The 10 best shoulder exercises for building muscle – Complete guide

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Millions of people are going to the gym day in and day out to create the ultimate physique. That ultimate physique is usually the v-taper look. What that means are broad shoulders and a small waist. That is why you should never neglect any shoulder part. In this article, I’m going over EVERYTHING you need to know about building shoulder muscle, from the best shoulder exercises to the front deltoids to the rear delts, side delts so on, plus the number of reps, sets, and the weight you should use. If that sounds interesting keep on reading.

Failure to broaden out up top will mean that no matter how many sit-ups you do or how many inches you loose from your waist, you’re not going to be able to carve out that coveted V-shape. To get that, you need shoulder exercises.

What are the muscles in the shoulder called?

The shoulder muscles consist of the Deltoids and the Rotator Cuff Group. The Deltoids are the muscles that can be seen on the outside of the body, whilst the Rotator Cuff Group is found within the shoulder joint itself, providing structural support and allowing the shoulder to perform many functions.

The shoulder joint itself can be considered as the most mobile joint on the human body. It allows for flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, rotation, and circumduction. Whilst this allows the shoulder to move in almost any range of motion, it also proves that the shoulder is especially susceptible to injury, if the muscles are not trained correctly and efficiently!

 

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Levator scapulae

The levator scapulae muscles are superficial extrinsic muscles of the back that primarily function to elevate the scapulae. Levator comes from the Latin levare, meaning “to raise.” Scapulae refer to the scapulas, or shoulder blades.

The primary action of the levator scapulae is to elevate the scapula. The levator scapula works in conjunction with the trapezius and rhomboid muscles to accomplish this motion

Deltoids

The deltoids are made up in 3 parts, the anterior, lateral and posterior.

Previous studies showed that the insertions of the tendons of the deltoid muscle parts formed three discrete sets of muscle fibers, often referred to as “heads”:

1. The anterior or clavicular fibers arise from most of the anterior border and upper surface of the lateral third of the clavicle. The anterior origin lies adjacent to the lateral fibers of the pectoralis major muscle as do the end tendons of both muscles. These muscle fibers are closely related and only a small chiasmatic space, through which the cephalic vein passes, prevents the two muscles from forming a continuous muscle mass

  • The anterior deltoids are commonly called front delts for short.
  • Intermediate or acromial fibers arise from the superior surface of the acromion process of the scapula.
  • They are mistakenly commonly called lateral deltoid. This muscle is also called middle delts, outer delts, or side delts for short.
  • They are also mistakenly called medial deltoid, which is wrong, as their origin is the least medial portion of the deltoid. Posterior or spinal fibers arise from the lower lip of the posterior border of the spine of the scapula.
  • They are commonly called posterior deltoid or rear deltoid (rear delts for short)

Trapezius

Your trapezius is the triangle-shaped muscle that runs down along your spine and across your shoulder blade. You have both a right and left trapezius; these muscles support your arms and shoulders, and are needed to raise your arms.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi muscle is one of the largest muscles in your back, and is partially covered by the trapezius. Developing your “lats” will make it easier for you to manage your own bodyweight.

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Remaining small shoulder muscles

  • Infraspinatus: This rotator cuff muscle helps with the raising and lowering of the upper arm.
  • Triceps brachii: This large muscle in the back of the upper arm helps straighten the arm.
  • Pectoralis major: This large fan-shaped muscle stretches from the armpit up to the collarbone and down across the lower chest region. It connects to the sternum (breastbone).
  • Pectoralis minor: The smaller of the pectoralis muscles, this muscle fans out from the upper ribs up to the shoulder area.
  • Teres major: This muscle helps rotate the upper arm.
  • Biceps brachii: Commonly known as the bicep muscle, this muscle rests on top of the humerus bone. It rotates the forearm and also flexes the elbow.
  • Latissimus dorsi: This flat rectangular muscle of the back helps the arms rotate as well as move away and closer to the body.
  • Subscapularis: This is a large triangular muscle near the humerus and collarbone. It helps rotate the humerus.
  • Supraspinatus: This small muscle is located at the top of the shoulder and helps raise the arm away from the body.

