Best Shoulder Exercises

Barbell Medicine
March 19, 2024
Reading Time: 18 minutes
Table of Contents

    Not only do strong, broad shoulders look impressive, but training your shoulder muscles is important for performance both inside and outside the gym. Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or just starting your fitness journey, this article will guide you through effective shoulder exercises to achieve your goals.

    Our current exercise favorites include the overhead presses, high incline dumbbell bench presses, upright rows, 1-arm cable lateral raises, bent-over rear delt flyes, and face pulls.

    We’ll go through each exercise in detail, but let’s cover some shoulder anatomy first.

    Shoulder Anatomy

    The shoulder is a socket-type joint that consists of several ligaments and muscles such as the clavicle, scapula, humerus, and sternum. The shoulder complex also includes four joints, the glenohumeral (GH) joint, the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, the sternoclavicular (SC) joint, and a “floating joint”, known as the scapulothoracic (ST) joint.

    The articular structures of the shoulder complex, more specifically, the GH joint, are primarily intended for mobility, allowing the biggest range of motion of any other joint. [1,2]

    Best Shoulder Exercises

    • Overhead Press
    • High Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
    • Upright Rows
    • 1-arm Cable Lateral Raises
    • Bent Over Rear Delt Flyes
    • Face Pulls

    Like other muscles, training the shoulders from multiple angles through relatively large ranges of motion is likely the best approach.

    When it comes to how many shoulder exercises you should perform, the answer depends on your current fitness level, your goals, and what type of split you’re doing.

    Training can be organized in many different ways, such as in a full-body split, body-part split, or movement-pattern splits. There’s no one best split. Rather, it’s the weekly dose of training (volume, average intensity) and the individual’s personal preference that matter most. Having a “shoulder” day is an example of a body-part split, whereas having a “push” day is an example of a movement-pattern split.

    We recommend starting with two upper body “push” exercises per day, one compound (multi-joint) and one isolation (single joint) exercise if using a full-body training split. These would be shoulder-focused exercises, like those discussed below, or chest-focused exercises. If using a body-part split with a dedicated shoulder, push, or press day, we recommend picking one primary exercise, one or two secondary exercises, and one or two tertiary exercises depending on your needs. These could be evenly split between chest- and shoulder-focused exercises or all of one depending on your preferences and goals.

    Here are our recommendations for a layout that would be similar for most lifters, beginner or advanced:

    1. Train your larger muscles first;
    2. Start with compound lifts and move to isolation later
    3. The biggest difference is going to be volume, as more experienced lifters will tend to need more volume (sets) to drive hypertrophy and strength.

    1) Overhead Press

    Overhead Press

    Movement category: Primary

    Programming: 3 to 5 sets of 4 to 6 repetitions.

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

    The overhead press (also known as the shoulder press or even military press) is an exercise performed by individuals pressing a weight overhead while seated or standing.

    Both the seated and standing versions load the anterior deltoid while recruiting the middle head of the deltoid, the triceps, pec major, trapezius, and trunk (core) as secondary muscles. The seated option, however, doesn’t load the abs and lower back nearly as much. Either is a fine choice for beginners and veteran trainees alike, as picking one variation is mostly up to personal preference.

    You can do the overhead press seated or standing, with dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, or even a machine. Research shows similar levels of electrical activity in the shoulders using different implements. [3]

    The instructions we provide below are relevant to both the seated and standing versions of the overhead press with a barbell.

    How to do the overhead press:

    • Set the barbell in the J- hooks of a power rack, level with your upper chest, just at shoulder level.
    • Grab the bar with a double overhand grip with a shoulder-width grip. The hands should be just at the start of the knurling.
    • With the bar resting deep in your palm, wrists extended slightly, and a tight grip, position your chest and shoulders under the barbell to the bar off the rack.
    • Lift the bar off the J-hooks using your body. Take one step back with each leg into a shoulder-width stance. Keep your chest tall and elbows rotated up, in front of the barbell from the side view.
    • Take a big breath and hold it, squeezing your trunk tightly.
    • Initiate the press by pushing up with your hands, aiming to move the bar upwards and slightly backwards. Keep your chin tucked back so the bar has room to move. “Aim the bar for the tip of your nose” is a cue that may be helpful here.
    • Press the bar to lockout directly over the shoulder joint. Lower it slowly back down to the shoulders. That’s one repetition.
    • Your knees should remain locked throughout the range of motion.

    If using dumbbells, we recommend using a seated variation to make getting the dumbbells up to the shoulders to start the movement a bit easier. In the seated dumbbell version, hold the dumbbell vertically on your leg and “kick” the weight up to your shoulders. Alternatively, asking a spotter to help you get the weight up to the start position is common in the gym setting.

