What are the best side delt exercises?
The best side delt exercises are essential for building a rounded, toned shoulder and developing your deltoid muscles.
They also help enhance overall upper body strength, with many exercises engaging the back, arms, and core muscles as well.
In this guide, we break down the best side delt exercises to help you build muscle mass while also improving core stability, flexibility, and posture.
The Best Side Delt Exercises
Our exercise lists are created by determining the best exercises for muscle growth, core strength, and overall health and well-being.
Here’s our list of the 10 best side delt exercises:
10. Incline W-Raises
Incline W-raises allow for growth and strength development in the muscles while also improving rotator cuff strength.
This exercise also hits the rear delts, leading to a broader overall upper body.
How to do it:
Set an exercise bench to the incline position, then:
- Lie on the bench on your front holding the dumbbells out in front of you, so your biceps are pointing downwards, and your forearms are parallel with the floor
- Engage your core and shoulder blades, then raise your arms up and out to the sides in a rotation motion
- At the apex of this movement, your arms and head should form a W-shape when viewed from above/behind
- After a brief pause, return your arms slowly to the starting position
Incline W-raises are a nice variation on lateral raises, which focus more directly on the shoulders.
Biceps, forearms, and traps are also used in this workout, making it a nice complement to other upper body exercises.
Include the incline W-raises exercise when working your shoulders and improving flexibility, 2-3 times per week.
9. Seated Behind-The-Neck Press
Note: The illustration shows use of the smith machine, but you can also use a regular bench and barbell.
If you’re looking for the best side delt workout that targets the upper back, you should consider the seated behind-the-neck press.
As well as your deltoids, this delt exercise impacts your traps and rhomboids to deliver a solid workout across the upper torso.
How to do it:
To perform the seated behind-the-beck press:
- Sit on a bench with a barbell resting over your traps behind your neck
- Place your feet firmly on the ground with your knees at 90-degrees
- With palms facing forwards and hands positioned at shoulder-width, brace your core and squeeze your shoulder blades together
- Push the barbell up and over your head, then pause and slowly lower it back to the starting position behind your neck
This variation on the traditional overhead press further engages your shoulders by bringing the motion behind your neck.
Few exercises open up the shoulder blades and work out the deltoids like the seated behind-the-neck press, provided you master the form first.
Don’t overdo this exercise if you’re new to it. Start off doing this 1-2 times per week until your shoulder mobility and strength improves.
8. Behind-The-Back Cable Raises
Note: The illustration shows the cable in front of the model. Make sure the cable is behind your back.
The behind-the-back cable raise is an effective side delt workout that hones in on a range of other shoulder muscles.
Additionally, this workout will help build strength in other upper and lower body muscles, leading to overall improvements in your posture and balance.
How to do it:
To perform behind-the-back cable raises:
- Place the cable pulley in the lowest position on the cable machine, then take the cable handle and hold it behind your back
- Brace your core and add a slight bend to your elbow
- Lift the cable up and out to the side until your hand is above your shoulders
- Slowly lower back to the starting position.
By bringing in your back and core muscles as you raise the cable, this workout helps you to build a stronger, more stable spinal region.
Rhomboids, trapezius, and lats build mass and strength to make this delt exercise a nice all-rounder for upper body growth.
Include behind-the-back cable raises 2-3 times per week as part of a strength training gym session or when focusing on developing your shoulders.
7. Seated Dumbbell Military Press
If you’re not quite ready for the standing military press with the barbell, the seated dumbbell military press is a nice introduction to this great shoulder exercise.
To a lesser degree, you’ll also target muscles in your chest and arms for additional upper body gains.
How to do it:
- Sit down and raise the dumbbells, so you’re holding them at shoulder height
- With your palms facing forwards, lift the weights up and over your head until your arms are fully extended
- Pause, then lower the weights back to the starting position above your shoulders
This is the best side delt workout for people suffering from back issues or otherwise not ready to lift really heavy weights.
Nevertheless, this still works your shoulder muscles and helps build up core strength and a stronger back.
