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The shoulders might be the most underappreciated muscle group in the upper body. The chest, biceps, and even the lats get more attention. However, well-defined shoulders enhance your physique as much as any other muscle. Plus, it's hard to be big and strong without some serious shoulder development.
That said, to get the most out of your workouts, you need to know how to train them. Whether new to training or a grizzled gym vet looking for new ideas, this article is your comprehensive guide to the best shoulder exercises for building muscle. From classic compound movements to targeted isolation exercises, we'll explore a wide range of movements designed to target different parts of the shoulder. So, let's dive into my list of the top eleven shoulder exercises to cap off a perfect upper body.
Table of contents:
When looking at the best shoulder exercises, we need to break them down by the area of the shoulder they target. We will get more into the anatomy of the deltoids below, but the exercises are divided into movements that hit the front, side, or rear delt.
The front delts are located on the front side of your shoulders. It's true that they get a lot of work on chest day, but to maximize development, you need to include a few key movements.
The Barbell Overhead Press (OHP) is the king of shoulder development. If you want bigger delts, this is the movement you need to do. It's excellent for building muscle because it engages multiple muscles, including the deltoids, traps, and triceps. The benefit is that you can use heavier weights and lean into progressive overload. Plus, there is just something exciting about putting a heavy barbell over your head. Maybe that's just me.To perform the barbell overhead press:
If the Barbell Overhead Press is Batman, the Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press is Robin. Look, I love the OHP. The problem is the OHP doesn't love me. The seated dumbbell shoulder press feels much better on my joints. Additionally, this exercise allows each shoulder to work independently, addressing strength imbalances.
To perform seated dumbbell shoulder presses:
The Arnold Press is a unique shoulder exercise that targets multiple parts of the deltoids. Some movie star turned politician invented it. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Have you heard of him? It's similar to a seated dumbbell shoulder press, except you rotate the dumbbells while pressing them up.
For all the differences between shoulder press and the Arnold press check out our article on them.
To perform the Arnold press:
The Machine Shoulder Press is an excellent, often underrated, muscle-building exercise. I like it because it provides stability and lets you focus on the delts without worrying about balance.
To perform machine shoulder presses:
Some gyms might not have dedicated shoulder press machines, but may have a Smith machine to be able to do Smith Machine Shoulder Press, which also takes balance out of the equation.
(Image credit to raechelsinuk Instagram)
This targeted exercise primarily works the front deltoids and is effective for building muscle in the front part of the shoulder. The front raise is one of the few movements to isolate the front delts, as most others are pressing variations.
To perform a barbell front raise:
You can also perform these with a supinated grip as demonstrated above.
The last one for the front delts is handstand pushups (HSPU). It's a bonus exercise because it is a challenging movement, and not everyone can do it. However, if you are capable, the HSPU is an excellent bodyweight exercise for building muscle in the shoulders. If I could only do one shoulder exercise for the rest of my life, it would be this.
To perform handstand pushups:
Still looking to punish your front delts even more? Check out our article on the Best Front Delt Exercises.
The lateral (side) delts are the little strips of muscle on the outside of your delts. Don't skip these movements. It's this little muscle that gives your shoulders a wide appearance.
Dumbbell lateral raises are a classic. You would be hard-pressed to find a bodybuilder who has yet to spend countless hours perfecting this movement. The lateral raise effectively targets the deltoids' lateral (side) head, contributing to broader shoulder development. Typically, when you see someone with "big" shoulders, the lateral head stands out. The key with these is form. You want to ensure your side delts are moving the dumbbells and not momentum.
To perform a dumbbell lateral raise:
Cable lateral raises provide constant tension on the lateral deltoids throughout the full range of motion, making them a valuable addition to your shoulder workouts. You can do these with the cable attachment at the bottom or just below your waist. You can also pull in front or behind your body. In either case, it doesn't matter. Pick whichever feels the best. Cable exercises are a great way to help keep constant tension on the muscle.
