Deltoid muscle contribution to shoulder flexion and abduction strength: an experimental approach

J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2021 Feb;30(2):e60-e68. doi: 10.1016/j.jse.2020.05.023. Epub 2020 Jun 12.


Background: The rotator cuff (RC) and the deltoid muscle are 2 synergistic units that enable the functionally demanding movements of the shoulder. A number of biomechanical studies assume similar force contribution of the force couple (RC and deltoid) over the whole range of motion, whereas others propose position-dependent force distribution. There is a lack of in vivo data regarding the deltoid's contribution to shoulder flexion and abduction strength. This study aimed to create reliable in vivo data quantifying the deltoid's contribution to shoulder flexion and abduction strength throughout the range of motion.

Methods: Active range of motion and isometric muscle strength of shoulder abduction and flexion in 0°, 30°, 60°, 90°, and 120° of abduction/flexion as well as internal and external rotation in 0° and 90° of abduction were obtained in 12 healthy volunteers on the dominant arm before and after an ultrasound-guided isolated axillary nerve block. Needle electromyography was performed before and after the block to confirm deltoid paralysis. Radiographs of the shoulder and an ultrasonographic examination were used to exclude relevant shoulder pathologies.

Results: Active range of motion showed a minimal to moderate reduction to 94% and 88% of the preintervention value for abduction and flexion. Internal and external rotation amplitude was not impaired. The abduction strength was significantly reduced to 76% at 0° (P = .002) and to 25% at 120° (P < .001) of abduction. The flexion strength was significantly reduced to 64% at 30° (P < .001) and to 30% at 120° (P < .001) of flexion. The strength reduction was linear, depending on the flexion/abduction angle. The maximal external rotation strength showed a significant decrease to 53% in 90° (P < .001) of abduction, whereas in adduction no strength loss was observed (P = .09). The internal rotation strength remained unaffected in 0° and 90° of abduction (P = .28; P = .13).

Conclusion: The deltoid shows a linear contribution to maximal shoulder strength depending on the abduction or flexion angle, ranging from 24% in 0° to 75% in 120° of abduction and from 11% in 0° to 70% in 120° of flexion, respectively. The overall contribution to abduction strength is higher than to flexion strength. The combination of deltoid muscle and teres minor contributes about 50% to external rotation strength in 90° of abduction. The internal rotation strength is not influenced by a deltoid paralysis. This study highlights the position-dependent contribution of the shoulder muscles to strength development and thereby provides an empirical approach to better understand human shoulder kinematics.

Keywords: Shoulder biomechanics; axillary block; deltoid force; force couple; rotator cuff; shoulder force distribution; shoulder strength.

MeSH terms

  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Deltoid Muscle
  • Humans
  • Range of Motion, Articular
  • Rotation
  • Rotator Cuff
  • Shoulder Joint* / diagnostic imaging
  • Shoulder*