By: Dr. Mike Israetel
Here are some helpful tips for your rear and side delt training. Please note that these are averages based on my experience working with lots of clients and my own training. The recommendations here should be food for thought or places to start, not dogmatic scriptures to follow to the letter.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth article. It discusses the theoretical and practical bases on which the upcoming recommendations are made. And if you love this info but want a bit of help in building your own workouts from the expert scientists at RP, check out the super popular Male Physique or Female Physique Templates.
I’ve grouped rear and side delts together because they are both involved in so many of the same exercises and also have many of the same training recommendations.
The rear delts can actually be sustained with no direct work so long as pulling work for the back is still done. But the side delts need at least about 6 sets per week of direct work to keep their size in most intermediate or advanced lifters.
Most intermediate-advanced lifters need at least 8 sets of direct rear and side delt work per week to make gains. To be more specific, that’s at least 6 sets of each if doing VERY isolation exercises that don’t cross-target between rear and side delts and only 8 sets total if the exercise hits both adequately.
Most people respond best to between 16 and 22 weekly sets on average.
Most people seem to encounter recovery problems above 26 sets per week. In reality, there will be a minority (but a substantial one) that can train with much higher volumes than this and still recover.
We’ve split the exercises by side and rear delt focus between the two, but please note that there is a LOT of overlap. For example, barbell face pulls tax the side delts considerably, and thumbs down lateral raises target the rear delts considerably.
|Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise|
|Barbell Upright Row|
|Dumbbell Upright Row|
|Cable Upright Row|
|Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise|
|Thumbs Down Lateral Raise|
2-6 times per week.
Just like the biceps, the rear and side delts are so poorly leveraged to be exposed mechanical damage, produce so little force, and are comparatively so small that they can recover from limited volumes in a VERY short time; often as little as a day. Of course, the emphasis here is on limited volumes, so you can’t expect to do 8 sets of side laterals and be recovered to repeat that a day later. However, if you do only 3 side or rear delt sets per day, you can easily recover by the next day if you’re adjusted to that kind of workload. And if you do that every day for 6 days, that’s 18 sets a week and well within most individuals’ MRVs. So IF you do choose the high-frequency approach to rear and side delts, make sure your weekly volume is still within MRV and you should recover fine.
Both likely because of fiber type and because of safety issues, I’ve found nothing to work worse or be such a poor use of time as heavy shoulder (side and rear delt) training. 8 reps is the lowest I’ll ever go or advise anyone to go, and to be honest, I think most of the action is at 10-12 reps and all the way up to 20 or more per set. And much lighter metabolite work is a godsend for shoulders.
Especially to accommodate the higher frequencies of side and rear delt training, there are three different kinds of within-the-microcycle variation that it pays to address:
Using the same exercises back to back to back might cause some localized wear and tear and lead to nagging injuries (with shoulder pain a VERY common issue from overuse). A cool way around this problem is to use 2-4 different exercises for delts within one microcycle (and mesocycle for that matter). By interspersing different exercises, you both get a more complete development of the muscle and reduce excessive localized fatigue accumulation.
If BOTH rear and side delts are your priorities, another great exercise variation technique is to alternate side delt moves with rear delt moves, which is a more extreme version of same-bodypart exercise variation.
Along with exercise variation, loading variation can improve fatigue management and thus results. For example, if you train delts twice in a row with two different movements, the first workout with a movement might be with sets of 10, but the next workout might be for sets of 20. This lets you still hammer the movement twice and still provide an overload both times, but it actually reduces the peak forces experienced on the second workout and minimizes the chances of injury. If you do it the other way around, some micro tears you caused in the first (lighter) workout might now be presented with the kinds of higher forces in the second workout that could cause injury.
Volume and Relative Intensity Variation:
If you train rear and side delts very often, you might not be able to bring your a-game overload every single one of those times, especially if some of the movements you use (barbell upright rows) are pretty challenging and best done a bit fresher than other moves (dumbbell rear lateral raises) that can be trained when you’re not at your strongest. So, you might want to hammer in the big moves a ton and go easy on the less disruptive moves by lowering their total volume. This allows you to still benefit from very frequent training but keeps your cumulative fatigue in check so that you can be freshest for the exercises on which you need to be most prepared. In just the same way as reducing the volume, you can also (or instead) reduce the relative intensity of certain workouts to make sure you heal up for the more important work the next day. So instead of going 1/fail on your rear laterals like you do on your barbell upright rows that week, you can keep the rear laterals 3/fail and really heal up for barbell upright rows.
Here’s a sample of what using exercise, loading, and volume/relative intensity variation can look like in a 6 day rear/side delt split:
Monday: 4 sets of 10 barbell upright rows 1/failure
Tuesday: 4 sets of 16 barbell upright rows 1/failure
Wednesday: 2 sets of 10 cable face pulls 3/failure
Monday: 4 sets of 12 barbell face pulls 1/failure
Tuesday: 4 sets of 20 barbell face pulls 1/failure
Wednesday: 2 sets of 10 cable face pulls 3/failure
Range of Motion:
We’ve already preached ROM here enough, so I’ll spare you the sermon. However, it’s worth noting that there can be TOO much ROM on shoulder moves, especially laterals and upright rows. How high should you pull the weights? Well, as high as you can with NO PAIN. If it hurts, don’t pull as high or play with your grip to find a way to pull your highest without sacrificing your joint safety.
Special Metabolite Techniques:
Oh man, so the usual suspects of giant sets, drop sets, and supersets can be used on the side and rear delts, but the real fun is with the supersets. The easiest superset is to take an isolation move (a side or rear lateral raise) and superset it with a compound move (an upright row or face pull of some kind).
Just like with most bodyparts, your first mesocycle should be moderate weights and reps. The next mesocycle can be more of the same with perhaps slightly different rep ranges and exercises, OR it can be a higher volume block that incorporates lighter weights (closer to the 60%1RM mark) and higher reps, as well as metabolite work. After that meso, a shorter (3-4 weeks) mesocycle of strength training (70-85%1RM) with lower volumes is likely a good idea to resensitize your muscles for more growth, at which point you repeat the process.
If you train your rear and side delts for high frequencies, you might want to take the low volume block as an opportunity to reduce delt frequency (maybe to as low as 2 exercises per week) as well and really give your shoulders and their connective tissues a chance to fully heal for the next macrocycle of gains.
It’s easy to get carried away with big weights and let your technique degrade in rear and side delt training. When you’re actually using good technique, the weights can often seem incredibly light and kind of embarrassing at face value. But you’ve gotta do what it takes to grow, not to impress yourself or others with how your weights look. A very related concern is on the speed of progression through the weights. For example, if I said that it would take you a year from squatting 3 plates regularly to squatting 4 plates for the same reps, you’d probably say that’s one hell of a speed of progress. But if I saw you using the 30’s for upright rows and told you it would be at least a year before you could handle the 40s comparably, you might get super discouraged because for Christ’s sake that’s only 10lbs! Yes, but remember that relative loading is what matters… cause to your side delts, 10lbs is like 100lbs to your quads and glutes combined!