by Tony Gjokaj March 01, 2020 9 min read

The Shoulders are one of the more intricate sets of muscle groups that we have... and it’s also a pretty commonly imbalanced area as a result of our daily lives!

In this blog post, we are going to discuss the Shoulders (the Deltoids), AND our Rotator Cuffs: both play a huge part in upper body posture and health!

This is a chapter in our Muscle Compendium eBook.

The Shoulders (Deltoids)

Anatomy and Function of The Deltoids

The Deltoids consist of three main muscle fibers: the anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids. Each provides a specific function for the deltoids:

  • The Anterior Deltoidis the front muscle fiber that allows the shoulder joint to move up and down (putting your hands in the air).
  • The Lateral Deltoidallows us to move the shoulder joint straight out from our sides.
  • The Posterior Deltoidallows us to extend our shoulder joint outward.

Each of these muscle fibers assist the shoulder joint through its full range of motion. Our shoulders are the most mobile of our body parts as they can move through various planes of movement. This is a good thing, yet if there is any imbalance, instability can occur. This could then lead to shoulder impingement issues.

As we’ve mentioned in previous chapters, a tight trapezius and upper back muscles could lead to our shoulders rounding, which then leads to weaker rotator cuffs. Add that with a “Bench Mondays” and “all I do is bench press” kind of lifting lifestyle… a shoulder injury becomes more of a matter of “when”. It is imperative that we strategize on minimizing too much work on the anterior deltoids and maximize lateral and posterior deltoid work.

To build some boulder/bolder shoulders, view the following section on Deltoid strategies.

Deltoid Training Strategies

Anterior Deltoid

When it comes to the anterior deltoid, we tend to overemphasize the development of this muscle group. If you do various types of chest work (bench press variations), the anterior deltoid is targeted. The following strategies are how to optimize anterior deltoid development:

  • Pick ONLY ONE TO TWO major anterior deltoid exercise. This exercise should be a Shoulder Press variation or an Incline Bench variation. These exercises will benefit both the anterior and lateral deltoids.
    • The reason why we minimize this is again if you do frequent bench-pressing, you are already hitting the anterior deltoid.
    • The bench press mimics the front raise if done properly, which is why the anterior deltoid is worked on chest workouts.
  • Do about 4-8 weekly sets maximum for your Anterior Deltoids. To reinforce the previously mentioned strategy, utilize 4-8 weekly sets for the anterior deltoids.
  • Heavy Work. The anterior deltoids respond better to heavyweight. For muscular development, we recommend targeting your anterior deltoids in the 5-10 rep range. Recall that most “push movements/muscles” respond better to heavier loads. 

Lateral Deltoid

When it comes to lateral deltoids, we know that we are usually limited to isolated lateral raise variations. This means that we have to get creative when it comes to muscular development in this area.

The strategies we recommend are the following:

  • “Pinkies Up!” When raising the dumbbell or machine at the top portion of the lateral raise exercise, turn your hands inward so that your pinkies are up. This will assist in contracting the lateral deltoid to a larger extent. 
  • Do Lateral Raises with your shoulders, not Forearms. Most people lift the weight on a lateral raise with their forearms to bring the weight up. This won’t contract the deltoid properly; you need to use your arms as levers that move with the deltoids. If you have to go super light to achieve this, do so. Tension on the lateral deltoids > weight raised.
  • Higher Reps. Since it is difficult to properly progress on the lateral raise, it is recommended that you focus on higher rep ranges to develop these muscles. Sets of 10-15 or 15-20 reps are highly recommended.
  • Try Chest Supported Lateral Raises. Most athletes train lateral raises by using momentum, which is inefficient and could possibly be detrimental to both your elbow and shoulder joints over time.
    • If you have a problem using momentum, we recommend a chest supported lateral raise. This will challenge you to keep proper form and constant tension on your deltoids. You might just have to go a little lighter.
  • Single Arm Lateral Raises at a 45-degree angle. One of our preferred methods is to do single-arm lateral raises at a 45-degree angle, meaning that we use our opposite hand to hold onto a bench and hang off of it at 45 degrees. This helps to isolate the lateral deltoid on a lateral raise.

