THE ULTIMATE SHOULDER WORKOUT GUIDE
A lot of people ‘forget’ to train shoulders, don’t train them often enough, or train them improperly.
As much as shoulders may not be at the top of your list of favorite muscles to train, it’s crucial that you not ignore them! Plus, a set of big boulder shoulders makes a very impressive contribution to your overall physique.
In this complete guide to shoulder workouts, I’ll give you an overview of the shoulder muscles, tell you why they’re so important and give you the best shoulder exercises and workout tips regardless of what equipment you have available to you so that you can create the best shoulder programs for you.
This step-by-step guide is broken down into sections so you can easily find exactly what you’re looking for to build strong shoulders. I’ll also be answering all the most common questions related to shoulders and shoulder workouts.
Here are some of the topics that I’ll cover in this shoulder strength training guide:
Before we launch into my favorite shoulder exercises and shoulder training techniques, let’s review shoulder muscle anatomy so you are familiar with the playing field as we explore the best ways to hit these muscles.
1) SHOULDER MUSCLES ANATOMY
The deltoid muscle is comprised of 3 deltoid heads: the front delt head (anterior deltoid), middle delt head (lateral deltoid) and rear delt head (posterior deltoid).
I’ll use my handy Muscle Markers to show you each of the deltoid heads.
You can refer back to this section if needed, because I’ll be showing you different shoulder-specific exercises to target each of these areas, and some that target all three.
FRONT DELT HEAD (ANTERIOR DELTOID MUSCLE)
REAR DELT HEAD (POSTERIOR DELTOID MUSCLE)
MIDDLE DELT HEAD (LATERAL DELTOID MUSCLE)
2) WHY ARE SHOULDER WORKOUTS IMPORTANT?
Shoulders are a muscle that people tend to undertrain, train incorrectly or ignore altogether.
If that sounds like you, you’re making a big mistake by omitting shoulder programs from your training!
Training shoulders is critical for three important reasons:
- Well-developed shoulders enhance the appearance of your upper body and create a balanced look to the physique.
- Strengthening the muscles around the shoulder joint helps maintain good shoulder health. The shoulders are often chronically weak due to undertraining, so having strong shoulders supports the rotational nature of the shoulder joint in all the activities of daily living as well as in your strength training workouts. This will also help prevent potential shoulder injury.
- Shoulders can be trained with lighter weight and a variety of different types of equipment, which allows for flexibility to train at home or on the road.
The shoulders are one of the smallest but arguably one of the most important muscles in the body, so it’s time to give them priority!
First let’s discuss what it takes to get bigger shoulders… you might surprised by my advice!
3) HOW TO GET BIGGER SHOULDERS
If you’re trying to develop big broad shoulders, you’re going to have to let go of the ego.
What do I mean by this?
When it comes to deltoid training, that old adage of ‘lift big, get big’ doesn’t ring true. To build strong beefy shoulders, you’re going to have to pick up the light dumbbells.
The heavy weights will still have their place in your shoulder development, but light weights are where it’s at for developing bigger delts.
Why is that the case?
Heavy compound lifts aren’t ideal when it comes to building muscular shoulders. That’s because the deltoid muscles receive so much assistance from other muscle groups in the upper body when doing big lifts. To move all those pounds of weight, the triceps, chest muscles, back, abdominal muscles and legs kick in. There will be some momentum involved as well.
What all this means is that it’s not really possible to isolate the delts with those bigger lifts. The fastest way to build bigger deltoids is to laser target them by using lighter weights.
Try the Zero Momentum Side Lateral Raise technique below and you’ll see just how challenging lifting lighter weights can be. This is one of the most effective lateral delt exercises for increasing shoulder size.
Start with a pair of 15 lb pair of dumbbells. Yes, just 15 should be enough!
HOW TO DO THE ZERO MOMENTUM SIDE LATERAL RAISE:
- Traditional starting position is standing straight (not hinging forward) holding a pair of dumbbells, raise your arms straight out to the side without a significant bend in the elbow, being sure to initiate the contraction from the lateral delts.
- For this first repetition, stop halfway to the top of the repetition and pause before lowering again.
- On the next repetition, you’ll raise the dumbbells above shoulder height. When you start out, palms will be facing the floor and at the end of the movement, pinkies will be down and thumbs will be up.
- Next, lower the dumbbell halfway down and repeat one more contraction to the top. All of these should be solid controlled repetitions executed with clean form.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Elimination of momentum means just your deltoids are doing the work, which is why you can use such a light weight on this exercise. This is one of the more effective shoulder raise variations for isolating the lateral delts.
