by Jim Cordova

Because the shoulders function during practically every upper body exercise, either directly or indirectly, they are quite easy to stimulate. Performing any direct shoulder exercise is a virtual guarantee that you will activate fiber in this muscle group. In fact, they are so easy to activate that they commonly interfere when directly working other bodyparts, such as the chest, and precautions must be taken to minimize their usage. Even so, the intricate nature of the deltoids does present a challenge when aiming for thorough stimulation. As we explore the anatomy and function of this muscle group, it should become apparent as to why this is the case.

Though it appears as one round muscle, the shoulders are usually divided into three distinct regions, namely the anterior, lateral, and posterior heads. The anterior deltoid (front delt region) originates on the clavicle (collar bone) and inserts on the humerus (upper arm bone), functioning by raising the arm up to the front of the body. The lateral deltoid (side delt region) originates on the scapula (shoulder blade) and inserts on the humerus, allowing you to bring your arm out to the side. The posterior deltoid (rear delt region) also originates on the scapula and inserts on the humerus. The rear head allows you to bring the arm backward. Because all three regions of the deltoid insert into the upper arm, fiber recruitment in each head will shift relative to even the slightest changes in arm rotation and angle of execution. This means that numerous variations of presses and raises will be needed for full, round, delts.

Most of you are aware that the most effective and commonly used exercises include overhead presses, upright rows, and various versions of the dumbbell raises. With regard to performing the latter, I find that many encounter rotator cuff pain and have trouble experiencing a strong contraction. Throughout this article, I will expound on the vague topic of positioning as it pertains to getting the most out raising movements. If you grasp the concepts that follow, I am certain that they fry your deltoids to the extreme!

In order for the following positioning tactics to be most advantageous, it is essential that you consider the fiber direction between the attachment points when working the delts. This will provide insight in terms of positioning yourself to optimize the path of travel, enhance muscular contraction, and maximize fiber stimulation when targeting a region of the delts. Basically, each section of the deltoid will move the arm according to its fiber direction and the objective is to correlate this with the line of tension.

Consider front raises for the anterior deltoid region. Although these are commonly performed by bringing the weight straight up from the sides of the body, this is not ideal way to work the fiber from a full stretch to peak contraction. Given that the fiber forms at an angle, the most effective execution of a front raise entails moving the weight from the side of the body in toward the midline. This particular variation is intensified by keeping the hands midway between the pronated and neutral position. Because the fiber direction of each head swerves in various directions from origination to insertion, virtually every raising movement will demand moving the weight at a slight angle.

As you will soon realize, there is a great deal of similarity between raising movements that target the front and side delts, but you can use a basic spectrum to track the target fiber in these two regions. Take a moment to raise your arms from the sides of your body and touch your hands together at shoulder level. This would represent point A in the spectrum. Next, keep them raised and move them directly out to the sides of the shoulders so that your upper body forms a sort of cross, and you have point Z.

Obviously, I have designated these points A-Z to shed light on the versatility of shoulder movement when performing raises, but you shouldn’t get carried away by trying to track changes in millimeter increments. The point is simply to get you to be mindful enough to change up the path of travel each time you perform a front or side raise to avoid stagnation and build fuller delts. To get the full effect, this spectrum is to be used in conjunction with upper body posture and arm rotation to maximize stimulation and avoid rotator cuff injury.

Though it is commonly recommended to perform dumbbell raises out to the sides of the body to recruit side deltoid fiber, this is only relative to keeping the upper body placed upright. As it stands, some of the most natural and effective side delt raising variations involve elevating the arms at an angle where most mainstream regimens recommend raising for the front delts. Yet, they are only effective when bending the upper body forward to properly position the side delts against gravity. When using dumbbells, you should bend your upper body forward more so relative to the degree that you move the arms toward the front of the body when raising for the side delt region. Once your mind-muscle connection evolves to the point to where you attain a powerful pump, burn, and contraction, you can transfer this concept over to cables to vary the tension pattern and shock the delts into extreme growth!

You can use arm rotation at the shoulder joint to influence the degree of front or side delt emphasis. If you stand in front of the mirror and elevate your arms out to the sides at shoulder width, you will see the side delt region rise up as you pronate the hands, and vice-versa. In relation to this, the side delts will become very difficult to stimulate while standing upright unless you pronate the hands, so that the back of the dumbbell is a bit higher than the front, almost as if you were pouring out a drink. Likewise, emphasis will shift to the front delts relative to the degree of supinating the hands. In correlation to the raising spectrum described earlier, arm rotation will allow you to shift fiber emphasis even while raising at one single point. This means you can effectively target fiber in the front delts by raising from angles commonly used for the side delts and vice-versa.

It is both safer and more effective to shift the hands toward the neutral grip on many variations to both enhance stimulation and reduce the potential for rotator cuff injury when working the side delts. Again, this will require tilting the upper body forward and this is best learned while sitting on a bench. Equally, you can achieve incredible stimulation in the front delt region when using a neutral grip and elevating the arms a bit wider than shoulder-width while standing upright, as you normally would for the medial head with a pronated grip.

Total isolation of a region of fiber within each head is impossible, but this absolutely does not imply than you cannot significantly shift the stress to various locations across the muscles! Performing raises at any point in between the two ends of this spectrum will indeed stress the front and side deltoid regions uniquely, especially when combined with arm rotation. In fact, if you play around with this, you will feel the peak contraction transfer across a single head, most apparent within the side delt region, as you elevate the arms to contract the delts along various points in the spectrum.

Thinking in terms of a spectrum will also serve you when performing raises for the rear deltoid region. One end point is extending back so that the arms form a straight line at shoulder width and the other is with arms to the sides, with each causing a shift in fiber emphasis. As is the case with the front and side deltoid regions, arm rotation is a key variable within this framework. The rear deltoids are not directly influenced by the biceps and forearm function with regard to wrist rotation, however, a conscious selection of either the pronated, neutral, or supinated positions will best allow you to control this variable. I won’t go into much detail with applicable forms of raises within this range as it pertains to fiber stimulation simply because I feel you might benefit most if I describe the rare style of repetition that I most commonly use for mass building.

Analogous to pressing for the front delt region, the rear delts are involved with power movements generated by the back muscles. I therefore advocate the usage of rowing type movements to maximize your potential for mass and development. One of my favorite styles of “raising” actually equates to a sort of row, as there is a sharp bend in my arms at the top of the movement. I find it very effective to bring my elbows out slightly while using a grip within vicinity of the neutral and supinated position. This is similar to sitting in reverse on a pec-deck and elbowing backward, except that the resistance is stronger and more natural throughout the range-of-motion (ROM) when dropping the elbows slightly and using dumbbells.

When mass building, I keep the weight moving and come nowhere close to straightening out the arms so that I remain in the power range of the ROM. This brings the traps into play to some extent, and I use a bit of momentum at the bottom of the movement. Yet, this is natural given that the body is meant to work as a unit. Moreover, a synergy is created, allowing the delts to undergo much more stress than they would merely isolating with a light pair of dumbbells. Granted, I also use this version, but mostly to bring out separation and detail, just as I would perform front raises for the front delts in addition to presses.

This should broaden your mindset enough to begin incorporating many more forms of dumbbell raises into your routine, targeting specified regions of fiber within each head. However, even if you add a significant amount of muscle and enhance your development with the strategies discussed here, you will still need to incorporate compound movements into your routine to maximize your potential. But before you continue on with the standard pressing variations that you are accustomed to, consider that this movement offers just as many opportunities as those discussed here. If you desire to learn a few, I encourage you to check out part two of this series!