Everybody loves abs and biceps, but where’s the love for the humble shoulders? Unlike ripped, six pack abs, which serve almost no function for most people other than looking awesome, shoulders are pure function. They need to be flexible enough to give your arms a range of motion while being strong enough to handle lifting and pushing. Not to mention, unlike the best ab exercises which only serve your core, a shoulder workout also tends to be an arm workout. That’s why no self-respecting exercise routine is complete without shoulder workouts. But what is a shoulder anyway?
The Main Shoulder Muscles
In a similar way to most parts of the human body, what we call the shoulder consists of multiple bones and muscles. But there are four main muscles that you’ll typically hear when talking about shoulders, especially in the context of shoulder workouts. You have two of all of these muscles because you have a set for each of your two shoulders.
Rotator cuff: The rotator cuff consists of the four muscles and tendons that support the shoulder and its ball and socket joint. These muscles are critical to supporting the shoulder’s enormous range of motion and in many ways are unique to the shoulder. They can be exercised with rotator cuff-specific workouts.
Deltoid muscle: The deltoid muscle, or delt for short, is the rounded muscle that everyone commonly identifies as the shoulder muscle. It provides the stable foundation for the other muscles to do their work. Just about any shoulder exercise will work out the delt, though front and lateral raises are common delt exercises.
Trapezius muscle: The trapezius, or trap for short, is the muscle that runs across the shoulder blade and up and down the spine, resembling a triangle. It consists of upper, middle and lower fibers, and it helps support your arms and shoulders with overhead lifts. They can be exercised with shoulder shrugs and overhead presses.
Latissimus dorsi: The latissimus dorsi muscles, or lats, are the broad, flat muscles that run over the back of your ribs in your back. Well-developed lats can almost look like wings and can really emphasize the V shape of your torso. For example, Bruce Lee had famously large lats. In terms of function, lats help with arm contraction and extension as well as internal arm rotation. They can be exercised with pull ups and row exercises.
Now that you know a thing or two about what exactly you’ll be exercising, it’s time to learn how to put those shoulders to work. To help get you started, we rounded up a few of the best shoulder building exercises. Because different exercises hit different parts of the muscles, you’ll need to do multiple exercises to fully exercise all the sides of the muscles.
Unfortunately, shoulders are pretty difficult to thoroughly work out without weight, so all of these are shoulder weight exercises and require equipment. For that reason, we’ve also rounded up all the equipment you’ll need to get at the bottom. Note, you will find all of the recommended equipment in a gym worth its salt, but if you’re looking to build your own gym at home with a mind toward the best shoulder workouts, the equipment will empower you to do so.
Before we dive into the shoulder workouts and equipment, here are a few workout tips to keep in mind:
- Warm your muscles up with a light set of dumbbells or weights before commencing your routine.
- Always practice safety. Muscle or tendon tears are real and they are painful, so don’t bite off more than you can chew and take it light if you’re just getting started.
- The best workout routine is the one that works for you. We’re walking you through exercises, but ultimately you need to design one that meets your goals, whether that means doing more reps and sets with lighter weights or doing fewer reps with heavier weights or targeting particular muscle groups more than others.
- Don’t forget to breathe! You generally want to exhale when feeling the push of the exercise, and you want to inhale when relaxing and releasing muscle tension.
With that all said, without further ado, let’s get our shoulders pumping with eight of the best shoulder exercises.
1. Shoulder Press
The shoulder press is the bread and butter of shoulder workouts. Any shoulder press exercise consists of lifting weight above your shoulders and over your head.
Instructions: With dumbbells in your hands at your sides, stand with your feet about shoulder length apart. Raise the dumbbells up above your shoulders, turning your hands forward as you do. Press the dumbbells straight up toward the ceiling and bring them back down to your shoulders to complete one rep. You can also do this exercise seated on a bench or you can use a shoulder press machine.
2. Front Raise
The front shoulder raise is basic, but it’s great for hitting the front side of your delt as well as your trap.
Instructions: With dumbbells in your hands at your sides or in front of your thighs, stand with your feet about shoulder length apart. Raise the dumbbells up and out in front of your body, going from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock. Lower your arms back down to your sides to complete one rep. You can raise the weights at the same time or alternate arms. For those looking for that sweet, sweet extra burn, try to lower the weights as slowly as possible.
3. Lateral Raise
The lateral shoulder raise is the same as the front raise, but raising the weights from a different angle hits a different part of the delt.