    2) High Incline DB Bench Press

    Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

    Movement category: Secondary

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

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

    This exercise is a free-weight exercise that trains your chest, triceps, and shoulders. In general, the anterior head of the deltoid and upper aspect of the pec major are loaded more the closer to vertical the angle of the incline bench is. The opposite is generally true as well, with the middle and lower aspects of the pec major being loaded more and the anterior head of the deltoid being loaded less the closer the angle of the bench is to horizontal or even decline. [4,5]

    Equipment-wise, you need dumbbells and an incline bench (incline at 45-60 degrees relative to the floor).

    How to do the high incline DB bench press: 

    • Grab the dumbbells and sit on an incline bench.
    • Position the dumbbells vertically on top of your legs. Then, slowly lie back and “kick” each dumbbell up to your chest using one leg at a time. This is the start position.
    • Keeping your shoulders pulled back into the bench, push the dumbbells up until the elbows are straight. This is the finish position.
    • Lower the dumbbells back down to your chest until they are back at the start position.
    • That’s one rep.

    3) Upright Rows

     Upright Rows

    Movement category: Tertiary

    Programming: 2 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

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

    Upright rows are great for building strength in the shoulders and upper back. They are often categorized as a “pull” exercise, as they require the biceps, trapezius, and muscles of the upper back to contribute in addition to the deltoid.

    While the upright row is a somewhat popular exercise due to the training effects on the shoulders and trapezius muscles, some have suggested that performing the exercise may increase the risk of shoulder “impingement”. [6]

    Shoulder impingement classically refers to the rotator cuff and/or subacromial bursa being irritated in the subacromial space, e.g. between the acromion of the scapula and the head of the humerus. Now, shoulder impingement is defined as a spectrum of clinical findings involving shoulder pain and dysfunction, not injury to specific anatomy.  [7]

    If you have shoulder pain already, consider getting in touch with us. Our coaching team includes physicians and rehab specialists who can help you get back on track as soon as possible

    In any case, upright rows aren’t uniquely dangerous to the shoulders. We recommend starting conservatively with load and volume and progressively loading yourself over time.

    In terms of equipment, you need a barbell or a couple of dumbbells, and both are said to be effective.

    How to do the upright row:

    • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Pick up the barbell with a double overhand grip with a narrow grip at the center of the barbell and extended elbows.
    • Take a deep breath, and brace your core, keeping your chest up and your eyes looking forward.
    • Lift the barbell upwards towards your chin with your elbows high and out to the side. Keep the bar close to the body during the movement. The top of the rep is right at about the level of your collarbone.
    • From here, lower the weight slowly and control until your elbows are extended and you’re back at the start position. That’s one rep. 

    We advise you to aim for a controlled tempo and full range of motion. You may also use wrist straps to prevent grip fatigue from being the limiting factor.

    4) 1-arm Cable Lateral Raises

    1-Arm Cable Lateral Raise

    Movement category: tertiary

    Programming: 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 0 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 10.

    The 1-arm cable lateral raise is an isolation (single-joint) exercise done on the low cable pulley with a single-hand attachment. It’s a great movement for training the lateral or “middle” deltoid, as well as muscles of the rotator cuff like the infraspinatus and subscapularis. [9]

    This exercise can also be done with dumbbells, but we prefer the cable variation if available, as it requires the shoulder to create more tension during the initial part of the range of motion due to the resistance of the machine. Like other isolation exercises, they can be done for relatively high volume and closer to failure without generating too much fatigue. By doing more volume without generating too much fatigue, it is likely that fitness adaptations like strength will improve.  [10]

    How to do 1-arm cable lateral raises:

    • Choose a moderate weight that allows you to perform the prescribed reps with one arm. 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.
    • Stand next to the pulley machine adjusted to the lowest setting with a shoulder-width stance.
    • Grab the handle attached to the low pulley and stand up straight.  Put your free hand on the machine for balance and to prevent extra movement.
    • With a 10- to 20-degree bend in your elbow, raise your arm out to the side until it’s at the level of the shoulder, parallel to the floor.
    • Don’t rotate your arm while pulling the handle upward.
    • Lower the weight back to your side, maintaining the slight bend in the elbow. That’s one repetition.

    5) Bent Over Rear Delt Flyes

    Bent Over Rear Delt Flyes

    Movement category: tertiary

    Programming: 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 0 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 10

    The bent-over rear delt flye is an isolation exercise for the shoulder joint. However, the movement targets more than a single muscle group. It works the rear or posterior deltoids, which help in lifting the arm and externally rotating the humerus, as well as in stabilization.  [11]  Rear delt flyes also load the lateral or middle deltoids. [12,13]

    Similar to the 1-arm lateral cable lateral raise, the dumbbell bent-over rear delt flyes typically use lighter weights so you can perform them relatively strictly with a large range of motion. 

