You probably don’t think about it too much, but your shoulders are pretty damn important. For one, they connect your arms to your torso (so there’s that). You can rotate your arms 360 degrees thanks to your shoulders — allowing you to throw a fastball, jab-cross-jab, and perform the YMCA dance without a worry in the world.
Strong shoulders also allow you to press barbells overhead, leading to more upper body strength and broader shoulders (which we bet most folks wouldn’t pass up). Whether you’re looking for more strength, at-home, or a bodybuilding-specific plan, we’ve compiled a list of various shoulder workouts for you to try.
Best Shoulder Workouts
- Shoulder Workout for Bodybuilding
- Shoulder Workout for Strength
- Shoulder Workout for Men
- Shoulder Workout for Women
- At-Home Shoulder Workout
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Bodybuilders are graded on muscle mass, conditioning, and symmetry. Wider shoulders create the appearance of a broader torso and contribute to the illusion of a thinner waist — amplifying the V-shape that bodybuilders and physique-building enthusiasts desire.
The workout below contains significantly more volume than you’re most likely used to performing for a single body part. Volume leads to growth, and it’s essential to target each of the three heads of the deltoid — rear, lateral, and front.
Perform the exercises marked by the same letter as a superset — back to back without rest between movements. Do this workout two to three times per week. If you’re a new lifter, then try it once per week. Aim to finish each set with two reps in reserve.
- A1. Seated Overhead Press: 5 x 12,10,8,10,12
- A2. Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 10-12
- B1. Machine Low Row: 4 x 12,10, 8, AMRAP
- B2. Dumbbell Upright Row: 4 x 12,10, 8, AMRAP
- C1. Incline EZ-Bar Front Raise: 3 x 12
- C2. Incline Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 12
- C3. Machine Rear Delt Fly: 3 x 12
Stronger shoulders allow you to press more weight over your head — a literal requirement for strongman competitors and Olympic weightlifters — and aid in powerlifting movements such as the bench press. For functional fitness athletes, shoulder strength translates to more handstand push-ups and muscle-up reps.
For the first two exercises, work up to a challenging set of five reps for your final set. Week after week, aim for more of those sets to be difficult. So, week one will have you push it during your fifth set. On week two, you’ll push it on sets four and five, and then week three sees you go hard for sets three, four, and five.
Rest plenty between movements — two to three minutes. You should perform this workout once per week.
- A1. Barbell Overhead press: 5 x 5, rest 2-3 minutes between sets
- B1. Bent-Over Barbell Row: 5 x 5, rest 2-3 minutes between sets
- C1. Barbell Incline Bench Press: 3 x 8, rest 2-3 minutes between sets
- D1. Incline Dumbbell Front Raise: 3 x 10-12
- D2. Incline Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 10-12
- E1. Rear Delt Fly Machine: 3 x 15
Coach’s Tip: Staggering your stance when pressing overhead will help reduce rib flare and keep you stable, so you don’t overarch and potentially tweak your lower back.
Some studies show that men have more Type II muscle fibers than women, meaning they’re generally better equipped for producing more force for shorter periods. (1) The workout below is designed with this supposed finding in mind, leaning into the eight to 12 rep range — which allows for heavy weight while accumulating enough requisite muscle-building tension.
The mechanical drop set to start is brutal in the best way possible, allowing you to pack more volume into the compound set as the exercises are performed within 20 seconds of one another. After completing the “A” exercises performed in succession, be sure to take a three-minute rest before restarting the superset, finishing it, and then moving on to the next one.
Perform this workout twice per week. If you’re a beginner (say, less than six months of training under your belt), then do this workout just once a week.
- A1. Seated Overhead Shoulder Press: 3 x 8
- A2. High Incline Bench Press 3 x 8
- A3. Dumbbell Upright Row: 3 x 12
- B1. Bent-Over Dumbbell High row: 3 x 12
- B2. Incline Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 12
- B3. Machine Rear Delt Fly: 3 x 12
- C1. 6-Ways: 3 x 8-10 reps
Coach’s Tip: If you don’t have access to a rear delt flye, then use dumbbells or a band to get your rear delt work in.
On the flip side, women generally are found to have more Type-I muscle fibers (1), which can withstand more endurance than their Type-II counterparts. Other than that, it’s important to note that there don’t have to be significant differences in how a man or woman trains. As long as you’re working close to failure, tracking your progression, and accumulating enough volume, you’ll see gains.
You’ll perform 18 sets of total shoulder work, with most exercises requiring you to push to 15 reps. Exercises marked with the same letter are to be performed back-to-back with no rest in between. Rest for two to three minutes after each superset. Do this workout once or twice per week.
- A1. Dumbbell Overhead Shoulder Press: 3 x 15
- A2: Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 15
- A3. Bent-Over Dumbbell Rear Delt fly: 3 x 15
- A4: Bent-Over Straight-Arm Dumbbell shoulder Extension: 3 x 15
- B1. Bear Crawl: 3 x 25 feet (forward & back)
- B2. 6-Ways: 3 x 8-10 reps
Coach’s Tip: Be sure to keep your back flat during the bear crawl. You want to feel tension on your core, quads, and shoulders.
