What are the best shoulder exercises?
Big shoulders are a hallmark of the best bodybuilders, but you don’t have to want to be Mr. Universe to focus on developing your shoulder muscles.
The best shoulder exercises draw upon a range of associated muscle groups and can form the basis for a great full-body workout.
This roundup of the best shoulder exercises will help you develop a shoulder workout that suits your fitness goals.
If you’re looking for a shoulder workout embedded in a big compound exercise or something which hones in on your rotator cuff muscles, you’ll find everything you need below.
The Best Shoulder Exercises
Our exercise routines are created by determining the best exercises for muscle growth, core strength, and overall health and well-being.
Here’s our list of the 10 best shoulder exercises:
10. Pike Pushups
If you don’t have access to weights or the gym, the pike pushup allows you to really work your shoulders using just your body weight.
This advanced version of a pushup works a range of muscles and the shoulders while also giving your core a thorough workout.
How to do it:
Once you’ve set up a mat, follow these instructions:
- Adopt the plank position with your hands below your shoulders on the floor
- With a tight core and flat back, engage your glutes and hamstrings
- Lift your hips so your body forms an inverted V shape, then lower your body to the floor, bending your elbows
- Push back up with your arms to the previous V-shaped position
To make real gains on your shoulders, you need to give them a focused workout.
The pike pushup delivers the goods in this respect as well as working your upper back and triceps.
You should consider performing pike pushups when working on your core stability or on days when you really want to hit your shoulders to boost muscle growth.
It’s a tough exercise, so you’ll need to factor in recovery time after each session.
9. Dumbbell Shrugs
To have an impressive upper body structure, you need to develop your trapeziums.
Dumbbell shrugs, when performed right, give your traps a focused workout giving you a broader upper back and neck.
How to do it:
Here’s how you perform this shoulder workout with dumbbells:
- Take two dumbbells and hold them by your side with palms facing inwards
- Engage your core and place your feet at shoulder width
- Contract your traps, raising your shoulders as high as possible
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back down, engaging your arms until they return to the starting position
Few other routines target your traps quite as effectively as dumbbell shrugs, although they are often performed incorrectly.
Make sure you use lighter weights and focus on getting the form right if you’re new to dumbbell shrugs.
Perform dumbbell shrugs on days when you’re looking for a workout that targets your shoulders, specifically your traps.
With the correct form, it’s also a safe exercise, so you won’t have to worry about potential injuries.
8. Face Pulls
This cable-based shoulder exercise is perfect for opening up your muscles and pinching your shoulder blades together.
Face pulls hone in on your rear deltoids and helps add extra definition.
How to do it:
Select your weight, then raise the cable’s starting position to the highest pulley, then grasp the handles to begin:
- With handles in an overhand grip, hold the cable with your arms fully extended
- Pull the cables towards you and back until your hands are on either side of your face, pulling your shoulder blades together
- Maintain tension in the cables and return to the starting position
In addition to rear deltoids, face pulls also help build muscle growth in the trapezius and upper back muscles.
Since the weight isn’t loaded on your body, they are also safe exercises to perform, provided you don’t add too much weight.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy exercise to work the shoulders while improving your posture, low-weight face pulls can be performed regularly.
They’re also great to introduce on back/shoulder workout sessions.
7. Upright Rows
Upright rows are a great barbell shoulder workout for targeting the shoulders and upper back, primarily the traps and the deltoids.
If your goal is to bulk up, consider including these in future workouts.
How to do it:
Once you’ve loaded a barbell with the appropriate weight:
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart
- Take the barbell and let it hang at arm’s length with palms facing your body
- Keep your back straight and chest up
- Lift the barbell to your chin, leading with the elbows. Your arms should be parallel with your shoulders at the apex of this motion
- Pause, then lower the barbell to the starting position in a controlled motion
Through focusing on the lateral and anterior heads of the deltoid muscle, upright rows promote excellent growth in the upper body region.
