A set of strong, broad shoulders signal to the world that you lift (hey, a little vanity is okay). Stronger shoulders also mean you can bench press and overhead press more weight while also potentially staving off injuries. They’re a smaller muscle compared to your chest and back muscles, but you shouldn’t throw shoulder training on the back burner. Not at all.
Best Shoulder Exercises
- Barbell Overhead Press
- Half-Kneeling Landmine Press
- Arnold Press
- Push Press
- Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press
- Wide-Grip Seated Row
- Leaning Lateral Raise
- Incline Y Raise
- Stability Bent Over Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise
- Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Barbell Overhead Carry
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise Pause Set
- Single-Arm Push Press
- Resistance Band Front Raise/Lateral Raise Combo
The barbell overhead press strengthens all three heads of the deltoid — the front (anterior), middle (lateral), and rear (posterior). If you want bigger, stronger, and boulder shoulders, overhead pressing variations are necessary for size and strength because shoulder raise variations will only take you so far.
Benefits of the Overhead Press
- All three deltoid muscles are involved.
- This is a variation that you can load heavy, helping develop bigger shoulders.
- A stronger overhead press will assist your bench press because both use the same muscles, just from different angles.
How to Do The Overhead Press
With the bar right in front of you, place your hands just outside your shoulders. Your elbows and forearms should be in a vertical position, stacked upon each other. If your elbows are pointing out or in, your grip is either too narrow or too wide. Please adjust accordingly.
Put the bar on the heel of your palm because this is where you’ll generate the most force from. Press overhead until lockout and slowly lower down to the starting position and repeat.
The half-kneeling unilateral landmine press is a mix between a vertical and horizontal movement, which makes this great for people who lack the shoulder mobility for overhead pressing. Plus, if you’re coming back from a shoulder injury, this is a great regression of the overhead press.
Benefits of the Landmine Press
- The half-kneeling position combined with the press will improve your core stability, hip mobility, and anti-rotational strength.
- Unilateral pressing will help reduce strength imbalances.
- Allows the lifter to get overhead if they have limited shoulder mobility
How to Do the Half-Kneeling Landmine Press
Get into a half-kneeling position in front of the barbell, knee underneath hip and ankle underneath the knee.
Hold the barbell at shoulder height in hand nearest your back leg and actively grip the barbell. Press up at about 45 degrees and reach towards the ceiling at the end of the lockout. Slowly lower down under control and repeat.
The Arnold press, named after the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger, trains all three deltoid heads. Plus, due to the larger range of motion and its rotational nature, it increases time under tension, leading to more hypertrophy. When performed for higher reps, it is absolute deltoid and upper back burner. The Arnold Press requires mobility, stability, and strength to perform well. It is the shoulder exercise with the lot.
Benefits of the Arnold Press
- Increased time under tension for all three heads of the deltoid, which leads to improved hypertrophy.
- Arnold press involves moving in multiple planes of motion, which will target more deltoid muscle fibers.
How to Do the Arnold Press
In a seated position, kick dumbbells up to a traditional starting position and rotate your hands until your palms are facing towards you, like the top of a biceps curl. In one motion, press the dumbbells and rotate your palms to face forward. Continue lifting until your biceps are by or behind your ears.
Pause and reverse the move slowly and repeat.
The push press uses a lower-body dip to push the barbell overhead. It uses the triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips, which closely mimics what most overhead athletes do on the field. Plus, the lower body dip allows you to lift more weight overhead than the barbell overhead press. More weight=more muscle.
Benefits of the Push Press
- Using triple extension to drive the weight overhead provides strength and muscle-building stimulus to your quadriceps and glutes.
- Allows you to use more weight than the barbell overhead press.
- Has huge carryover to overhead athletes like Olympic lifters and throwing athletes.
How to Do the Push Press
Set up the same as you would for the barbell overhead press. Assume an upright torso and dip downward four to six inches, knees over toes. Then push your torso and chest upwards through the barbell, and using the legs, forcefully drive yourself and the barbell up.
Continue to push through the barbell until lockout. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
The bottoms-up kettlebell press is a great exercise for improving rotator cuff strength and improving shoulder stability. Not only is it a great shoulder exercise, but it will improve the pressing technique and grip strength. This gives you great intensity at a reduced weight.
Benefits of the Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press
- The unstable nature of the bottoms-up kettlebell increases your shoulder stability demands, helping strengthen your rotator cuff.
