The shoulders—the deltoids—are among the most important muscles we use in daily life. Whether we’re pushing, pulling or lifting things over our heads, the shoulder muscles always come into play. They’re also a key factor in aesthetics. Broad shoulders make a person look strong and confident, and can even make one’s waist look slimmer.
Despite all the functional and aesthetic benefits of strong shoulders, they’re also some of the most misunderstood and oft-neglected muscles. Here’s why: The shoulder is a complex ball-and-socket joint that’s capable of flexion, extension, rotation and more, and there are three distinct muscles required to perform these movements—the anterior, medial and posterior deltoids. The problem is people mostly pay attention to the anterior deltoids—the muscles on the front of the shoulder—probably because those are the ones we see in the mirror every day. Neglecting the medial and posterior deltoids can result in an unbalanced look and, more importantly, can lead to shoulder injuries and disorders that, studies show, affect up to 69 percent of people at some point in their lifetime.
For targeting the anterior deltoid, the dumbbell shoulder press elicited significantly higher muscle activation than any other exercise tested. For the medial deltoid, two exercises came out on top: the 45-degree incline row and the bent-arm lateral raise. Finally, for the posterior deltoid, researchers found that the seated rear lateral raise and the 45-degree incline row both provided the greatest muscle activation for the back of the shoulder.
“You have to target the shoulder with more than one exercise, and you have to be aware which area of the deltoid each exercise is targeting,” says lead researcher Samantha Sweeney, M.S. “For instance, if you’re doing front raises, shoulder presses and lateral raises you’ve actually just doubled up on the anterior deltoid, hit the middle and then totally neglected the posterior deltoid. You’re not getting a well-rounded workout.”
For the optimal workout, you’re best served doing the dumbbell shoulder press to target the front of the shoulders, and either the 45-degree incline row or the seated rear lateral raise for the rear part of the shoulders.
And if you were going to remove one commonly used, yet ineffective shoulder exercise from your workout, which one should you drop? That’s easy: the upright row. “Although lots of people do the upright row and think it’s great, our results showed it to be low on all ends of the spectrum,” says Sweeney.
Sweeney further recommends it’s best to begin your shoulder workout with exercises that target the posterior deltoid first, because it’s typically the weakest of the shoulder muscles, then follow up with an exercise for the stronger anterior deltoid.
Whether your goal for strength training your shoulder muscles is to look better, improve sports performance, or simply to avoid injury and be better prepared for everyday tasks, following the recommendations from this research will help you get fitter, faster—and what could be better than that?
There is not one best exercise for targeting the shoulders. It is impossible for one exercise to maximally activate all three heads of the deltoid muscle.
Here is how to preform the top shoulder exercises:
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and core stabilized. With a dumbbell in each hand, bring your arms up until they are even with the sides of the shoulders. Press the dumbbells upward until your arms are extended overhead and lower back down to the sides of your shoulders to finish the movement.
45-degree Incline Row
Lying prone on a 45-degree incline bench, let your arms hang straight while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Slowly lift your arms as high as possible by squeezing the shoulder blades together. Throughout the movement, the upper arms should remain perpendicular to the body, with the forearms pointed towards the floor. After reaching the top of the movement, slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Seated Rear Lateral Raise
Sit on the edge of a bench with your feet on the floor. While bending over and, if flexibility allows, resting your torso on your thighs, grasp the dumbbells while the arms are extended under your legs. Maintain a flat back position as you slowly raise your arms to your sides until your elbows are at shoulder height. The arms should be perpendicular to your torso, with a flexed elbow position throughout the exercise. Then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
For the full study and more information, visit https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/expert-insight-article/47/5001/dynamite-delts-ace-research-identifies-top/