This makes it an incredibly powerful exercise for bodybuilders, with added benefits to core development included for good measure.
The biggest risk with upright rows lies with potential shoulder injuries, so these should be performed with some consideration of form and technique, as well as their impact on potential rest days.
6. Push Press
Our next barbell-related shoulder exercise brings in a wide range of muscle groups to deliver excellent full-body conditioning.
This range of motion from a standing position means you’ll boost core stability while also hitting the shoulders with an explosive lift.
How to do it:
Once you’ve loaded a barbell with the appropriate weight, place it on the rack, then:
- Take the barbell off the rack holding it with your fingertips and resting it on the front of your shoulders
- Drop into a shallow squat, then press back up through your heels
- Push the bar directly upwards and over your head with your arms straight
- Lower the bar back down onto your chest
The push press hits a wide range of muscles giving you a full-body workout. These include your hamstrings, quads, triceps, glutes, deltoids, and traps.
All while working your core as well. Not bad!
Provided you start with low weights when beginning this exercise for the first time, you can include these in your routines 2-3 times per week.
As your shoulders, traps, and biceps grow, you can start adding more weight for extra gains.
5. Bent Over Reverse Flyes
As the name implies, this exercise takes the chest flye and inverts the muscles affected.
Bent over flyes are perfect for dumbbell shoulder workouts targeting the rhomboid muscles in your upper back and shoulder region.
How to do it:
To perform the bent-over flye, you’ll need two dumbbells:
- Hold the dumbbells at your side with feet shoulder-width apart
- Press your hips back in a hinging motion with your chest slightly forwards
- Straighten your back with the weights hanging straight down and your knees slightly bent
- With a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weights out to your side
- Lower the weights back to the starting position hanging in front of you
Bent over reverse flyes target a complex network of shoulder muscles, so they are ideal for fitness enthusiasts keen on working this area.
They also help with overall improved posture, which can make other shoulder exercises easier to perform.
While bent-over reverse flyes aren’t an exercise you’ll be performing daily, they are recommended for sessions where you want to target a range of shoulder and back muscles.
They can also help strengthen your overall back to prevent future injuries.
4. Lateral Raises
Similar to the bent-over reverse flyes, the lateral raise also requires two dumbbells which you’ll raise from the center up to your sides, this time with an upright posture.
These also work your shoulder muscles, but also your triceps.
How to do it:
Take two dumbbells of the weight of your choice, then:
- Stand with the dumbbells down by your side with palms facing inwards
- Straighten your back and brace your core
- Lift the dumbbells out to your sides up to the point where your arms are parallel with the ground
- Slowly lower them back down
Lateral raises boost muscle growth in the triceps and shoulders and work to improve your shoulder mobility.
Through bracing yourself during the lift, your core is also engaged, assisting balance and stability.
Lateral raises are perfect for including both in all-round body workout routines and shoulder-specific sessions.
You should aim to do lateral raises 2-3 times per week, depending on the frequency of visits and your overall workout goals.
3. Arnold Press
The name Arnold Schwarzenegger is synonymous with bulky shoulders, so it’s no surprise to find out this press is a great way for maximizing bulk in the trapezius and delts.
Like the regular shoulder press, you’ll need a bench and two dumbbells to perform this exercise.
How to do it:
Sit upright on the bench, then take two dumbbells:
- Hold the dumbbells up with your elbows bent, as if at the top of a bicep curl
- Push your arms up, turning your wrist and palms as you do this, so your palms twist from facing inwards to facing outwards at the apex of the upward thrust
- At the top of this motion, push your head forwards to allow for a maximum extension of the arms
- Return the dumbbells slowly back to the starting position, reversing the twisting motion of the wrists, so your palms face inwards once again
Through the twisting motion, as you raise the dumbbells over your head, a wide range of different muscles in the shoulders are activated.
This makes the Arnold press ideal for getting the most bang for your buck out of a shoulder workout.
This is a great upper body move that benefits several muscles and can be included 2-3 times per week.