- Following on from above, any hitches in your pressing technique will result in instant feedback.
- Helping improve your formIncreased intensity at a reduced weight, helping to reduce joint stress.
How to Do the Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press
Grab a lighter kettlebell bottoms up, have the horn directly above your wrist, grip tight and engage your lat. Press up keeping the KB facing directly upwards and your elbow underneath the center of mass of the kettlebell. Lockout with the bell in this position and the biceps close to the ear.
Lower slowly to ensure you’re balancing the kettlebell with the bottom directly facing up.
You all know the seated row is a great exercise for the lats and upper back. But when you take a wider grip, your posterior deltoid gets more involved in shoulder extension. Although the posterior deltoid gets trains isometrically stabilizing the weight overhead, you need to train it concentrically and eccentrically too.
Benefits of the Wide-Grip Row
- Helps stabilize the upper body so the chest muscles don’t overpower the upper back.
- The wide grip helps develop thicker posterior delts and upper back muscles.
- Adds variety to your back training.
How to Do the Wide-Grip Row
Set up like you would for your regular seated row but use a straight bar attachment. Take an overhand wide grip until your upper arms are about 45 degrees to your torso. Keeping an upright torso, row the bar to your sternum until you feel a strong contraction in your upper back. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Performing lateral raises while leaning increases the distance that your arm needs to travel to lift the weight — and a longer range of motion means more tension, leading to more gains. The leaning lateral raise places greater overload at the top of the rep than the standing version.
Benefits of the Leaning Lateral Raise
- Able to use more weight than the regular standing version because of the increased stability of holding on to something.
- The increased range of motion and strong contraction at the top of the movement gives you more muscle-building potential.
- Helps decrease strength imbalances between sides.
How to Do the Leaning Lateral Raise
Hold a power rack or a pole and bring your feet close to or under your hands. With the dumbbell resting on your outer thigh, raise the dumbbell away from you until you feel a strong contraction in your shoulders and slowly lower down and repeat.
The incline Y raise targets the upper back and traps. It’s also great for targeting your posterior deltoids from a different angle while strengthening all four muscles of the rotator cuff in the overhead position.
Benefits of the Incline Y Raise
- This move strengthens the posterior deltoid and rotator cuff, which are often neglected in training.
- The incline Y raise can help promote shoulder health, especially for athletes who do a lot of overhead work.
- By emphasizing your posterior deltoids and upper back, these help to improve posture.
How to do The Incline Y Raise
Set up the bench at a 45-degree incline. Lie face down with your knees slightly bent. Hold the weights with an overhand grip. Extend your arms to hang straight under your shoulders. Keep your shoulders down and chest up. Activate your posterior delts to raise the weights up and out. Keep your arms straight until they are fully extended. A soft bend in your elbows is okay. Slowly lower back to the starting position. Reset and repeat.
The bent-over rear delt raise is also known as the reverse fly. Primarily used to add volume to rear deltoid training, this is a great exercise to isolate the muscles of the rhomboids and middle traps.
Benefits of the Stability Bent Over Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise
- This move trains the rear delts along with the upper back.
- The increased stability from holding onto a squat rack allows you to use more weight.
- By moving unilaterally, you can fight imbalances between sides.
How to Do the Stability Bent Over Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise
Stand beside a squat rack. Hold onto it at or below chest level. Grip a dumbbell in your opposite hand. Hinge at your hips. Keep your shoulders down and your chest up. With a slight bend in the working elbow, contract your upper back and shoulders. Bring the dumbbell out and up along the side. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat.
You often perform the dumbbell shoulder press while standing. But performing this move seated allows you to drive more action to your shoulder. With your back and lower body stabilized through sitting, you can customize the angle (wide for more shoulder action or narrow for more anterior deltoid and triceps involvement).
The beauty of all overhead press variations is that they train all three heads of your deltoids because the posterior deltoid stabilizes the weight when you’re overhead. This means that you can advance full shoulder development with just one move.
Benefits of the Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- This move tains all three heads of the deltoids.
- Dumbbells allow a freedom of movement that is easier on your joints than a barbell.
- Because you’re lifting the dumbbells unilaterally, you’ll combat muscle and strength imbalances between sides.
How to Do the Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Clean the dumbbells so they are sitting on your shoulders. Sit upright on an incline bench. Keep your shoulders away from your ears. Sit tall. Brace your core. Find your preferred pressing angle. Press both dumbbells overhead until your elbows lock out. Carefully lower the dumbbells. Reset and repeat.
