Best Shoulder Exercises
Most of us know how training biceps and triceps builds impressive arms and helps us look better from a profile perspective. We know that a well-defined chest makes us look better from the front. But a set of well-developed shoulders helps with both.
Let’s talk about how to build up this often neglected body part.
First a little anatomy. There are three main parts to the shoulder (deltoid or delt) from a muscle standpoint. There’s the front (anterior), middle (medial), and rear (posterior) parts of the shoulder. Under these are the smaller, stabilizing muscles commonly known as your rotator cuff muscles.
They all work together for the functions of the shoulder: basically to rotate the upper arm, to move the arm away and towards the side of the body, to move the arm laterally from front to back.
From a joint standpoint, the shoulder is kind of amazing. It has a tremendous range of motion, more than any of our other joints. This flexibility is both a strength and a weakness. We’re able to use our arms in myriad ways but the shoulder is also particularly vulnerable to injury. It’s vital to keep this in mind as we discuss how to train.
The most basic shoulder lift you can do is the Press. The cool thing is there are a bunch of ways to do this lift. Try them out and see which one that suits you best. You’ll probably find that over time you’ll get better results from switching up after a while.
With the standing barbell press , you’ll start with the bar around the height of your collar bone. Grip the bar with your hands a little bit wider than shoulder-width. The exact position will depend on the individual. You want to be comfortable, with your forearms approximately perpendicular to the ground.
Unrack the bar, brace your core and keep your lower body tight. You want a solid foundation as you raise the weight above your head. Now is not the time for wobbly legs and soft abs. Press the bar in straight path above your head. The path should be right in front of your face. Move your head back to avoid hitting yourself… or you know, learn the hard way. Once the bar is past your head, you bring your head forward again. Extend your arms fully. The weight should be directly over your center of mass. If it isn’t, you’ll be able to tell ‘cause it will be pulling your forward or backward. Lower the weight back to the starting position under control. That’s one repetition. In terms of breathing, you inhale and brace at the start, when you unrack the bar. Keep your core tight (as if you’re expecting to get punched in the gut). Exhale slightly at the top of the movement. Don’t let all your air out or your core will relax too much. You can fully exhale at the bottom of the movement.
This is a great exercise for shoulder strength and size development. In fact, it’s a really good total body exercise since your entire body works to maintain your position.
The standing dumbbell press is very similar. It works the same muscles. Benefits of using dumbbells are they allow for a greater range of motion and each arm has to work independently. This means you’ll have to use less weight and it helps prevent or address any muscle imbalances. Usually one arm is more dominant.
You will have to raise the weights to the starting position, shoulder height. Begin with the dumbbells at your sides. For lower weights you’ll be able to curl them up to your shoulders to start the press. Once you’ve built up to heavier loads, that won’t be the case. A good way to get them from waist level to the starting position is to start with the dumbbells at your sides. Slightly bend your knees and hips for a quick moment. Then explosively extend your hips and knees to generate momentum to help you curl the weights to shoulder height.
The seated barbell press gives you more back support, which means you should be able to press more weight. You still want to brace your core and press your feet hard into the ground. When using a barbell here, a main difference is the rack position is near the top of the movement, so you unrack, lower the weight to your collar level and then the lift begins.
The dumbbell variation of the seated press is slightly tricky. You may be able to just lift the weights to your shoulders early on. Once again, when you get to heavier dumbbells you’ll need to use momentum. Start standing with the dumbbells at your sides. As you carefully sit down, rest the dumbbells to the top of your knees (the dumbbells are still in your hands), right where your quads and knees meet. One leg at a time, kick your knee up to raise that dumbbell to shoulder height. Then use the other knee to help you raise the corresponding dumbbell to the starting position. When your set is over, lower the weights under control and raise your knees to gently meet them. This all sounds way more complicated than it actually is. Do it a couple times and I’m sure you’ll figure it out.
There are also seated shoulder press machines you can use. The benefit is they’re easier to use. The drawback is they’re not as effective at training the the smaller stabilizer muscles in the shoulder as free weights.
The press is the lift that will give you the most shoulder strength and size. If you’re a guy, once you get to the point where you can overhead press a weight equivalent to your body weight, your shoulders will be impressive. For women, getting to the equivalent of half your body weight will have your shoulders looking right.
The exact number of sets and repetitions will vary according to the individual, but 2-5 sets of 5-10 reps is a good place to start. Take 1-2 minutes rest between sets. However, start on the low end of each and gradually increase the volume. Remember though, the main driver is going to be progressive overload. If you go from 5 sets of 5 repetitions at 95 pounds to 5×5 at 145, you’ll really see the difference.
Dumbbell Lateral Raises
This is probably the next best exercise for building up your shoulders. Dumbbell lateral raises really work your lateral delt hard. The standing and seated versions are pretty similar. You may find the seated version feels more stable or you may be more comfortable standing. Either way, make sure you keep your core braced and your spine tall.
Begin with the dumbbells at your sides. With only a slight bend in your elbow, raise the weights away from your sides in a controlled fashion. Avoid using excessive momentum. Once your arms are about parallel to the ground, pause for a beat and lower the weights under control back to the starting position. Start with really light weights. You don’t need to lift really heavy in order to get results from this exercise.
The most common mistake with lateral raise is using momentum to raise the weights. Right behind that is using too much of a shrug to the movement. If you feel your traps working more than your delts, this means you. The fix for this is to focus on keeping your shoulder blades down and close together. You’ll probably have to use lighter dumbbells. That’s okay because now you’re working the muscles you want to be.
Besides dumbbells, you can do this lift using your gym’s lat raise resistance machines, or cable machines, or even resistance bands.
I recommend 2-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions with about 30-60 seconds rest between sets.
The rear delts are the most neglected of the big three shoulder muscles. Developing them will help give your shoulders a fully rounded look. It will also help fight imbalances that accentuate bad posture and can lead to injury. There’s probably a greater emphasis on upper body pushing training than upper body pulls. This and the exercise that follow will help you balance that.
The Dumbbell Reverse Fly (a.k.a. Bent-over rear delt fly) is a great way to train the posterior delts.
Start with a dumbbell in each hand. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart. Keep your knees “soft”, not locked but not too bent either. Hinge forward at the waist until your torso is almost parallel to the ground. Of course you know by now to keep that core braced. Now the weights should be hanging straight down with your palms facing each other. With only a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weights under control to the side until your elbows are in line with your shoulders. (At the top you’ll look like you’re pretending to be an airplane!) Lower the weights back to the starting position.
Avoid bouncing or using momentum to move the weight. This is another exercise you’ll use light resistance.
There are a few variations you can try. You can do rear delt flys while seated. Or you can lie chest down on an incline bench. This is helpful if you find you’re prone to rocking or bouncing during the movement. And of course, you can use cable machines or resistance bands.
In terms of volume, I like 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps with 30-60 seconds between sets.
Face pulls are another great exercise to bulletproof your shoulders. They also work your rear delts. You’ll need a cable machine and a two-handled rope. While facing the machine grab the rope and step back until you’re supporting the weight with your arms extended. Your legs should give you a solid base with soft knees.
Retract your scapulae (squeeze your shoulder blades together), pull the rope towards you so the center of the rope goes toward your face. Now you understand the name of the exercise. You don’t literally hit your face with the rope. At the midpoint of the movement, externally rotate your arms. Think about pulling the rope apart, not just backwards. Hold for a beat and slowly reverse to finish the repetition. It’s imperative to use a controlled tempo with this exercise. You’ll be using lighter weights again. Remember, these shoulder muscles you’re working are relatively small. You want to avoid involving the lower back to move the weight. Keep your elbows nice and high, close to parallel with your shoulders.
For reps and sets, 1-3 sets of 8-15 works.
Front raises work the anterior delt. They’re not a pulling exercise like the two previous ones. You can do them but they’re probably redundant as the front delt gets plenty of work with the press and if you’re already doing flat or incline bench presses.
The starting position for front raises is standing while holding the dumbbells at your sides. With only a slight bend in the elbows, raise the weights straight up in front of you until your elbows are about parallel with your shoulders. Once more (with feeling!), keep your core tight and control the weights as you raise and lower them.
Try 2-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions with about 30-60 seconds rest between sets.
There you go! Include these exercises in your training and you’ll build stronger, defined, healthier shoulders.
And for no particular reason other than why not, here’s a bonus exercise:
The Barbell Push Press is similar to a press but it’s not strictly a shoulder movement. In fact, it’s a total body exercise. You create momentum intentionally here in order to work out developing power by using heavier weights. Since it’s a power movement, you want to keep the repetitions low, 1-5 is all you need. The number of sets can vary depending on your goals but 1-3 is good for most people.
It begins just like a barbell shoulder press. But to initiate the movement, you dip your hips and bend your knees slightly. Explosively extend them to get the weight moving up a little. Extend your arms up to keep driving up the weight fully. The end position is the same as a barbell shoulder press. Lower the weight under control. That’s one rep. Naturally, you can use dumbbells instead, if you prefer.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, leave them below.