7 Best Shoulder Exercises You Need to Be Doing

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We’ve all heard the term boulder shoulders. Or we’ve come across a comment on a picture of someone with shredded shoulders stating,

Damn, look at those pumpkins.

A strong, shredded set of shoulders is something that is admired. It makes your upper body look stronger, bigger, and more complete.

Moving beyond the aesthetic benefits of a great set of delts, your shoulders are an important muscle group that assists you in a variety of lifts. Building strong shoulders will not only give you that boulder-like look, but also make you stronger in your other lifts including chest and bicep movements.

Your shoulder muscle group, or deltoids, is made up of three heads: the anterior, middle, and posterior head. The anterior head makes up the front part of your deltoids, the medial head is a combination of your middle and side deltoids, and the posterior head makes up the rear part of your deltoids.

When lifting on your shoulder day or upper body day it’s important to perform exercises that target each one of these heads within your shoulder muscle group. People tend to forget about training the rear deltoids and only focus on developing their front, mid, and side deltoids. By forgetting to train the posterior head your shoulders aren’t going to develop properly and your upper body will develop a hunched, pushed-forward look.

Dumbbell Press

7 Shoulder Exercises You Need to be Doing

In order to avoid this Quasimodo-type shoulder look and build sculpted, round shoulders you need to train each muscle head equally and with the same intensity. These 7 shoulder exercises will help you develop the set of shoulders you’ve always wanted.

#1 – Arnold Press

The name says it all. A movement popularized by one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. This exercise was a staple in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shoulder training and it should be in yours also.

Similar to a seated dumbbell military press, this movement targets all three heads in the shoulder.

Set yourself up on an upright bench with your dumbbells as you would with a military press. Instead of starting with the weights raised and at the side of your head, turn your palms in, facing towards you, with the weight near the top of your chest/front shoulder area.

Push the dumbbells up and out, turning your wrist and arms, so that the finish position of the rep is the same as a standard military press. Raise the weight down, turning your arms and wrist again, towards your front shoulder area.

You’ll use a weight lighter than you would a normal dumbbell military press, but the burn and intensity you feel in your shoulders through this exercise will let you know your shoulders are growing.

#2 – Seated/Standing Barbell Press (Behind the Neck)

The barbell press is a fundamental movement for building stronger shoulders. If you’re not doing these then you need to add this exercise to your training regimen immediately.

A compound movement targeting all three heads in your shoulders, the barbell press can be performed seated or standing and in front or behind your head. Depending on if you are performing this lift seated or standing you should use a military press bench or set up the hooks in a squat rack at shoulder height.

Grab the bar at shoulder width and push the weight up above your head. When lowering the weight bring the bar down behind your head to near ear-level then push the weight back up.

If your joints can’t handle the behind the neck movement or it doesn’t feel right to you then move the barbell to your front and perform the exercise by bringing the weight down to around your mouth/chin area and push the weight back up.

This can be a difficult lift to get the form correct so start light until you feel comfortable with the mechanics of the lift.

Cable Laterals#3 – Lateral Side Raise (On Cable Machine)

Add some variation to your dumbbell lateral side raises by performing side raises on a cable machine.

Attach a D-bar handle to the bottom of the cable machine. With your other arm you can grab a pole or handle that’s part of the cable machine or put your arm behind your body to stabilize yourself. Raise the weight up and lower back down.

This exercise will focus on strengthening your medial head, developing your middle and side deltoids.

#4 – Bent Over Back Pulls

Bent back pulls focus on building strength in your rear delts. You can perform this exercise with or without in incline bench.

If using an incline bench put the bench at a medium incline then sit down with your chest up against the incline area as if you were sitting in a chair backwards. Let the dumbbells hang down below you with your thumbs facing each other.

Without a bench, start this exercise by picking up your dumbbells and bending your knees. Bend down, keeping your back flat, as you would with bent over rows or dead lifts, and let the dumbbells hang below.

With both variations of this exercise you will keep your arms at a 90 degree angle as you pull them straight back, squeezing the top rear portion of your shoulders then back down for one repetition. Make sure you’re pulling the weight up towards the top of your upper body during the pull-back movement and not pulling the weight down towards the middle of your body.

#5 – Cable Upright Rows (With Rope or Straight Bar Attachment)

Upright rows are normally performed with a barbell or an EZ bar, but they can also be done on a cable machine. Upright rows are going to target your traps, but will also target your middle and rear deltoid muscles.

Using the cable machine adds some variety to the exercise by keeping the muscle under tension. It’s a way to hit the upright row exercise in a different way and also helps take stress off your lower back compared to upright barbell rows.

Attach a rope handle or straight bar attachment to the bottom of the cable machine. If using the rope attachment you’ll pull in and out as you pull the weight up. If using the straight bar attachment use a wider grip to engage your rear delts a little more.

#6 – Face Pulls (Rope Attachment)

Another great exercise focused on hitting your rear deltoids, face pulls use the cable machine to keep constant tension on your rear delts through the exercise.

Raise or lower the cable handle so the attachment piece is about eye-level and attach the rope handle. Stand up straight facing the attachment and pull the rope towards the middle of your face until your hands and near the sides of your head.

Don’t let the cable snap back into place. Control the weight as you release the cable back to starting position and continue.

Dumbbell Press

#7 – Plate Raises

The name of the exercise is pretty straight-forward, right? Grab a plate and raise it. But, it’s not that simple.

Pick up a plated weight and grab it on each side. Hold it below you just above your knees. When performing this exercise keep your core tight, your knees slightly bent, and a slight bend in your elbow as you don’t want your arms locked out. Raise the weight up to just above eye level then back down slowly.

If you’re rocking your body back and forth to get the weight up then the weight you are using is too heavy. This exercise will target your front deltoids.

Build Your Boulders

Now that you have the exercises it’s time to start sculpting. On your shoulder day I’d recommend, at the least, performing one of the compound movements like the barbell press or Arnold press accompanied with one isolation exercise for each head.

So, an example shoulder workout would include barbell press, plate raises, cable lateral raises, and bent over back pulls.

Hitting each head equally will build and strengthen your shoulders properly. It’s only fitting that you bring in this new fall season with a set of pumpkin-spiced shoulders.

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Name: Brently Rousset

Bio: Born, raised, and currently residing in beautiful San Diego, CA, I've been around some form of fitness almost my entire life. My mom was an aerobics teacher at the local gym when I was in elementary school through middle school. My dad had a full home gym in the garage and raced mountain bikes professionally through my high school years. My parents engrained the importance of health and fitness into me from a young age. I started playing soccer in my elementary days only to leave it behind for my true loves of basketball and surfing.