10 best shoulder exercises

With so many muscles to work, not one exercise will cover everything, which is why we’ve put together a list of ten shoulder exercises that target different muscles. no shoulder workout is complete without these moves, but if you’re wondering how to put these into a routine, check out the Ultimate Shoulder Workout below.

Standing Military Shoulder Press

Coming in hot with one of the best and most important shoulder exercise that you can do to develop your shoulders. Standing exercises work very well because it’s an athletic posture. If you want to isolate a body part then a seated exercise works best. The standing overhead military press is a compound movement and an exercise that can overload with weight to get the most results and most muscle stimulation.

How to execute:

Go to the squat rack and place the bar at chest level. Load the bar up with a weight that you can handle, when pressing up and your arms are fully stretched bend your head a little bit forward so the bar is completely inline with your shoulders. 

Seated Dumbbell Front Raises

Doing a shoulder exercise seated removes the excess swinging. Seated exercises focus on isolating the muscle so in this case the front deltoids. The 3 delts are small muscles so heavyweight is not necessary and you will find out soon enough that you won’t be able to heavyweight with the correct form!

How to execute:

Grab a dumbbell that can handle with good form and sit on a bench. Then lift one arm until your arm is in line with your shoulder or a little bit higher, always keep your shoulder back and don’t swing. Do this for 10-12 reps for each arm.

Standing Dumbbell Side Raises

This shoulder exercise is key when it comes to creating that v-shape illusion. This will create that wide broad shoulders. For this exercise goes the same principle and that is your form has to be on point and grab a weight that you can perform well. When you’re a little bit more experienced and already have a good amount of muscle build then you can use heavier weight and swing a little bit more.

How to execute:

This exercise can be performed standing and seated. I prefer to do this one standing as I can do heavier weights, if you prefer to isolate your side deltoid then grab a bench and do them seated. The slower you can perform these raises, the more they’ll hurt – and the better you’re going to look.

Reps and sets: 4 x 8-12 

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Arnold Press

You can’t go wrong when you’re executing the exercise from the legend himself. Because of the rotation motion at the end of the exercise you’re doing more than a standard shoulder press, this way your, even more, creating that v-shape.

How to execute:

Sit on a bench with your dumbbells held out in front of you. Your palms should be facing your shoulders as though you’ve just finished a bicep curl. Push the dumbbells up over your head while rotating your arms until your palms face away from you. Straighten your arms, pause, then reverse the movement

Bent-over Reverse Dumbbell Fly

The bent-over reverse fly is excellent to hit the rear delts without risk of getting injured. Rear delts are super important for many reasons. Number 1 is that you want to create round shoulders, well, without training rear delts this isn’t going to happen. Unlike the front delt that you also hit when you’re training chest, the rear delt doesn’t get that much action. That is why it’s important to hit them separately.


My second reason is to minimize the risk of bad posture. When you’re training too much chest and front delts and not enough rear delts you take the risk of creating bad posture. If your front delts are stronger then your rear delts your most likely to get rounded shoulders which can lead to muscle imbalance and so much more muscle buidling issues.

How to execute:

For more focus on the movement and less on stabilising things, try placing a bench at 45 degrees and perform this movement lying face down on it.” Atlas-level shoulders are on the way.

Seated Dumbbell Press

Simple yet effective exercise. Place your bench upright and grab your weights, keep your shoulder back and press the weights up then drop your arms to a 90-degree angle and press up, dropping your arms to low can cause injury. Doing them seated really help you isolate the muscle and keep your core tight enough to handle a good amount of weight.

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Upright Row

People will tell you this one can cause some type of injury or not so pleasant feeling, but trust me when I say that any exercise is effective and safe to do when you’re performing the exercise with good form. The upright row hits the side and upper deltoid and is great to do as a superset with side raises.