Include this exercise 2-3 times per week as part of your upper body routine or when you want to target your side delts.
6. Side Plank With Lateral Raise
Note: The illustration above is an easier version of the exercise, using an incline bench instead of the plank position. Try out this variation first.
The side plank with lateral raise is a great deltoid workout that can be performed without hitting the gym.
All you need is a single dumbbell and a bit of floor space, and you can give your lateral deltoids a real challenge.
How to do it:
Grab a dumbbell, then:
- Lie on one side, raising yourself up on the forearm and elbow of your right arm and propped on the side of your right foot, so your body raises up at an angle
- While in this side plank position, raise the dumbbell up and over your side in your left hand
- Hold at the top, then lower down to the start position and repeat for additional reps
- Switch sides and repeat these instructions for the other side of your body
While also strengthening the lateral hip muscles and the obliques, the side plank with lateral raise emphasizes motion in the shoulder joint.
Balance is also improved with this side delt exercise while holding the plank position strengthens your core.
This is one of the best side delt exercises to use as part of a full-body workout or when targeting shoulder growth.
5. Single-Arm Lean Away Cable Raises
This cable raise exercise not only builds definition and muscle mass in your shoulders it also improves flexibility by activating the rotator cuffs.
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can try a variation of this exercise which uses a dumbbell instead.
How to do it:
To perform single-arm lean away cable raises:
- Set the cable pulley to the lowest position and select the desired weight
- Stand with one side pointing towards the cable machine and hang onto the machine with this hand, then take the cable grip in the hand opposite the machine
- Lean away from the machine until the arm you’re using to hang on it is fully extended, using your feet to balance
- Pull the cable up with the other hand, across your body, and up into the air, pointing away from you
- Slowly lower to the start position to complete the rep, and switch sides when you’re ready to work out the other shoulder
One of the best shoulder-strengthening exercises available, this workout tones this region as well as the upper portion of your back muscles.
This is a side delt workout that will really help you bulk up around the shoulders and develop better flexibility.
Include the single-arm lean-away cable raises as part of your shoulder routines 2-3 times per week.
4. Seated Arnold Press
An incredibly popular shoulder exercise, the seated Arnold press hits all the muscles in your shoulders, activating the posterior, anterior, and lateral deltoids.
The rotation motion of this delt workout means you’ll improve flexibility through engaging the rotator cuffs.
How to do it:
To perform the seated Arnold press, take a bench with the backrest in an upright position, then:
- Sit on the bench with your back nice and straight, then lift the dumbbells up and hold them slightly above your shoulders with your palms facing towards your chest (as if you’re at the top of a bicep curl)
- Instead of pushing straight up, push and twist your arms out to the side, bringing the dumbbell up and over your shoulders, so your palms rotate until they are facing outwards at the apex of the lift
- Pause at the top of the move (your biceps should be beside your ears), then reverse the twisting motion as you return the weights to the start position
The seated Arnold press is a great compound exercise for shoulders that will deliver gains in other regions of your upper body.
Overall, upper body definition and posture benefit greatly from including this workout in your gym routines.
Include this workout 2-3 times per week when working your upper body, especially when you want to hit the full range of shoulder muscles hard.
3. Barbell Upright Rows
Barbell upright rows exercise the upper back and the shoulders, helping you achieve a nice, broad upper body.
It also helps develop strength in the posterior chain, meaning your back and spine will build mass and be less prone to injuries.
How to do it:
To perform the barbell upright row exercise:
- Load a barbell with your desired weights and stand in front of the bar with feet at shoulder-width apart
- Take the barbell in an overhand grip, with your hands at shoulder-width distance
- Lift the barbell off the floor and stand up straight with your arms fully extended and the bar around your waist
- Engage your core and pull back your shoulder blades, the lift up the barbell until it reaches just under your chin
- Pause, then slowly lower the bar back to the starting position
As well as really hitting your shoulders, barbell upright rows give your lats, traps, and biceps a workout for all round upper body gains.
