Here's what you need to know building delts:
- Powerful looking delts will have the greatest overall impact on your appearance, even making your waist look smaller.
- Remember to body build and avoid lifting like a granny. To get stubborn delts to grow, use a variety of intensity techniques.
- Pumping delts serves a purpose. To get the most out of the pump, you need to activate the muscle and pre-load it with nutrients.
- Build slow-to-grow delts by giving them at least one dedicated day in the gym.
The Taper Turns Heads
It doesn't matter if you're male or female. Bigger delts make the waist look smaller and give you a coveted V-taper that tells the world you don't miss workouts.
Thick delts and broad shoulders turn boys into men and girls into athletic women. The best physiques display shoulder spans that dwarf the width of the waist.
Some have even gone as far as calculating the perfect shoulder-to-waist ratio using the proportions of classic bodybuilders. The best "look" is where your shoulders measure 1.618 times your waist.
You don't need to bust out the tape measure though. Just know that one of the most important things you can do to improve your physique is to build those delts.
Only one problem. Some people are genetically cursed with slow-to-grow delts (like me). But we can make the most out of our genetic potential in the delts department by avoiding these training pitfalls.
5 Reasons Delts Stop Growing
1 – You're forgetting to body build for delts.
Having one go-to movement for shoulders, especially delts, won't cut it. That approach may be fine for strength, but not for hypertrophy.
So if you're married to overhead pressing, and only overhead pressing for shoulders, then the size and shape of your delts will stagnate.
You'll need a variety of movements to hit all three heads of the delts (anterior, posterior, and medial) maximally. You'll also need to use as much weight as you can tolerate for a variety of rep ranges, not just the 1-5 range.
Remembering to body build means increasing time under tension, using drop sets and mechanical drop sets, and knowing when to go heavier for fewer reps and somewhat lighter for higher reps.
2 – You train delts like grannies lift.
Yes, a controlled (and even slow) eccentric – the lowering or negative phase of the lift – is an important component of hypertrophy. But delt-challenged lifters often forget about the concentric or lifting phase. They move the weight up granny-slow.
Remember, faster concentric tempos can recruit high-threshold motor units that have big potential for muscle growth of the delts.
If you struggle with speed, then start placing more attention on the lifting phase. Explode up and control the weight back to the starting point.
Tip: De-emphasize the eccentric phase by counting each rep at the beginning of the movement, not as it's on its way back to the starting position.
Moving the weight up should feel powerful – even if it's a smooth cadence between the concentric and eccentric phases. Less tai chi; more muay thai.
Yes, there may be value in having an even cadence when performing multiple reps for delts, but if you're letting an extra-slow tempo keep you from increasing to weight you're capable of lifting, you're doing it wrong.
3 – You forget to increase training load for delts.
Do you habitually grab the same sets of dumbbells when working your delts? If you're using the same exact dumbbells from week to week, then commit to trying just a few reps with dumbbells that are one step heavier than you've been using for delts.
You might surprise yourself and find that a few reps turns into a whole set of 8-10 reps.
Don't worry if you can only get two or three. Just do what you can, then drop-set to weights that are more manageable. Next time, go for 4 reps before you drop down, then 5, then 6, etc.
4 – You wimp out doing sets for delts.
Some lifters cut sets short when they have several more reps in the tank.
As you feel yourself start fatiguing, try rest-pauses. Take a pause at the bottom of the movement to reset, take a few breaths, and hit a few more reps before you stop or just move on to lighter weights in your drop set.
You'll be able to engage your delts, explode up, and have the energy to do more reps. In fact, you may feel your delts engage even more when you have to start the concentric phase with no momentum from your previous rep.
If rest-pauses aren't even a possibility, then simply drop set and hit a few more reps with a lighter weight.
5 – You don't feel the delts working.
It's possible for a lifter to do a taxing set of a shoulder exercise, yet hardly feel the delts activate. It's like the work was done, but the delts slept through it.
Training delts right after a hard chest day can cause this. Your chest will activate during the pressing movements and you won't feel your delts working because your pecs are screaming at you. (Yes, women have this problem too.)
The easy solution is to separate chest work from delt day in your training schedule, or do them on the same day and train delts at the beginning if they're a priority.
Another reason you might not be able to get a mind-muscle connection with your delts is if you're just going through the motions. To wake them up, try pausing at the peak of contraction during an exercise and squeeze the muscle. While you're in that paused position, tweak your form until you can feel stimulation in the delts.
Then slowly lower back to starting position and try another couple sets with isometric pauses until you feel the tension. The rest of your reps should set your delts on fire – in a good way. These pauses work really well with cable movements like face-pulls.
Hypertrophy training for delts often burns and aches; just make sure it's burning and aching in the right places. Not your pecs. Not your biceps. Not your traps.
Pumping Delts is Functional
The pump is not just for selfies and posing at the mirror – achieving a muscle pump actually serves a purpose.
Pumping blood (and the nutrients it's carrying) into the muscle plays a role in hypertrophy. The better you are at pumping a working muscle group with blood, the more potential that muscle group will have for growth.