How to execute:

Grab a barbell and get your elbows higher than your hands for a peak contraction of the deltoid. The upright row also targets the traps.” Compound moves like this benefit from heavier fare than the raises, allowing for fewer reps and bigger weights to keep your delts in shock. 

Face Pull

Another amazing exercise for your rear deltoid. This exercise allows you to go heavy, but with a controlled movement.

How to execute:

Attach a rope handle to the top pulley of a cable station. Grasp an end in each hand with palms facing each other. Step back to place tension on the cable. Pull the handles to your forehead so your palms face your ears and your upper back is fully contracted. 

Kettlebell Single-Arm Press

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and hold a kettlebell in front of your shoulder with your palm in, elbow tucked, and the weight resting on the top of your forearm. Press it straight up, rotating your arm so your palm faces forward. Do the same number of presses for both arms.

Dumbbel Shrugs

We can’t forget the traps right..although you hit traps with other exercises like the bend overfly is it important to hit them separately. Grab a dumbbell and contract your shoulder blades, pull your shoulders back and lift your shoulders up. Very important is that you keep your arms still and they do not move, the only thing that moves is your shoulders. You can do it with heavyweights and controlled movement or lower weight and slow controlled movements. Hold the weight at the top of the movement and slowly release down.

The best shoulder exercises for MASS

If you’re not looking for isolation exercises, but purely exercises that build serious mass then these exercises will be perfect for you. These exercises allow you to go heavy and are compound exercises so they hit multiple muscles at the same time!

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Standing Overhead Military Press

The standing overhead military press is one of the best and most important exercise that you can do to develop your shoulders. Standing exercises work very well because it’s an athletic posture. If you want to isolate a body part then a seated exercise works best. The standing overhead military press is a compound movement and an exercise that can overload with weight to get the most results and most muscle stimulation.

Arnold Press

You can’t go wrong when you’re executing the exercise from the legend himself. Because of the rotation motion at the end of the exercise you’re doing more than a standard shoulder press, this way your, even more, creating that v-shape.

Seated Barbell Press

The seated barbell shoulder press is a classic exercise for building muscle and strength in the shoulders. The triceps also play a significant role in pressing the barbell overhead. Performing the movement seated reduces help from the lower body and decreases the risk of overextending the lumbar spine during the movement. This press variation can be the primary pressing movement on an upper-body or shoulder day or an effective accessory movement later in a workout.

Upright Row

Grab a barbell and get your elbows higher than your hands for a peak contraction of the deltoid. The upright row also targets the traps.” Compound moves like this benefit from heavier fare than the raises, allowing for fewer reps and bigger weights to keep your delts in shock.

T-bar Row

The T-bar row is perfect if you want to overload your rear delts. You can easily load up to 40 kg to the bar and perform the exercise with good form. Because the heavyweight makes it a perfect exercise to build mass. T-bar rows are also used when training back so it is up to you when you are implementing this exercise.

Shoulder workout plan for building mass

This workout contains multiple dumbbell shoulder exercises that are designed to target all the muscles in your shoulder and increase overall muscle mass.

 
ExerciseSets and reps 
Dumbbell shoulder press3 sets x 10 reps
Dumbbell side lateral raise3 sets x 12 reps
Bent over rear delt raises3 sets x 15 reps
Wide grip dumbbell upright row2 sets x 12 reps
Dumbbell shrug2 sets x 12 reps

The 10 best shoulder Dumbbel exercises

If you can’t make it to the gym or the gyms aren’t even open where you live because of the ‘pandemic’ and all you have is a pair of dumbells then these exercises will be great to maintain your shoulder gains.

Superset Dumbbell Upright Row and Side Raises

Supersetting usually means that you need to lower the weight, but not to much, because you still need to feel it burn. You usually use pretty low weight anyway for side raises so you won’t have to go much lower.