    To do the exercise, you need dumbbells.

    How to do bent-over rear delt flyes:

    • Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand tall. Place both feet about hip-width apart.
    • Hinge over at the hip. Your torso should be relatively horizontal.  Your arms should be hanging vertically with your elbows bent slightly.
    • Keeping your elbows slightly flexed, pull the weights up and out to your sides in an arcing motion until your arms are nearly horizontal or parallel to the floor.
    • Squeeze your upper back at the top of the movement for a moment, then lower the dumbbells to return to the starting position.

    To target your rear delts, keep your torso relatively still during the movement. This exercise can also be done seated, hinging over at the hips at the end on a bench.

    6) Face pulls

    Face Pulls

    Movement category: tertiary

    Programming: 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 0 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 10

    A compound exercise performed on a machine, the face pull is primarily used to train the posterior deltoid muscles, the external rotators of the arm, and the trapezius. [14]

    Face pulls are usually considered an accessory movement to offset all the exercises normally prioritizing the anterior deltoid and chest. While there is no data to support a specific “push to pull” ratio or to confirm that face pulls are uniquely beneficial, targeting the rear deltoids directly with this and similar exercises does seem to provide a good training stimulus to the posterior deltoids and upper back muscles while using relatively light weights, likely reducing the amount of training fatigue generated.

    Equipment-wise, you need a cable pulley machine to do face pulls.

    Face Pull Instructions:

    • Adjust the cable pulley machine so that the pulley system is positioned just above your head. Use the rope attachment with two hand-holds to do the exercise.
    • Grab the handles with your hands and your palms facing in. Take a step back until both arms are completely stretched out, then engage your core and lean back a bit (your body should be positioned at an approximately 20-degree angle).
    • Pull the rope toward you as much as necessary to begin lifting the weight from the stack. Engage both shoulders — roll them back to ensure proper posture (avoid having them hunched or rolled forward). This is the beginning position.
    • Pull the handles toward your forehead.
    • Flare your elbows outward to the sides of your body to engage your rear delts.
    • Reverse the movement and gradually stretch both arms without letting your chest or shoulders roll forward as you stretch.

    Make sure to focus on using a controlled tempo and on the squeeze at the end of the range of motion.

    Benefits of Exercising Your Shoulders

    Increased Physical Strength

    Strength can broadly be defined as the ability to produce maximum force against an external resistance at a specific velocity in a specific context. Strength improves through neurological (such as motor unit firing rate and synchronization) and morphological (such as pennation angle, size, and fiber type) adaptations, which are specific to training. In other words, an improvement in “shoulder strength” on a particular test like an overhead press 1-rep max (1RM) is likely to be proportional to how similar the training is to a 1RM overhead press. More exposure to heavy loads on the overhead press will likely improve 1RM to a greater degree than lighter loads on a dumbbell bench press, for example.

    Nonetheless, we shouldn’t limit our definition of muscle strength to a muscle group’s capacity to exert its maximum force during a single exercise. As muscles adapt to training, strength training has been shown to increase force production broadly, e.g. high-speed strength (power), sustained muscular strength (endurance), and more. [15,16] We predict that the improvement in various tests of strength will be proportional to how similar (or not) the training is.

    Muscle Hypertrophy

    Most studies describe muscular hypertrophy as an increase in the total mass of a muscle, whereas atrophy is a reduction. The skeletal muscle fiber count in humans is believed to be mostly fixed during the first year of life. Each muscle is composed of thousands to hundreds of thousands (or more) of muscle fibers. [17]

    While the theory that humans undergo hyperplasia — an increase in the number of muscle fibers — is a topic of much discussion, research indicates that the overwhelming majority of increased muscle mass in humans is due to an increase in the size of muscle fibers. [18,19,20]

    When muscle protein synthesis surpasses muscle protein breakdown over an extended length of time, the mass and size of the muscle fiber increase. Although it might seem that muscular injury is necessary for muscle growth, hypertrophy doesn’t seem to happen until muscle protein synthesis increases and muscle protein breakdown is reduced. [21,22] Meaning, hypertrophy is delayed until the person adjusts to it. That might not occur at all if the training dose is much too high.

    Strength training can lead to significant increases in muscle size when done correctly, especially in people new to lifting weights. However, it’s unlikely to enhance muscle size as much as a hypertrophy-focused program.