Give this technique a try with a pair of 15 lb pair of dumbbells or half of whatever you’d normally use for a side lateral raise. You’ll quickly see just how challenging it can be when your deltoids are doing all the work instead of allowing other muscles to kick in.
Incorporate this into your dedicated shoulder workout routine and you’ll see how lighter weights can help you build bigger shoulders! For a more in depth look at this technique and a step by step breakdown of each of the repetitions, check out my article on How To Get Bigger Shoulders.
4) WHAT IS THE BEST SHOULDER WORKOUT?
The best shoulder workout should hit all three heads of the deltoid muscle: front delt, middle delt and rear deltoids, but even that’s not enough to make the upper-body workout complete.
The best shoulder workouts also have to ensure we properly activate the shoulders, create overload, and include explosive movement.
We also need to train the shoulders through their entire range of motion, including on stretch, in order to build shoulder strength and size.
Let’s look at the most important elements of a great shoulder routine:
SHOULDER EXERCISES FOR ACTIVATION
It’s important to activate the shoulders before we train them for a couple of key reasons. The shoulder joint is a three-dimensional ball and socket joint, which means the this complex joint has ample range of motion.
Also since the shoulder’s socket is the shoulder blade, there are several important muscles that are affected by shoulder movement, including all the muscles that attach to the humerus and the scapula.
Shoulder activation is important to help all these muscles work together properly and to avoid shoulder injuries.
One of the best exercises for shoulder activation is the Overhead Band Press performed with an elastic stretch band. A few warm up sets of this exercise will greatly help to prepare your shoulder mobility for your workout. This is one of the better rear delt movements.
OVERHEAD BAND PRESS
HOW TO DO IT THE OVERHEAD BAND PRESS:
- For the overhead shoulder band press anchor the resistance band to something in front of you just lower than chest level.
- Take the resistance band in both hands and walk yourself back a few feet.
- Begin to press upward with both hands to overhead position.
- Do two sets of 15 repetitions with a three second hold. Try to do very deliberate high-quality repetitions.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: In this variation, the resistance isn’t coming from the ground up, like it would in a typical dumbbell shoulder press or barbell shoulder press. The elastic band is pulling you toward the front, so you’ll have to activate the muscles of the rear delt and the rotator cuff muscles. We need the support of the rotator cuff muscles to provide shoulder stability to do overhead activities, so it’s important that we warm it up.
FOUNDATIONAL STRENGTH SHOULDER EXERCISES
While it’s important to use targeted shoulder exercises with lighter weights to zero in on these muscles, foundational moves are just as important.
For this, one of the best compound shoulder exercises is the Barbell Overhead Press, because we’re able to create overload and scale to heavier weights.
If we perform the Banded Overhead Press followed by the Barbell Overhead Press we’re also using neuromuscular reeducation to enforce what we established with the banded activation exercise in the barbell exercise.
BARBELL OVERHEAD PRESS
HOW TO DO IT THE BARBELL OVERHEAD PRESS:
- Start position for this barbell shoulder press is grabbing the bar with an overhand grip, and with a slightly wider grip than shoulder width apart on the bar, palms facing forward.
- Then and push the bar up with arms extended to overhead position.
- Finally lower the bar with control to about shoulder height before beginning again. Be sure to use proper form and shoulder control to avoid a potential shoulder injury and risk of shoulder pain.
- Take a few minutes of rest between sets for this exercise.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Put simply, the overhead shoulder press is the best barbell exercise around for overloading the shoulders to build strength.
SHOULDER EXERCISES TO STRETCH EACH DELT HEAD
The majority of the most common shoulder exercises aren’t good for putting the delts on stretch.
For example, in a Side Lateral Raise, the arm stops right on the side of the body, so the shoulder muscles are never stretched.
In a Dumbbell Front Raise, it’s the same situation. The arm stops on the side of the body.
In most Shoulder Press motions, the arm stops in that same position.
However, it is possible to perform these exercises a little differently to incorporate that stretch on the delts.
In the Front Delt Raise variation below you’ll see that you can take the arm back behind the body to stretch out the fibers in the front of the delt.
CABLE FRONT DELT RAISE WITH STRETCH
HOW TO DO THE CABLE FRONT DELT RAISE WITH STRETCH:
- For this frontal raise variation, take a split stance with the feet, grab a cable handle with an overhand grip, perform a front delt raise with the cable stack, but allow the upper arm to go back into extension behind the body at the end of each repetition.
