Everybody wants Steve Reeves' shoulders. In all honesty, his deltoid development wasn't exceptionally impressive, but he was blessed with god-like shoulder width in his skeletal frame which more than made up for any flatness in his deltoid muscles.
For us mere mortals, however, we have to work our shoulders to obtain some kind of width. I, myself, have narrow shoulders, so I've always paid special attention to my lateral delts.
As you can probably guess, this article is about creating the illusion of width in your shoulders. We should, however, examine the differences between the 3 heads that comprise the deltoid muscle group.
The Lateral Head
This is the head that you want to focus on to create the illusion of width in shoulders. You want to develop the bulbous look of this head, so that you have some separation between it and your biceps and triceps. If your lateral head became flat, not only would you lose the illusion of wide shoulders but your arms would also look fat if you had large biceps and triceps.
To develop the lateral head, you should use a wide variety of reps, but focus on the Type IIa and Type I fibers. In other words, you should complete a higher number of reps with little or no rest. This is why set extension techniques such trisets and descending sets work particularly well for the lateral head.
The Posterior Head
This is the least developed deltoid in bodybuilders. Although many bodybuilders perform bent-over lateral raises, this exercise is actually a poor choice for developing the posterior deltoid. With bent-over laterals, there is a tendency to cheat and swing the weights up with the help of the upper back muscles, the trapezius, and the legs.
To develop the rear deltoids, I prefer the exercise known as "lying reverse flyes." This is simply an exercise where you lie on your stomach and perform the rear delt raises one arm at a time. The lying reverse flye is a superior exercise, because it allows for a greater stretch of the posterior deltoid when the dumbbell passes across the chest and comes close to the floor.
The Anterior Head
This is the head you need to worry about the least. Most bodybuilders perform plenty of bench presses, incline presses, and military presses to develop this deltoid. Even when it comes to standing lateral raises, the anterior head will activate if you use poor form (which most people do).
Unless you're lacking in anterior head development, I would skip front delt training altogether. Since they're mostly made up of fast-twitch fibers, heavy pressing (from any angle) will activate the anterior heads.
Techniques For Increasing Lateral Deltoid Size
Lean Away Laterals - Descending Sets
In order to stimulate growth in my side delts, I developed this brutal method for my workouts. It's the best one I've come across. Here's what you do: Perform 3 sets of lean away dumbbell lateral raises. Each set is comprised of 4 descending sets. Rest 90 seconds between each arm. Here's a sample workout:
- 10-12 reps at 25 lbs. with your left arm followed immediately by
- 8-10 reps at 20 lbs. followed immediately by
- 6-8 reps at 15 lbs. followed immediately by
- 6-8 reps at 10 lbs.
- Rest for 90 seconds, then repeat the entire process for the right arm
- Switch back and forth between the right and left arm for 2 more times
This triset consists of 8-12 reps of standing dumbbell laterals, followed immediately by 8-12 reps of upright barbell rows, followed immediately by 8-12 reps of dumbbell overhead presses. Rest for 2 minutes, then repeat the entire process 2 more times.
I should warn you that performing too much work on the trapezius muscle (i.e. narrow grip upright rows) can make narrow shoulders look even narrower. My advice to bodybuilders with narrow frames is to abandon any direct trap work.
People with narrow shoulders develop immense traps without even training them directly. For these folks, any standing upper body exercises work will develop their traps.
Overhead Dumbbell Press - Pinkies Up
Here's how Arnold would tweak his overhead dumbbell presses: he would lift the dumbbells with his pinky side higher than his thumb side. This may not seem like a significant change in form, but if you incorporate this little trick, you'll hit the lateral deltoids much harder.
Here are some other tips to remember:
- Perform this movement standing. If you perform dumbbell overhead press sitting in a chair with back support, then there'll be a tendency for you to lean back, which would shift the focus to your front delts
- Keep your elbows as far back as possible throughout the movement to keep the stress on the lateral delts
- Press the movement up in the form of an arc
- Go for lower to moderate reps on this movement (6-10 reps)
- You can also incorporate descending sets on this exercise as well
Here is a sample workout:
- 6-8 reps followed immediately by
- 8-10 reps with lighter weight followed immediately by
- 10-12 reps with lighter weight
- Rest for 60-90 seconds
- Repeat the entire process 2 more times
If you still can't get boulder shoulders after blasting away with these techniques, then you're out of luck. But hey, who knows? Maybe those shoulder pads from the 80's will be in fashion again.
About The Author:
James Chan works full-time as a police officer for the University of California Police Department in San Francisco. In addition to his patrol duties, James is also a defensive tactics instructor for the department. James is also an NSCA certified personal trainer who specializes in strength training for law enforcement and physique enhancement for the general population. He may be reached at