This means two things:
- Techniques that give you a greater pump, like the bodybuilding ones listed above, also give you a greater chance for growing your delts. This means that training programs void of such techniques are limited in their ability to make your muscles bigger.
- The pump relies on having nutrients to pump into the muscle. Have you ever gone to the gym flat and depleted? Nutrient-deficient muscles don't have the advantage. You stifle muscle growth without having nutrients available to pump into the muscles you're working.
This means if you're obsessed with fat loss and you're training fasted and carb depleted, don't expect to see stubborn delts (or any other muscle group) grow. In fact, that's a recipe for atrophy.
Big Delts Dedicated Workout Day
The following workout is meant to be done on a dedicated day for delts. This is a very strenuous specialization program performed once a week. If your delts are particularly stubborn, add some less strenuous delt work to another workout later in the week.
Presses: The Double Drop Set
The Arnold and overhead presses will get shoulders primed for the rest of the workout. Use a mechanical drop set to go from Arnold press to dumbbell overhead, then do a drop set in weight.
Pick a weight that's heavy enough to engage your delts. Crack out 10-15 smooth reps. If you can do much more than that with ease, then your warm up weight is too light. Go heavier.
You should feel tension in the delts even with your warm-up weight. Keep that warm-up weight nearby.
- Grab a heavier set of dumbbells. If you're a male it should be heavy enough that you can't do more than 7-8 reps. If you're a female 8-10. Give yourself a range, but if you can do more than that amount of reps, then increase the weight.
- When you can't get another rep in the Arnold press, perform standard overhead presses (no twist) using the same weight. You should be able to bust out a few more reps, especially if you use a rest-pause between your final reps.
- Without rest, grab your warm-up set of dumbbells and repeat: Arnold press till failure, then overhead press.
That's one set. Repeat two more times.
Drop Set and Superset: Rear Delt Flye and Front Plate Raise
Set a bench at an incline so that when you lay against it your arms will dangle in front of your body. Grab three sets of dumbbells: heavy, medium, light. For our volume goals here, "heavy" means you can get 12-15 strict reps with that weight.
Grab a 25-pound plate and set it nearby.
- Start with your heavy dumbbells. When you hit failure around the 12-15 rep mark, pause a moment.
- Without dropping the weight, do as many bottom-position partial reps as you can. You can do these partials using momentum as long as you feel the delts working. If you're struggling to feel the delts working, try straightening the elbows or tweak your wrists.
- Without rest, grab your medium dumbbells and do another set of rear delt flyes. Once again as you begin to fatigue, move to the partial-rep swings.
- Without rest, grab the light dumbbells and do another set.
- Then get up, get your plate, and do 10 front plate raises. Bring the plate slightly above head level.
- Repeat the whole thing from heavy to light twice more.
You may need to bend or straighten your elbows a bit, reposition your hands, or alter the angle that you're raising the dumbbells to get tension in the right place. Tweak your form mid-set if you're not feeling it.
Compound Set: Reverse Cable Flye, Lateral Raise, Front Raise
This is another great way to hit all three delt heads. If you'd prefer to use the cables for the second two exercises and make them cable lateral raises and cable front raises, feel free. I prefer dumbbells just because it's faster to pick up dumbbells than it is to readjust cables.
Don't worry if your dumbbells for this compound set have to be light – your delts should be feeling worked at this point.
- For the reverse cable flye: 10-15 reps, fast and controlled concentric. When you've hit failure, crank out some partial-range pulses at the bottom or top of the movement. Then move to the lateral raises without rest.
- For the lateral raises: 10-15 reps. There are several correct variations of these. Choose what feels best for you, joint-health wise and mind-muscle connection wise.
- For alternating front raises: Again, 10-15 reps. Try to keep tension in the delt that's not being raised.
Do three rounds of this compound set.
Add face-pulls to your back day if you can't fit them into your delt workout. They hit rear delts like nothing else.
Do three to four sets with full ROM. Try a deliberate 2-3 second pause at the end range of motion if you're struggling to feel them in your delts. Go just shy of failure. Your delts should ache, not the joints. Your weight shouldn't have to be heavy in order to feel these.
There are several face-pull variations. I like them seated on a cable row machine. Find the best variation for you. Just remember to keep your elbows high.
Tip: If you train back the day after delts, that's a great time to throw these in at the end. Doing delts the day before a back day won't interfere with your back workout. Plus if you hit delts again slightly on back day, you won't need to worry about hitting the same muscle group two days in a row. Doing so can actually have a beneficial effect on hypertrophy.
Don't neglect face-pulls because they'll help keep your shoulders healthy, and you'll need healthy shoulders in order to continue training delts hard enough to get them to grow... which is exactly what will take them from stubborn to stunning.
Big Delts Workout Summary
- A1 Arnold press, drop-set
- A2 Dumbbell overhead press, drop-set
- B1 Rear delt flye, drop-set and partials
- B2 Front plate raise
- C1 Reverse cable flye, with partials
- C2 Lateral dumbbell raise
- C3 Dumbbell front raise
- D Face-pulls