The Body Part Series #1- Shoulder Training

Welcome To My New Series!

I decided recently that a useful tool I could use to produce more informative content in an efficient manner is creating a series of articles for you guys to understand and easily apply into your own fitness regimen. After thinking about what I could offer, I came to the conclusion of writing a group of posts based on specific recommendations training individual body parts. My goal for this is for you guys to understand how to train each muscle as efficiently as possible, which surely will be valuable knowledge to apply to your training program. I’m excited to jump into each of these posts. I don’t have a specific timeline in mind on when I’m going to release them, but in general I’m going to try to keep them as informative as possible without being excessively technical and mundane. So sit back, relax, and thanks in advance for reading through each of these articles as they’re posted on my website.

Key Takeaways:

  1. There are three muscles in the deltoid that should be targeted in your training: anterior, lateral, and posterior

  2. A compound movement (such as the overhead press) should be your training priority for effective muscle and strength increases

  3. The side and rear delts are important for both aesthetics and overall balance in the upper-body

For the first body part explained, let’s dive in and analyze the shoulder muscles. If you’re lacking shoulder strength and are looking to develop a strong and more balanced upper-body, be sure to read through the rest of this article. Well-developed shoulders are desirable for anyone looking for a balanced physique, and therefore it is important not to neglect the individual heads, which when trained properly help contribute to a full look that both males and females are looking for. I’m going to explain the overall anatomy of the deltoid, the most effective exercises for targeting individual muscle fibers, and other strategies to implement that are going to benefit your entire training program.

Shoulder Anatomy

The largest muscle inserting on the human shoulder is the deltoid, consisting of 3 different heads: anterior (front delts), lateral (side delts), and posterior (rear delts). These muscle fibers work collectively in shoulder flexion, shoulder abduction, and shoulder extension, respectively. It’s important to note that all three heads will be targeted to an extent in all shoulder exercises, however each head can be emphasized properly through the use of specific exercises. People often incorporate “special” strategies in their shoulder training to “shock the muscles”, but such actions are unnecessary for building size and strength. Providing adequate volume and frequency (at least 2X per week for 10-20 sets), applying principles of progressive overload, and supporting your training with proper recovery and nutrition should be more than enough to train these muscles effectively.

Shoulder Training 101

The Essential Movement

The overhead press has shown to be an excellent compound lift for the shoulders, in relation to overall delt recruitment and explosive strength  (Barnett et al 1995). The previous study made its conclusions in reference to the traditional barbell exercise, however the dumbbell variation should be another strong consideration, showing to elicit more medial and rear head recruitment (Saeterbakken et al 2013). Personally, I opt for the standard barbell version, which is definitely more advisable for someone looking to improve upper-body strength and athletic performance. This is a movement I personally deem essential to your training, barring any preexisting injuries or other medical conditions that prevent you from performing the movement. There simply is no other exercise that is a better “bang-for-your-buck” than the overhead press movement. Like I said, both the barbell and dumbbell variations are excellent for overall shoulder development, so based on your equipment/time availability simply choose the exercise that’s going to work best into your program. Whether you’re an aspiring powerlifter, bodybuilder, or simply someone looking to get into better physical shape, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with a strength-focused movement that has other proven benefits.

Overhead press

Advice to Isolate The Smaller Heads

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it’s most definitely a good idea to provide adequate training volume for the individual shoulder heads when looking to build well-developed, broad shoulders. Let’s start with the anterior deltoid, which is a slight exception to this rule. Research has shown that the front delts are actively involved in horizontal pushing exercises such as the bench press and incline dumbbell press (Lauver et al 2015). Because of this, isolation for this head becomes a lot necessary when it comes to overall shoulder development, assuming you already have 1-2 horizontal press variations that you regularly perform in your training split. The potential problem here being creating overdeveloped front delts while the other 2 heads lag behind, which can create issues both aesthetically as well as overall shoulder joint strength and injury prevention.

As I said before though, I do recommend 1-2 isolation exercises for the often neglected shoulder heads to maximize your overall shoulder development. For the lateral deltoid, the dumbbell side lateral raise has shown to elicit the highest activation of the mid delt compared to other shoulder exercises (Behren and Buskies 2011). This exercise also has the convenience factor of being able to perform at almost any gym, but make you’re performing the exercise with proper form to properly isolate the muscle head and reduce joint stress. Try to keep in mind externally rotating your shoulders, with a slight lean forward to keep the movement in the direct line of force (see picture below).

Credits to an awesome diagram made by Jeremy at

And finally for working your rear delts, a face pull variation is an excellent selection to effectively hit this tiny muscle group. While any scapular retraction exercise will recruit other muscles of the upper back (rhomboids and traps), the lying face pull variation has shown to decrease activation of the upper traps and place a greater emphasis on the rear delts (Cools et al 2007). Or if you’re gym contains the common pec-deck machine, that is also a good option for rear delt recruitment. One study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research indicated that the use of this machine with a neutral grip position increased activation of the posterior deltoid, due to increased internal rotation of the shoulders (Schoenfeld et al 2013). Picking 1-2 of these exercises and performing them for ~8-10 sets a week should be sufficient for optimal development of the smaller heads, creating a properly balanced deltoid muscle.

lying face pulls
Another instructional diagram made by Jeremy


Hopefully this simplified any confusion you guys may have had about your shoulder training.  Please do not overthink your training or provide any ridiculous training strategies that are counterproductive for your results, just stick to the basic movement outlined above and aim to progress every workout! As you’ll probably see as a theme with the content I produce, I’m a big believer in not overthinking your training strategy, and instead adopting your training style based on your personal preferences and evidenced-based approaches that’ll help you reach your goals. And that’s a wrap for the first article of my body part training series. Let me know in the comments below, what are your favorite shoulder exercises to perform? And what’s the next body part you’d like to see me explain?


Studies Referenced:







Categories Training

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