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 potentially staving off injuries.
While your shoulders are smaller muscles compared to your chest and back, don’t be tempted to throw shoulder training on the back burner. Instead, directly training your shoulders can be crucial for balanced upper body strength development. And no, it’s not all about pressing.
Below, we’ve curated a list of the best shoulder exercises you can do — for more strength, more size, and more stability — and outlined the benefits of training your delts in more detail.
15 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
- Cable Lateral Raise
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
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.
Although it might seem simple — take a barbell and pop it over your head — the barbell overhead press requires a lot of practice and technique to get right. Warm up your wrists beforehand for best results. Once you master it, the barbell overhead press benefits you by providing unparalleled overall shoulder strength and carryover to any overhead exercise you perform.
How to Do It
- Grip a bar with an overhand grip, set up in a power rack or squat rack. With the bar right in front of you, place your hands just outside your shoulders.
- Stack your elbows and forearms vertically. If your elbows are pointing out or in, your grip may be either too narrow or too wide. Adjust accordingly.
- Place the bar on the heel of your palm because this is where you’ll generate the most force from.
- Press overhead until lockout then slowly lower down to the starting position. Repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Don’t press around your head. Tilt your head back intentionally to push the bar in a straight line.
Sets and Reps: Start with 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps on this one and build up in weight.
If you’re coming back from a shoulder injury, this is a great modification of the overhead press. If you’re cleared for overhead lifting by a doctor, the half-kneeling landmine press keeps the weight stable — because it’s connected to the landmine base — but also allows you to practice the overhead movement unilaterally.
How to Do It
- Get into a half-kneeling position in front of the barbell, with your knee underneath your hip and your ankle underneath your knee.
- Hold the barbell at shoulder height in the hand nearest your back leg. Actively grip the barbell.
- Press up at about 45 degrees and reach toward the ceiling at the end of the lockout. Slowly lower down under control and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Kneel back and out slightly to widen your base of support.
Sets and Reps: Go for 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions to start.
The Arnold press, named after bodybuilding icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, trains all three deltoid heads. Due to the larger range of motion and its rotational nature, it increases time under tension, leading to a greater hypertrophy potential.
When performed for higher reps, it is an absolute deltoid and upper back burner. The Arnold press requires mobility, stability, and strength to perform well. With this movement, you’ll cultivate discipline and immense overhead stability in multiple planes of motion.
How to Do It
- Sit upright on a weight bench, either supported or unsupported. Hoist dumbbells up to a traditional starting position.
- Rotate your hands until your palms are facing toward you, like at 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 — including the rotation aspects — and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid letting the backs of your upper arms rest against your torso. Keep your arm actively suspended in the air.
Sets and Reps: Try 3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions.
It looks like an overhead press at the start, but the push press uses leg drive to heft heavy weights overhead. You’ll dip slightly through your knees, then explode upward. The momentum from your lower body will help you move a lot more weight than you can with the strict overhead press.
This move uses the triple extension of your ankles, knees, and hips, which closely mimics what most overhead athletes do on the field. Being able to lift more weight as a result can yield better muscle gains, as a stronger muscle is often a bigger muscle.
How to Do It
- Set up the same as you would for the barbell overhead press.
- Assume an upright torso and dip downward four to six inches with your knees over your toes.
- Push your torso and chest upwards through the barbell, and using your legs, forcefully drive yourself and the barbell up.
- Continue to push through the barbell until lockout. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your arms relaxed in the first half of the movement until the bar passes your head.
Sets and Reps: Go hard and heavy with 4-5 sets of 3-5 reps.
If you’re looking for a move that can help improve rotator cuff strength and shoulder stability, the bottoms-up kettlebell press is a top-notch candidate.
The unstable nature of the bottoms-up kettlebell press challenges your shoulder stability, fortifying your rotator cuff. And since you’ll essentially be balancing the kettlebell, any hitches in your pressing technique will result in instant feedback — your form will likely self-correct. Lastly, this move yields increased intensity at a reduced weight, helping to reduce joint stress.
How to Do It
- Grab a light kettlebell’s handle. Flip it so that the bottom of the bell is facing the ceiling.
