Strong shoulders not only help you fill out a T-shirt and look great from a physique standpoint but also allow you to increase your bench press and overhead press weights, improve your ability in exercises like swimming and rowing, and will help provide more stability to your upper body to reduce the risk of injuries in your strength training workouts.
But what are the best shoulder exercises? How should you structure shoulder weightlifting workouts for mass and strength gains?
In this article, we will discuss how to structure good shoulder workouts and give you with step-by-step instructions for how to perform the following best shoulder exercises that target all of the major shoulder muscles:
- Barbell Overhead Presses
- Kettlebell Half-Kneeling Bottoms Up Presses
- Half-Kneeling Landmine Presses
- Dumbbell Alternating Forward and Lateral Raises
- Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Presses
- Push Presses
- Arnold Presses
Let’s dive in!
How to Structure Shoulder Workouts
The shoulders are composed primarily of the deltoids and the rotator cuff muscles. There are three heads of the deltoid muscles: the anterior deltoid, middle deltoid, and posterior deltoid.
Shoulder workouts that include exercises that occur in different planes of motion and at different angles will help target each of these three portions of the deltoid muscles to improve overall functional shoulder strength and muscle definition.
When performing shoulder workouts to increase strength, build up to doing 2-6 sets per exercise, 3-5 reps per set, and at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should aim for with your weights.
If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth), try to perform three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.
The 7 Best Shoulder Exercises
Here are some of the best shoulder strengthening exercises to include in your shoulder workouts:
#1: Barbell Overhead Presses
Overhead presses are a staple in all good shoulder workouts, as they allow you to target all three heads of your deltoid muscles and load up your shoulders with more weight to maximize strength and hypertrophy gains.
The barbell overhead press is a particularly effective shoulder-strengthening exercise because the barbell lends itself well to maximizing the load that you use relative to individual dumbbells or kettlebells.
There is more stability in a barbell for bilateral shoulder exercises.
Here are the steps for how to perform this one of our shoulder weight exercises:
- Stand in the squat rack with the bar just below shoulder level.
- Grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing forward.
- Engage your core and glutes as you unrack the barbell and slowly lower it down to your upper traps with control. Do not hyperextend your back. Keep your core and glutes tight to maintain proper posture with your chest up.
- Powerfully press the bar back up overhead, keeping the back of your head out of the way and using a path of motion that is slightly tilted backward by retracting your shoulder blades.
#2: Kettlebell Half-Kneeling Bottoms Up Presses
This is a great exercise for your shoulders, core, arms, and upper back.
It also improves your grip strength.
Here are the steps to perform this one of our kettlebell shoulder exercises:
- Kneel down with your body upright, your core tight, chest up, and glutes engaged.
- Swing your right leg forward so that it’s in front of your body like a forward lunge with your thigh parallel to the floor, knee bent 90 degrees, shin vertical, and foot flat on the floor.
- With the kettlebell in your left hand, bring the weight up to shoulder level, holding the horn of the bell down in your palm and the weight facing upwards towards the ceiling. Grip as tightly as possible to keep the weight stable.
- Keeping your glutes tight, your spine completely upright, and your abs engaged, press the kettlebell straight up overhead without tilting or leaning your body in any direction. Your hips should stay parallel to the floor.
- Slowly lower the kettlebell back to shoulder height.
- Complete 6-12 reps on one side, and then switch leg positions and bring the kettlebell to your right side.
#3: Half-Kneeling Landmine Presses
The overhead press is certainly a staple in the best shoulder workouts. However, it can be really tough on your shoulders and requires a high degree of both mobility and stability in your shoulders in order to perform it safely and comfortably.
The half-kneeling unilateral landmine press is a great alternative exercise for shoulder workouts when you have shoulder instability or joint pain or you just want to train your shoulders with a different pressing variation.
The arc of motion combines a vertical and horizontal path, which reduces the stress on your shoulder joint while still allowing you to target most of the muscle fibers in your deltoids.
Because you are in the half kneeling posture, you will also improve your core strength, as this is a great anti-rotational core exercise as much as it is a shoulder strengthening exercise.
