Whether you’re looking for your body to be aesthetically pleasing, stronger, and more powerful, or just to function more effectively, shoulder exercises would be a staple in any gym-goers program.
The shoulder or deltoid is made up of three heads: the anterior, lateral, and posterior. This simply means the front, side, and back. The three heads are important to keep your shoulder and upper arm stable.
Attention to all three deltoid heads helps to create a wider and more 3D physical appearance. Shoulder strength and development are also important for any other pushing motions, including chest exercises. The rear delts are even active and important in back exercises like pull-ups.
Compound movements will be the best way to target as much of the shoulder as possible, while still working several other muscles at the same time.
Here’s a look at eight of the best exercises to target the shoulders.
8 Compound Shoulder Exercises
- Barbell Standing Press
- Bench Press
- Arnold Press
- Seated Dumbbell Press
- Upright Row
- Bent Over Reverse Fly
- Front Raises
- Handstand Push Ups
Before starting any shoulder exercises, it’s important that they are properly warmed up. People tend to have weak shoulders, as we don’t use them much in everyday life. Rotator cuff injuries are common and this is why you want to start with a 5-10 minute warmup to get the heart rate up and blood flowing to the muscles.
Then, some dynamic stretching, including arm swings, will be important to engage the shoulder muscles, get the blood flowing to them, and to increase muscle activation.
Barbell Standing Press
The barbell standing press should be the cornerstone of any good shoulder workout. This is the ultimate compound movement that not only targets the shoulders but brings in the triceps and traps. It also serves as a core exercise, as you need your abdominals engaged to maintain upright stability.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your hands should be placed on the bar so they are also just shoulder-width apart. You may need to play around with hand positions to see which hand placement works best for you.
Start with the barbell at the top of your chest with your palms facing out. Keeping your abs tight, exhale and drive the bar upwards, focusing on pushing through the base of your palms while still keeping a good grip on the bar. You will want to keep your head back far enough for the bar to clear it. Stop just short of your elbows locking out and lower back under control to perform one rep. You can use your legs to create a little momentum to get the bar moving, but you don’t want them to assist too much and take the emphasis away from the shoulders.
It’s easy to think of the bench press as a chest exercise, but it’s a true upper body movement that targets the front delts as much as the chest. It also works the triceps and is the ultimate upper body exercise.
The good thing with compound lifts like the bench press is you tend to be able to lift more weight than other isolation exercises, so the shoulder muscles get more resistance.
The bench press is great because it’s so versatile. You can do flat bench, incline, and decline. You can also use a regular barbell or dumbbell. These variations will target the shoulders differently. The more of an incline you use, the more of the shoulders you bring in, and research from the International Journal of Exercise Science show that inclines may be the best form of the exercise to build more muscle thickness.
The important thing with the bench press is to keep the weight under control on the downward movement. Avoid bouncing it off your chest, and, like the standing press: avoid locking out your arms. This not only protects the joint but forces the muscle to remain under tension.
The great Arnold Schwarzenegger is the creator of this exercise. It takes a traditional dumbbell press but adds a twisting motion at the end. They take a bit of practice to master, and you won’t be able to lift as much weight with a standard overhead press.
But this movement creates great shoulder activation. EMG studies show that the Arnold Press activates the medial and anterior delts more than an overhead dumbbell press.
Start in a seat that has an upright back support. The starting position will hold the dumbbells in each hand with your palms facing toward your chest. Then, you will push upward and start rotating your palms outward as you pass the dumbbells by your head.
At the end of the motion, the dumbbells and your palms will face outward and up over your head. Again, stop before your arms lockout, and reverse the motion on the way back down.
The idea with this movement is that it will target more of the deltoid heads. The twisting motion creates more engagement, and therefore you really need to focus on strict form, as it’s easy to cause injury by trying to lift too much weight
Seated Dumbbell Press
With the seated dumbbell press, you will follow some cues from the Arnold press, but now you’re staying in one straight range of motion. This is an exercise you can lift more weight with, but you still need to pay attention to form.
