Use these movements to build muscle and strength.
Your shoulders are an important part of your anatomy. We say that we “shoulder” heavy burdens and insist that a long-held grudge or negative feeling is a chip on our shoulder—but these metaphorical flourishes are next to nothing compared to the status of the muscle group to your strength training routine. There are few other muscle groups that are as connected and essential, as your shoulders are essential for just about everything you do with your arms.From simple, fundamental exercises that engage your chest muscles like bench presses and pushups to the more subtle engagement that comes on back day with staple moves like rows, when your shoulders team with other back muscles, your shoulders engaged more often than not. Even lower body movements have a shoulder component, since they play a role in stabilizing the load you carry during squat and lunge variations. And of course, you can’t curl or press without your shoulders, since they act as key stabilizers during biceps and triceps isolation exercises.
When all’s considered, that’s a lot of responsibility for a group of muscles that don’t actually take up that much real estate on your body—which is why training smart is especially important when it comes to your shoulder workouts. It’s easy to overtrain your shoulders, because even when you’re not expressly targeting them, they’re still getting plenty of work.
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.
Tread with greater caution into shoulder sessions, though. Yes, you can train your shoulders frequently—but only if you’re not constantly slaughtering them with heavy weights. Instead, spend more time doing exercises that strengthen your mid-back muscles and rotator cuff muscles. Lightweight exercises that drive bloodflow to your rotator cuff muscles can be done often, reinforcing good posture and stabilizing your shoulder joint. Then, perhaps once a week, attack your shoulders with heavier weights. That will protect the joint long-term, while still creating the strength- and muscle-building stimulus you may want. If you take this approach, you need to be that much more nuanced with your shoulder movements, getting plenty of bang for your buck when you’re attacking delts.
This list of exercises includes both kinds of movements. You’ll target smaller stabilizing muscles with some exercises. Other exercises will help you build the visible boulder shoulders you want. It’s the best of both worlds, and a perfect starting point if you’re looking to add shoulder size safely.
Kettlebell Single-Arm Press
Why use a kettlebell instead of a dumbbell for this movement? The shape and weight distribution of the bell pulls your shoulder into a position that increases mobility and muscle recruitment, says Pavel Tsatsouline, chairman of StrongFirst.com and the author of Kettlebell Simple & Sinister.
DO IT: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a kettlebell in front of your shoulder with your palm in, elbow tucked, and the weight resting on the top of your forearm. Press it straight up, rotating your arm so your palm faces forward. Do equal reps on both arms.
Dumbbell Push Press
We love this exercise. The reason: You can load it up with a low risk of injury. What’s more, it’s explosive. That means you target your fast twitch muscle fibers, which are the ones with the most potential for growth.
“Because the push press focuses on multiple muscle groups; its is a great exercise to stimulate blood flow, heart rate as well as build core stability/strength, overall strength, and muscular endurance,” Shannon says. What’s more, the move can be versatile. “This exercise can be performed both unilaterally and bilaterally,” he continues. “If shoulder, and thoracic spine mobility is an issue; I suggest you start unilaterally (single arm) since anatomically we have greater range of motion when reaching overhead with one arm.”
DO IT: Stand holding a pair of dumbbells just outside of your shoulders with your arms bent and palms facing each other. Set your feet shoulder-width apart, your knees slightly bent. Dip your knees, then explosively push up with your legs as you press the weights straight over your shoulders. Lower the dumbbells back to the start and repeat.
Struggling with the steps of the movement? Shannon suggests finding a wall for help. “For beginners, or anyone that struggles
with overhead ROM, I would recommend standing up against a flat sturdy wall,” he says. “While performing this exercise, keep both your upper back and butt against the wall the entire time to ensure proper involvement of the stabilisers such as the abdominal muscles, erector spinae, diaphragm, and the spinal erectors.”
Scaption and Shrug
While the “scaption” portion of the exercise targets your front deltoids, rotator cuff, and serratus anterior, the “shrug” attacks your upper traps. This provides a complete exercise for making your shoulders strong and healthy.
DO IT: Stand holding a pair of dumbbells with your feet shoulder-width apart. Let the dumbbells hang at arm’s length next to your sides, your palms facing each other and your elbows slightly bent.
Without changing the bend in your elbows, raise your arms at a 30-degree angle to your body until they’re at shoulder level. At the top of the movement, shrug your shoulders up toward your ears. Pause, then slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.
Cable Pulley Reverse Fly
This exercise shores up the commonly weak areas of your shoulders—like your rear deltoids and rotator cuff—so you’ll dodge shoulder pain and boost gains in every upper-body lift.
DO IT: Stand in a cable station with the pulley on its lowest setting. Cross your arms in front of you, and grab a handle from each low pulley. Bend forward at the waist until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Keep your arms beneath your shoulders. Pull your shoulder blades back, and then raise your arms out to your sides until they’re parallel to the floor. Lower and repeat.
TRX I, Y, T
This exercise leaves no shoulder muscle untouched. “The three different motions hit the shoulder from the front, middle, and rear,” says Todd Durkin, owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, California. “That strengthens the muscles and makes the entire joint more resilient to injury.”
DO IT: Anchor a TRX so that the handles hang about waist height. Facing the TRX, place your feet under the anchor point and grab a handle in each hand with your palms facing away from you. Keeping your body straight, slowly lean back until the straps are taut. Your arms should be straight and your hands should be at shoulder level.
Maintaining an even tension on the TRX at all times, raise the handles overhead so that your body forms an “I” from hands to feet. Draw your shoulder blades down so you don’t shrug your shoulders. The angle of your body to the floor should decrease. (If this is too difficult, take a step back with one foot to boost your base of support.) Pause, and then lower.
Repeat, but raise your arms so they’re at a 30-degree angle to your body (forming a Y) this time. Pause, and then lower.
Repeat again, but raise your arms so they’re at a 90-degree angle to your body (forming a T). Pause, and then lower.
Inverted Shoulder Press
This move is actually a pushup variation—which means you perform it anywhere, anytime. But instead of your pecs doing most of the pushing, this position shifts the workload onto your shoulders.
DO IT: Begin in a traditional pushup position, but move your feet forward and raise your hips so your body forms an inverted “V.” Keeping your hips elevated, bend your elbows and lower your chest to the floor. Pause, and then reverse the movement. Bring your feet closer to your hands if you want to increase the difficulty for your shoulders.