Here are the steps:
- Come down onto the floor so that you are in the half-kneeling position with your right foot forward and your left knee kneeling on the ground. Your right foot should be flat on the floor, and your knees bent to 90°.
- Hold the landmine barbell at shoulder height in the left hand with your elbow bent.
- Explosively press the barbell up at a 45° angle rather than straight up.
- Extend your shoulder and elbow fully so that you are in the lockout position before slowly returning to the starting position.
- Complete all of your reps and then switch sides.
#4: Dumbbell Alternating Forward and Lateral Raises
This is a great exercise for your deltoids.
Here are the steps:
- Stand upright with good posture, with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms down by your sides.
- Keeping your core tight, lift your arms straight up to the sides so that your body forms a letter T.
- At the top position, your palms should be facing the floor.
- Slowly lower your arms back down.
- Then, bring your arms in front of your body, lifting them up so that they are again parallel to the floor in the end position but this time in front of your chest rather than out to the sides.
- Slowly lower back down.
- Continue alternating between forward and lateral raises.
#5: Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Presses
Many people perform shoulder presses while standing, but doing the exercise in the seated position reduces the likelihood of inadvertent “cheating.“ You cannot use any momentum from your legs.
Moreover, because this is a dumbbell shoulder exercise rather than a barbell exercise, you are forced to work each shoulder individually, which can improve unilateral shoulder strength and stability.
Note that you can vary the pressing angle somewhat, which will help target different muscle fibers in your deltoid.
For example, if you press straight up, you will work your middle deltoids. Pressing slightly forward will help better activate the anterior deltoid, and pressing slightly back behind your ears will recruit more of your posterior deltoid muscle fibers.
Here are the steps to perform this one of our shoulder exercises:
- Sit upright on a weight bench with your back supported, core engaged, and dumbbells up at shoulder level. Your palms should be facing away from your body.
- Keeping your core tight, press the weights all the way up straight overhead until your elbows are fully locked out.
- Slowly lower the weights back down.
#6: Push Presses
The push press exercise combines the shoulder pressing motion with a lower body push.
This allows you to lift more weight because you can capitalize on the triple extension power of your ankles, knees, and hips.
Not only will this help maximize increases in strength and muscle mass from your shoulder workouts, but it also is a functional movement pattern that will translate well to many athletic activities, both in the weight room and in other sports.
Here are the steps:
- Place the barbell on your upper trap with the same grip and body position you would use as if performing a barbell overhead press.
- Bend your knees and hips to do a mini squat, lowering your body by about 4 to 6 inches.
- Push your chest and shoulders upwards as you press through your feet to straighten your legs back up to the standing position while powerfully pressing the barbell up, using the momentum from your legs.
- Press the barbell up until the full lockout position, pausing at the top of the movement.
- Slowly lower the way back down to the starting position before beginning the next rep.
#7: Arnold Presses
Even if you are relatively new to weightlifting and have limited knowledge of the top bodybuilders and strength-training athletes, there’s a good chance that you are familiar with the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger, for whom this shoulder exercise was named.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is one of the best shoulder weight exercises for hypertrophy.
The large range of motion increases your time under tension, and the arc of movement for this shoulder weightlifting exercise works through all three planes of motion.
This, in turn, makes this a highly effective exercise to target all three heads of the deltoid muscles while improving shoulder strength, stability, and mobility.
Here are the steps for how to perform this shoulder hypertrophy exercise:
- Sit upright with good posture, lift a dumbbell and each hand up to shoulder height, turning your hands until your palms are facing your body as if in the end position of a biceps curl.
- As you explosively press the dumbbells upward as if performing a regular shoulder press, you will simultaneously rotate your wrists so that your palms are facing away from your body.
- Press all the way up until you are in the full lockout position.
- Pause, squeeze your shoulders, and then lower the weights as slowly as possible, reversing the motion so that your palms are back facing your face at the end range of motion.
Use these awesome shoulder exercises to help you build the best shoulder workouts for strength and hypertrophy!
Before you get started on our best shoulder workout for strength, be sure to try out our shoulder warm-up routine.