- Stack the bell directly above your wrist. Grip it tight and engage your lats.
- Press up, keeping the bell facing directly upwards and your elbow underneath the kettlebell’s center of mass. Lock out 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.
Coach’s Tip: Think about keeping your elbow directly under your wrist at all times.
Sets and Reps: Go for 3 sets of 8 slow and controlled repetitions.
The seated row is a classic exercise choice to target the lats and upper back. By assuming a wider grip, your posterior deltoids get more involved in shoulder extension.
How to Do It
- Set up like you would for your regular seated row but use a straight bar attachment.
- Take a wide overhand 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.
Coach’s Tip: Think about drawing your elbows out and back behind your torso to engage your rear delts.
Sets and Reps: Ante up on reps; do 4 sets of 15 repetitions here.
Performing lateral raises while leaning increases the distance that your arm needs to travel to lift the weight. This is good news for your hypertrophy pursuits because a longer range of motion means more tension in your muscles. More tension translates into more potential muscle growth gains.
The leaning lateral raise places greater overload at the top of the rep than the regular standing version. By changing the exercise angle and giving yourself something to lean on, you’ll be able to lift heavier weights than you will with a standard lateral raise.
How to Do It
- Grasp the side of a power rack, squat rack, or incline weight bench with your free hand. Bring your feet close to or under your hands.
- Hold a dumbbell in your opposite hand with the dumbbell resting on your outer thigh.
- Raise the dumbbell away from you until you feel a strong contraction in your shoulder.
- Slowly lower down and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Raise your working arm until it is parallel with the arm you’re using to hold yourself up.
Sets and Reps: Try for 4-5 sets of 12-15 repetitions per arm.
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.
By emphasizing your posterior deltoids and upper back, this move can help to promote good posture by strengthening those supporting muscles (which can become neglected in the gym).
How to Do It
- 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.
- Use your rear 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.
Coach’s Tip: To emphasize shoulder control, pause at the top of each repetition.
Sets and Reps: Do 2 to 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions.
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.
When you hold the squat rack with one hand, you’ll fight imbalances between sides. Plus, the increased stability means you’ll be able to safely move more weight.
How to Do It
- 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.
- Raise the dumbbell out and up along the side. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Raise the weight out to the side and back behind you slightly.
Sets and Reps: Do 2-3 sets of 15-25 repetitions.
Performing the dumbbell shoulder press seated allows you to drive more action to your shoulder by restricting your leg drive and the amount of momentum you can generate. 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).
This move trains all three heads of the deltoids, allow freedom of movement, and, because you’re lifting the dumbbells unilaterally, you’ll combat muscle and strength imbalances between sides.
How to Do It
- Sit upright on an incline bench.
- Clean the dumbbells so they are sitting more or less on your front delts. Keep your shoulders away from your ears. Sit tall.
- Brace your core.
- Press both dumbbells overhead until your elbows lock out. Carefully lower the dumbbells. Reset and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Don’t sit too far forward on the bench. If you lean back too far, the exercise can turn into an incline bench press.
Sets and Reps: Go for 4 sets of 8 repetitions to start here.
Shoulder press variations build great shoulder muscles, but carries create muscular tension while engaging your core and challenging your stability and balance.
This move builds muscle and strength in the upper back, traps, and all three deltoid heads, helps improve shoulder stability, will teach you to deal with discomfort as you walk with a heavy load.
How to Do It
- Load the barbell with somewhere between 60 and 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.
- Unrack the barbell and turn around.
- Take slow, deliberate steps. Pay attention to your gait and balance. Walk for 20 to 40 yards.
- Re-rack the barbell. Rest and repeat.
Creating and maintaining tension is paramount for isolation exercises like the lateral raise. Avoid using relatively heavy weights to keep tension on the muscle. Try this: Do a certain amount of reps — say, six reps — and then pause for six seconds in the contracted position. 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.
This exercise seriously increases time under tension for added muscle and strength. By using an isolation exercise, you’ll target the lateral deltoid instead of neglecting it as many programs might. And since you won’t be lifting heavy weights, you can add quality training volume without as much mechanical stress.