If you tighten your core, you’ll improve the definition around your abs, too.
Include this workout as part of your strength training sessions, or 2-3 times per week as part of an upper-body or shoulder workout.
2. Cable Lateral Raises
If you’re looking for the best side delt workout specifically geared towards targeting this muscle above any others, cable lateral raises are a must.
The anterior deltoid also comes into play to help build a rounded overall shoulder, and the middle and lower traps will also experience growth.
How to do it:
Choose your weights and position the cable machine pulley at the bottom of the machine, then:
- Stand to the side of the machine with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Push your chest forwards and shoulder blades back, tightening your core
- Reach across your body and take the pulley cable in your outside arm
- With a slight elbow bend, lift and raise the cable across your body until it is pointing away from your body and level with your shoulders
- Lower the cable slowly back to the starting position to complete the rep
This is the best side delt exercise for anyone working on developing shoulder definition and seeking a nice, balanced shape.
By using a cable, you can maintain continuous tension throughout the exercise, making this a routine capable of delivering optimal results.
Include this workout as part of your shoulder-based gym sessions in conjunction with other shoulder exercises which bring in other muscle groups.
1. Dumbbell Lateral Raises
Dumbbell lateral raises offer a killer workout for the shoulders, building mass and strength while developing a toned appearance.
Your triceps are also well engaged with this lateral deltoid exercise for additional upper body gains.
How to do it:
Pick up the dumbbells of the weight of your choosing, then:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Hold the dumbbells at your side with your palms facing inwards
- Brace your core and lift the weights up and out to your sides, holding once your arms are parallel with the floor
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position
This delt exercise helps strengthen, stabilize, and tone your shoulders more than many other upper body exercises.
If you compete in other sporting or athletic events, dumbbell lateral raises are a must.
Include this exercise as part of your strength training regime or an upper-body or shoulder-focused session in the gym.
FAQs About Side Delt Exercises
We’ve put together this handy FAQ guide to answer any other questions you may have about side delt exercises.
Q: What do side delts do?
Side delts cover the middle portion of your shoulder and are used in a range of lifting motions.
This helps to abduct your shoulder when picking up objects and is involved in a range of other motions, for instance, when playing racket sports.
Q: Do I need to train side delts?
If you want to improve your shoulder mobility and build better strength and definition, you should consider lateral shoulder exercises at least twice per week.
Different shoulder exercises impact different parts of the deltoids, so choose the right one if you want to focus on your side delts.
Q: How do you isolate your side delt?
To isolate your side deltoid, choose one of the lateral deltoid exercises from the selection of side delt workouts we’ve outlined in this guide that best suits your requirements.
You can mix up different side deltoid exercises to ensure optimal training for your side delt muscles.
Q: How often can you train side delts?
The frequency and intensity you train your side delts will vary depending on your current strength and ability, but try to aim for 2-3 times per week.
Mix up the exercises you choose for this to bring other shoulder muscles into play.
Q: How long do side delts take to recover?
With shoulder pains a common complaint among weightlifters and athletes, recovery time is essential.
Make sure you include a minimum 48 hours recovery time between sessions to ensure your muscles have time to rest and recuperate before the next workout.
The best side deltoid exercises help bring better strength and definition to your shoulders while improving your overall upper body muscle mass.
This guide should help you fit a range of side delt exercises into your gym routine, delivering results to be proud of.
Here’s a quick recap of the 10 best side delt exercises:
- Dumbbell Lateral Raises
- Cable Lateral Raises
- Barbell Upright Rows
- Seated Arnold Press
- Single-Arm Lean Away Cable Raises
- Side Planks With Lateral Raises
- Seated Dumbbell Military Press
- Behind-The-Back Cable Raises
- Seated Behind-The-Beck Press
- Incline W-Raises
If you enjoyed this article, check out some of our other exercise lists:
- The 10 Best Upper Ab Exercises
- The 10 Best Lower Ab Exercises
- The 10 Best Rear Delt Exercises
- The 10 Best Quad Exercises