Posterior (Rear) Deltoid

There are more posterior deltoid exercises than the lateral raise counterparts. Just like the lateral deltoid, the amount of weight we can do is limited. We must get creative.

  • HIGH Reps or more sets... We aren’t kidding. When it comes to the posterior or rear deltoid, we highly recommend utilizing high reps around 15-20 and, quite possibly, the 20-25 rep ranges. This may sound ridiculously unorthodox, but here are our reasons why:
    • The rear deltoid is usually an undertrained muscle, so more volume is recommended to muscular balance and development.
    • The rear deltoids can recover quickly.
    • They typically can handle higher amounts of volume.
  • Do both Face Pulls and Rear Delt Flys. I prefer to do Face Pulls on my back workouts and cable rear delt flys for my shoulder workouts. This means I target the rear deltoids at least 2-4x weekly. The reason for this is the muscular imbalances that I get from prolonged sitting and large amounts of chest/shoulder press work.

Effective Deltoid Exercises

As you can gather from the previous section, we tend to overemphasize the anterior (front) deltoid and underemphasize the lateral and posterior deltoids. As there aren’t many variations for each of the three heads, we will provide the exercises that provide the best muscular development.

Anterior Deltoid

  • Barbell Overhead Press: One of my favorite exercises. I prefer to do them standing.
  • Single Arm Dumbbell Press: I do these standing on one of my upper body days.
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Arnold Press
  • Incline Bench Press (Barbell/Dumbbell): If utilizing this exercise on your chest days, focus on an overhead press or shoulder press.

Lateral Deltoid

  • Machine Lateral Raise:Constant tension and feels good!
  • Chest Supported Lateral Raise:Humbles you and puts less momentum in the lateral raise.
  • Cable Lateral Raise:Massive tension throughout the whole movement

Posterior (Rear) Deltoid

  • Face Pulls One of my favorites. I love doing one-arm variations.
  • Machine Rear Delt Fly:Constant tension and solid pump.
  • Cable Rear Delt Fly:Massive tension!

The Deltoids: Summary

The Deltoids are a highly mobile area allowing us to move it in many ways. However, the consequence is that this area is more prone to injuries, tightness, and impingement.

In order to train these muscle fibers properly, I want to reiterate AGAIN that you should put less emphasis on the front deltoids and more in the lateral and posterior deltoids. The reason for this is the Chest work we typically implement with frequency. This will reduce the chance of impingement or injury.

Anterior Deltoid

For the anterior deltoids, you will experience drastic development from utilizing bench press, incline press, and overhead presses. You don’t necessarily need to utilize front raises for the development of this deltoid head. Anecdotally, my anterior deltoids blew up from Bench pressing and overhead press only!

Since this muscle fiber is utilized while bench pressing, you should shoot for direct work with 4-8 sets per week. In addition, training this muscle fiber 2x per week is perfect. Finally, the anterior deltoid responds best in the 6-10 rep range.

Lateral Deltoid And Posterior (Rear) Deltoid

For both the lateral and posterior deltoids, shoot for at least 16 sets per week. Since these muscle fibers recover quickly, you can train the deltoid heads 2-4x weekly. With both the lateral and posterior deltoids, training in the 10-20 rep range is an effective way to train them.

To conclude, understand one more time that due to poor and extended sessions of sitting, the majority of individuals tend to have overactive anterior deltoids. This makes the muscles prone to injury, especially when overemphasizing pressing exercises and underemphasizing pulling exercises.

In addition, understand that since these muscle fibers fall on a ball and socket joint: stabilization is the key to muscular balance in this muscle. Never forget to warm up your rotator cuffs, as they are the most common shoulder injury.

The Rotator Cuffs

Through overuse and overtraining of our chest and shoulder muscles, it's very common to encounter a problem with the rotator cuff. We tend to focus on our "beach muscles”, making this a common overactive or injured muscle group. This section is going to cover the Rotator Cuffs in their entirety.