Press and raise variations will build a great set of shoulders. But carries add on serious time under tension on your shoulders for improved muscle and strength. They also increase your mental toughness and core strength, because you’ve got to stabilize a heavy weight overhead — while walking.
Benefits of the Barbell Overhead Carry
- This move builds muscle and strength in the upper back, traps, and all three deltoid heads.
- Overhead carries help improve shoulder stability.
- The overhead barbell carry will teach you to deal with discomfort as you walk with a heavy load — this can translate into more comfort during max lift attempts.
How to Do the Barbell Overhead Carry
Load the barbell with somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of your overhead press one-rep max. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Press the barbell overhead. Position your biceps behind your ears. Keep your shoulders away from your ears. Take slow, deliberate steps. Pay attention to your gait and balance. Walk for 20 to 40 yards. Re-rack the barbell in the squat rack or place it on the ground. Rest and repeat.
For isolation exercises like the lateral raise, creating and maintaining tension is paramount. To do this properly, avoid using heavy weights. That doesn’t mean more weight is always a bad thing — but don’t slap on more pounds at the cost of losing tension. And nothing maintains tension like adding a pause in the contracted position.
You’ll do a certain amount of reps — say, six reps — and then pause for six seconds in the contracted position. Then you’ll follow this sequence down to one rep and one-second pause. The time under tension for your lateral deltoid will light your shoulders up in a big way.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Lateral Raise Pause Set
- This exercise seriously increases time under tension for added muscle and strength.
- By using an isolation exercise, you’ll really target the lateral deltoid instead of neglecting it like many programs might.
- Since you won’t be lifting heavy weights, you can add quality training volume without as much mechanical stress.
How to Do the Dumbbell Lateral Raise Pause Set
Hold a pair of dumbbells by your side. Keep your shoulders down and chest up. Perform six lateral raises with your elbows slightly bent. Don’t raise the dumbbells above shoulder height. On the sixth rep, hold the weights in the contracted position for six seconds. Continue this rep/pause sequence down to one rep and one second.
The single-arm dumbbell push press uses a slight lower-body dip — about a quarter squat — to gain the momentum needed to press the dumbbell overhead. The push press uses the triple extension of your ankles, knees, and hips to engage your whole body in an overhead move.
Pressing unilaterally fights imbalances between sides and leads to better overall muscle development. As with most overhead pressing variations, this move trains all three heads of the deltoids — which is key for building strong, powerful, and broad shoulders.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Push Press
- The unilateral nature of this move fights imbalances for better shoulder development and health.
- Because you’ll be engaging your whole body in a loaded one-sided movement, this move will help improve your core strength.
- Dumbbells provide a freedom of movement that is easier on your joints than barbells.
How to Do the Single-Arm Push Press
Clean one dumbbell to the top of your shoulder. Pack your shoulders down and away from your ears. Brace your core. Bend your knees to dip down about four to six inches. Track your knees over your toes. Use this momentum to press the dumbbell overhead in a seamless movement. Lock out the dumbbell overhead. Lower with control. Reset and repeat.
The front deltoids get a ton of engagement during pressing variations. But if you’re looking to add extra volume there without adding heavy lifting, the resistance band front raise/lateral raise combo is a good choice.
Bands tend to be easier on your shoulder joints than other implements. Plus, the ascending resistance of the band gives you extra juice without the extra stress on your joints. This combo keeps constant tension on the front and lateral deltoids for better strength and muscle development.
Benefits of the Resistance Band Front Raise/Lateral Raise Combo
- This two-in-one-shoulder exercise saves you time by working your delts from multiple angles in separate sets.
- The bands give your shoulders a break from heavy loads, but do so without a drop in intensity.
- You can add high quality volume to your shoulder training without causing additional stress to your shoulder joints — and you can avoid working overhead if you’re rehabbing from an injury.
How to Do the Resistance Band Front Raise/Lateral Raise Combo
Stand on a resistance band with handles. Hold each handle with an overhand grip. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears. Perform a front raise with soft elbows. Keep the handles level with your shoulders. Lower the handles to your side. Perform a lateral raise. Keep the handles level with your shoulders. With control, lower the handles to the fronts of your thighs. That’s one rep.
Benefits of Training Your Deltoids
Here’s how shoulder training can positively impact everyone from strength athletes to bodybuilders, to the everyday gym-goer.
