While most men who commit to working out will be in search of huge biceps, a prominent chest and six-pack abs, adding shoulder exercises into the mix will help to create a much broader figure to help fill out those t-shirts. Shoulder workouts can also help to increase overall upper body strength, as stronger shoulders will help you lift to greater weights.
So what are the best shoulder exercises you should be putting yourself through when in the gym? Allow us to run you through the essential shoulder workouts you need. But first, a quick biology lesson.
What Muscles Are In The Shoulders?
According to Healthline, the shoulder muscles maintain the widest range of motion of any muscle in the human body, which, while this makes them incredibly important, also makes them far more susceptible to injury. Some eight muscles make up the shoulder as a whole, with all of them attaching to the shoulder blade.
However, there are some 20 muscles that provide extra support to the shoulder, allowing it to go through its full range of motion.
The main muscles that make up the shoulder include the trapezius (traps) and deltoid (delts). Other muscles include the pectoralis major chest muscle, as it stretches from the collar bone down to the mid-chest area, and the rhomboid major, which sits below the trapezius on your upper back.
Because the shoulder muscles encompass muscles that connect to other areas of the upper body, it’s vital you perform a wide range of shoulder exercises to ensure they’re all as strong as possible.
Best Shoulder Workouts
A vast majority of the best shoulder exercises you should be performing are likely ones you already know, although you may find you’re not performing them quite so perfectly. And after all, technique and form is far more beneficial than the amount of weight you lift.
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The dumbbell lateral raise is an essential shoulder workout as it helps to add size to the sides of your shoulders and it works the lateral portion of the deltoid muscle. The other areas of the shoulder also get a seeing to with this exercise, but ultimately it’s one to really help your shoulders pop.
How to perform: To perform lateral raises, hold a dumbbell in each hand with your feet shoulder width apart. Make sure you start off with a lighter weight, because as you get closer and closer to your last repetition, you’ll definitely feel the strain in your muscles. It’s also possible to sustain injury by performing the lateral raise with a weight that’s too heavy for you.
With your dumbbells in your hands, engage you core, and lock down your shoulders. Put a slight bend in the elbow and raise your arms out to your sides until your wrists are slightly below your shoulder.
A common mistake some people make with lateral raises, is to raise their arms too high, with the wrist going above the shoulder. By keeping the wrist below the shoulder, you put greater tension on the shoulder muscle, which is ultimately what you want.
Return your arms to their starting position, and that’s 1 rep of the lateral raise completed.
Sets: 3 to 5 sets with 8-10 reps per set
Tempo: 2 seconds up, 1 second back down.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Another classic shoulder workout is the dumbbell shoulder press. This shoulder workout can be performed in conjunction with, or instead of, the barbell shoulder press, as they both produce similar results.
By using dumbbells, however, you introduce two independently moving weights, meaning you’ll need to call upon a greater amount of surrounding supporting muscle to help with the lift. Naturally, this provides a greater benefit over the barbell shoulder press, so is the one we’d recommend out of the two.
How to perform: The dumbbell shoulder press can be performed standing or sitting, but if you’re new to the movement, we’d recommend sitting as it provides extra support.
Take a dumbbell in each hand – again, keep the weight light to begin with, an ego will mean a one-way trip to injury-ville – and sit on a bench with the back section fully upright. Hold the dumbbells up over your shoulders so they are parallel to the floor, with your palms facing forward and your elbows out.
Push the dumbbells up and bring them toward each other as you get to a point where your arms are fully extended, just be sure to not let the dumbbells touch.
Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Sets: 3 to 5 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds up, 2 seconds back down
The Arnold Press is legitimately named after the father of bodybuilding himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a variation of the military press – which itself is a variation of the barbell overhead press, but just sees your feet being brought together instead of standing shoulder width apart.
The Arnold press however, is a shoulder workout you really should be including in your routine, because it serves to work all three portions of the deltoid muscle in one fell swoop, meaning boulder shoulders are certainly achievable.
How to perform: Start with a dumbbell in each hand, shoulder blades together, and your arms starting in a position akin to how you would finish a bicep curl, i.e. arms bent and palms facing you. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. This is another shoulder exercise where it pays to start off with a light weight so that you can get the technique nailed.
Next, rotate your elbows outwards, push your arms up straight, and twist your palms at the same time as you push up, so that your palms face forwards. Return to the starting position by performing the reverse of the movement you just completed.
Sets: 3 to 4 sets with 8 – 10 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds up, 3 seconds down
The upright row is a simple-looking shoulder workout that targets the deltoids and the traps, along with other areas of the upper back and even the biceps. However, you’ll only effectively target these muscles if you perform it correctly, which means you’ll want to start with a light weight to help avoid injury.
The upright row can be performed using a barbell, an EZ bar or even a pair of dumbbells – taking a dumbbell in each hand. If you’re new to the movement, it’s recommended you use an EZ bar, as it alleviates some pressure from your wrists.
How to perform: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and take hold of the EZ bar. Have it hanging down in front of you with your elbows slightly bent. Prepare for the movement by bringing your shoulder blades together and locking them down.
Breathe in and embrace your core. As you breathe out, lift the barbell straight up towards your chin, flaring your elbows out and keeping the bar close to your body. End the movement when your hands are roughly in line with your shoulders. Pause at the top before retuning your arms to their starting position.
