Do you want strong, stable shoulders? If you were wondering what are the best shoulder exercises, you’re at the right place. Having muscular shoulders is more than just an aesthetic goal. The adaptations that occur in the shoulder when trained through a resistance workout help to create a sturdier body and reduce your risk of sustaining injuries when performing upper body exercises.
This reduced risk of injury applies not only to other kinds of exercises but also to your daily activities and lifestyle. Healthy, strong shoulders are the foundation you need to remain active and mobile for many years to come.
But wanting to gain strength and actually doing it are two different matters. The only way to achieve meaningful strength gains is to exercise your shoulders effectively and efficiently. Luckily, all you actually need is a set of weights and the following classic exercises.
Best Shoulder Exercises Ranked:
1. Overhead Press
The overhead press is a classic shoulder exercise regularly included in most good routines. There’s a reason for its popularity too because it’s one of the most effective shoulder exercises you can perform.
The overhead press places particularly good emphasis on the anterior deltoid muscle, which is the front head of your shoulder muscle. This muscle head usually gets enough stimulus with the overhead press alone because many of the other exercises in a typical routine such as bench press.
A few sets of overhead presses focus your shoulders and ensure that the anterior deltoid head is adequately trained but they also serve to burn a significant amount of calories, raise your metabolism for hours afterward, and benefit other muscles. Overhead presses stimulate all heads of the shoulder to an extent, but also the triceps, upper pectorals, and the muscles of your forearms making them a great exercise to form the foundation of any shoulder workout.
To perform the exercise, you can use either a barbell or a dumbbell set. Hold the bar with your palms forward and elbows near your sides in a natural position and then press the weight up into the air above your shoulders and head until your elbows lock out. Gradually lower the weight again and repeat until muscle exhaustion.
The number of reps you can perform should reflect your goals and physical condition. The overhead press is a difficult exercise. It acts to strengthen the internal structures of your shoulder like the rotator cuff, but it should be performed with a lighter weight at first if you’re a beginner to prevent injuries. As you become more conditioned to it, the exercise will strengthen your shoulders in a way that they become naturally more stable and less prone to injuries and you can lift heavier.
2. Shoulder Press
The second exercise in our best shoulder exercises list is very similar to the overhead press is the shoulder press. The shoulder press is started in a sitting position and can be performed with a barbell or dumbbells and the exercise is performed in the same way as the overhead press by lifting weights from shoulder height to above your head.
Like the overhead press, the shoulder press works primarily on your front deltoids and to a lesser extent your side deltoids too. The exercise is less of a compound exercise when compared to the overhead press as when you’re sitting down you’re not needing to use your core to stabilize yourself.
Shoulder presses can be done with free weights or at a machine if preferred. You’ll be able to lift more weight using a shoulder press machine, however, using free weights has the advantage of building your stabilizer muscles too as you’ll have to balance the weights yourself.
As with all exercises, if you’re going for strength, you’ll want a low rep range, and if you’re going for tone or muscle gain, a higher rep range should be what you should go for.
3. Lateral Raise
The lateral raise is another classic exercise that targets the shoulders directly. Unlike the overhead press, this exercise activates fewer muscle groups but it’s not entirely an isolation exercise either as it does activate more than just your shoulders. Lateral raises stimulate the lateral (middle) deltoid head very effectively while also benefiting the other two heads of the shoulder, the serratus anterior (triangular-shaped muscles between your chest and back), and the trapezius muscles in your upper back.
Additionally, it’s another one of the best exercises for targeting the small, deep muscles of the shoulder like the supraspinatus that stabilize the joint and prevent injuries. Performing lateral raises regularly helps you to maintain a stable, healthy shoulder joint as you age. This is incredibly important as many other important exercises that don’t actively target the shoulders still can’t be performed effectively if you have a shoulder injury.
To perform the lateral raise, hold a set of dumbbells in both hands with your palms towards the ground. Start in a relaxed position with your torso bent ever-so-slightly forward, arms at your sides, and slowly lift your arms upwards in an arc until they reach shoulder height. Then gradually lower the weight back down and repeat until exhaustion.
