Training the side delts is a top priority for many weightlifters because, despite their modest size, they greatly influence the overall appearance of your upper body.

For men, developed side delts broaden the shoulders and make the waist appear slimmer, while for women, they contribute to the athletic, toned look many ladies like. 

Building standout side delts is mostly a matter of getting stronger at overhead pressing, then rounding out their development with a few choice “pulling” movements and side delt isolation exercises.

Specifically, the best side delt exercises include the:

  • Standing overhead press
  • Seated overhead press
  • Shoulder press
  • Behind-the-neck press
  • Arnold press
  • Machine shoulder press
  • Seated cable row
  • Dumbbell side lateral raise
  • Upright row
  • Machine reverse fly

In this article, you’ll learn why these exercises are so effective, how to perform them correctly, a side delt workout that puts everything into practice, and more.

What Are the Side Delts?

The deltoid muscles—or “delts”—are the muscles that cover your shoulder joints and help your upper arms move forward, backward, and out to the side.

Each deltoid is made up of three sections or “heads:” the anterior deltoid, the lateral deltoid, and the posterior deltoid

Here’s how they look on your body:

Deltoid (anatomy)

The lateral deltoids are better known among weightlifters as the “side delts” because they’re located between the front and rear delts, in line with the sides of your body.

Developing the side delts is important for men and women, albeit for slightly different reasons.

For men, having well-developed side delts make your shoulders appear broader. This creates the illusion that your waist is slimmer, which is significant because an upper body that comprises wide shoulders and a small waist is generally considered more physically attractive

And for women, developing the side delts makes your shoulders and upper arms look more trim and toned, which helps you achieve the athletic aesthetic many women want.

(And don’t worry, it’s basically impossible to make your shoulders look “too big” as a woman unless you’re taking steroids.) 

2024 4th of July Sale! 2024 4th of July Sale!

Side Delt Training Tips

1. Do the right side delt-focused exercises.

The “secret” to building well-developed side delts is to get as strong as possible on compound exercises that train your side delts, including the overhead, shoulder, and Arnold press.

That said, if you want to maximize side delt growth, research shows that it’s worth doing isolation exercises that emphasize your side delts, too (more on the most effective lateral deltoid exercises soon).

A good rule of thumb is that 80% of your time and energy should go into compound exercises that train your side delts, and the remaining 20% you can give to side delt isolation exercises.

2. Try to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout.

If you stop getting stronger, your side delts will eventually stop getting bigger (this applies to every muscle group in the body).

The best way to get strong and build muscle is to ditch the high-rep “pump” training and lift heavy.

And that means doing most of your exercises with weights in the range of 75-to-85% of your one-rep max, or in the range of 8-to-10 (~75%) to 4-to-6 (~85%) reps.

You should also strive to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout. This is known as progressive overload, and it’s one of the best ways to maximize the muscle-building effects of weightlifting. 

3. Prioritize side delt exercises.

Studies show that you make the fastest progress on muscle groups you train at the beginning of your workouts.

Thus, if you want to give yourself the best opportunity to improve your side delt development, shift exercises that emphasize your side delts to the start of your shoulder, push, or upper-body workouts.

The 10 Best Side Delt Exercises for Gaining Muscle and Strength

These are the 10 best side delt exercises to include in your side delt workouts for hypertrophy and strength.

1. Standing Overhead press

Overhead Press gif

The standing overhead press trains all three heads of the deltoids to a high degree. It also allows you to lift heavy weights safely and progress regularly, making it ideal for gaining size and strength. 

How to:

  1. Set a barbell in a rack at the same height as your upper chest. 
  2. Grip the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you.
  3. Unrack the barbell and take a small step backward with each foot, keeping your wrists stacked over your elbows, and your elbows tucked close to your sides. 
  4. Plant your feet just outside of shoulder width, brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and push the bar toward the ceiling. 
  5. Once your arms are straight and your elbows are locked out, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

2. Seated Overhead Press

Seated Overhead Press

The seated overhead press is one of the best side delt exercises because it enables you to press about 10-to-20% more weight and progress to heavier weights faster than the standing variation, so it’s highly effective for gaining shoulder muscle and strength.

How to:

  1. Set up an upright bench in a squat or power rack, or use a seated barbell overhead press station.
  2. Sit in the seat and press your back against the bench, reach your arms overhead, and note the height of your wrists in relation to the rack—this is the height you should set the barbell on the hooks.
  3. Set the barbell on the hooks at the appropriate height, sit down, and grip the bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you.
  4. Unrack the barbell and lower it to your collarbone.
  5. Once the bar reaches your collarbone, press the bar toward the ceiling and return to the starting position.

Find the Best Diet for You in Just 60 Seconds

How many calories should you eat? What about "macros?" What foods should you eat? Take our 60-second quiz to get science-based answers to these questions and more.