It’s a little more advanced than some other shoulder exercises, so practice form using lower weights, to begin with.
2. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Another excellent shoulder dumbbell exercise is the seated dumbbell shoulder press, which resembles the Arnold press but with slightly fewer steps.
This exercise builds shoulder muscles by targeting the deltoids, as well as the pectoralis major.
How to do it:
Position the backrest of a bench in an upright position, then take two dumbbells:
- Hold the dumbbells up by your shoulders with palms facing outwards
- Place your elbows out to the side bent at a 90-degree angle
- Press the weights above your head, extending through the elbows
- Return slowly to the starting position
Building upper body muscle mass and stability is a good overall ambition to have when working out, and the shoulder press contributes to this development.
It’s also better suited for people who may experience lower back issues and don’t want to risk undue stress on this region.
The seated dumbbell shoulder press is among the safer shoulder workouts with dumbbells which also assists the development of rotator cuff muscles.
1. Standing Barbell Shoulder Press
Sometimes referred to as the military press, the standing barbell shoulder press is an awesome compound move that activates muscles throughout the upper and lower body.
It’s also among the more advanced exercises in this list, so ensure you get the form right before upping the plates.
How to do it:
To perform this shoulder barbell workout, load the desired plates onto a barbell:
- Stand upright with your core braced, holding the barbell on your upper chest with hands slightly wider than your shoulders
- Press the bar up and directly overhead with your arms fully extended. Face forwards as it reaches the peak of this motion
- Return to the starting position, tilting your head back slightly so the bar can come down to rest of the upper portion of your chest
Overhead presses from a standing position work most of the large muscles in your upper body, with chest and arms getting a great workout along with the shoulders.
It’s one of the most popular compound movements for this reason.
Because the standing barbell shoulder press is such a big movement impacting lots of muscle groups, you should try to limit this move to 1-2 times per week.
The impacted muscles get a tough workout, so you will need time to recover before performing the exercise again.
FAQs About Shoulder Exercises
We’ve answered some commonly asked questions about shoulder exercises to help you decide where to begin when working this important area of your body.
Q: Why are shoulder exercises important?
Shoulder exercises not only build up your shoulder muscles and improve the shoulder joints, but they also assist with improving your overall posture and improve your core stability as you work towards bigger shoulders.
Q: What muscles do shoulder exercises work?
Shoulders are composed of three heads, the anterior, medial and posterior, otherwise known as the front, side, and rear delts.
To develop strong and bulky shoulders, all three of these should be worked as well as the trapezius muscles in the upper back.
Q: Can you train shoulders every day?
Shoulder joints can be prone to injury, so you should consider restricting training your shoulders intensely to one or two sessions per week.
Consider using the big compound moves which bring in shoulder muscles on full-body workout sessions or targeting shoulders on specific days dedicated to this region of your body.
Q: Do pushups work shoulders?
Traditional pushups do work your shoulders, but if you want to switch up this exercise slightly to focus on them a little bit more, try performing pike pushups instead.
Q: What is the best shoulder exercise?
There’s a broad selection of shoulder exercises, each of which delivers different results and targets different muscles.
If you’re still unsure which is the best shoulder workout for you, head back to the top of the page and have another read of this guide.
Defined shoulders are a crucial element of an overall well-proportioned body, so choosing the right exercises to develop these muscles best is important.
The best shoulder exercises outlined in this article also target the rotator cuff, improve core stability and contribute towards greater overall physical fitness.
Here’s a quick recap of the 10 best shoulder exercises:
- Standing Barbell Shoulder Press
- Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Arnold Press
- Lateral Raises
- Bent-Over Reverse Flyes
- Push Press
- Upright Rows
- Face Pulls
- Dumbbell Shrugs
- Pike Pushups
If you enjoyed this article, check out our other exercise lists:
- The 10 Best Back Exercises
- The 10 Best Chest Exercises
- The 10 Best Arm Exercises
- The 10 Best Ab Exercises
- The 10 Best Leg Exercises