- Be sure to keep the elbow slightly bent during the movement.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: When the arm goes back into extension, it places more stretch on the front delt fibers.
SHOULDER EXERCISES TO TRAIN ALL THE MUSCLES AROUND THE SHOULDER TOGETHER
Hypertrophy should never be the only goal of complete shoulder training. Explosivity is important to allow you to function more athletically.
One of my favorite dumbbell shoulder exercises also has the added benefit of training all the muscles of the entire shoulder region together, as well as recruiting some nearby muscles that are connected to the shoulder girdle.
The Cheat Lateral Raise accomplishes all of this!
CHEAT LATERAL RAISE
HOW TO DO IT THE CHEAT LATERAL RAISE:
- Start position is with a dumbbell in one hand, bending slightly forward at the hips.
- Explosively raise the dumbbell out to the side laterally, arms above shoulder height, swinging it up but controlling the weight on the way down.
- Maintain a bend in the elbow throughout the movement.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise allows you to train the entire shoulder girdle explosively with muscles working together.
SHOULDER EXERCISES TO TARGET THE REAR DELT
The number one exercise for targeting the posterior delts has a lot of other important benefits as well.
In fact, it’s one of my favorite corrective exercises, and one I prescribe people to do after every single workout!
And that’s the Face Pull!
I love this exercise because it solves a common deltoid training problem, which is that when we train our chest muscles, triceps muscles and shoulders, we feed into a front to back imbalance that can cause a lack of muscle symmetry or even shoulder injuries.
The Face Pull solves this by offsetting all the pushing work that you’re doing in the rest of your upper body workouts, and by building posterior deltoids and rotator cuff strength to provide shoulder stability. This is one of the best moves for rotator cuff and rear delt isolation work.
HOW TO DO IT THE FACE PULL:
- Start position for the cable face pull is setting up a rope attachment on a cable machine in a high position.
- Stand with a staggered stance and grab the handles of the rope attachment with palms facing toward each other and thumbs pointing backward.
- Turn the hands slightly and begin pulling the rope toward eye level with the elbows down below the shoulder joints.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise hits the difficult to target rear delts and rotator cuffs, helping to offset all of the pushing work we do in our upper body workouts.
5) WHAT ARE THE BEST SHOULDER EXERCISES?
There are a wide range of exercises to choose from, but the best shoulder exercises for you will depend a lot on what type of equipment you have available.
I want to help make sure you’re training this often-neglected muscle group, so in this section and the ones that follow I’ll show you some of the most effective exercises you can do to build bigger shoulders depending on the tools you’ve got.
If you have a full gym at your disposal, there are some great exercises you can do with a cable machine, a barbell or a landmine setup.
Let’s take a look at a few great options!
HOW TO DO RELAY RAISES:
- Start with feet shoulder width apart, and slightly staggered in front of a cable pulley with your body facing away from the weight machine, grabbing a cable handle with an overhand grip
- Hold the attachment with one hand, palm facing forward.
- Use the shoulder muscle to push forward and then slowly lower the weight to return to starting position.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The Relay Raise is one of my favorite cable exercises because it’s among the best pressing exercises you can do if you have access to a cable machine.
HIGH BOY ROWS
HOW TO DO HIGH BOY ROWS:
- Start standing in vertical position with feet shoulder width apart, grabbing a barbell with an overhand grip.
- Bending forward slightly, and keeping a slight bend in the elbows, explosively lift the barbell to shoulder height, and lower the bar with control on the way down.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: If you have access to a barbell, this is a great mass builder for the rear delt.
OBB LANDMINE PRESS
HOW TO DO THE OBB LANDMINE PRESS:
- Start in standing position with feet shoulder width apart, holding the end of a barbell in one hand at shoulder level and with the other end anchored in landmine position.
- Explosively push the weight out and away from you bringing the elbow to shoulder level.
- Keep the core tight during the movement and return to the original position.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The OBB Landmine Press is a great explosive option that will take your scapular plane pressing power to new levels if you’ve got access to the equipment for a landmine setup.
OBB TWISTING THRUSTER
HOW TO DO THE OBB TWISTING THRUSTER:
- Start with feet shoulder width apart, holding the end of the barbell at about chest height with the other end of the barbell anchored on the floor.
- Push the end of the barbell up and away from you, then lower the weight, then twist the end of the barbell down and to one side before returning to the starting position.