Besides the aesthetics of great-looking shoulders, shoulder training improves your posture (particularly if you spend a lot of time sitting down), strengthening the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint, creating more stability, and possibly preventing injury.
All the shoulder mobility you have to squat, deadlift, bench, snatch, and clean and jerk need to be matched by stability too. Balanced shoulder training that focuses on all three delts will improve your stability, improve performance, and help prevent shoulder injuries.
Well-developed, defined, and strong shoulders will help balance out your physique, prevent shoulder injuries while training for a show, and could be the difference between winning and losing.
Anatomy of the Deltoids
The deltoids are large triangular-shaped muscles made up of three heads — the front, lateral and posterior deltoid. They insert on the humerus and originate from the clavicle and scapula. The deltoids lie over the shoulder joint, which gives you that boulder shoulder look. The three deltoid muscles each come from a different origin in the body, but they all insert on the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus.
The front deltoid originates from the superior surface and the anterior border of the lateral third of the clavicle. This muscle is involved in all shoulder flexion movements like front raises and all vertical and horizontal pressing exercises (think: overhead presses, bench presses, and push-ups).
The lateral deltoid originates from the lateral margin and superior surface of the acromion of the scapula. It’s involved in shoulder abduction of your arm beyond the first 15 degrees of movement. In other words, your lateral delts help with exercises like lateral raises and overhead presses that take your shoulder away from your body’s midline. You can also target your lateral delts by using a wider grip during these movements.
The posterior deltoid originates from the lateral third of the spine of the scapula, on the crest. All movements that involve shoulder extension and external rotation train the posterior deltoid. Examples of these moves include bent-over reverse flyes, bent-over row variations, lat pulldowns, and chin-up and pull-up variations. The overhead lockout position trains the posterior deltoids, too.
How to Program Shoulder Training
When you want a great pair of delts, you definitely want to train your shoulders for both strength and hypertrophy. The best tool for shoulder strength work is the barbell, because you can load the most weight. For this goal, use a combination of shoulder presses, rows, and raises.
The barbell is great for hypertrophy, too — along with dumbbell shoulder exercises. Dumbbells, bands, and other tools like kettlebells are better for building muscle — but not necessarily absolute strength. Why? You wouldn’t want to program a lateral raise one-rep max, but you probably do want to use that move to help broaden your shoulders. Here are some general programming recommendations for shoulder strength and muscle.
Strength Sets & Reps
Shoulder muscle and strength is built in a variety of set and rep ranges. When you’re focused on building up absolute strength in your delts, working with a load of 85 percent of your 1-RM works best. Keep the total reps performed between 10 and 25 reps.
If you can’t perform more than 10 total reps, the load is too heavy. But if you can do more than 25 reps, the load is probably too light for strength-building. These numbers can be broken up into various set and rep schemes: think three sets of five reps, five sets of five reps, four sets of six reps, or five sets of two reps.
Muscle Sets & Reps
Most of your shoulder isolation accessory training falls under hypertrophy and endurance training. The focus here is on volume and increasing time under tension to provide the right stimulus to build up your delts.
As with strength, you can build muscle with a variety of loads, sets, and reps. For maximum hypertrophy, try working in the six to 15 rep range with a weight that makes you approach failure at the end of your set. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re performing fewer reps, use a heavier load and more sets. If you’re doing more reps, use a lighter load and fewer sets. Set and rep schemes like three to four sets of eight to 12 reps or four to five sets of six to eight reps are good places to start.
How to Warm-Up Your Deltoids Before Training
Don’t be the guy who walks into the gym, slaps a plate or two onto the barbell, and starts bench-pressing. Your shoulder joints are sensitive and prone to injury. You need to take the time to warm it up with a few movements that rotate, raise, and abduct the shoulder. A few low-intensity exercises which target the shoulder area will get you ready for action.
Try performing a few exercises such as I-Y-Ts, dead bugs, and slow and controlled shoulder circles. Then, be sure to perform whatever pressing exercise you’re training that day for a handful of light sets and reps.
More Deltoid Training Tips
It’s important that your shoulders not only look good but are strong and functional because they’re involved in almost everything you do in and out of the gym. Doing these seven-shoulder exercises will go a long way in building strong functional shoulders that look great in short sleeves.
Now that you have a handle on the best shoulder exercises to strengthen your deltoids, you can also check out these other helpful shoulder training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- Reaching Is Easily The Most Underrated Movement For Shoulder Health
- 3 Reasons Why Bicep Curls Are Good For Your Shoulders
Featured image: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock