More than a fundamental component to a complete workout routine, the best shoulder exercises for men bring you one step closer to that desirable V-shape. Indeed, strengthening your delts gives the appearance of a slimmer waist while adding definition to your overall physique. When it comes to your designs on a summer body, you’d do well to emulate them. Bigger shoulders give the appearance of bigger arms and a smaller waist. It is also, however, absolutely essential to schedule some shoulder-specific exercises into your workouts, because without strong Noddy Holders, you’re going to come up short when attempting all sorts of other lifts, especially when training your chest and back.
Lifting a weight that’s too heavy for you is a mistake regardless of the part of the body you’re working, but it can be truly disastrous when performing shoulder exercises. The shoulders are delicate and complicated joints that are not especially easy to target, and if you do put them under too much pressure before they’re ready you can end up with injuries that put you out of action for months.
The shoulder is made up of three heads – the anterior (front delt), medial (side delt) and posterior (rear delt) – and you need to work all three of them, along with the trapezius muscle in the upper back, for a truly satisfying shoulder session.
So for the good of your health, and to get you the best pump up top and for some of their best shoulder exercises, which we then fashioned into an intense shoulder workout that builds muscle fast. The good news: if you’ve never really tested your shoulders before, gains will come quicker than anywhere else on your body. The bad news: our Ultimate Shoulder Workout isn’t for the faint of heart.
It’s also easy to create imbalances in your shoulders, partly because the shoulder joint can get “pulled” in so many directions. Tight chest muscles in particular can “pull” your shoulders forward, wrecking your posture, and inviting injuries, and other muscles can influence the joint too.
That’s why you need to be smart with your shoulder exercises, programming careful, smart moves instead of over-developing your delts with one or two exercises on repeat in every session. Shoulder workouts require caution, and really, you can isolate your shoulders with less frequency than many of your larger muscle groups. Yes, you should attack legs multiple times a week, and you should train your back often. And you know you can (and should!) activate your core muscles in every single workout and every single day.
The Best Shoulder Exercises
Barbell Overhead Shoulder Press
The barbell shoulder press/military press is a compound barbell movement that builds serious upper body mass, strength, and can boost performance for strength, power, and fitness athletes. In this article we will discuss who would benefit from performing this exercise, what they can expect, and how those athletes can start integrating the barbell shoulder press (also called the military press) in their current training program.
- Place the barbell in a barbell rack at an appropriate height. When you walk up to the barbell, it should be in front of your shoulders—you should be able to take it off of the rack without standing on your tip-toes or bending down too low.
- Start by standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Your hips should be fully extended, as should your knees, but be careful not to lock your knees. Hold the barbell in a front-rack position (resting on the front of your shoulders), with your elbows pointing forward.
- Breathe, tighten your core, and press the barbell overhead. Press until your arms are fully locked out. Press your head through the “window” made by your arms.
- Engage your back muscles and with control, lower the barbell back to the front rack position.
- Repeat for eight to 10 reps. If you need to make an adjustment, place the barbell back on the rack.
Standing Dumbbell Fly
Dumbbell flys, also popular as dumbbell flyes are weight-training exercises performed for increasing upper body strength. While a dumbbell fly primarily engages your chest and shoulder muscles, it works the muscles in your arms and back as well. Flys can be done using a cable machine, but the simplest equipment used is the dumbbell.
- Holding a pair of dumbbells stand upright with the dumbbells kept at arm’s length by your side. Make sure the palms of your hands are facing you. It is your initial position.
- Keep your torso still so that there is no swinging movement. Lift the weights to your side and maintain a moderate bend on your elbows and a little forward tilt in your hands.
- As you breathe out, continue lifting the dumbbells up until your limbs are parallel to the ground.
- Pausing a second at the top of the movement, bring the weights back to your initial position as you breathe in.
- Repeat the above steps for the required amount of reps.
The push press is one of several weightlifting overhead pressing derivatives (WOPDs) that has a long history of use in the sport of lifting. For years, the overhead press was considered a gold standard by which the strength capability of an athlete was measured.
In more recent years, the push press—which adds a lower-body push to the overhead press—has been adopted in CrossFit gyms and in weightlifting rooms across the country as a more effective way to increase strength while also improving speed, power, and core strength for more effective athletic performance.
- Stand with feet hip-distance apart. Place the barbell across your chest at shoulder height so that it rests at your collar bone. Hands should be placed on the bar slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart with palms facing forward. Elbows are relaxed below and slightly in front of the bar. Legs should be straight but not locked. Knees and ankles should be aligned directly beneath the hips.
