Training the lateral or side delts is almost exclusively done with isolation exercises. These exercises do a good job of isolating the lateral delts, but you're always limited by the overall load you can actually place through the muscle.
We don't do this with any other muscle group. A combination of compound lifts and targeted isolation work creates the best growth stimulus. But compound lifts that train the lateral delts DO exist. It's just most lifters ignore these exercises and miss out on their benefits.
For the few bodybuilders that do train their delts with a compound lift, the barbell upright row is usually the exercise of choice:
This exercise has a reputation as a shoulder wrecker though. While this is a little unfair, it's true that many people just end up with cranky shoulders and achy wrists if they slave away on the barbell upright row regularly.
When using a barbell, your hands are fixed. This places a lot of stress on the wrists and limits the range you can work through without pain. Limited range means limited gains.
Also, the strain placed on the wrists often causes people to compensate and overly stress the shoulder to try and move the weight higher. All in all, the risk to return ratio of the barbell upright row isn't favorable for most people.
The Solution: Use a Rope and a Cable
Using a rope attachment on the cable station is a more shoulder-friendly version of the upright row. It allows the hands some freedom of movement so that your grip width can vary throughout the lift.
The real magic happens for the lateral delts at the top of the lift. This is where the most tension is placed on the muscle and it gets the greatest stimulus. Using a technique which biases this range will tax the lateral delts and trigger more growth. For that reason, I like the one and a quarter rope version. It's shoulder friendly and blasts your lateral delts. Here's my client, Ahmed, performing them in his last training session:
- Set the cable at the bottom setting and grab the rope with an overhand grip.
- Drive the elbows up and out. Try to lead with the elbows and keep them higher than your hands. Go as far as you can without pain.
- Lower the weight down one-quarter of the full range, squeeze back up to the top and pause for a split second. That's one rep.