Take the Quiz

3. Shoulder Press

Shoulder Press gif

The shoulder press is an excellent side delt dumbbell exercise that trains the shoulders similarly to other overhead pressing exercises. The main benefits of the shoulder press are that it has a longer range of motion than the barbell variation, which tends to be better for muscle growth, and it trains each side of your body independently, so it’s a good exercise for finding and fixing muscle imbalances.

How to:

  1. While sitting on an upright bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs. 
  2. Hoist the dumbbells up so you’re holding them just above your shoulders with your palms facing away from you, nudging them with your thighs to get them into position.
  3. Press the dumbbells straight up toward the ceiling until your arms are straight and your elbows are almost locked. 
  4. Lower the dumbbells and return to the starting position.

4. Behind-the-Neck Press

Research shows the behind-the-neck press is a fantastic side delt exercise. The problem is that it demands a degree of shoulder mobility that most people lack and places your shoulders into a potentially injurious position.

To compensate for these downsides, you also have to lift lighter weights, limiting the exercise’s muscle- and strength-building potential. 

How to:

  1. Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of the top of your breastbone.
  2. Grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, step under the bar, and rest the bar directly on your upper traps.
  3. Lift the bar out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
  4. Brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and push the bar toward the ceiling. 
  5. Once your arms are straight and your elbows are locked out, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

5. Arnold Press

Arnold Press gif

In the Arnold press, you begin and end each rep with the dumbbells in front of your shoulders and your palms facing your torso, and rotate your wrists as you press and lower the weight. This small change increases how much your side delts contribute to the exercise but also limits how much weight you can lift.

Thus, the Arnold press is an effective (and enjoyable) way to train your side delts that’s probably about as effective as exercises that allow you to handle heavier weights, such as the overhead and shoulder press.

How to:

  1. While sitting on an upright bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs.
  2. Hoist the dumbbells up so you’re holding them just in front of your shoulders with your palms facing toward you, nudging them with your thighs to get them into position.
  3. Press the dumbbells straight up over your head while rotating your wrists until your arms are straight, your elbows are locked, and your palms are facing away from you.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

6. Machine Shoulder Press

Machine Shoulder Press gif

Generally speaking, machines aren’t as effective as free weights for gaining muscle and strength. Still, the machine shoulder press is a good side delt exercise if you’re new to weightlifting, working around an injury, don’t have access to a barbell or dumbbells, or want to change up your training.

How to:

  1. Sit in the shoulder press machine seat with your back against the backrest and your feet planted on the floor.
  2. Adjust the seat’s height so the handles are about the same height as your ears.
  3. Grip the handles with your palms facing away from you, then press them toward the ceiling until your arms are straight.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

7. Seated Cable Row

Seated Cable Row gif

While the seated cable row is primarily a back exercise, research shows it trains the side and rear delts to a high degree, too. 

How to:

  1. Sit down and place your feet on the footrest while maintaining slightly bent knees.
  2. Lean forward and grab the handle, then lean back with your arms stretched in front of you.
  3. Straighten your back and pull the cable toward your stomach.
  4. Once your hands touch your torso, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

8. Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

The dumbbell side lateral raise is one of the best exercises for isolating the side delts. To get the most out of the exercise without compromising your shoulder health, lift your upper arms until they’re parallel with the floor and no further.

How to:

  1. Stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. 
  2. Keeping your back straight and your core tight, raise the dumbbells out to the side until your upper arm is parallel to the floor. You don’t have to keep your arms perfectly straight—having a small bend in your elbows is normally more comfortable. 
  3. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

9. Upright Row

The upright row trains your side delts similarly to the side lateral raise, so it’s an excellent exercise for rounding out your shoulder development. That said, some people find the upright row unkind on their shoulders. 

To avoid and issues, raise the barbell until your upper arms are parallel with the floor and no further. If you do this and still find the upright row uncomfortable, it’s probably sensible to shelve the upright row and do the side lateral raise instead.

How to:

  1. Stand up straight and hold a barbell in front of your thighs with your palms facing you.
  2. Lift the bar straight upward until your upper arms are parallel with the floor, keeping your elbows higher than your forearms throughout the movement. 
  3. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

10. Machine Reverse Fly

Machine Reverse Fly gif

Most people think of the machine reverse fly as a rear delt exercise, but research shows it effectively trains your side delts, too.

How to:

  1. Sit down with your body facing the machine and your feet firmly on the floor. The handles should be at the same height as your shoulders.
  2. Grab the handles with your palms facing down and press your chest against the pad. While maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, move the weight back in an arc until your arms are directly out to your sides (or slightly behind your body).
  3. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. 

Some Nutritionists Charge Hundreds of Dollars for This Diet "Hack" . . .

. . . and it's yours for free. Take our 60-second quiz and learn exactly how many calories you should eat, what your "macros" should be, what foods are best for you, and more.

Take the Quiz

The Best Side Delt Workout

As I explain in my fitness books for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger, the best way to develop any muscle, including the side delts, is to train it in different ways, from different directions, and at different angles.

Here’s a side delt workout that does just that:

  • Standing Overhead Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Arnold Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Machine Reverse Fly: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

(If you’d like even more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)

+ Scientific References