The Ultimate Guide to Shoulder Exercises and Workouts
Small shoulders and weak presses. I wouldn't wish that upon anyone. Having some boulders on your shoulders not only helps you have that tapered physique, it also can do wonders for your performance in strength, power, and fitness sports.
In this comprehensive guide I am detailing out everything you need (and wanted) to know about shoulder training, specifically;
- Best Exercises for Strength and Muscle Building
- Best Exercises for Shoulder Health and Warm-Ups
- Sample Shoulder Workouts for Strength, Hypertrophy, and More
[Join the free J2FIT online fitness and weightlifting community and receiving monthly training advice, coaching advice, workout ideas, and more! Subscribe today!]
Before we dive into this meaty piece, I have set up some quick links below so you can jump around if your are on the hunt for fast and effective workout tips.
Shoulder Training: Why Do It?
Ok, so you want to know why you should train your shoulders...
For starters, the shoulders are one of the main groups in the upper body, and are involved in nearly every strength, power, and fitness activity (as well as needed for everyday life). Healthy, strong, and stable shoulders not only helps you perform well, they also can give your physique a serious shape and taper...which brings me too...
Looks. Yea, I would be lying if I said I don't workout for looks...
Odds are you got started in the gym to (1) perform better in sports, (2) impress the hottie at your school, work, or wherever else you pick people up, and (3) a combination of physical performance and vanity goals. Having lean, strong, and chiseled shoulders not only shows your dedication to training, (as they can be pretty complex to build in a balance manner) but also can help make every single shirt you wear (or don't wear) look a little better :)
In spirit of shoulder day, here is a little motivational clip from legendary lifter, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Shoulder Exercises: Strength and Hypertrophy
The shoulder exercises described below can be used to develop shoulder hypertrophy (muscle growth), strength and power. Most of the exercises below can be used to increase muscle gain and strength. Note, a few of these exercises are specifically important for athletes in sports like Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, and more formal sports (football, wrestling, boxing, etc).
Strict Overhead and Military Press Exercises
One of the most foundational movements for building stronger, more muscular shoulders, the strict overhead or military press can be done from the standing or seated position using a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or Smith machine. To perform the movement, be sure to set you back tight, with your shoulder blade squeeze together and the bar or weights resting above your clavicles. (If you’re using dumbells, they should be resting slightly wider, on the front of your shoulders).
In the starting position, be sure to keep your elbows under or slightly in front of the weights so that your forearms are perpendicular to the ground. Be sure to keep your body rigid so that your legs, glutes, and core are all kept tight. This will ensure safety in the overhead pressing movement and optimal targeting of the shoulder muscles. For recommendations of number of repetitions and set ranges, as well as how to integrate these into shoulder workout, take a look at the shoulder workout programs below.
The push press is one of the most foundational exercises you can do to build strength, power, and size of the entire upper body. Regardless of goal or sport, increasing the pressing abilities of the shoulders, triceps, chest (with help from the lower body and hips) will allow you to move serious amounts of loads and produce some serious muscle damage along the way.
Without proper technique, this exercise can limit your overall abilities to move weight and can result in small, weak shoulders. Utilizing the push press at the beginning of workouts can boost overall strength and power, which then can be followed with more isolated movements (see exercises below). Too often lifters will go straight to isolation exercises without actually having enough muscle mass to begin with in the first place, often puzzled why they are still having issues filling out shmedium shirts. If this is you, start performing push presses in the rep ranges of 5-10 reps with moderate to heavy loads for 4-6 sets...then size up that tee (or better yet, cut those sleeves off)!
Dumbbell Arnold Press
The dumbbell Arnold press is named after legendary bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This movement is perfect for targeting nearly every head of the deltoid to build balanced, massive shoulders. This exercise is often done with moderate to light loads, focusing on keeping tension on the muscles and not losing focus on the goal (to maximize shoulder fatigue and muscle growth).
This is similar to the plate raises in the below section. I often find these done a million ways, sometimes light weights, and others heavy. I have found that the below video is one of the best explanations and tutorials on how to manipulate grip, placement of the load, range of motion, and even momentum to maximize shoulder growth with side raises.
The upright row is a movement that can target the shoulders and traps, which can enhance upper body size. In addition, it can be done to enhance performance in sports like Olympic weightlifting when done in the form of high pulls. This movement should be done with the intent of increasing muscle mass and size of the traps (narrower grip) or shoulders and rear shoulders (wider grip). The below videos are some of my favorite power based upright rows, the snatch and clean grip high pulls.
For lifters looking for application to weightlifting, snatch and clean high pulls can be done with straps, and body momentum to keep the technique similar to the Olympic lift. If looking for more unilateral development, dumbbell upright rows with moderate weight and strict reps are a great way to increase muscle size.
