Evlo Fitness/Education/Types of Exercise/Top three deltoid exercises
Shannon Ritchey
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Top three deltoid exercises

Shoulder pain? Neck pain? Limited mobility?

I believe that if we only treat tightness and pain, the problem will never truly go away.


Instead, look at what stressors are causing the tightness/pain and replace those movements with more mechanically sound ones whenever possible. 


Choosing mechanically sound exercises more frequently will result in lasting results, stronger muscles, less inflammation, and a more preserved shoulder joint. 

To be honest, studying mechanics is frustrating because I’m realizing that the exercises I have been doing for years aren’t necessarily the most ideal. I’m starting to understand why fitness enthusiasts commonly have neck pain, rotator cuff injuries, labral tears, and impingement syndrome. It’s because many common exercises aren’t as mechanically sound and might not target muscles like we think they do. This leads to over-stressing certain areas and under-stressing others, leading to inflammatory conditions like bursitis, tendinitis, impingement, etc. 

So let’s take a look at the shoulder and how to train the shoulder in ways that build up the joint with as little risk of injury. 

The shoulder is a tough joint to work with because of its complexity. The shoulder complex is made up of three bones, all of which have complex mechanical movements. 

Not to mention, there are about 20 muscles that support and move the shoulder complex. In order to have a strong, resilient shoulder, it’s important to strengthen these muscles in the safest, most effective ways so the entire joint can be stable, functional, and mobile. 

When it comes to strength-training, I’m a huge fan of focusing on as few muscle groups as possible during a movement. Coordination of bigger movements is important, but the big movements sometimes neglect certain muscle groups and overwork others, causing imbalances, tightness, and eventually pathologies such as impingement, bursitis, tendinitis, etc. 

Because different shoulder muscles are physically larger and “stronger,” it’s important to understand what exercises bias what muscles when working the arms.

Many common exercises in the fitness world can stress parts of the shoulder that we aren’t necessarily targeting. Small muscles like your rotator cuff end up getting overly stressed, whereas bigger muscles like your deltoids are under-utilized. This can cause inflammatory conditions like impingement syndrome and bursitis and even lead to muscle and labral tears.

Your deltoid muscle is one of the bigger and stronger muscles of the shoulder. This large muscle is divided into three parts, which have slightly different functions. Let’s discuss all three parts and the best ways to target each portion. 

Anterior deltoid

The anterior deltoid originates on the clavicle and inserts on the middle of the arm. This muscle primarily moves the arm into flexion (in front of you).

Less “ideal” for the anterior deltoid: Dumbbell front raise 

Let’s take a closer look at this exercise and why it might not be the most ideal for working the anterior deltoid. 

The biggest issue with this exercise is what’s called the resistance curve. This means the resistance is the greatest when the muscle is the shortest. If you’ve ever done this exercise, you feel that it is hardest at the top of the motion. This happens to be where the muscle is fully shortened and the “weakest.” This is a position of vulnerability since the anterior deltoid is the weakest at 90 degrees, and the resistance is the most at 90 degrees. This is why you have to “swing” your arm if you’re using heavy weight. 

Not only does the resistance curve not ideal to bias the anterior deltoid, but the anterior deltoid isn’t getting much resistance in the beginning range of motion, where it is the strongest. 

Lastly, the neck muscles are stressed unnecessarily in this exercise. 

More “ideal” for the anterior deltoid: supine narrow press

Ideally, you want the exercise to “feel” the hardest when the muscle is in an elongated state. An ideal way to strengthen the anterior deltoid is a supine narrow chest press. This exercise will “feel” the hardest at the beginning of the motion when the anterior deltoid is in a more elongated position. This exercise better matches the muscle’s resistance curve and will be more effective at strengthening the anterior deltoid without unnecessarily stressing the neck muscles. 

Lateral deltoid

The lateral deltoid originates on the shoulder blade and inserts on the middle of the arm.

The primary movement of this muscle is shoulder abduction or bringing your arm to the side. 

Less “ideal” for the lateral deltoid: Standing lateral raise 

A common exercise for this muscle is the lateral raise. This exercise has similar issues as the front raise. 

In a lateral raise, the direction of resistance for the middle deltoid is the most when your arm is at 90 degrees, at the very top of the movement. This is also when the muscle is the shortest and “weakest.” Again, you might feel like you have to use a light weight, or swing your arm. This exercise biases the upper traps for most of the movement and can unnecessarily stress muscles like the supraspinatus.

More “ideal” for the lateral deltoid: Side-lying lateral raise 

An ideal exercise for the lateral deltoids is a side-lying lateral raise. This exercise biases the middle deltoid more at the beginning of the movement and is almost no resistance at the end when the muscle is the shortest and “weakest.” Not only does this match the ideal strength curve of the muscle, but it also places less force/stress through the rotator cuff and upper traps.

Posterior deltoid 

The posterior deltoid originates on the shoulder blade and inserts on the middle of the arm. This muscle primarily moves the arm behind you into arm extension. 

Less “ideal” for the posterior deltoid: bent-over row 

A common exercise for the posterior deltoid is a bent-over row. I don’t recommend this exercise without some sort of trunk support. You can use a single-arm and support yourself with the other arm, or more ideally, lay on a bench for trunk support. This is because this exercise can load the lower back more than the shoulder. 

The second issue with this exercise is that it late phase loads the muscle, just like the standing front raise and lateral raise. The exercise is the “hardest” at the end of the movement when the muscle is the shortest. 

More “ideal” for the posterior deltoid: Side-lying horizontal shoulder abduction 

An ideal resistance curve to strengthen the posterior deltoid is side-lying shoulder abduction. This exercise will feel the hardest towards the beginning of the movement and get easier towards the top. This more accurately matches the resistance curve of the muscle. 

Wrapping up 

I’m not implying that you should never do the less ideal movements, but I think it’s important to limit them and/or how much weight you are using. It can be valuable to occasionally use the less ideal movements to strengthen the muscles at their end range. However, I would recommend doing them less frequently than the “more ideal” exercises.  This will ensure stronger deltoid muscles while minimizing the risk of inflammatory conditions, pain, and tightness in the shoulder and neck.