- Maintain the core tight the entire time. Do all repetitions toward one side before moving on to the other side.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The OBB Twisting Thruster is another great athletic power builder using the landmine setup.
These highly effective gym based shoulder exercises are included in my list of 12 Best Shoulder Exercises along with several other favorites utilizing dumbbells and resistance bands.
6) WHAT IS THE BEST DUMBBELL SHOULDER WORKOUT?
If you have access to a set of dumbbells but not a full gym, you can still get a very effective shoulder workout.
In fact, using dumbbell shoulder exercises you can train the shoulders for any goal, including strength, power, hypertrophy, metabolic, or even total body.
Let’s take a look at an example for each!
STANDING DUMBBELL PRESS – STRENGTH
HOW TO DO THE STANDING DUMBBELL PRESS:
- Start by standing with feet shoulder width apart and holding two dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing toward each other.
- Raise both dumbbells, ending with arms extended overhead and then lower the dumbbells with control to the start position with dumbbells at shoulder height.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This dumbbell overhead press exercise allows you to get your elbows out in front of your body into that scapular plane so you can press overhead more safely without risking impingement of the shoulder. It also allows you to effectively overload the shoulders with dumbbells, but keep in mind that you’ll be able to make smaller jumps in weight with dumbbells than you would with a barbell.
DUMBBELL PUSH PRESS – POWER
HOW TO DO IT THE DUMBBELL PUSH PRESS:
- Start position is standing with feet hip width apart with dumbbells in each hand at shoulder level.
- Explosively push the dumbbells straight overhead and lower, pushing the glutes out and hinging at the hips. Repeat with controlled, fast explosive motion.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise allows you to apply extra power by using the legs to drive from the ground up. Effectively loading the hips will help you apply force, strength and speed to the movement because you will utilize the biggest muscles in your body (legs and glutes).
CHEAT LATERAL RAISE MECHANICAL DROP SET – HYPERTROPHY
HOW TO DO THE CHEAT LATERAL RAISE MECHANICAL DROP SET:
- Start position is with a dumbbell in one hand, bending slightly forward at the hips.
- Explosively raise the dumbbell out to the side laterally, swinging it up but controlling the weight on the way down.
- Maintain a bend in the elbow throughout the movement.
- Follow it up with a Straight Dumbbell Lateral Raise to failure.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: An important aspect of hypertrophy training is to apply stress not just to, but THROUGH failure. Once you fatigue in the Cheat Lateral Raise you can grab a lighter weight and follow it up with a Straight Dumbbell Lateral Raise to failure. For more information on this technique, check out my article on Best Dumbbell Exercises for Shoulders.
FIXED ARM FRONT RAISE MECHANICAL DROP SET – METABOLIC
HOW TO DO A FIXED ARM FRONT RAISE MECHANICAL DROP SET:
- Keep your arm locked in a 90-degree angle and raise your arm up in front of your body. Lower the dumbbells with control. Keep going through the burn until failure.
- Follow it up in a mechanical drop set with a High Pull, a Figure 8 and a Dumbbell Press Out, each to failure.
- Learn how to do these exercises and get additional information on this mechanical drop set technique in my article on Best Dumbbell Exercises for Shoulders.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Performing a metabolic drop set with exercises like these creates a lactic acid buildup to induce muscular stress, which is another way to create muscle hypertrophy.
DUMBBELL POWER CLEAN-OVER – TOTAL BODY
HOW TO DO THE DUMBBELL POWER CLEAN-OVER:
- Explosively clean the dumbbell off the ground to one shoulder.
- Raise it over to the other shoulder, then lower, then reverse the movement.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is a great explosive compound exercise for shoulders that also hits a good portion of the shoulder’s range of motion.
7) HOW CAN YOU DO A SHOULDER WORKOUT AT HOME?
Is it possible to get a great shoulder workout at home without any special shoulder equipment? What about while traveling? Absolutely!
Resistance bands are the ideal tool for training the shoulders at home, and they’re extremely portable too! And the best part is that they’re far more versatile for training the shoulders than you might think.
You can use elastic bands to hit all three heads of the deltoid muscle together or you can use them to isolate the front deltoid, middle deltoid and rear delt.
Let’s take a look at one exercise for each of these four functions!
LYING ECCENTRIC OVERHEAD PRESS – ENTIRE SHOULDER
HOW TO DO THE LYING ECCENTRIC OVERHEAD PRESS:
- Start position is lying on the ground with the elastic band wrapped around the foot and hand on the same side of the body.