- Keeping the bar at your chest and keeping the torso strong, bend the knees into a slight dip. Then push through the feet and start to straighten the legs. This movement is done quickly to gain momentum.
- Once you reach full hip extension, press the bar up. You’ll have to move the head slightly back to make room for the bar to pass.
- Extend the arms fully overhead, keeping the torso properly aligned (it should not feel like the chest is extended forward or the hips are arching back). Once the bar has moved up past your head, move it back through its original position and slightly forward.
- Return the bar to the starting position to begin another repetition.
The Arnold press also hits often neglected muscles and will aid you in upping your game when it comes to other lifts. The anterior deltoids tend to get plenty of work from press-ups and bench presses, but the medial (lateral) and posterior (back) often get neglected. However, the Arnold press works all these evenly along with the stabiliser muscles, helping draw back the shoulders for a straight posture and assisting with big pulling moves such as deadlifts, pull-ups and rows.
- Stand with your back straight, core tight, and shoulders back
- Grab a pair of dumbbells in each hand in front of your shoulders, with your arm bent as in the top of a bicep curl and your palms facing your body
- Start pressing your arms up and slowly twisting your hands so your palms face forward
- As you reach full extension, your arms should be stretched out and your biceps close to your ears
- Slowly brings the weight down, and rotate your hands back to the starting position
- Repeat 8-12 times
The front raise strengthens primarily the shoulder (deltoids) but also works the upper chest muscles (pectorals). It is an isolation exercise for shoulder flexion. This exercise will help you build strength and definition in the front and sides of your shoulder. This exercise may also be recommended for physical therapy when recovering from a shoulder injury or shoulder surgery. In daily life, you need strong shoulders to lift objects safely.
- Stand with feet about shoulder-width apart. Keep the back straight and feet planted flat on the floor. Your arms holding weights should hang down.
- Hold the dumbbells across the thighs horizontally, palms facing back toward the thighs. Ensure that you have a firm grip.
- Brace the abdominal muscles.
- Lift the weights upward, inhaling, with arms out in front and palms facing down. Keep a slight bend in the elbows to reduce the stress on the joints. Pause when the arms are approximately horizontal to the floor and feel the contraction in the shoulders.
- Return the dumbbells to the starting position at the thighs with a slow and controlled motion while exhaling.
- Repeat the exercise for the number of sets and repetitions in your program.
The side lateral raise is a shoulder exercise that specifically targets the deltoid muscles. The deltoid muscle group actually consists of three separate points of origin (referred to as “heads”), each with its own group of muscle fibers. The three heads of the deltoid then merge together before they insert on the upper arm bone (the humerus).
The side lateral raise primarily targets the lateral head of the deltoid (although it also engages the anterior and posterior heads to a lesser extent), enabling you to isolate this muscle groups. Specifically, lateral raises are considered the best exercise available for working the lateral head of the delts.
- Stand tall, a dumbbell in each hand. Arms are at your sides, palms facing in. Position your feet roughly hip-distance apart. Check your posture—roll your shoulders back, engage your core, and look straight ahead.
- Raise your arms simultaneously just a couple inches out to each side and pause. This momentary pause should help ensure you disengage your trapezius muscle from the movement, targeting the deltoids as intended.
- Lift the dumbbells up and out to each side, keeping your arms almost completely straight, stopping when your elbows reach shoulder-height and your body is forming a “T” shape. Breathe in as you lift.
- Pause and hold for a second at the top of the movement.
- Lower the weights slowly (take about twice as long to lower the weights as you took to lift them), bringing your arms back to your sides. Breathe out as you lower the dumbbells.
Rear Delt Row
What the heck is a row doing in an article about shoulder exercises? Remember, rowing movements don’t just work the “back,” they involve the rear delts to a significant degree, as well. And experts like physical therapist John Rusin, creator of the BodyFit resource Unstoppable: The Ultimate Guide to Training Through Injury, believe that a key to shoulder health is rowing twice or even three times as much as you press.
One more point in favor of rows, particularly on an incline bench: a 2014 study found that in addition to hitting the rear delts as well as flyes, they activated the middle delt significantly better than dumbbell shoulder presses, cable lateral raises, and even barbell upright rows. This makes it a no-brainer for creating a time-efficient shoulder workout.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
This exercise works all aspects of the deltoid muscle of the shoulder. While you can do an overhead press with an exercise machine or barbell, dumbbells offer some unique benefits. In using a dumbbell you have more activation of the anterior (front) deltoid than when using a barbell.
You can also identify whether you have an imbalance in your shoulder strength. When performing it standing you will be challenging your core muscles to stabilize you during the press.2 In daily life, you may need to place objects on shelves above your head (or your luggage in the overhead compartment on a plane) and this exercise will build strength to do it safely.
- Stand upright and keep the back straight.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand at the shoulders with an overhand grip. Thumbs should be on the inside and knuckles facing up.
- Raise the weights above the head in a controlled motion while exhaling. Pause at the top of the motion.
- Return the dumbbells to the shoulders while inhaling.
- Repeat for eight to 12 repetitions as desired.
Face pulls are a great exercise for the rear deltoids, trapezius, and upper back muscles.2 Robert Herbst, a 19-time World Champion powerlifter, personal trainer, and wellness coach says, “They help keep the shoulders squared and back so someone doesn’t get the pulled-forward look from doing too much chest and front delt work. They also help build a thick upper back as a base to arch into for a power bench press.”
Strong shoulders are critically important for everyday activities of lifting, pressing, pulling, and rotating your arms. The deltoids are the powerhouse muscle group of the shoulders—responsible for all overhead actions (putting items up on high shelves, lifting a child onto your shoulders, or even shooting a basketball).
Exercises like shoulder presses, lateral dumbbell raises, front dumbbell raises, and bent over reverse dumbbell flys all target the delts from different angles. The delts have three separate heads—the anterior, lateral, and posterior. The anterior and lateral heads of the deltoid are often worked far more than the posterior, or “rear delts,” because they’re involved in pushing and pressing exercises.
- Reach up and grasp the handles with both hands with your palms facing in. Step back until your arms are fully extended, then engage your core and lean back slightly, positioning your body at a roughly 20-degree angle.
- Pull the rope toward you just enough to start lifting the weight from the stack, then engage your shoulders, rolling them back to create good posture—you don’t want your shoulders hunching or rolling forward. This is your starting position.
- Pull the handles of the attachment straight toward your forehead. Keep your palms facing in as your elbows flare outward toward the sides, engaging the rear delts.
- Reverse the movement and slowly extend your arms without allowing your shoulders or chest to roll forward as you extend—you want to maintain good posture throughout the exercise.
Although you can use various types of resistance for a shoulder shrug, your choice of a barbell shows a serious commitment to the exercise. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold onto the barbell with both hands at shoulder-width apart. Straighten your arms along your front and face your palms toward your legs. Exhale and shrug your shoulders toward your ears. Lift until your shoulder slant is at least horizontal with the floor. Inhale and lower your shoulders to the starting position.
- Ideally, set up the bar above knee height on a rack if you can and then grip the bar (overhand) wider than shoulder-width so that you can get optimal arm abduction. Make sure the bar is deep in your palms to prevent issues with your fingers and elbows.
- With your back straight and chest up, drive through your heels to stand erect and move your hips forward for the starting position.
- Walk back if you need more room or remain in place with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width and pointed just slightly outward.
- Hinge forward at the hips slightly and keep your shoulder blades neutral (neither forward or pinched together). You can bend your hips and knees slightly although not completely necessary.
- Shrug your shoulders up and in while raising your shoulders out and squeeze your traps at the top.
- Then control the lowering phase while allowing the bar to come down far enough to where you feel a good stretch in your traps.
Kettlebell Single-Arm Press
Pressing a kettlebell overhead with one arm is one of the most functional movements you can perform. It builds strength throughout the upper body, trains the shoulder muscles through a full range of motion, and works the core. A variation on the classic single-arm kettlebell press is to do it seated. Removing the legs as a source of support forces the abs and other stabilizers to work even harder.
- Grasp a kettlebell with both hands and lift it up to shoulder level on one side. Transfer the weight to one hand, and hold it so that the handle runs diagonally across your palm, between your thumb and the last two knuckles. (Another option is to clean the kettlebell from knee level, or the floor.)
- Stand tall, and tuck your tailbone so that your pelvis is parallel to the floor. Draw your ribs down, brace your core, and squeeze your glutes. Focus your eyes straight in front of you; your neck should be neutral. Draw your shoulders back and downward—think: “proud chest.”
- Actively twist your feet into the floor, but don’t let them move. Think of your legs as screwdrivers, or that you’re standing on grass and trying to twist it up beneath you. You should feel the arches in your feet rise and your glutes tighten, creating tension in the lower body.
- Tuck your elbow close to your side so that your forearm is vertical and the weight is in front of your chest. Your wrist should be aligned with your forearm and facing the midline of your body. This is called the rack position, and every rep begins from here. You can extend your opposite arm out to your side to help you balance.
- Press the kettlebell overhead, maintaining your shoulder position as you do so (keep your shoulder pulled down and back). As you press, allow your elbow to move away from your body and your arm to go upward in an arcing motion. As the weight goes up, allow your wrist to rotate so that your palm faces forward when your arm locks out. Reverse the motion to lower the kettlebell. Actively pull it back down by squeezing your lat muscle.
