Best Chest and Shoulder Workout

Barbell Medicine
December 29, 2023
Reading Time: 21 minutes
Table of Contents

    We’ve covered chest workouts extensively on the blog — we’ve written about the best chest exercises and the best lower chest exercises, and we’ve dived into examples of exercises that include equipment (like the cable machine) and without.

    However, considering that the shoulder is a synergist in most chest exercises, it’s about time that we devoted a dedicated article on chest and shoulder workouts.

    Today, we’ll share our favorite chest and shoulder exercises: the bench press (flat), the incline bench press, the overhead press, the cable fly, and the 1-arm lateral raise.

    Let’s explore them one by one!

    Chest and Shoulder Exercises

    • Bench press (flat)
    • Incline bench press
    • Overhead press
    • Cable fly
    • 1-arm cable lateral raise

    There’s a noticeable carry-over between the majority of chest exercises and shoulder movements, with the shoulder being referred to as the synergist in most pressing exercises. [1] Synergists are the “secondary” muscles that assist in movement during an exercise. However, if you think you don’t need to target your shoulders specifically when you work out your chest, it’s worth noting that this kind of training doesn’t actually provide much stimulus for the lateral and posterior deltoid. For the purposes of muscle hypertrophy, they could use some direct work. From a strength perspective, the benefit of engaging the shoulder muscles directly is not as clear — it might or might not be beneficial because it depends on how strength is being tested.

    If the test of strength is the bench press, doing a bunch of lateral raises or rear-delt flyes is unlikely to help, especially compared to doing more bench press variations and/or training other synergists like the triceps directly.

    Nonetheless, we want to share two chest and shoulder workouts that combine aspects of both strength and hypertrophy training, such as power building. The two workouts complement each other, one emphasizing strength in horizontal pressing with more vertical pressing hypertrophy accouterments and the other doing the opposite.

    Workout 1 (bench press or horizontal strength focused):

    • Barbell bench press (flat) x 4 to 6 reps @ RPE 7 x 2-3 sets
    • Overhead Press x 5-8 reps @ RPE 7 x 2 to 3 sets
    • High Incline Dumbbell Bench Press (45-70* incline) x 8 to 12 reps @ RPE 7-8 x 2-3 sets
    • Single arm cable lateral raise x 10 to 15 reps @ RPE 8-9 x 2 to 3 sets

    Workout 2 (vertical strength focused):

    • Overhead Press x 4 to 6 reps @ RPE 7 x 2-3 sets
    • Barbell Bench press x 5-8 reps @ RPE 7 x 2 to 3 sets
    • Low Incline DB Bench Press (15-30*) x 8 to 12 reps @ RPE 7-8 x 2-3 sets
    • Cable flyes x 10 to 15 reps @ RPE 8-9 x 2 to 3 sets

    In terms of the frequency of your chest and shoulder workout, consider your personal fitness skills, preferences, and the muscles you’re prioritizing.

    1) Bench Press (Flat)

    Flat Barbell Bench Press

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a bench press (flat)

    Movement Category: Primary

    Programming: 3 to 4 sets of 4-6 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 2-3 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 7-8.

    The bench press is an exercise that involves lying on a bench while pressing weight upward by using either a barbell or dumbbells. During the exercise, you lower the weight until it reaches chest level and then push upward while extending your arms. Being a compound exercise, the bench press works the pectoralis major of the chest, the anterior deltoids of the shoulder, and the triceps brachii of the upper arm. It’s a great exercise for strength — the bench press is associated with improved club head speed in golf players and higher punching power in boxing. [2, 3]

    Equipment-wise, you need a weight bench and barbell (or dumbbells).

    Bench Press (Flat) Instructions

    • Lie on the bench below the rack. Keep your eyes aligned with the front of the barbell rack above you. Your seat, shoulders, and head should remain flat on the bench. Keep your feet slightly off the floor. 
    • Keep your shoulder blades back to prevent pressing with rounded shoulders.
    • Grab the barbell, and put your thumbs on the outside of your closed fist. Keep your arms a bit wider than your shoulders and your upper arms at a 45-degree angle to the body.
    • Detach the barbell from the rack and lock your elbows.
    • Take a deep breath while placing the bar onto your chest. Keep it at the nipple line.
    • Exhale as you push the bar above your chest, straightening your arms.
    • Don’t keep your focus on the bar — look at the ceiling instead.
    • Lower the bar so it’s right above your chest — this is the beginning position for your next bench press.