- Begin with the knee bent, heel supported on the ground.
- Use your shoulder to push the elastic band above your head, then stretch out the leg and then lower the hand.
- Return to starting position.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Typically, with banded overhead presses the bands won’t stretch enough or don’t create enough overload to cause muscle growth. In this overhead exercise we are getting eccentric overload when we straighten the bent leg to adjust the tension on the band.
FRONT RAISE PULL APARTS – FRONT DELTS
HOW TO DO FRONT RAISE PULL APARTS:
- Start standing with the band anchored below your two feet and grasping the other end of the band in both hands.
- Begin by raising the band upward with arms in front of you and a very slight bend in the elbows.
- When you reach shoulder height, spread the arms to pull the band apart.
- Return to the start.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The front raise portion is very effective for hitting the front delts. The pull apart portion shifts some of the load to the medial delts and posterior delts and prolongs time under tension.
LONG ARC LATERAL RAISE – MIDDLE DELTS
HOW TO DO THE LONG ARC LATERAL RAISE:
- For this middle deltoid exercise, anchor the band under the opposite side foot to give you a larger range of motion against the band’s resistance.
- Loop the band around the back of your hand and perform a lateral raise with a straight arm.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The extra range of motion provided by anchoring the band on the opposite foot allows you to apply more tension and get the most out of this medial delt exercise.
BANDED REAR DELT PULL – REAR DELTS
HOW TO DO THE BANDED REAR DELT PULL:
- Start by wrapping the band around your back.
- Hook the band around your thumbs and pull back and apart with straight arms, rotating your hands so that your thumbs point up and your palms face away from you.
- Lead with the back of your hands as you pull the band apart, focusing on moving the entire arm.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: By keeping the arms straight throughout the entire movement, you keep tension on the rear delt, ensuring that it’s doing the majority of the work.
By now you should be convinced that building bigger, stronger shoulders is a must for your training program. Great-looking shoulders also benefit the look of your overall physique. The shoulders are also one of the most important joints to nearly any exercise you perform for any muscle group!
Give the techniques and exercises in this guide a try, and you’ll be surprised by just how quickly your shoulders will grow.
If you’re looking for a complete plan to build lean muscle and strength in every muscle group in the body, see which of our ATHLEAN-X programs best suits your goals and equipment possibilities.
SHOULDER WORKOUTS FAQ
The best foundational exercise for shoulders is the Barbell Overhead Press because we can create overload and scale with heavier weights over time. The Barbell Overhead Press will help you build big well-developed shoulders, but be sure to follow proper form and keep core muscles tight throughout the exercise to prevent potential shoulder injury and excessive pain. Because this is a heavy compound movement, you'll want to be sure to take adequate rest times between shoulder sets. Barbell presses should be the mainstay of your shoulder programming and will help you build healthy shoulders over time.
Push ups can help build shoulders, but not as well as exercises like the Barbell Overhead Press which specifically targets the shoulders and can be overloaded with heavy weights. Be sure to include the Barbell Overhead Press in your shoulder programming.
The best shoulder training frequency is about twice per week. This amount of shoulder strength training gives you the best potential muscle growth gains because your shoulders need adequate rest in order for the muscles to be able to repair and grow. Training shoulders 1-2 times per week will help you build strong broad shoulders.
The best shoulder workout for preventing shoulder injuries is the Overhead Band Press which is a shoulder activation exercise. This prepares the shoulder muscles to work together properly and should be done before starting the rest of your shoulder workout.
To get big boulder shoulders, be sure to train your shoulders 1-2 times per week. To get nice 3D shoulders, you should be doing some exercises with heavy weights. These would include compound exercises done with heavy loads like Barbell Overhead Presses, as well as other isolation exercises with lighter weights. For strong shoulders, your shoulder training should include exercises that hit each of the deltoid heads including lateral delts, front delts and rear delt movements.
Shoulder programming should definitely not be done every day if you want to build big boulder shoulders. You should have a shoulder day just 1-2 times per week in order to avoid potential shoulder injury. This is because in order to build big beefy shoulders, your muscles need ample time to repair themselves and grow.
Two shoulder exercises probably isn't enough to build the upper body muscle mass and the broad shoulders you're looking for. For best potential muscle growth gains, you should be doing exercises that cover all three delt heads including lateral delt moves, rear delt movements and front delt exercises in your shoulder training.
Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.