Like with the overhead press, beginners should start this exercise with a fairly light weight. Lateral raises place a lot of stress on the shoulder joints until you start to build up strength in the internal structure of your shoulders, which this exercise will allow you to do very effectively. The nature of the exercise also makes it hard to lift overly heavy compared to your other lifts anyway so don’t be surprised if the weight you can raise is much lower than what you’re used to for other lifts.
4. Dumbbell Reverse Fly
The next exercise on our best shoulder exercises list is the dumbbell reverse fly. The dumbbell reverse fly is a shoulder exercise that primarily targets the rear deltoids.
The dumbbell reverse fly can be performed standing up in a slightly bent-over position or by resting your chest on an incline bench. An alternative would be to use a reverse fly machine that targets the same muscles.
When training for big shoulders, it’s easy to neglect the rear deltoids because the big shoulder movements like the overhead press and shoulder press work the front and side muscles in your shoulders. Therefore it’s important to fit in an exercise that hits the rear delts so you can build balanced, well-rounded shoulders.
Honorable Mentions – Alternative Shoulder Exercises
The following shoulder exercises were not good enough to fit into our best shoulder exercises list but are still worth a mention as an alternative to the above or in addition if you’re really trying to prioritize your shoulders.
1. Cable Face Pulls
Cable face pulls are a fantastic exercise that primarily targets the rear delts and to a lesser extent, the rhomboids and middle trapezius (upper back).
To perform a cable face pull, hold a rope or handle attached to a cable (or band) and pull the rope with both hands towards your face with each hand attempting to go behind your head. A good trick is to try to point your thumbs back behind you.
2. Front Raise
The front raise is an exercise that unsurprisingly targets the front (or anterior) deltoid muscle. In our opinion, this exercise is not actually necessary if you are already doing overhead presses or shoulder presses regularly as those exercises already work the front delts. That being said if you would like to change things up, the front raise is a great way to target those front delt muscles.
The front raise can be performed with either a cable, dumbbell, or kettlebell. It doesn’t matter too much which one, the exercise will do the same thing. To do the exercise, simply hold the weight by your side as the starting position and then raise your arm up in front of you while keeping your arm straight to about shoulder height or slightly higher.
3. Reverse Peck Dec Fly
The reverse peck dec fly is an exercise that targets the rear (or posterior) deltoids. It is a similar action to the dumbbell reverse fly as mentioned above, except it uses a fly machine instead of dumbbells.
It’s very common for people to be front delt dominant due to people often prioritizing pushing movements such as the bench press or overhead press. It’s important to pick at least one exercise into your routine which targets the rear delts, otherwise, you will create an imbalance in your shoulders.
Secondary Shoulder Exercises
The following exercises are exercises you typically wouldn’t think of as shoulder exercises but will work the shoulders as secondary muscles so we thought still to include them in this best shoulder exercises list as they are great exercises in their own right.
1. Bent-Over Barbell Row
The bent-over barbell row is a great exercise to incorporate into your workout routine to target the upper back and rear delts. That is because this exercise targets the posterior head of the deltoid which isn’t as active in most shoulder exercises. If you don’t target the rear deltoids like this your shoulder size and stability will lag as a result.
While many different kinds of row exercises can fulfill this purpose, barbell rows are great because they don’t require a machine or a gym membership, just a barbell and some weight plates. It’s also a compound exercise like the overhead press and will actively work out most of your back muscles in addition to your shoulders.
To perform the bent-over barbell row, simply bend your torso forward and hold the barbell with your arms extended. Then, pull the barbell inwards towards your torso using your shoulder and back muscles while holding your back stable. Your torso shouldn’t move much during the exercise as the bulk of the movement should be occurring through your arms to activate your shoulder and back muscles to lift the weight against gravity.
Because this exercise is a compound exercise and it uses a lot of different muscle groups including powerful back muscles like the lats, you’ll generally be able to lift quite heavy compared to some other types of lifts. Never lift a weight that is way too heavy however as it will impair your form. This can reduce the benefits of the exercise or even cause back injury if taken to extremes.