To perform cable lateral raises:
(Image credit to liftrunbang1 Instagram)
There are many variations of machine lateral raises, most of which are good. Similar to a cable lateral raise, they provide constant tension in the side delt throughout the entire range of motion. However, machine lateral raises differ in providing more stability, allowing you to use heavier loads.
To perform machine lateral raises:
Want even more variety for lateral movements? Read our article about the Best Lateral Deltoid movements.
Whenever you see or hear someone talk about the best shoulder exercises for "3D delts," it's the rear deltoid muscles they are talking about. The rear delts help give your shoulders a full three-dimensional look.
Cable face pulls are excellent for targeting the rear deltoids, traps, and upper back. This exercise builds the muscles responsible for shoulder retraction and improves overall shoulder health. The key is good form. Many people go too heavy and let their technique slip. Remember, they don't give out gold medals for being the best face-puller. Use weight you can handle.
To perform cable face pulls:
You can check out some Face Pull Alternatives here.
(Image credit to jaycutler Instagram)
Reverse cable flys (also called the cable rear delt fly) effectively isolate the rear deltoids and upper back muscles, contributing to a well-rounded shoulder development. This one has many moving parts (different attachments, cable height, arm positioning, etc.), so it might take some time to figure out the optimal setup. Be patient. Your rear delts will light up like a Christmas tree when you get it right.
To perform reverse cable flyes:
(Image credit to hypertrophycoach Instagram)
The reverse pec deck fly is an excellent isolation exercise for targeting the rear deltoids. From a pure muscle-building standpoint, I think this is the best. It provides constant tension on the targeted muscles and allows for a controlled range of motion.
To perform reverse pec deck flyes:
Reverse Pec Deck Tips: Pretend like you are hugging a large tree and are trying to open a bag of chips. You want to pull outward in a large arc movement.
Do you know what is the number one thing that will prevent you from building big shoulder muscles? Pain. Shoulder pain is one of the most common lifting injuries. You can't build big muscles when you are injured. Here are five exercises to help limit shoulder injuries.
The dead hang is a simple yet effective exercise for maintaining healthy shoulders. It decompresses the shoulder joint, improves grip strength, and promotes scapular mobility. Dead hangs are particularly beneficial for individuals dealing with shoulder impingement issues and can be incorporated into a warm-up or cool-down routine.
To perform a dead hang:
This exercise helps alleviate shoulder tension, decompress the spine, and engage the scapulae.
Cable internal and external rotations are another excellent exercise for shoulder health, targeting the rotator cuff muscles. I like to do them before any heavy pressing. You can do these with a resistance band if you don't have access to a cable machine.
To perform internal rotation:
To perform external rotation:
These controlled movements help strengthen the rotator cuff, promoting shoulder stability.
Band pullaparts are my favorite "shoulder health" exercise. I sit at a desk most of the day, so I get a big bang for my buck with these. I carry a red mini-band in my bag wherever I go. Pullaparts engage the posterior shoulder muscles, helping to counterbalance the effects of daily activities (working on a computer or staring at your phone) that often lead to rounded shoulders.
To perform band pullaparts:
Although band pullaparts are my favorite, band dislocations are a close second. Despite the name sounding a little sketchy, band dislocations are beneficial for shoulder mobility and flexibility, helping to prevent stiffness and enhance range of motion. Don't worry. You won't dislocate a shoulder blade.
To perform band dislocations:
Using a band with appropriate tension is crucial. Start with a light band; you can gradually increase the band resistance over time as your shoulder mobility improves.
(Image credit to Defrancosgym Instagram)
The Iso Y-W-T hold is a valuable bodyweight exercise for targeting the muscles around the shoulder blades and promoting scapular stability.
To perform Iso Y-W-T Holds:
Once you get really strong, you can hold light dumbbells or weight plates while doing them.
Need to improve your shoulder mobility? Check out our favorite Shoulder Mobility Exercises.
The shoulder muscles are unique. Understanding shoulder anatomy will help you conceptualize the most effective training methods.