    Once you’re done with your desired reps, place the bar on the track with your elbows in a locked-out position. Slowly move the bar backward until you sense the rack uprights; afterward, lower it to the barbell rest. Make sure not to hit the rack rests right away — if you miss, you can hurt yourself.

    2) Incline Bench Press

    Incline Bench Press

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing an incline bench press

    Movement Category: Secondary

    Programming: 2 to 4 sets of 6-10 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 2-3  reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 7-8.

    Being a pressing exercise, the incline bench press is done with a barbell. It primarily targets the pectoralis major, but also works your shoulder muscles, triceps, and the back of your shoulders. What makes the incline bench press stand out is its ability to train the clavicular head of the pecs, that is, the “upper chest”. Also, research suggests that the incline press allows for much more significant hypertrophy as opposed to the traditional bench press. [4]

    If you’re into heavy lifting, it’s better to do the incline bench press with a barbell. According to research published in the Journal of Sports Science, the barbell should be your go-to if your priority is to lift the most weight. [5] Experts compared one-rep maximum of lifters using a barbell press and a dumbbell press — the max dumbbell lift weight ended up being 17% lower than the barbell press.  This difference is likely due to the additional degrees of freedom with the dumbbell incline bench press compared to using a barbell. While the absolute amount of weight is higher when using a barbell, both variations likely produce similar results in terms of muscle growth.

    Equipment-wise, you need an incline bench and a barbell. 

    Incline Bench Press Instructions

    • Put your feet on the ground and lean back until your back rests against the bench.
    • Begin by holding the barbell or dumbbells over your shoulders. Face your palms forward, and have your thumb wrapped around the handle.
    • Push the weight upward all the way above your eyes or even higher. Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle.
    • Take a deep breath, and lower the barbell or dumbbells until they nearly reach your chest.

    3) Overhead Press

    Overhead Press

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing an overhead press

    Movement Category: Secondary

    Programming: 2 to 4 sets of 6-10 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 2-3  reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 7-8.

    The overhead press, also referred to as the military press or the shoulder press, is an exercise in which trainees press a weight overhead while standing or seated.

    When you do the overhead press in a standing position, you target most of the upper body muscles such as your pecs, deltoids, triceps, and trapezius. A standing overhead press also recruits more muscles to support the lift.

    The seated variation doesn’t activate your core as much, and it’s up to your shoulders and triceps to do the heavy work. That said, if you’re just getting started with strength training or are dealing with back pain and injuries, the sitting position might be easier on your back. In terms of equipment, you need dumbbells to perform the overhead press.

    Although you can do the overhead press with a barbell, exercise machine, or kettlebell, research suggests that using dumbbells activates your anterior deltoid much more than using kettlebells. [6]

    The instructions we’ll share apply to both the standing and seated overhead press.

    Overhead Press Instructions

    • Stand (or sit) upright with your back straight. Take a dumbbell in each hand and hold it at shoulder level, with an overhand grip. Your thumbs should be on the insides, knuckles facing up.
    • Exhale as you raise the weights above your head.
    • Pause briefly at the top of the movement.
    • Inhale and put the dumbbells back to shoulder level.

    4) Cable Flye

    Standing Cable Flyes

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a cable fly

    Movement Category: Tertiary

    Programming: 3 to 4 sets of 10-15 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 1 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 9.

    Cable flyes are an isolation exercise targeting the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, serratus anterior, and biceps brachii (to some extent). In contrast to bench-based workouts, a standing cable fly can put greater strain on the involved muscle groups, allowing you to train for hypertrophy with much lower loads. [7]

    In terms of equipment, you need a cable machine.

    One thing to keep in mind with this exercise is that the way the cables are positioned is much more important than you realize. Different cable fly variations come with distinct cable requirements — for this one, you should have the handles just above your shoulders. Don’t place them too high, as you’ll end up bending your torso forward to reach the position.

    The way you hold the cable matters as well. Don’t hold it in a death grip — your grip should be a bit loose, and you should keep the cable close to the base of your palm.

    Cable Flye Instructions

    • Set both cables just above shoulder-height after selecting your ideal weight.
    • Stand with your back towards the cable machine.
    • Grab both handles with your palms facing forward. Lock your shoulder blades back and down.
    • Move your arms forward in an arching motion, until your hands touch.
    • Avoid hunching over, thrusting your chin forward, or shrugging your shoulders.

    5) 1-Arm Cable Lateral Raise

    1-Arm Cable Lateral Raise

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a 1-arm cable lateral raise

    Movement Category:Tertiary

    Programming: 3 to 4 sets of 10-15 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 1 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 9.