Instructions: With dumbbells in your hands at your sides, stand with your feet about shoulder length apart. Raise the dumbbells up and out to the sides of your body, going from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock. Lower them back to your sides to complete one rep. Some people also like to bend forward to execute this lift, but you should do what’s most comfortable for you to focus on your shoulders and do the exercise properly.
4. Shoulder Shrugs
The shoulder shrug is exactly what it sounds like. But instead of just saying “I don’t know” with your shoulders, what makes shrugging a workout is the weight in your hands.
Instructions: With dumbbells in your hands at your sides, stand with your feet about shoulder length apart. Shrug your shoulders, which causes your arms to lift the weights straight up a couple inches, and hold for a second or two before relaxing to complete one rep. For extra burn, shrug one shoulder at a time and then do a shrug with both shoulders to complete one rep.
5. Bench Supported Single Rows
Rows strengthen the muscles that bring the arms toward the body, so they are excellent for targeting the lats. This lift will also work your rear delts because the lift is generated from contracting the backside of the muscles.
Instructions: With a dumbbell in your right hand, place your left knee and left hand on a bench. Try to keep your back parallel to the bench and position your right foot to stabilize and balance your body. Once in this position, try to contract your right lat and lift the weight in a straight line toward the ceiling without bending your arm until the weight has risen a few inches. The dumbbell should end up almost touching your right chest muscle. Lower the weight back down to complete one rep. Switch your arms and legs and do the same exercise on the other side after one set.
6. Lat Pull Downs
Seated pull downs are like rows, only vertical. That being the case, they also target the lats, but because the weight is above your head, they also work the delts and the traps.
There are ways to do this exercise without a machine using other equipment, but we don’t recommend that. If you can’t get to a machine, you can do pull ups instead or skip it altogether.
Instructions for a lat pull down machine: Take a seat on the bench. Reach up to grab the pull down bar and sit back down with your arms extended overhead holding onto the bar. Contract your lower back, trying not to use your arms to help, and pull the bar down in front of your face. Relax your muscles and let the bar raise your arms back up until they are nearly fully extended again to complete one rep. For a more intense focus on your shoulder muscles, try bringing the bar behind your head.
7. Rotator Cuff Internal Rotation
The rotator cuff gets exercised OK without specific targeting just because it goes to work any time your shoulder does anything. But if you want to specifically target it for bodybuilding or physical therapy reasons, there are ways to strengthen the muscles responsible for internal and external rotation. Note, these muscles don’t do heavy lifting, so be careful and use very light weights at first.
Instructions for dumbbell: With a dumbbell on the floor, lie down on your right side, with your shoulder on the ground. Grab the weight with your right hand and curl the weight toward your body, going from 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock, almost like you’re trying to touch the weight to your left chest. Bring the weight back to the floor to complete one rep. Do a set and switch sides to work your other arm. Note, you do not want to use your bicep to lift the weight. If you find you’re using your bicep, you should switch to a lighter weight.
Instructions for cable machine or resistance bands: Set up the cable or band on your right side so the grip is resting about 2-3 inches above your waist. Grab the grip with your right hand, with your thumb facing the ceiling and curl the weight counterclockwise from 12 o’clock to 9 o’clock, focusing on your rotator cuff and trying not to use your arm muscles or move your elbow. Relax your arm and let the grip contract back to the starting position for one rep. For a fuller rotation, try going from 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock, but remember to be careful and not overexert your rotator cuff. When you’re finished with one arm, turn your body around and do the same thing for the other arm.
8. Rotator Cuff External Rotation
This exercise also hits the rotator cuff, but it works on external motion instead of internal motion.
Instructions for dumbbell: Stand with your feet about shoulder length apart with a dumbbell in your right hand. Lift your elbow up and point it outward, forming a 90 degree angle at the elbow between your upper arm and lower arm. The dumbbell should be hanging in your hand with your fist pointing toward the ground. Now lift the dumbbell outward, going in an arc from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock. Reverse the motion to lower the weight back down, maintaining the 90 degree angle, to complete one rep. Be sure to switch arms after a set.
Instructions for cable machine or resistance bands: Set up the cable or band on your right side so the grip is resting about 2-3 inches above your waist. Grab the grip with your left hand across your body, with your thumb facing the ceiling and curl the weight counterclockwise from 3 o’clock to 12 o’clock, focusing on your rotator cuff and trying not to use your arm muscles or move your elbow. Relax your arm and let the grip contract back to the starting position for one rep. When you’re finished with one arm, turn your body around and do the same thing for the other arm. You can view a visual of this exercise in the video above as well.