Sets: 3 to 4 sets with 10-12 reps per set
Tempo: 2 seconds up, pause for a second, slowly lower back down
Dumbbell Front Raise
As we mentioned earlier, the shoulder is predominantly made up of the three heads of the deltoid muscle. The shoulder exercises already mentioned help to target the middle and rear sides of the deltoid, but to really finish them off and get the front head popping, you need to be performing the front raise.
The front raise can be performed using any kind of free weight, such as weight plate, or a resistance band, but your best weapon is a pair of dumbbells. As with the other shoulder exercises, start off with a light weight, as you’ll slowly but surely feel more and more fatigued as you work your way through the repetitions.
With the front raise, you have the option of raising both dumbbells at the same time, or alternating arms.
How to perform: Start with a dumbbell each in hand, feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent and your arms straight down in front of your thighs. Raise your arms up in front of you, keeping them straight (if you’re alternating arms, naturally, lift one arm at a time).
Raise your arms until your hands are in line with your shoulders – if you raise them higher, you won’t be putting as much tension on the front head of the deltoid – and slowly lower your arms back down to their starting position.
If you find you’re struggling to complete the last few repetitions, you can use some bounce from your knees to help give you an extra bit of momentum.
Sets: 4 sets with 10-12 reps per set (10 – 12 each side if alternating)
Tempo: 2 seconds up, 2 seconds down
Overhead Push Press
Another essential shoulder workout is an overhead press, as performing this move will ultimately help you build much bigger shoulders. However, as we all know, the key to really seeing an increase in size is to lift heavier weights, but with a standalone overhead press, this can be tricky (and best avoided).
To help push heavier weight above your head, you can perform a push press, which sees your knees bent, and using your legs to literally help push the weight up. The overhead push press also helps to strengthen your rotator cuff – a group of muscles and tendons that surround and support the shoulder joint – which will help you to lift heavier and heavier weights in the future.
Put simply, it’s an absolute must-perform shoulder workout.
How to perform: You can perform the overhead push press using either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. The former will be slightly easier because the weight is spread equally between your shoulders, whereas dumbbells introduce an added requirement for stability, as you’re using free weights.
If using a barbell, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and hold the barbell in your fingers with your elbows facing forwards, similar to if you were going to perform a front squat. Then, you will want to squat down slightly with your knees bent and push back up through your heels.
As you push up, launch the barbell up above your head so that your arms are straight. Bring the bar back to your chest and repeat in fluid motion.
If you choose to use dumbbells, take a dumbbell in each hand, start with them over your shoulders with a natural grip – palms facing in – and perform the move in the same way. Squat, push, return.
Sets: 3 to 4 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: Slow and controlled, but ensuring the entire movement is kept fluid.
Cable Face Pull
The cable face pull is one of the most underrated, yet one of the best shoulder exercises you can include in your program. Why? Because it targets your trap muscles and other areas of the upper back, adding all round strength and stability to your upper body.
It also makes a refreshing change from all those shoulder exercises that rely on presses and raises, and because you engage your core, back and it’s performed from a standing position, you’ll likely find you can pull a greater weight than you’d first assume.
How to perform: Head on over to the cable machine, attach the double rope attachment and set the pulley to be roughly in line with your head – any higher and you won’t engage the rear delts as much as you’d want to.
Start with the weight set light so that you can get the technique right. Grasp the rope with palms facing down and your arms straight. Adopt a split stance (one foot in front of the other) if you don’t amazing balance, but ideally, you’ll want to be standing with your feet in line with one another. Next pull the rope towards your face, bending the elbows out wide and ensuring the rope remains at eye level throughout the duration of the movement.
Some people may pull the rope so that their hands pretty much meet the ears. However, it’s often claimed a more beneficial way to perform the face pull is to rotate your forearms so that they are at right angles at the end of the movement, with your upper arms parallel with the floor.
Pull the rope back far, so that your hands go behind your head, in line with your ears, making sure you don’t lean your head forward. Keep an upright upper body throughout to maximise the amount of tension you place on your shoulder muscles.
Return the rope slowly back to the starting position, with your arms straight, and repeat.
Sets: 3 to 5 sets with 10-12 reps per set
Tempo: Incredibly slow and controlled for the entire movement.
Dumbbell Lying Rear Delt Row
Unlike the upright row, the rear delt row could be seen as more of an upper back exercise. While it’s certainly true that it does target the upper back, it deserves a spot on this list because like its name suggests, it works the rear deltoid muscles, which are found on the back of shoulders. You can perform the rear delt row without the use of an incline bench, although this would be more of a bent over row instead. The addition of the incline bench allows you to better isolate the target muscles, because you’re employing the use of your chest or core to stabilise yourself.
How to perform: Start with an incline bench set between a 45 and 60-degree angle. Take a dumbbell in each hand – the aim here is to row a heavier weight than what you would use in an overhead press, but it’s always best to start light to understand the exercise – and lie with your front on the bench and arms hanging down.
Lock down your shoulder blades and row – or pull – the dumbbells up. Rather than pull them so that you’re essentially shrugging your shoulders, you want to instead aim to draw the dumbbells towards your hips. Make sure you keep your elbows as close to your body as possible throughout the movement, and when the dumbbells reach your hips, and your elbows are extended past your back, squeeze and hold for a second or two.
Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position to complete one rep.
Sets: 3 sets with 10 – 12 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds up, 2 seconds down