    A variation of the lateral raise, the 1-arm cable lateral raise is performed on the low cable pulley with a single hand attachment. This is an awesome exercise for toning, tightening, and strengthening the medial deltoid.

    Research suggests the 1-arm cable lateral raises improve the infraspinatus and subscapularis muscles in your rotator cuff, therefore making shoulder movements like external and internal rotations smoother. [8]

    What’s more, you can combine this exercise with frontal raises for a boost in shoulder strength — a study found that bodybuilders ended up with more shoulder strength when they performed both exercises, as opposed to doing just one. [9]

    1-Arm Cable Lateral Raise Instructions

    • Choose a weight you can lift with only one shoulder. Avoid using too much weight – this is an exercise that doesn’t require heavy weight, as you’re meant to do the lift with full control. Also, don’t lift with a fully straight arm — there should be a slight bend in your elbow when doing the 1-arm cable lateral raises. If you do extend the arm, you’ll transfer most of the tension from the shoulders onto the forearms.
    • Position yourself next to the pulley machine with both feet shoulder-width apart.
    • Push your chest forward, and point your shoulders back while bending your knees a bit. You can place your free hand on the machine for extra support.
    • Then, reach across your body and take the stirrup.
    • Bend your elbow to a 10- to 30-degree angle and raise your arm laterally until it’s the same level as your shoulder. As you lift, exhale.
    • Don’t rotate your arm as you push the stirrup upward — your focus for the exercise is to target the middle shoulder.
    • Keep this position for one to five seconds and then inhale as you lower the weight gradually. Allow the cable to come to a stop before you begin your next repetition.

    Chest and Shoulder Anatomy

    The shoulder girdle consists of a myriad of distinct muscles, as the scapula and the humerus are linked to 17 and 13 different muscles, respectively. [10, 11] It’s made up of a delicate combination of four joints known as the glenohumeral (GH) joint, the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, the sternoclavicular (SC) joint, and a “floating joint,” known as the scapulothoracic (ST) joint. The shoulder allows for a wide range of motions — it’s structurally and functionally complex since it’s one of the most freely movable parts of the body. [12]

    The chest comprises of the following muscles:

    • The pectoralis major, the biggest muscle of the chest. In men, it’s found below the skin and subcutaneous fat, whereas in women, it’s found below the breast tissue. The muscle is made up of two heads: the clavicular head, which emerges from the clavicle, and the larger sternocostal head, which emerges from the sternum, the upper costal cartilages of the ribs, and the sheet-like tendon of the external oblique muscle. [13]
    • The pectoralis minor, a triangular-shaped muscle located right under the pectoralis major.
    • The serratus anterior, a serrated muscle that starts from the sides of the first eight or nine ribs and runs along the entire length of the scapula.
    • The subclavius muscle, a triangular muscle found beneath the clavicle.

    Although these are all distinct muscles, they all work together to allow for the following movements to take place: 

    • Internal rotation, or turning the humerus about its vertical axis to the midline of the body
    • Flexion, moving the humerus backward
    • Extension, moving the humerus backward
    • Protraction, moving the scapula sideways and forward toward the front of the body
    • Adduction, moving the humerus inward toward the midline of the body

    Should You Train Chest Before Shoulders?

    Many wonder whether they should train chest muscles before shoulder muscles (or the other way round) — but the answer ultimately depends on your personal goals and workout preferences. Most fitness professionals advise working larger muscle groups, such as your pecs, before smaller muscles, such as your shoulders. [14] This is particularly true for muscle strength, whereas exercise order matters little for muscle hypertrophy. [15]

    The reason behind it is logical — fatigue is generated throughout a workout and movements/muscles that are trained early in a session are going to be fresher compared to if they’re trained later on. For example, we mentioned that the shoulder is a synergist in most pressing exercises, so if you work on your shoulders before chest day,  that can generate fatigue and reduce your performance in the chest portion of your workout.

    However, if you want to focus on the shoulder strength directly, it may be a good idea to put the multi-joint shoulder exercises before the chest movements.

    Should You Train Shoulder and Chest on the Same Day?

    Not only is it practical to train these two particular muscle groups together, but it’s unavoidable.

    While we typically try to isolate and target bigger muscle groups when we train, the reality is that we can’t always, as our body doesn’t work that way — some muscles will bear the brunt of the work in a particular exercise, but others are also engaged as “secondary muscles” that help us execute the movements. The shoulders are “secondary muscles” that assist movement in most chest exercises, like the bench press, for example, which is a chest workout that engages the triceps and shoulders.

