead to injuries and strains.

10. One Arm Dumbbell Upright Rows

This is a great exercise as it’s one of a few side delt exercises that allows you to go really heavy. As we said at the start of this article, it’s important to vary between heavy, slow reps and light, fast reps when building your shoulders.

Using one arm at a time lets you focus on a good range of motion as it isn’t restricted by the other arm. These are perfect exercises for building those slow-twitch muscles.

Like with most of our exercises, these are pretty self-explanatory.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Grab a dumbbell and place it on your corresponding thigh. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Maintaining a straight back, lift the dumbbell straight up keeping it as close to your body as possible. Keep raising until you reach chest height.
  • Hold at the top of the rep before slowly lowering back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for recommended number of reps on both sides.

Coach's Tips

Don’t Lean Forward

It can be tempting to lean forward to make the row easier. Avoid this temptation and stay upright to maximize the delt-building benefits.

Keep Elbows Up

Your elbows push the motion so try to keep them above your forearms throughout the exercise.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s The Best Way To Work The Side Delts?

Any shoulder exercise that includes lateral movements rather than vertical or front-to-back is likely to activate the side delts.

How Do I Avoid Deltoid Imbalance?

To avoid deltoid imbalance do exercises that target all three sections of the deltoid muscle group. Target the frontal, posterior delts, and side delts by varying your exercises and combining isolation and compound exercises.

Why Won’t My Side Delts Grow?

Lack of growth in the side delts is usually a result of a lack of variation in your shoulder exercises. Not training both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles can lead to imbalance and restrict muscle growth. 

It can also be a result of lack of stimulation by doing the wrong shoulder exercises such as targeting frontal delts only, or improper nutrition.

Final Thoughts

So next time you’re worried that you aren’t achieving maximum shoulder growth, think about those often neglected side delts and give them some activation with our 10 great side delt exercises.

Use these and you’ll be sure to have bowling balls for shoulders in no time.

References

Smith GCS, Liu VK, Bonar SF, Lam PH. The Lateral Deltoid Originates From the Entire Lateral Wall of the Acromion: MRI and Histologic Cadaveric Analysis Regarding Vertical Lateral Acromioplasty. Arthrosc Sports Med Rehabil. 2020 Sep 3;2(5):e547-e552. doi: 10.1016/j.asmr.2020.06.014. PMID: 33134993; PMCID: PMC7588629.

Elzanie A, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Deltoid Muscle. 2020 Aug 22. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–. PMID: 30725741.

Campos YAC, Vianna JM, Guimarães MP, Oliveira JLD, Hernández-Mosqueira C, da Silva SF, Marchetti PH. Different Shoulder Exercises Affect the Activation of Deltoid Portions in Resistance-Trained Individuals. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Oct 31;75:5-14. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2020-0033. PMID: 33312291; PMCID: PMC7706677.

Franke Rde A, Botton CE, Rodrigues R, Pinto RS, Lima CS. Analysis of anterior, middle and posterior deltoid activation during single and multijoint exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2015 Jul-Aug;55(7-8):714-21. Epub 2014 Jun 20. PMID: 24947920.

Coratella G, Tornatore G, Longo S, Esposito F, Cè E. An Electromyographic Analysis of Lateral Raise Variations and Frontal Raise in Competitive Bodybuilders. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Aug 19;17(17):6015. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17176015. PMID: 32824894; PMCID: PMC7503819.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for intended for educational purposes only and not as an individualized exercise prescription, therefore no one can be held liable in the occurrence of injuries, damages or monetary losses as a result of the information.

About The Author

Jules Silvera

Jules Silvera is a Sport and Exercise Psychology MSc graduate and qualified squash coach. His work in sport psychology has involved working with elite & Olympic athletes in swimming, taekwondo, and Rugby League, developing psychological resilience and dealing with issues surrounding sport entrapment. He believes in enhancing athlete functionality, with special expertise in strength training, HIIT, and psychological skills training and is currently researching for a PhD centered on developing youth athletes in elite sport. He currently works as a Head Squash Coach in the UK, developing and training England-ranked and county-level juniors, as well as working with grassroots players.

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