    Lower Risk of Injuries

    Resistance exercise has been associated with a lower risk of injury, likely through improved strength and exposure to dynamic movements [23] Additionally, strength training can reduce the progression of and risk of developing osteoporosis, a condition defined by reduced bone mineral density. [24] Resistance training is especially useful earlier on in life in vulnerable populations, such as women, but it can also be useful later in life, which takes us to our next topic.

    Healthy Aging

    Exercise reduces the burden of and risk of developing a number of chronic illnesses,  which can help to support aging. Apart from that, one of the most common crippling conditions linked to joint pain is osteoarthritis, for which resistance training is highly beneficial. The hands, hips, and knees are areas typically affected in middle-aged and older individuals suffering from this condition.

    Even in individuals with advanced stages of osteoarthritis, strength training often results in clinically significant gains in muscular strength, functional capacity, and pain scores. [25] Moreover, it seems that starting to lift earlier not only mitigates the loss of strength caused by osteoarthritis but also delays or even stops the advancement of the condition. [26]

    Lower Risk of Illnesses

    Frequent exercise has been associated with a lower risk of numerous diseases, including type II diabetes, certain types of cancer, and heart disease. [27]

    By increasing muscular mass and strength through exercise, one can lower their blood pressure and cholesterol and minimize major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

    Mental Health Benefits

    Regularly lifting weights is said to lower the likelihood of individuals developing symptoms connected to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Interestingly, the effects happen irrespective of whether a trainee gets stronger or not —- it’s a mechanism that seems to be mostly related to participation. [28,29]

    Furthermore, strength training has been shown to improve sleep quality, which is advantageous, as getting enough sleep is necessary to preserve mental health. [30]

    Weight Maintenance

    Weight lifting has been confirmed to reduce waist circumference by decreasing abdominal fat. [31] It has also been suggested that exercise increases a person’s sensitivity to fullness during eating, which helps with weight loss and management. [32]

    Lifting weights may also help weight management by building more muscle and burning more calories overall. For example, most of us are familiar with the idea that more muscle burns more calories, thereby increasing an individual’s metabolism. However, the difference is actually not that significant because gaining muscle mass doesn’t dramatically change your resting metabolic rate.

    To put things into perspective, consider this: 1 kg muscle requires approximately 13 calories per day, but 1 kg fat requires four to five calories per day. [33] So in practice, one needs to put on a lot of muscle mass if they want to see a significant change in one’s daily energy consumption. It typically takes years to gain ten kilograms, and gaining that weight would only result in a daily increase in energy expenditure of about 100 calories.

    An additional mechanism often associated with weight management is the phenomenon known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. The phrase refers to the higher oxygen consumption that rising energy demands require. Increased EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) from lifting regimens is said to reduce abdominal adipose tissue or belly fat. EPOC refers to the excess energy required for muscle repair and remodeling following exercise. [34] Increases in muscle protein synthesis ratios during the post-exercise recovery period have been confirmed to reflect a significant surge in resting energy expenditure. [35]

    The volume, intensity, and quantity of muscle mass used in resistance exercise often rise along with the energy used during EPOC. Furthermore, it is said that untrained people have higher EPOC than trained people.

    The reasoning for this is that several complex metabolic processes are altered in experienced trainees that increase their efficiency. [36,37] It’s unknown if EPOC increases the overall number of calories burned in a day, or the total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), but the current research suggests that the overall energy contribution of EPOC to TDEE is fairly small. [38]

    Overall, resistance training aids in weight management by relatively complex mechanisms that affect the brain, endocrine system, muscles, and other body parts. Together, these processes typically result in reduced weight regain, lower body fat, and increased muscle mass. 

    Improved Physique

    A lot of people start exercising only because of aesthetic reasons. If you fall into that category of trainee, working out your shoulders has the potential to increase the size of those muscles and dramatically alter your upper body’s appearance.

    Increased Endurance

    Resistance training is said to boost endurance performance. A study by the University of Athens found that endurance athletes who engaged in weight training and endurance workouts experienced a 12.9% increase in VO2 max. Conversely, those who solely engaged in endurance training saw gains in their VO2 max of only 6.8%. [39]

    Final Thoughts

    To sum up, the best shoulder exercises include:

    • Overhead Press
    • High Incline DB Bench Press
    • Upright rows
    • 1-arm cable lateral raises
    • Bent over rear delt flyes
    • Face pulls

    Shoulder exercises are great for building your upper body, but those who want to take things further should consider joining some of our more extensive training programs. You can sign up for our email list to take advantage of our 5% off first-order offer, and enjoy being part of the growing Barbell Medicine family.


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    Barbell Medicine
    The Barbell Medicine Website Editorial Team consists of Fitness, Health, Nutrition, and Strength Training experts. Our Team is led by Jordan Feigenbaum, MD, an elite competitive powerlifter, health educator, and fitness & strength coach.

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