    However, for complete development from a muscle hypertrophy perspective, the shoulders could benefit from exercises that target them specifically, such as the exercises and structured workouts we shared with you today.

    Recommended Chest and Shoulder Workout Frequency

    Frequency refers to how often a person exercises a particular muscle or muscle group in a given time frame. When it comes to building large muscle groups such as your chest, we suggest working on your chest at least twice on a weekly basis. However, many wonder whether there’s potential value in adding another chest and shoulder day.

    In general, as the frequency increases for a particular movement or muscle group, training volume typically increases. Given the dose-dependent relationship between training volume and exercise adaptations like strength and hypertrophy, it can be difficult to separate the effects of higher frequency from higher volume.

    For example, a recent meta-analysis reviewed 22 studies on exercise frequency and initially found that there was a graded dose-response relationship between training frequency and strength improvements. When volume was equated between the programs, however, no significant effects were found. Additionally, the studies included in the review that did have the same volume and only differed in training frequency did not show a significant effect on strength development. [16] Another study using machines found similar results, as training the chest press and hack squat 1-time per week produced the same hypertrophy and strength results as training the movements 3-times per week with the same total weekly volume. [17]

    These  data suggest exercise frequency doesn’t seem to matter unless it changes exercise volume. However, the data presented so far is limited to exercise sessions with volumes less than 10 to 12 sets per muscle group. Less than a handful of studies have looked at whether higher volume programs respond differently to altered exercise frequency, but the results don’t seem to indicate much of a benefit to increasing exercise frequency for strength or hypertrophy when the volume is greater than 10 to 12 sets per muscle group or movement. [18,19]

    Taken together, it remains to be seen if increasing the frequency of training independently of volume is more or less effective. We think sticking with  two chest and shoulder workouts per week is a good place to start for those running a body-part training split. [20]

    Safety Precautions to Adhere

    Let’s discuss a few important things you should keep in mind when planning your chest and shoulder workouts.

    1) Volume must be suitable for the individual

    Mixing different exercises and workout programs isn’t unheard of — but what’s challenging is finding the right exercises for each individual, which is key to ensuring that a workout regimen produces the anticipated results.

    For instance, if the training dose is higher than necessary, the trainee may experience too much muscle protein breakdown to actually boost muscle size (experience hypertrophy). You need a proper training dose for the muscle protein breakdown to be reduced so that muscle protein synthesis can help the muscles grow. [21, 22] Likewise, if the training dose is incorrect and the overall workout intensity or choice of exercises is wrong, then securing strength gains will be highly improbable. [23, 24, 25]

    2) Progressive loading is needed

    Hypertrophy training challenges our muscles consistently, and this is done through progressive overload. According to the “Progressive Overload” Principle, the body has to be exposed to increasingly intense training stimuli for improved fitness growth over time. As the various aspects of your fitness improve, the workout has to be modified to correspond to the newly acquired levels.

    That said, progressive overload is frequently misunderstood — this term doesn’t mean that the training has to become harder to keep producing results, as most people interpret it. This really isn’t the case, which is why we prefer using the term progressive loading.

    What this actually means is that you need to increase the weight and/or reps as your fitness and strength improve — by aligning the training to a person’s fitness level, we can ensure that the body gets the correct signal to modify its size and strength.

    Keep in mind that no workout will produce the same results forever. It goes without saying that at some point, you’ll stop seeing progress and feel like you’re plateauing. However, you can overcome this challenge with periodization and adequate planning. This basically means modifying your rep schemes, amount of sets, and selection of exercises every four to eight weeks or so based on your results and needs.

    3) Movement selection should be arbitrary

    It’s important to respect individual preferences when deciding which exercises trainees should pick. Each person’s way of exercising is unique, and so the results they may anticipate will be unique, too.

    It’s still worth noting that the more horizontal movements cause more chest excitation- a measure of electrical activity in the muscle group. In contrast, the more vertical movements cause more anterior deltoid excitation. Whether or not this changes hypertrophy outcomes between, say, an incline and a flat bench for the chest, is unclear.

    5) Allow your muscles to recuperate

    While strength training exercises are ideal for defining your muscles, they can also “damage” the muscle tissue if you overexert yourself. Such overexertion of your chest and shoulder muscles may lead to tears, which can prevent growth and put a halt to your progress.

    This is why allowing your muscles to recuperate is so significant. To prevent muscle soreness, devise a post-exercise recovery plan. This is key to muscle and tissue repair. Replacing lost fluids after your chest and shoulder workout routine also matters and can boost your recovery tremendously. [26]

    4) Consult a healthcare provider (optional)

    If you suffer from an injury, have a medical condition, or are unsure if it’s okay for you to start lifting weights, we suggest consulting a healthcare provider before beginning your chest and shoulder workout routine.

