In this guide, we’ll be going over the best exercise for deltoids. Whether you have access to weights, machines, all sorts of other pieces of equipment; or nothing at all, you’ll find everything you need to build a strong set of 3D deltoids, hitting them from all angles.
Just before we head on into the main part of the content, I think it’s worth saying that it is very difficult to pick a single exercise for shoulder strength and mass development. Often people want to be as efficient as possible with their workout, doing more in less time. This is understandable, but know that by only picking one exercise, you are most likely limiting yourself in some way.
Best Exercise For Deltoids - Bodyweight
1. Pike Push Ups
The pike pushup is a staple in bodyweight training, and will allow you to move on to more difficult progressions such as the handstand pushup. It can be made more difficult through various methods which I will talk about here. The trick here however, is to be very wary of your form as this exercise is often butchered, and understandably so, as it can be a bit difficult to get right without having someone film you (or filming yourself), or seeing yourself in a mirror.
To perform this exercises properly, you need to focus on raising your hips as high as you comfortably can (whilst maintaining clean form), and aiming to form a triangle with your hands and your head, as you perform the eccentric portion of the movement. When you are pushing back up, remember to use your shoulders, and stack your hips as much over your shoulder as you can, and try not to use your chest. You should not feel as much abdominal involvement as in a standard pushup.
A narrow grip is recommended because of the overall healthier positioning of your elbows (in front of your body and not to the sides), and the increased range of motion, as well as added tricep involvement.
To increase the difficulty of this exercise, you can start by elevating your feet. the higher your feet are, the more the weight is shifted off towards your shoulders and triceps. You can also use parallettes to further increase the range of motion. Using gymnastics rings will also increase your range of motion, with the added benefit of requiring more stabilization, thus recruiting more muscle fibers and making the movement more challenging as a whole.
2. Handstand Push Up
I am talking here about the strict handstand pushup, an almost legendary exercise that has been used since the dawn of calisthenics, not the kipping Crossfit HSPU that you’ll see in a lot of gyms (I personally don’t have anything against Crossfit, I am just talking about a different exercise here.) A strict handstand pushup is best done with your arms in front of your body, a mostly straight body alignment, and some pelvic tilt.
I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you haven’t already built up a reasonable amount of strength at your pike pushups. This will allow you to condition and prepare your shoulders for the harder progressions such as this one. If you do want to start working on your handstand pushups earlier though, you can use slow eccentric training to build up that initial strength.
Once you get stronger, you can use parallettes or a box to increase the range of motion. You can also add weight through a weight vest, or a well placed dip belt. The ultimate strength test being the ability to perform freestanding handstand pushups (this also requires a lot of balance and handstand training).
3. Ring Rear Delt Flys
If you want balanced, healthy shoulders, rear deltoid work should also be performed in your training. These muscles are not only important for shoulder health (and having developed shoulders from all angles), but they also play a major role in your posture.
This exercise can be done with cables, resistance bands, machines, dumbbells, gymnastics rings, and even with your own bodyweight. It’s up to you to find the most comfortable/convenient way of doing it, that suits your training style and workout routine. There’s no shortage of options as to how to perform this movement.
4. Ring Face Pulls
These along with the rear delt flys, also play a major role in shoulder health. These are however more for rotator cuff work than read delt development, but also play an important role in your training as the shoulders are quite vulnerable to injury. Be sure to maintain a 90° angle at your elbows and really emphasize on external rotation. Perform the movement in a slow and controlled way. Weight isn’t important here so keep it light and focus on your form.
Best Exercise For Deltoids - Weighted
1. Overhead Press
The standing overhead press is also a time tested exercise, and one of the more effective ones you can perform too. I really like to emphasize the “standing” part here, as sitting down really takes out a lot of the benefits (less core activation, weight and energy not dispersed as well throughout entire body). You can do this with a barbell, or with dumbbells. And whilst one variant is not necessarily superior to the other, they both carry their own pros and cons.
A barbell OHP will be easier to progressively overload on, especially through micro loading. Dumbbells will jump up in higher strength increments, and setting them up to shoulder hight before pressing can be a bit awkward as you progress towards the heavier weights, but EMG studies show that they activate muscle fibers to a higher degree.
2. Side Lateral Raise
Can be done with cables, machines, free weights, resistance bands. Crucial for targeting the lateral deltoid, the side lateral raise is one of the best exercises you can do to completely isolate the side deltoid that gives that greatly contributes to that “V” shaped upper body. Here again, it’s best to use light weights and really focus on performing the movement as controlled as possible.
3. Rear Delt Flys
As mentioned above in the bodyweight exercises segment; can be done with cables, resistance bands, on machines, or with weights. Try them all out and see which one works best for you in terms of comfort, range of motion, and all around progress.
4. High Pulls
Do these with a barbell or dumbbells. These are a healthier option than the often recommended upright rows than can be harsh on both your shoulders and your wrists. They will target your side delts, as well as your traps.
If this practical guide to the best exercise for deltoids was of value to you, please share it with a friend!