The key with this movement is to focus on feeling the muscles working, not just moving weight. Focus on strong, smooth contractions, minimize jerking of the lift, and focus on feeling muscle engagement and fatigue. If you experience pain in the front of the shoulder or neck, best avoid this movement and get that checked out (could be signs of impingement, or simply you are doing it wrong).
This movement can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, cables, or resistance bands, each targeting the rear deltoid. This exercise should done with controlled repetitions, focusing on using the smaller muscles in the back of the shoulder rather than the upper back, biceps, or traps. Be sure to keep your elbows elevated and out, and focus on pulling the load to your face, pausing to flex the muscles at the top of every repetition. Try performing 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets with moderate loads; this range should help you to build up your rear deltoids and improve your overall shoulder strength.
Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise
Like the face pull variations described above, this exercise targets the smaller muscles in the back of your shoulder. The key here is to use weights that allow you to perform repetitions with no momentum or swinging, while still being able to pause for a moment at the top of every repetition to maximally flex your rear deltoids. Try performing 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets with light-to-moderate loads, something like 5-15lbs (I use about 10-20lbs if that helps for reference).
Shoulder Exercises: Accessory and Corrective
The below listing of shoulder exercises are best performed at the beginning or end of a session, either to prepare for heavy pressing or to finish a shoulder workout with some higher-rep exercises to increase blood flow, muscle gain, joint function, and mobility.
These can be done to the sides (lateral) and to the front of your body for a balanced approach to hitting the deltoids. If you are looking to increase the size and shape of the front or the shoulders, the front raise is your move. Increasing the width and shape of your deltoids and shoulder muscles as a whole can be done with the lateral raise, which I personally prefer. Do this exercise for higher repetitions, typically between 12 and 15 reps, for 3 or 4 sets, working with a weight that you can feel the muscle pump (by that I mean that you experience a feeling of fullness and fatigue in the shoulder muscle). See exercise tutorial in the workout section below (Functional Bodybuilding Workout).
The Cuban press is a movement that requires a lifter to perform three motions in a sequence: an upright row, an external rotation, and finally an overhead press. At first, you may struggle with the movement, as it requires properly shoulder function and scapular control. I recommend you perform this with a light stick or very light bar (an empty barbell is 20kg/45 lbs, and is actually pretty challenging for this movement, so start lighter).
The key here is to control the movement yet allow for some slight momentum as you go into the external rotation aspect of the lift. When lowering the bar or weights, be sure to move smoothly, and do not overly resist the load on the way down. See the workout and video demo of this beneficial shoulder exercise, shown below, which is best done for 8-10 controlled repetition across 3-4 sets. See exercise tutorial in the workout section below (Functional Bodybuilding Workout).
A band tear-apart is a great exercise to do at the end of a workout or before a pressing session (bench, overhead pressing, etc.). This exercise can be done with bands for higher repetitions to develop the rhomboids and smaller muscles within the upper back and posterior shoulder. If you feel the traps and bigger back muscles coming into play here, focus on keeping your posture upright, shoulder blades down towards your butt, and try to restrict the movement some until you can truly feel the small muscles in the middle of the shoulderblades (rhomboids) and rear deltoids stretching the bands.
Note, that if your wrists are not stiff and your elbows are not locked, you are doing the exercise 100% incorrectly (those are the two biggest set-up issues I see on a regular basis). Start with 3 sets of 12-15 controlled repetitions, and be sure to resist the bands as you go back to the starting position in order to maintain proper tension in the middle back and posterior shoulder.
The YTW drill refers to the three positions that you will find your arms in throughout this movement. The “Y” refers to you dancing the YMCA song, the “T” is you making your arms stretch out to the sides, and the “W” is you raising your hands up overhead with the elbows bent at 90 degrees (see the video below).
Like the band tear aparts, the YTW drill can be performed with bands, small weights, or simply body weight, especially for beginners. I use this nearly every session as a warm-up for my baseball and softball athletes, as well as for people I’m training to do movements like bench pressing, push-ups, overhead pressing and jerks.
If your workout regimen is already somewhat hard on your shoulders, this movement can help you achieve gains while remaining pain free. The key here is quality movement, focusing on the proper joint mechanics and muscle contractions. If you feel the bigger muscles of the traps and back coming into play, restrict the movement a bit and focus on using the smaller muscles between the shoulderblades and behind the shoulder (rear delts and rotator cuff). Try performing 8-10 controlled repetitions per movement (letter, so 10 of each per set) for 2-3 sets.
Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press
This movement requires you to turn the kettlebell upside-down (yes, you heard right) so that you are grabbing the handle with the bell part at the top (see the video). While this movement can be done for hypertrophy, I find that it is best used with moderate loads for slower repetitions, in which the limiting factor is you body alignment and stability in the scapular region rather than overall shoulder strength.