    While it is unlikely that they have the expertise in training to tell you how much weight to lift,  how many chest exercises you can do per workout, and so on, they should be able to clear you for exercise based on your current health status.

    Are There Specific Nutritional Guides That Aid Chest and Shoulder Development?

    Building a big upper chest and strong shoulders isn’t just about following a workout routine — nutrition plays a role, too. The amount of calories your body needs largely depends on your size, specifically the amount of lean body mass, but also your genetics and activity levels play a role.

    A range of different dietary patterns support improvements in health and performance. The current International Society of Sports Nutritionrecommends a calorie intake of ~25 to 35 calories per kilogram body weight per day, though athletes who are training more than three-to-four hours per week, and/or are involved in very strenuous training may require more to maintain their weight. We recommend using the NIH BW Planner for calculating a target energy intake. In the sections below, we discuss some special dietary macronutrient considerations for active individuals.

    Protein

    The current daily Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8-1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight so as to meet the nutritional requirements in healthy adults. [27] However, this claim has been recently challenged. New studies suggest that the RDA-recommended protein intake may be inadequate for those who regularly exercise, are losing weight, or are aging (read more here, here, here, and here). [28, 29, 30, 31]

    In the context of resistance training, a 2018 meta-analysis went over 49 studies including 1,863 subjects aimed to determine what level of protein intake is associated with the greatest improvements in strength and muscle mass. The study found that daily intakes of 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight optimized the outcomes of resistance training, including muscle hypertrophy and 1RM improvements. [32] For endurance athletes, a recent review recommends a similar protein daily dosage of 1.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. [33] These findings are supported by the 2019 International Association of Athletics Federations Consensus Statement. It further recommends that athletes maintaining or gaining weight should have a daily protein intake of 1.3-1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. [34]

    Proteins that should be part of your food regime if you’re lifting include eggs, chicken, fish, lean beef, tofu, Greek yogurt, and lentils.

    Additionally, protein supplements from whey, egg, soy, and peas can be useful to help you hit your protein targets. [35]

    Carbs

    For most individuals, carbohydrates represent nearly half of the calories consumed daily. [36] That said, recent evidence has suggested that low levels of dietary carbohydrate may impair muscle mass gain along with both strength and endurance performance, particularly in trained individuals. [37, 38]

    Based on the existing evidence, we do not recommend a very low carbohydrate diet for trained individuals aiming for significant improvements in muscular hypertrophy or strength. On the other hand, a low-carb diet may be a reasonable choice for those new to exercise training who are trying to lose weight. There is likely minimal risk of impairing muscle gain in these individuals, particularly when compared to the substantial benefits of reducing fat mass and improving dietary patterns. We recommend ~3 to 5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of total body weight per day as a starting point for carbohydrate intake.

    Healthy carbohydrate options include fruits, vegetables, rice, quinoa, oats, beans, and potatoes. 

    Fat

    Fats are the second major energy source for most humans, representing about a third of total daily energy intake on average. [36] Food sources rich in fats include oils, butter, certain animal meats, fish, dairy products, eggs, nuts, and avocados, among others.

    The specific amount of daily fat intake does not carry a ton of significance provided that other components of a health-promoting dietary pattern are in place. However, the types of fat you consume can have a significant impact on health and performance. [39]

    For example, foods consisting mostly of unsaturated fats, e.g., those from marine and plant sources, tend to be more health-promoting than those rich in saturated fat, particularly those from red meat consumed at relatively high levels. For more on this, check out our articles on red meat and cholesterol. [40]

    We recommend that most individuals start at a fat intake of 0.5 to 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of total bodyweight per day. Healthy fats you want in your diet can include nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocado, fatty fish, walnuts, and vegetable oils.

    Final Thoughts

    Working on your chest and shoulders together through the compound exercises we shared today will help you build size and strength and ensure you’re also providing stimulus for the lateral and posterior deltoid, parts of the shoulder that aren’t necessarily engaged in other chest exercises. However, we also encourage you to check out our training programs if you’re looking for a more structured approach that can help you maximize results.

    Finally, you can also choose a custom program working alongside one of our coaches, who will devise a workout plan for you based on your priorities, limitations, and fitness goals.

    Need further reassurance that we’re the right fit for you? See for yourself. Log onto our forum or follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also check out our podcast or educational YouTube videos. The proof is in the pudding!

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