Start on a seat with back support. If you need help to get the dumbbells up, you can rest them on your knees and boost your knee up to get the dumbbells into position. You want to hold them at shoulder level with your palms facing outward.
Keep your core tight, exhale, and drive the weight upward, stopping just before you lock out your elbows. Pause for a second, then lower back under control to the starting position. That is one rep.
The seated position allows the weight to target the deltoids more than if you were in a standing position and the rest of your body is engaged.
With either a barbell or a dumbbell in each hand, hold the weight in front of your hips at arm’s length with palms facing towards you.
Pull the weight up towards your chin so your elbows bend out to the side. Aim to get the point of your elbows higher than the peak of your deltoids for full contraction of muscles. Focus on your elbows lifting the weight more than your hands or wrists. Keep control of the weights as you lower them back down.
This compound exercise is a great way to add weight and muscle. Use fewer reps and heavier loads to really encourage your delts, traps, and core to work hard, perform, and grow.
Bent Over Reverse Fly
This is one of the best exercises to target the rear delts. This is also an exercise where the weight is not important; it’s about focusing on the muscle. You will also find that it is tough to lift a lot of weight with this exercise.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand, and bent at the hips. Keep your back straight. Keep your glutes sticking out and you should feel a pull on your hamstrings. With your chest parallel to the floor, hold the dumbbells out in front of you before slowly raising them up and out to the sides. When you get them as high as you can, pause for a second before returning to the starting position.
Focus on your elbows lifting the weight to engage the rear delts. You will feel the squeeze of your shoulder and back muscles as you recruit many stabilizing muscles to help raise the weight into a ‘flying’ motion.
This is a great compound exercise to focus on the rear or posterior deltoid. You can also lay your chest against an incline bench whilst sitting for additional support throughout this movement.
There are also reverse fly machines that may allow you to better target the rear delts. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning shows that because you can vary your hand position, you may get better rear delt activation–especially when using a neutral grip.
Front raises will target the anterior delts and are best done with dumbbells. Start with feet shoulder-width apart and make sure you keep a solid base. This will help you avoid swinging the weights, using the shoulders less, and avoiding potential injury.
Start with the dumbbells against the front of your legs with your palms facing down. One at a time, lift the dumbbell up so it’s level with your head. Pause for a second, then return to the starting position.
You can do this one at a time by alternating arms, or by lifting both arms at the same time. Concentrate on keeping your core tight, and not swinging the weights upward. The position, and movement of the weights, forces you to engage your core to keep stable.
This is another exercise where the ego needs to be put away. The focus needs to be on form and lighter weights will often be beneficial to properly engage the shoulders.
Handstand Push Ups
No weight or equipment is needed here, which means no excuses. This is a great and varied compound movement to engage the core muscles as well as improve balance and coordination to maintain posture.
Doing a press-up in the handstand position against a wall places your entire body weight on your shoulders. This is an advanced movement and requires a lot of practice and safety to execute properly. You may want a spotter and someone to help guide you through it to keep you safe.
This upside-down shoulder press forces the deltoids in the shoulder musculature, the pectoral muscles, and the major back muscles, extensor, trapezius, latissimus dorsi to work extremely hard and carry the bulk of the load. They also work the triceps and can improve your pressing power.
This compound push-up is one of the most effective exercises for your shoulder muscles. They are, therefore, ideally suited for strength and muscle building.
Wrapping It Up
The benefit of compound exercises is they help you make better use of your training time. They also help build more strength and muscle. They also are helpful for improving any muscle imbalances. Since all the muscles have to work together, it forces weaker ones to adapt and catch up.
Single, isolation exercises definitely have their place, but compound movements are the way to go if you’re looking to build as much muscle and strength in the shoulders as possible. Training shoulders also improves flexibility, mobility, functional movement, and burns calories while doing so.
With so many compound shoulder exercises out there—and their variations—it’s easy to keep the muscles engaged, and not get bored while doing so.