If you struggle with shoulder or neck pain, have weak wrists/grip strength, and/or are unsure what a good overhead press feels like, you need to start mastering the bottoms-up kettlebell press. Try to perform 6-10 slow and controlled repetitions (being sure to pause at the top and bottom of every rep to establish control) for 3-4 sets.
4 Shoulder Workouts You Need to Try
The below workouts can be done to increase shoulder strength, muscle size, and help prevent injuries from poor movement or overuse. Note, that if you are experiencing shoulder pain prior to performing these workouts, you should seek a qualified sports/physical therapist prior to adding load to a movement. With that said, sometimes shoulder pain is due to poor-movement patterning, tendon and ligament overuse, or early signs of injury. The “Shoulder Prehab” series, below, can help you rehabilitate an injured shoulder, though of course it should only be used in concert with a diagnosis and treatment from a qualified physical/sports therapist.
For best result to ensure muscle recovery and growth--perform only one of the workouts listed below each week (with the exception of the Shoulder Prehab/Warm-Up Workout, which you can perform 3-4 times per week if like). If you have the itch to do more shoulders in the same week, wait 1-2 days, then perform another one of the workouts below using only HALF of the prescribed sets.
Shoulder Prehab Workout
This workout can be done before a hard-pressing shoulder session as a warm-up, or on a lighter day when your focus might be on bulletproofing your shoulders from injury. All the exercises below should be done with light-to-moderate load, with an emphasis on proper movement and pinpointing the smaller muscles. At no point should you be grunting or having to use body momentum to complete a repetition.
Functional Bodybuilding Shoulder Workout
Functional bodybuilding has taken the fitness and competitive sports training scene by storm lately. This training philosophy stems from formula bodybuilding training and functional movements, which are combined to bring you some pretty damn effective muscle building moves. Better yet, these movements can actually help your shoulder joint and connective tissues become healthier in the process. The below workout can be done as a main schedule session, using loads that are able to be controlled yet are challenging enough to bring about some muscle soreness.
Perform four (4) rounds of the following shoulder circuit, resting 30 seconds between exercises and 60-90 seconds between rounds.
Cuban Press x 10 reps
Plate Lateral (Side) Raises x 10 reps (controlled, fluid movement, with some momentum)
Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press x 6-10 reps (slow and controlled tempo, with pause at top and bottom of every repetition)
Boulders for Shoulders Workout
Just like the name of the workout implies, the goal of this shoulder session is to increase the size and shape of the deltoids and traps. Most of the exercises below are to be done with moderate-to-heavy loads (meaning that you should be using weights that force you to struggle for the last few reps at the end of every set) that still allow for controlled and fluid contractions. The key concept to grasp here is FEELING the muscles working and getting fatigue, which often will give you a feeling of fullness in the muscle, maybe even some stiffness as the session goes on (called, THE PUMP). Chase that pump, and get some muscle fatigue and soreness, as that’s one of the primary catalysts for muscle growth.
Seated Military Press: 4 sets of 12-15 repetitions. Keep the barbell always in motion, making sure to straighten the elbows at the top of every repetition.
Kneeling Dumbbell Arnold Press: 4 sets of 10-12 repetitions. Focus on smooth, continuous repetitions.
Barbell or Cable Upright Row: 4 sets of 12-15 repetitions. Focus on smooth, continuous repetition, yet make sure to pause and squeeze your shoulder muscles hard at the top of every repetition.
Seated Bent-Over Flye: 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions. Be sure to restrict the range of motion of this exercise, only going up high enough to feel the back of the shoulders working. If you go too high you will start to feel the traps and bigger muscles in the back start to take over...not good.
Strong AF Shoulder Workout
This workout is geared for those of you who are looking for strong, powerful shoulders either for Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, or other strength sports. Note, that these exercises, while they will promote muscle growth for most lifters, are geared specifically for strength and power. If you are someone who is looking for pure size, the Boulders to Shoulder workout described above may be more geared for you. That said, this workout will offer some size for most lifters, yet the real benefit is getting seriously strong and powerful.
Band Tear Aparts: 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions
Handstand Hold: 3 sets of 30 seconds. Focus on keeping the elbows fully locked, staying active with the shoulders and traps to support the movement. The head should be relaxed with your ears in line with or slightly behind the biceps.
Push Press: 6-8 sets of 3-5 repetitions
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press (high incline, not straight vertical): 4 sets of 6-10 repetitions. Bring weights down to about chin level, no lower. This will ensure maximal tension on the shoulders.
Lateral Dumbbell Raises: 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions
Additional Muscle Building Workout Guides