Weights are the only way, right? Nope. Not even a little. While free weights allow you to load your shoulder with more weight and target the muscles from ultra-specific angles, you can do a lot of damage (the good kind, that is) with just your body weight and a resistance band.
The caveat to using just your bodyweight and a band is that rep count and volume goes way up. Since you can’t accumulate tension through heavier weights, you will perform more reps and manipulate the lifting tempo.
Push each set to failure. For movements requiring you to slow down the tempo, pick a resistance that has you failing at the rep count while also completing the prescribed tempo (most likely, this will most likely be a very light weight). You can do this workout up to three times per week.
- A1: Pike Push-Up: 4 x AMRAP
- B1. Banded High Row: 3 x 15
- B2. Band Pull-Apart: 3 x 15
- C1. Band Lateral Raise: 3 x 15 (light, 5-0-5 tempo)
- C2. Bear Crawl: 3 x 25 ft. (forward & back)
Coach’s Tip: As you progress and begin to look for ways to progress the exercise, in particular, the pike push-up you can:
- Add a weight vest.
- Elevate your feet.
- Try a wall handstand push-up.
Benefits of Shoulder Training
Shoulder training has more to offer than simply aesthetics. Here are some other benefits you’ll likely notice once you start implementing regular shoulder workouts into your routine.
Stability & Durability
A stronger shoulder is a more stable shoulder, and the more stability you have within your shoulder joint, the safer you’ll be when exercising. One study found that as infraspinatus muscle (a rotator cuff muscle) activity increased, the shoulders stability increased. (2) Therefore, it’s suggested to have a balanced program. You need to strengthen all aspects of the shoulders, and once you do, you should reap the benefits of more stability.
More Pressing Strength
Strong shoulders (probably) matter to you whether you’re a strength athlete or a general gym-goer. Without them, you couldn’t clean and press a heavy axle, perform push presses to strengthen your jerk, or max out your bench press.
The shoulders are involved in virtually every upper body exercise, both in a big and minor way.
It’s ok to care about how you look, and wide, defined shoulders can accentuate your upper body while making your waist appear trim. In clothes, they broaden your frame so, even if you’re donning an ugly Christmas sweater, it’s abundantly clear that you lift.
Anatomy of the Shoulder
The shoulders are a ball-in-socket joint, known as the glenohumeral joint, allowing for 360-degrees of arm movement.
The glenohumeral joint is shallow, so mobility comes at the expense of lesser stability and joint integrity. Increasing muscle mass around the shoulder girdle does a great deal in increasing the durability and stability of the shoulder. The shoulder, aka the deltoid, has three heads that move the shoulder in different directions and carry out specific movements.
Here’s what you need to know about the anatomy of your shoulder muscles.
The shoulders predominantly work to flex the arm overhead and abduct the arm laterally and horizontally. You want to perform exercises that hit the front, lateral, and rear heads of the shoulders — three-dimensional shoulders jump off your frame and are a highlight to anyone’s physique. The deltoid is made up of three heads and makes different movements possible at the shoulder joint.
The three heads of the deltoid are known as the:
- Anterior deltoid
- Medial deltoid
- Posterior deltoid
The Rotator Cuff & The Shoulder Blade (Scapula)
The shoulder blade is secured and supported by a host of muscles as its position allows for movement at the glenohumeral joint.
A characteristic of the shoulder blade is that it is not attached to any other bones directly. It is understood to be a conceptual joint in which muscles and different tensions provide stability and allow the shoulder to function freely.
The rotator cuff musculature provides stability and allows for optimal shoulder function.
The Supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, teres minor, and the subscapularis stabilize the humeral head and synchronicity between the shoulder blade and shoulder joint. You can target and activate these muscles with a thoughtful warm-up.
The serratus anterior allows for proper upward rotation and protraction of the shoulder blade, keeping the shoulder blade from winging and allowing for the performing of a perfect, pain-free press.
How to Warm Up Your Shoulders
This warm-up will awaken the deep stabilizer muscles of the shoulder and contribute to greater shoulder stability. Increasing blood flow to the area and warming the localized muscle groups will prepare you for a safe and effective workout.
The time put in here pays dividends in the long term and may help you reduce your risk of sustaining an injury. This is necessary preparation, and proper preparation prevents poor performance. A better and safer workout with a bit of preparation and warm-up sounds like a good trade to me. I urge you to do them and discourage you from cutting corners.
- Banded Y’s, T’s, W’s, I’s: 2 x 10 ea.
- Band Pull-Apart: 2 x 10
- Push-Up to Pike: 2 x 10
- Rotational Planks: 2 x 10
- Scap Angel: 2 x 10
- Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry: 2 x 30 ft.
- Banded Shoulder External Rotations: 2 x 15
- Banded Shoulder Internal Rotations: 2 x 15
- Band Row: 2 x 15
- Lundsgaard A-M and Kiens B (2014) Gender differences in skeletal muscle substrate metabolism – molecular mechanisms and insulin sensitivity. Front. Endocrinol. 5:195. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2014.00195
- Labriola JE, Lee TQ, Debski RE, McMahon PJ. Stability and instability of the glenohumeral joint: the role of shoulder muscles. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2005 Jan-Feb;14(1 Suppl S):32S-38S. doi: 10.1016/j.jse.2004.09.014. PMID: 15726085.