Now that we’ve covered all the exercises, let’s turn to the equipment you’ll need if you can’t get to a gym.
9. Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Fly
This exercise is similar to the lateral raise, except your elbows are bent the while time and you’re engaging your deltoids as well.
Instructions: Stand with your feet hip width apart, and engage your biceps slightly so they’re engaged and your elbows are bent. Grip your dumbbells so your hands are facing your body rather than rotated out in front, and make sure they stay that way throughout the movement. Using your shoulders, core and upper back raise and lower your arms, keeping your elbows and wrists in the same line. Resist the urge to let momentum carry the weight down so you maximize the benefits of the movement. I’ve included a demo video courtesy of an incredibly jacked guy below.
10. Trap Raise on Bench
This is an excellent movement for working out your trapezius muscles and shoulders at the same time. It does require a weighted bench, but if you’ve got one it’s easy to perfect the form required for a safe movement.
Instructions: Lay flat on the bench facing the ground with both feet on the floor and the end of the bench lining up with the middle of your chest. Engage and retract your shoulder blades so they aren’t slumped forward, stare at the floor and hold one dumbbell in each hand. Raise the weights straight out and over your head so your arms are parallel to the floor, and your wrists, elbows and shoulders are all in one line. When lowering, resist the urge to let momentum carry the weight down so you’re getting the full benefits of the movement, eccentrically and concentrically.
11. Downward Dog to Chaturanga Push-Up to Upward Dog (Vinyasa Flow)
This is a series of yoga poses you can do without any weights, and it’s great for shoulder mobility and strength.
Instructions: Start in a downward dog position, with both hands and both feet on the ground and your read end high in the air, it’s okay if both feet aren’t touching the ground. Press down with all your fingers and lower your shoulder blades down your back. Engage your core, glutes, quads and upper arm muscles. Flatten out your back body whilst moving your torso forward into a plank pose, and then bend your elbows and lower into a push-up without letting your chest or lower body touch the floor. Move your chest forward and up, pushing with both hands and folding the tops of the feet over as you lower your legs towards the ground without touching them to the floor. End in upward dog, this is one rep.
1. Bowflex SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells
You can do every exercise except pull downs with a set of dumbbells, which make them essential if you’re trying to exercise at home. Bowflex’s SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells are ungodly expensive, but if you take care of them, they’ll be the only dumbbells you’ll ever need. They’re designed to make changing the weights of the dumbbells as easy as turning a dial. No joke, that’s literally how they work. All the weight plates and two metal bars sit in their stand, but when you turn the dial to a certain weight, only select plates attach to the bar. Each dumbbell can go from 5 to 52.5 pounds, so you’ll likely never need multiple dumbbells again.
2. Weider Cast Iron Kettlebell
Kettlebells are a great alternative to dumbbells for some exercises due to the difference in grip and location of the weight. You can comfortably use a kettlebell for front raises, lateral raises, shrugs and bench rows.
3. FLYBIRD Weight Bench
While this bench is far from cheap, it’s one of the only benches on Amazon that isn’t sold out or “currently unavailable.” For that reason alone, it’s worth including in our list. However, that’s not the only reason we included it in our list. It will support you while doing dumbbell rows, and you can also use it for shoulder presses, not to mention multiple chest exercises for chest day. The bench is fully adjustable so it should last you for years to come and mold to just about any routine you can think of.
4. Fitness Insanity Resistance Bands Set
Resistance bands are a versatile option for weight lifting. Compared to dumbbells, they’re lightweight, portable and easy to use in most places. As long as you anchor the resistance bands properly — an easier said than done task admittedly — you can do all the exercises on this list. The best advice we can give when looking to buy resistance bands is to not go cheap. Cheap bands will snap easily, and at extreme tensions, that could cause the band to snap back dangerously, possibly hitting you or someone near you. Fitness Insanity Resistance Bands were designed with those problems in mind. They have woven cords in the tubes to help prevent dangerous whiplash, even if you do manage to snap them. With this set, you get five bands of different weights, two handles, two ankle straps and a door anchor.
5. RIMSports Gym Gloves
Workout gloves are not strictly necessary, but they can help keep your hands from getting chewed up by the knurling on dumbbell bars and offer extra wrist support. Wrist support isn’t generally necessary for most lower weights, so we recommend RIMSports Gym Gloves. They have plenty of padding to help your hands safely support the weight and don’t cost more than they should.