The major muscles of the shoulder include the deltoids, which form the rounded contours of the shoulders; the rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis), responsible for shoulder stability and rotation; and the trapezius, a large muscle that spans the upper back and neck, contributing to shoulder and neck movements.
For this article, we will focus on the deltoids. The deltoid muscle, often referred to as the "delts," is a powerful shoulder muscle with three distinct parts: the anterior (front) deltoid, lateral (middle) deltoid, and posterior (rear) deltoid.
The anterior deltoid is situated at the front of the shoulder and is responsible for lifting the arms forward. It is involved in any pressing movement, particularly overhead pressing. The lateral deltoid runs along the outer edge of the shoulder and facilitates lifting the arms to the sides, creating the shoulder's broad appearance. Lastly, the posterior deltoid is located at the back of the shoulder and plays a crucial role in lifting the arms backward and outward.
Together, these three segments of the deltoid contribute to a wide range of arm movements, including lifting, rotating, and abducting the arms. Strong and well-developed deltoids enhance the aesthetic appeal of the shoulders and contribute to overall shoulder function and stability.
When putting together a shoulder workout, we want to balance it between all three deltoid heads. At the minimum, look at the list above and pick one exercise from each category (front, side, and rear delts). Doing this can be like a choose-your-own-adventure story. Here are two workouts to give you an example. I recommend training your shoulders with other muscles. As a whole, they fit in well with arms. However, another option is to do the front and side delts on a push day and the rear delts on a pull day. Or, you can do them by themselves if you want to.
Shoulder Workout #1:
Shoulder Workout #2:
For a real challenge, try our Ultimate Shoulder Workout.
Knowing all the best exercises is great, but here are five tips to help you maximize them.
Using a full range of motion is always beneficial; however, it's uniquely important to shoulder training. For example, most people do not lower the weight all the way down on shoulder presses. The problem is that the front delts are stretched at the bottom. Not hitting this range of motion will limit your progress. Of course, if a particular range of motion causes pain, avoid it. Otherwise, go all the way down and up.
One key to maximizing the lateral raise is controlling the eccentric. Drive your arms up, but fight the resistance on the way down. Doing them this way will limit how much weight you can use, but it will be worth it.
Look, I love barbells and dumbbells, but remember, cables and machines work great, too. Both cables and machines keep constant tension on the muscle. You don't get that benefit using free weights, particularly on front, side, and rear raises.
Many shoulder exercises require light weights. Now, weight is relative, but the issue with light weights is that it's harder to build in progressive overload. For example, going from 20-lb- to 25-lb dumbbells is significant on a side raise. On these small exercises, aim for an extra rep. If the rep range calls for 10-12, start with a weight you can handle for ten reps, and stick with it until you can comfortably do 12 reps. At this point, increase the weight and drop back to 10 reps.
As I mentioned, the shoulder joints are prone to injury. One way to help prevent this is to always warm up before pressing. Start your shoulder workout with internal/external rotations, band pullaparts, band dislocations, or Y-W-T iso holds.
Do you still have questions about shoulder training? Let's answer them.
Building big shoulders involves a combination of exercises like overhead presses and lateral raises, along with consistent progressive resistance training to stimulate muscle growth.
The barbell overhead press is often considered one of the most effective shoulder exercises, engaging multiple muscle groups for overall shoulder development. However, the seated dumbbell press is a close second.
While it depends on individual goals and preferences, a well-rounded shoulder workout that includes exercises for the front, side, and rear delts can be enough to build muscle.
While a cop-out answer, doing a triset of dumbbell front, side, and rear raises back to back can work all three deltoids. This sequence is a full dumbbell shoulder workout.
Shoulder training requires a balanced approach to exercise selection. By incorporating a mix of movements, from foundational presses to targeted movements like lateral and rear raises, you will be well on your way to a new set of canon ball delts. Of course, consistency is crucial, as is staying healthy. So, stay at it, use proper form, and enjoy the journey.
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