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When I began training seriously in high school, side delt-specific exercises were not part of my routine. I regret this since they took a long time to catch up to my arms and chest even after targeting them directly.
As a general rule, you should do at least one targeted exercise for your side delts, twice per week. Focusing on one will allow you to master that exercise’s movement pattern and effectively stimulate muscle growth in the side delts.
Don’t believe this is enough to elicit the side delt growth you’re after? Read on to learn if and when to do more based on your goals.
Table of Contents
Deciding How Many Side Delt Exercises You Should Do
You don’t have to do more than one exercise to see effective side delt growth. It’s better to pick one or maybe two movements that allow you to feel your side delts working the most.
Then, do those two movements once or twice a week. You could even go up to 4 days per week. This is because the side delts are extremely fatigue-resistant.
In general, volume and frequency are more important than exercise variety when targeting the side delts. Of course, exercise specificity is equally important.
For example, lateral raises specifically target the side delts, while overhead presses do not. So, performing a lateral raise variation twice a week beats pressing 4 days per week for direct volume and stimulation.
The same applies on a per-workout basis. On a shoulder day, you could do overhead presses to hit your front delts. Then perform one side delt exercise such as lateral raises for 5 sets.
I find this better than doing 2 to 3 sets of lateral raises and then performing upright rows for the remaining side delt-specific sets. You’ll be able to spend the first one or two sets of lateral raises priming your side delts and technique.
The final few sets can be reserved for going heavier and decimating them once they’re locked in with that exercise.
Think about it this way. Some days may take a bit longer to hone in on the mind-muscle connection. By spreading your side delt training across two or three exercises, you’ll probably do fewer sets of each.
You’ll spend the first few sets of lateral raises finding a groove and may only have one hard set left. If you move onto another side delt movement you’ll be repeating this process all over again, impeding your ability to train them intensely.
There’s nothing wrong with doing more than one side delt exercise per week. However, I’d suggest separating them throughout the week. This way you can focus on mastering the technique with one per workout.
Reasons you may want to add more than one side delt specific exercise per week or workout:
- Plateauing or getting bored:
- The side delts are small and don’t have very much strength potential. This can cause quick stagnation when increasing weight or reps over time with an isolation exercise like lateral raises.
- That’s when you may want to add a compound exercise like upright rows. You’ll be able to continue progressive overload on a new lift.
- Targeting the slow and fast twitch muscle fibers:
- The side delts are mainly slow twitch and respond well to high rep sets of 12-20.
- Their fast-twitch fibers respond well to low rep sets of 8-12. This is easier with upright rows or face pulls as there’s more support from surrounding muscles.
- Training a few days per week:
- Consider doing two side delt exercises in a single session if you can only train 2-3 days per week. You may have to sacrifice volume for other muscles as a trade-off for the side delt emphasis.
- Start with a heavy side delt exercise in the 8-12 rep range, followed by an isolation exercise for sets of 12-20.
Exercises That Target the Side Delts
Oftentimes, trainees rely on overhead pressing exercises to grow their side delts. This is a mistake as those types of movements don’t adequately target these muscles.
Lateral raises and upright rows target the side delts directly because they involve shoulder abduction, or lifting the upper arms out to the sides. This is a primary function of the side delts and is the main motion during those two exercises.
Face pulls are decent as well, however, they don’t target the side delts as heavily as the former options. Let’s briefly look at how these exercises are performed, along with the different equipment that can be used.
1. Perform Lateral Raises for Side Delt Isolation
In a study observing side delt activation among shoulder exercises, lateral raises came out on top. They can be performed using dumbbells, but cables and bands will provide greater tension.
- Stand holding the handles with your palms facing each other and your arms slightly bent by your sides.
- Lift your arms out and up until they’re horizontal to the floor while keeping your elbows above your hands
- Reverse under control.
2. Do Upright Rows for Strength
Upright rows won’t isolate your side delts as much as lateral raises will. Regardless, they are well-suited for progressive overload without plateauing as fast.
- Stand upright and overhand grip a barbell, dumbbells, or bands with your arms wider than shoulder width.
- Hold the weight tight to your body while lifting toward your face.
- Stop once your upper arms are horizontal with the floor and lower under control.
I wrote an article explaining why upright rows are beneficial for the side delts, so if you’re interested in this exercise, check it out!
3. Save Time With Face Pulls
Face pulls don’t put a lot of emphasis on shoulder abduction. However, they are an efficient exercise to target the upper back, rear, and side delts simultaneously. Perform them with cables or resistance bands.
- Attach a rope to a low cable pulley.
- Grab the handles with your pinkies against the ends.
- Step back a few feet.
- Pull your hands to your forehead and squeeze your shoulder blades before lowering.
How To Mix Side Delt Exercises Into Your Routine
Here’s how you could include two side delt exercises into your weekly workout routine. Upright rows are placed on Monday to focus more on strength. Tuesday is reserved for high-rep lateral raises to hit those slow twitch fibers.
You’ll notice I placed the side delt movements at the start of the workouts while they’re fresh to maximize intensity.
Monday Upper Day:
- Barbell upright rows: 4 sets x 8 reps
- Dumbbell Arnold press: 3 x 12
- Lat pulldown: 3 x 12
- Machine chest press: 3 x 10
Thursday Push Day:
- Dumbbell lateral raises: 5 x 15
- Barbell bench press: 3 x 8
- Machine shoulder press: 3 x 12
- Tricep extensions: 3 x 15
Targeting your side delts with a single exercise 2-4 days per week will give you the most bang for your buck. A variation of the lateral raises is the type to focus on. If you get bored, switch to a different variation or move to upright rows.