Shoulder Exercises

The Delt Isolation Workout for Bigger Shoulders

Use pre-exhaustion to isolate your shoulders and compound your gains.

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The Delt Isolation Workout for Bigger Shoulders
Blend Images/John Fedele / Getty

Stop disrespecting your shoulders with the same monotonous parade of presses each week. It’s time to rebuff those dulled delts with this wicked pre-exhaustion routine. Pre-exhaustion means fatiguing an isolated muscle group with single-joint exercises, like straight-arm raises and laterals, before moving on to the heavier multijoint movements, like presses—and it can take your training to the next level.

The Weakest Link

Structurally, the deltoids are incredible muscles—three heads, surrounding the front, back and side of your shoulder joint, capable of moving the upper arm in many directions. Logically, they require variety and precision to be overloaded sufficiently.

In designing this workout, we’ve used the pre-exhaustion principle method above, and here’s why. You typically do presses at the start of your shoulder workout, when you’ve got ample energy to move big weights. Four sets later, you can’t hoist that dumbbell for another rep. Okay, your shoulders must be pumped—good work. But wait, what if your triceps were a bit weaker relative to your delts? Once those tri’s get fatigued, you can’t continue to pound your shoulders. That lack of overload has undoubtedly impeded the deltoid development of many a trainee.

By pre-exhausting the delts, you’ll level the playing field. Think of it as the old chain-is-only-as-strong-as-the-weakest-link theory. “Pre-exhaustion is great for throwing a different twist into a stagnant shoulder workout,” says pro bodybuilder Garrett Downing. “You’ll get a better pump in your shoulders and be less likely to injure yourself.”

Rebuffing the Routine

After a brief warm-up on a shoulder-press machine, grab a pair of dumbbells. Your goal is to fatigue your shoulders while sparing your triceps, which are involved in pressing movements; lateral raises, where your arms are in a fixed position, are a good choice.

Visualize that the working head of your deltoid is a sponge. On the negative portion of the rep, the sponge is soaking up water, expanding and getting heavier. As you move into the positive phase (concentric contraction), you’re trying to wring every ounce of water out of that sponge. This will facilitate peak muscle contraction on every rep. “Don’t rush a shoulder workout,” advises Downing. “If you try to lift too much iron too fast, you’ll just end up hurting yourself.”

Once you’ve finished with your three dumbbell exercises, your delts should feel warm and ready to move to the compound exercises. “After priming my shoulders with dumbbell or cable laterals, I’m ready to begin my pressing movements [using slightly lighter weight than normal] without fear of pushing my shoulders past the limit with heavy weights,” says Downing. “Coming off a slight injury to my shoulder, I find it’s important to get a lot of blood into the working muscles and warm up my joints before I press.”

This workout employs the Smith machine rather than free weights. The Smith machine keeps the barbell balanced by moving on a track; therefore, your small stabilizers aren’t required to balance the load. Granted, working your stabilizers is great for keeping your shoulder joints healthy and strong, but this workout is designed to shake things up.

After finishing up on the Smith machine, you’ll move to upright rows, which will pound the anterior and middle heads of your delts, and your traps, as you abduct your upper arms to raise the weight. “I like to use upright rows as my finishing movement,” states Downing. “It really gives me a great overall pump across my traps and shoulders.” Though pre-exhaustion is a great tool, you should use it sparingly - say, once every couple months or so. Try our pre-exhaustion routine for yourself, and you’ll conquer your delts on the way to a bigger, broader physique.

Pre-Exhaust Plan

Exercise Sets Reps
Machine Shoulder Press (warm-up) 1-2 15
Dumbbell Lateral Raise* 2 10, 10
Dumbbell Front Raise* 2 10, 10
Bent-Over Dumbbell Lateral Raise* 2 10, 10
Smith-Machine Shoulder Press 3 6, 6, 6
Wide-Grip Upright Row 3 8, 8, 8

* Done unilaterally

Pre-Exhaust Pointers

  • Keep your shoulder blades depressed on all exercises to de-emphasize the traps and better isolate the deltoids.
  • Use light weight on single-joint shoulder exercises - correct form is more important than the amount of weight lifted.
  • If you’re short on time, superset laterals and raises, or do a tri-set, working all three heads by doing three single-joint movements in succession without pausing to rest.
  • To add intensity to your shoulder training, add a drop set to each exercise. This will promote muscle definition in the delts.

The Moves

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Target Point: middle delts

Stand holding a dumbbell in your right hand with your arm extended toward the ground, and hold onto a solid structure with your left hand for support. Start with your right arm slightly bent and at your side. Keeping your elbow in that fixed position, pull the weight straight out and up by contracting your delt until your arm is parallel to the ground. Return to the start position and repeat for reps, then switch arms.

Change It Up: Use a cable instead of a dumbbell.

Dumbbell Front Raise

Target Point: front delts

Stand holding a dumbbell in your right hand as you did for lateral raises. Start with the dumbbell in front of you, lightly touching your thigh. Lift the dumbbell straight out in front of you until your arm is parallel to the ground. Slowly lower the weight and repeat. Complete all reps, then switch arms.

Change It Up: Do the same movement with a cable.

Bent-Over Lateral Raise

Target Point: rear delts

Lean forward at the waist, place your left hand on a bench for support, and hold a dumbbell in your right hand with your arm extended. Raise the weight straight out to the side until parallel to the floor. Repeat for reps and switch arms.

Change It Up: Use a reverse pec-deck machine or cables.

Smith Machine Shoulder Press

Target Points: rear and middle delts

Position an upright seat so that the bar lowers just in front of your face. Grab it outside shoulder-width and lower to about chin height, then forcefully press it up.

Change It Up: Do the same thing with dumbbells or a barbell.

Wide-Grip Upright Row

Target Points: front and middle delts, traps

Stand holding a barbell in front of you with a shoulder-width grip and your arms extended. Bend your knees slightly. Lift the bar up close to your body, concentrating on your delts, until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Lower the weight under control—don’t let it drop—to full elbow extension.

Change It Up: Try cable upright rows using a straight bar and low-pulley.

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