The upright row exercises the front and middle heads of the deltoids, as well as the trapezius, rhomboids, and even the biceps muscles.1 It is very good at growing these muscles. However, these muscles can be effectively developed with safer exercises, such as the bench press, overhead press, and pushups. The primary use of this exercise is by bodybuilders who are targeting specific muscles and are using perfect form.
- Grasp a barbell or dumbbells and allow it to hang in front of you at the length of your arms. Your palms should be facing your body.
- Standing up straight, adjust your grip so that your hands are about in line with the thighs. Shoulder-width apart (no closer) is recommended for wrist and shoulder safety.2
- Breathe in and brace the abdominals, keep the back straight, chest up, and eyes focused forward.
- Lift the barbell straight up toward the chin, leading with the elbows and keeping the bar close to the body. Breathe out during the effort. Your arms should go no higher than parallel with the shoulders. Slightly less is OK.
- Pause at the top of the lift.
- Return the barbell back to the starting position, breathing in as you lower it.
- Repeat the move for your defined number of repetitions.
Reverse Pec Deck Fly
This shoulder exercise targets your posterior delts and requires a pec deck machine
- Set seat at appropriate height so hands, elbows, and shoulders are all in line when holding onto the handles.
- Set handles to allow for desired range of motion – generally a full range of motion is ideal, so put the handles as far back as the machine allows.
- Push outwards on the handles, going back as far until the arms are directly outstretched at the side of the body.
- Pause and squeeze rear delts before slowly lowering, pausing at the bottom, and repeating for the desired amount of reps.
The pike press is a popular muscle building exercise. It is a great way to work your upper body muscles, especially your deltoids and triceps in the upper shoulders and arms. To perform a pike press, “pike” your back so that your hips are elevated and your legs are straight. Then, lower your head forward and down until your forehead touches the ground. Finally, push yourself back up into the starting position.
- Start in a plank position on the floor, with hands firmly on the floor, right under your shoulders. Press toes firmly into the floor too.
- Keep core tight and back flat and engage your glutes and hamstrings. Your whole body should be neutral and in a straight line.
- Lift hips up and back until your body forms an inverted V shape. Keep arms and legs as straight as possible.
- Start to bend elbows, and then lower your entire upper body toward the floor.
- Stay there for a moment, then slowly push back up until your arms are straight and you’re in the inverted V position. Make sure you maintain control throughout the movement.
Bent-Over Reverse Flye
The bent over dumbbell reverse fly, also known as the bent over rear delt fly, is a great exercise to assist you in building a complete set of shoulders.
Many lifters utilize the bent over dumbbell reverse fly to target the rear delts, an often lagging muscle for many lifters alike.
Strengthening the rear delts by using the bent over rear delt fly can lead to improved posture and a greater level of strength on other lifts.
- Select the desired weight from the rack then take a few steps back into an open area.
- Hinge from the hips until your body is almost parallel to the floor and allow the arms to hang straight down from the shoulders with a neutral grip.
- Take a deep breath and pull the dumbbells towards the ceiling using the rear deltoids.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position under control.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Reverse Cable Crossover
To really get that muscularity and shape into your shoulders, you need to make sure that you train all sides. Quite often people focus on the both the side and front delts, forgetting the rear (posterior) delt. Well developed rear delts will help to keep your shoulders balanced. Furthermore, they will help to prevent a lot of shoulder injuries and rotator cuff problems as well. Very often the front delts are strong from lots of pressing movements (bench presses, overhead presses, etc.) so they over power the rear delts. Since this is a small muscle group you should train with fairly light weights and do higher reps, between 10-20 reps per set. Focus on feeling the muscles working with each rep. This is where reverse cable crossover exercise can be very useful weapon.
- Grab the handle from the machine on your right using your left hand, and vice versa.
- Draw the cables in so that they form a cross on your chest, keeping your elbows fixed and your arms even with your shoulders.
- Slightly lean forward before lifting the weights on each respective machine in a cross-like fashion, stretching your arms as far as the cables go before bringing them in.
- If possible, increase the weight with each subsequent set.
Dumbbell Raise Complex
Hold dumbbells at your sides with palms facing you. Raise the weights up in front of you to shoulder level with thumbs pointing up. Complete 12–15 reps and then raise the weights out to your sides 90 degrees (bend your elbows a bit as you lift). Complete your reps and then switch to a lighter pair of dumbbells. Raise them out to your sides and up to ear level with straight arms and thumbs pointing up. Hold this position 30 seconds. Squeeze your glutes to help support you.