Anatomy and Function of the Rotator Cuffs

The rotator cuff consists of four muscles: The Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Subscapularis. These muscles work and function together to provide stability for your shoulder. 

As mentioned previously, the shoulder is a muscle group that relies on stability to avoid injury. The rotator cuff also plays a huge part in this: If either the shoulder muscles or rotator cuff muscles lack stability, then the entire area won't function properly. 

So here’s how the Rotator Cuff operates:

  • The Supraspinatusallows lateral rotation and adduction of the upper arm. This is achieved in a proper lateral raise, where you utilize the upper arm instead of the forearm for the movement.
  • The Infraspinatus and Teres Minor both allow for external rotation of the upper arm. This means moving the forearm outward.
  • The Subscapularis allows for lateral and internal rotation of the upper arm. When the arm is raised, it allows the upper arm to move forward and down. A front raise executes this movement. 

Now that you understand the functions of these intricate and small muscles, you can strategize on how to properly train them, and even restore stability in the shoulders.

Rotator Cuff Strategies

  • Shoulder functionality: The primary goal for training the rotator cuff is building a full range of motion. Lack of functionality in the Rotator Cuffs will easily lead to injury (this is the most common reason for injury of the Rotator Cuff).
  • Rotator Cuff strengthening:Strengthening the rotator cuff is the next goal once you build a solid range of motion. With full functionality, you can actually target the rotator cuffs properly. Since they are very tiny muscles, it can be very difficult to target these muscles because of how small they are.
  • Lightweight, high reps: since they are tiny muscles, you most likely will not be able to target them with heavy external rotations. Light-weight and high reps in the 15-20 rep range can help isolate the rotator cuff muscles. Alternatively, you can do banded exercises to keep constant resistance and tension. 
  • Twice a week, three times at most: Since they are small muscles, you don't want to fatigue them when you train your upper body. 
  • Spinal Mobility:As it is more prominent to sit for long hours, a plethora of problems occur: Tight upper back, rounded shoulders, forward-leaning neck; all potential rotator cuff issues. Be cognizant of your muscular health and don't forget to do some mobility work, or even Yoga movements from time to time!

Rotator Cuff Exercises

  • Banded or LIGHT Dumbbell External Rotations: 2 sets of 15-20 reps.
  • Banded or LIGHT Dumbbell Internal Rotations: 2 sets of 15-20 reps.
  • Banded or LIGHT Dumbbell Lateral Raises: 2 sets of 15-20 reps. Most people make the mistake of going heavy on lateral raises, which makes them use momentum and their forearms to bring the weights up. You must focus on raising the upper arm instead of the forearm.
  • Banded or LIGHT Dumbbell Front Raises: 2 sets of 15-20 reps. This is the only time I would do a dumbbell front raise.

We recommend banded rotator cuff exercises over dumbbell ones, because of the lighter resistance and tension.

We also recommend doing rotator cuff exercises at the end of the workout or one set as a warm-up, and one set as a workout finisher.

Rotator Cuff: Summary

The rotator cuff not just affects the shoulders, but it could affect the whole upper body in its entirety. One muscular imbalance can lead to others: For example, you need shoulder stability for total arm health.

Most of the training that is prescribed for the rotator cuff revolves around warm-up and post-workout exercises. These exercises should not be neglected whatsoever, and all of these angles should be trained for proper upper body mobility, and shoulder stability.

The Conclusion

This is one of the chapters in our eBook that's probably the longest, and for good reason: I have constantly dealt with shoulder and rotator cuff issues because of my neglect in the smaller intricate muscles inside my shoulder.

Just one issue with these muscles can send other imbalances that your body constantly tries to compensate in its own way.

We hope that in understanding these muscles, you can train them with the respect they deserve: in balance.

Anything you would like to add? Throw them in the comments below!

Until next time legion!

Tony Gjokaj
Tony Gjokaj

Tony is the Owner of Reforged Performance Nutrition. He has been in the fitness space for over a decade, previously coaching individuals in body recomposition and strength training. His goal is to connect others with the knowledge they need to reach their greatest potential.


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