How to Do It
- 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.
Coach’s Tip: The pauses don’t have to be excessively long.
Sets and Reps: Go for 2 extended sets of 20 repetitions.
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.
How to Do It
- 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.
Coach’s Tip: Holding your non-working arm out to the side can improve your balance.
Sets and Reps: Try 3 sets of 6 reps on this one.
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.
Another benefit is that this two-in-one-shoulder exercise saves you time by working your delts from multiple angles in separate sets.
How to Do It
- 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.
Coach’s Tip: The wider your stance, the more tension you’ll have on the resistance bands.
Sets and Reps: Do 3 sets of 10 reps with each movement for 20 in total.
Dumbbells are fantastic tools for training your shoulders — but they’re not the only ones to keep in your toolbox. A cable stack can be a tremendous asset when building beefy shoulders, allowing you to customize the angles of your body and the source of resistance to help build maximum muscle.
The cable provides accommodating resistance throughout your range of motion so that your muscles are always under tension. This move also trains your arms separately, helping iron out any imbalances that might exist between them.
How to Do It
- Set up a cable stack with D-handles attached to a low anchor point. If you don’t have access to a dual pulley, you can use one handle at a time and work one arm at a time.
- Grasp the handle(s) and stand sideways next to the cable machine. Step laterally away from the anchor point such that the cable loses slack and starts to exert tension.
- Brace your core and raise your arm(s) out to the side with a slight bend in your elbow(s).
- Lower with control. If you’re performing this unilaterally, repeat evenly on both sides.
Coach’s Tip: You can stand with your feet together, or stagger them and draw the cable between your legs.
Sets and Reps: Go for 3 sets of 12-15 repetitions on this one.
Don’t be the person who walks into the gym, slaps a plate or two onto the barbell, and starts bench pressing. Shoulder joints tend to be 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.
- Shoulder CAR: 2 x 10 per side
- Wrist Roll: 2 x 30 seconds per direction
- Dead Bug: 2 x 15 per side*
- Resistance Band Face Pull: 2 x 25-20
- TRX I-Y-T: 2 x 8-10
- Exercise-Specific Ramp-Up Set: 2-5 x 5-10**
*Perform slowly. Start with a conservative range of motion, and slowly increase your range with each rep.
**Especially with presses, make sure you’re performing an appropriate number of ramp-up sets. Start with an empty barbell — no matter how heavy you will ultimately go — and work up gradually from there.
How to Train Your Shoulders
In some ways, training your shoulders is just like training any other muscle group. You’ll work within the principles of progressive overload, where you gradually increase the intensity of your exercises over time.
But with your shoulders, you’ll want to pay special attention to training them three-dimensionally. Because your shoulders have three heads — frontal, lateral, and rear — you’ll need to pay attention to all three for the best mass-building results.
Shoulder Exercise Selection
Even if you’re not working your shoulders specifically, they’re connected to a whole host of other exercises. Your shoulders — particularly your front delts — get a lot of action during chest exercises like the bench press. Chin-ups and pull-ups take a big toll on your shoulders, too. Overhead carries and even biceps exercises require a lot of shoulder strength and stability.
Because of this, you won’t always need to go too heavy to see results with your shoulders. If benching is a priority in your program, you’ll need to program carefully — either separating shoulder and chest days by at least 48 hours or doing them on the same day.
If you’re doing them on the same day, go lighter with your shoulders when you go heavier with the bench press — and vice versa. That way, you can maximize recovery without setting your shoulders up for overuse injuries.
That said, if you’re looking to build well-developed shoulders without developing tremendous strength imbalances, don’t forget your rear and lateral delts.
These heads of your deltoids don’t get as much action as your front delts during other presses. You can go relatively light with lateral and rear delt movements.
Especially if pressing is a big part of your program, you might want to prioritize rear and lateral delt exercises in your program. Choose movements that will put your shoulders to use in 360 degrees — not just what’s in the front of your body.
Shoulder Sets and Reps
If you’re building toward max strength, you’re going to be focusing on your presses. When forging muscle mass is your focus, you’ll also be doing a solid amount of presses. But you’ll also be doing a whole lot of lateral and rear-delt-focused exercises.
