If you’re following a push/pull/legs split, the stock answer is that you should train the front and side delts on push day, with the rear delts worked on pull day.
However, depending on the exercises you do, it is possible to make a case for training the side delts on pull day.
I’ll explain why in a moment. First, a brief primer on shoulder anatomy.
When they talk about the shoulders, most people are referring to the deltoids. The upper traps are sometimes grouped along with the delts (which makes sense, because overhead pressing movements tend to involve the upper traps as well as the delts).
But to keep things simple, I’m going to focus on the deltoids.
The deltoid muscle is typically divided into three anatomical portions: the front, the middle, and the back.
- The front part of the deltoid is called the anterior head.
- The middle part of the deltoid is called the lateral head.
- The rear part of the deltoid is called the posterior head.
Interestingly, studies show that the deltoid muscle has a more complex anatomical architecture than was once believed, and can be divided into seven segments, rather than just three .
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Why Train Shoulders on Push Day?
The idea with a push/pull/legs split is that you train the muscles that work together – in this case the chest, shoulders and triceps – on the same training days.
An overhead pressing exercise like the seated dumbbell press also works the shoulders and triceps.
That’s why training the front and side delts on push day is fairly common practice.
However, in some trials, the side delts have been shown to work slightly harder than the front delts during the overhead dumbbell press .
The type of overhead press you do is also going to have an influence on which muscles are most active.
In one study, researchers compared four vertical pressing exercises – the seated barbell press performed behind and in front of the head, as well as the machine overhead press, done with a neutral and pronated (palms facing forwards) grip .
All four variations worked the anterior deltoid to a similar degree. However, both the side and rear delts were more active when the barbell was lowered beyond the head rather than in front.
Some Pull Day Exercises Also Hit the Side Delts
A typical pull day workout is going to involve exercises like pulldowns, pull-ups and rows, along with some isolation exercises for the rear delts, such as the reverse pec deck or bent-over lateral raise.
That is, various compound pulling movements, along with isolation exercises targeting the rear delts directly, also hit the side delts.
In other words, chances are that your pull day workout is already working the lateral head of the deltoid. Doing some additional work for the side delts is certainly a viable option, particularly if you want to focus on adding some width to your shoulders.
To sum up, shoulders can be trained on push day, pull day or both, depending on the exercises you’re doing and which area of the delts you’re targeting.
If you’re doing overhead pressing movements for your shoulders, which most people are, I’d suggest doing them on push day.
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