A lighter weight lifted with better form is often a much better stimulus for muscle and strength gains than trying to lift heavier than you can actually manage. There are some exceptions to this of course if you are trying to overload a muscle.
2. Bench Press
The last exercise you should always be incorporating into your shoulder workouts is the humble bench press. If you’re performing a workout routine that includes movements to target your whole body, the bench press will likely already be included as it is a staple of just about every worthwhile routine. It’s worth mentioning because of the reason why it’s beneficial to shoulders in particular.
While the bench press is primarily an exercise that targets the muscles of your chest and arms, it also greatly stimulates the shoulder muscles too–particularly the anterior deltoid head. Moreso than this, it is a great exercise for building strength in the internal structures of your shoulder to prevent rotator cuff injuries and prepare you to lift heavier weight during other exercises.
You don’t need to specifically perform bench press for the shoulders, but if you’re not already performing the exercise for some reason it’s a good idea to add it into your workout. Not only does it benefit numerous muscle groups, but it also offers all the other additional benefits a compound exercise can give and helps to strengthen the internal structures of the shoulder.
To perform the bench press, you’ll ideally need a weight bench and barbell to give you maximum range of motion and safety. Lay flat on the bench and remove the barbell from the rack and hold it just above your chest, then press the weight up against gravity before gradually lowering it back down. Your grip placement on the bar should be a little wider than shoulder level in most cases. A wider grip can increase shoulder activation but can also lead to pain.
This is also the kind of exercise that you can generally lift a lot of weight, but you shouldn’t lift extremely heavy unless you have another person present to act as a spotter and lift the weight off you if you fail to be able to lift it. In other situations, lift a moderate weight that you can manage about 12 reps with instead and you can gain all the benefits while maintaining safety.
Resistance exercise has so many benefits and your shoulders are one of the most important kinds of joints to strengthen if you want to enjoy an active lifestyle well into your senior years. If you’ve never considered starting a workout routine before, you should because the results are well worth it and it really will help to improve your life in so many ways.
Shoulder Anatomy – The Three Muscles in Your Shoulder
Front Deltoid – The front deltoid (otherwise known as the anterior deltoid) is the muscle at the front of your shoulder which is responsible for aiding in pushing movement and lifting things above your head.
Side Deltoid – The side deltoid (lateral deltoid) is the muscle unsurprisingly in the middle side of your shoulder. This muscle is responsible for aiding you to lift objects out to the side of your body and of course general shoulder stability.
Rear Deltoid – The rear deltoid (posterior deltoid) is the part of the deltoid at the rear of the shoulder. This muscle helps in rowing or pulling movements and moves your shoulder backward.
Subscapularis muscle – The subscapularis muscle is a large triangular muscle that sits beneath the scapular. This muscle separates the back of the rib cage from the bone of the scapular.
Supraspinatus muscle – The supraspinatus is a small muscle that sits just below the traps that runs along the top of the scapular. It’s one of the four muscles of the rotator cuff.
Infraspinatus – The infraspinatus muscle is a thick muscle that sits at the back of your shoulder beneath your rear delts.
The shoulders are also supported by the following muscles:
Rhomboids – The rhomboids collectively consist of the rhomboid major and rhomboid minor. The rhomboids are large, important muscles that sit below the upper traps and provide stability for your upper body and shoulders.
Trapezius – The trapezius (or traps) is a big muscle that starts at the base of your neck and extends all the way down to the middle of your back. This muscle helps you move your neck, shoulders, and arms.
Jason Chapman has a degree in Exercise Science and is a personal trainer with 10+ years of experience in fitness and strength coaching. Jason spends his time with BodyCapable researching the latest strength training trends and writing science-backed, informative content. Jason likes to spend his spare time hiking, traveling, and of course training!
Body Capable’s content is for informational and educational purposes only. Our website is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment; we encourage you to seek out a medical professional whenever necessary.