In terms of building out symmetry, focus on movements that are both unilateral and centered on your weaknesses or overlooked areas. For many athletes, that means your lateral and rear delts.
- For Strength: 3-5 x 4-6
- For Muscle: 2-3 x 6-12
- For Symmetry: 2-3 x 10-15
Shoulder Training Tips
Building out your shoulders isn’t as simple as overhead pressing — though yes, pressing is a big part of the equation. To maximize your shoulder growth, turn to these tricks and tips.
Train Your Rear Delts
Your rear delts often get the short end of the stick in shoulder programming. Some lifters might train them less than they should because they’re located on the back of the body — out of sight, out of mind. Others may assume they get enough action from compound pressing, pulling, or both.
And while the rear delts do have assistance roles, they’re dominated by other muscles such that they aren’t the primary movers. To compensate — and build well-rounded shoulders — emphasize rear delt isolation work in your shoulder programming.
Train Your Lateral Delts
You’ll also want to train your lateral delts. For these isolation exercises, you’ll typically go a lot lighter than you will with rear delt exercises. You want to tax your lateral delts enough to stimulate growth, but not so much that you’re setting yourself up for overuse injuries.
If you try to lift too heavy with lateral delt moves, your body will tell you. You’ll find yourself needing to kip and use extra momentum from the first rep on — and you won’t be able to control the eccentric (which is crucial for promoting growth). Make sure you can control the eccentric and that you don’t need momentum to start each rep.
Sure, you can use a little body English to eke out some extra gains at the end of your sets. But you’ll benefit most from using a weight that allows you to start with clean form.
Train Your Front Delts
Your front delts get a lot of tension from pressing. Whether you’re overhead pressing, jerking, or even bench pressing, your front delts will feel it. But that’s no reason to not train them on their own, too.
Train your front delts with isolation movements using lighter weights. Follow the same protocols as you do with lateral delt single-joint exercises — control the eccentric and avoid momentum on the way up. Yes, let body English kick in toward the end of your sets. But for the most part, emphasize the muscle itself to maximize the effects of isolation.
Benefits of Training Your Shoulders
Beginners and advanced athletes alike benefit from training their shoulders. Even if your bread-and-butter lifts have nothing to do with overhead pressing, you’ll likely benefit a great deal from exercises for the shoulders. These moves will emphasize a combination of mobility and stability that can improve your movements both in and out of the gym.
First things first — shoulder training improves your posture. Particularly if you spend a lot of time sitting down or hunched over a keyboard or your smartphone, you’ll feel the difference when you train your shoulders. This is especially true of training your rear delts. Strong shoulders will help you stay upright during even the most intense sessions of data entry.
In the gym itself, developing overhead stability is critical for compound exercises as diverse as the snatch, the log press, and overhead lunges. Even bench pressing requires a tremendous amount of stability in your upper body.
Strengthening the muscles around your shoulder joint won’t just make you stronger at lifting. It can also help bolster you against potential shoulder injury, making your shoulders more resilient.
Sometimes shoulders aren’t only about shoulders. Do you want to try a low bar squat to help you squat heavier weights? Guess what you need — shoulder mobility. To maintain your joint health and help you hit new PRs, you’ll need a combination of shoulder stability and mobility.
Training your shoulders requires you to pay special attention to where these joints need improvement. If you can’t take an exercise through its full range of motion, you’ll know to work on this both during your warm-ups and in your workouts themselves.
Physique-oriented athletes, rejoice — training your shoulders will help give your body a crucial part of that filled-out V-taper. If you neglect training these muscles specifically and only focus on pressing, you’ll likely find that your shoulders may be decent in the front, but lack fullness around the sides and back.
This fullness (think: boulder shoulders) is a critical part of what a lot of people are chasing when they want to build upper body muscle mass. Training your shoulders directly instead of relying on presses alone to get you there will skyrocket your physique gains.
What Muscles Make Up the Shoulders
- Front Deltoid: 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).
- Lateral Deltoid: 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.
- Posterior Deltoid:. 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.
More on Deltoid Training
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