Start with a set of the dumbbel upright row, grab 2 dumbbells of moderate weight and lift your elbow above your hands, do this for 8-12 reps. Immediatly after that set you go in with the side latral raise, do this for 8-12 reps aswell. 4 sets is recommended and for the last set you will go to failure, this means you keep repping until you can’t go anymore.

Lying Rear Delt Fly

Lie on a bench, chest facing down, with a dumbbell in each hand underneath your shoulders. Slightly bend your elbows and raise your arms to the side until they’re in line with your body. Lower the dumbbells to the floor and repeat.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Using just your shoulders and arms, raise the dumbbells a notch above shoulder level, and hold for a few seconds. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position, and repeat. Your elbows and hands should be moving together in harmony the entire time, and you should be maintaining a neutral, balanced position. If you find that your core or neck is shifting as you perform each rep (i.e. you’re utilising your body’s momentum), lower the weight accordingly.

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Shadow Boxing with dumbbells

Stand holding two dumbbells at shoulder height with an underhand grip. Adopt a fighting stance and bounce on your toes as you shadow box. Dip and weave to your heart’s content. Just don’t drop the weights on your toes.

Standing Dumbbell Front Raise

Stand tall while holding a set of dumbbells against your thighs with your palms facing you.

Raise one dumbbell in front of you at a time, so that the dumbbell comes just above your shoulder line, parallel to the following. Your arm should be almost straight but the elbow soft, palms facing towards the floor. The opposite arm should be resting against the thigh.

Hold at the top for a second and slowly lower back down. Then raise the opposite arm and repeat the sequence.

Aim for 10 to 12 reps per arm.

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See Saw Pass

Hold two dumbbells just behind your shoulders, palms facing forward. Look up and tilt your body to the left, extending your right arm straight above you. Lower the dumbbell and repeat on the other side to create a see-saw motion.

Dumbbell Face Pull

One of the best dumbbell shoulder exercises for the rear delt is a dumbbell version of the traditional rope face pull.

This rope face pull can be used to further target the rear delts, and at the same time, strengthening the all-important rotator cuff, mid and lower traps simultaneously.

The rope face pull is highly effective at targeting the rear delts as it incorporates the major movement functions of the rear delts, but also adds in external rotation. External rotation is a lesser-known, but still an important function of the rear delts. The exercises we’ve previously covered don’t incorporate any external rotation.

Seated Dumbbell Clean

Hold a dumbbell in each hand and sit on the edge of a bench. Keeping your lower back flat, lean forward. Explosively straighten your body and shrug the weights so your arms rise. Allow the momentum to flip your wrists so you catch the weights at shoulder level.

Dumbbell Neutral Grip Overhead Press

Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level with palms facing each other and elbows pointing forward. Brace your core and press the weights straight overhead. At the top, shrug your shoulders and hold for a second.

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Dumbbel Raise Complex

Hold dumbbells at your sides with palms facing you. Raise the weights up in front of you to shoulder level with thumbs pointing up. Complete 8-12 reps and then raise the weights out to your sides 90 degrees (bend your elbows a bit as you lift). Complete your reps and then switch to a lighter pair of dumbbells. Raise them out to your sides and up to ear level with straight arms and thumbs pointing up. Hold this position 30 seconds. Squeeze your glutes to help support you.

How to prevent shoulder injury

A good warming up is always a good idea, but especially when training shoulders and chest. If you don’t warm up well and you’re going to lift heavy weight even with good form the odds of getting a shoulder injury is very high. Getting a shoulder injury means that you can’t train chest either and possibly back to, so to prevent this, warm up well and keep correct form.
A good warming up is already very helpful, but as I said earlier and many times before, good form is most important. With correct form, any exercise will make you gains, but there are exercises that enhance the risk of getting injured faster, I will cover those exercises later on.

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Shoulder Warm up Exercises and equipment

  • Resistence band
  • Low weight dumbbells

Band Pull Apart

The band pull apart is deceptively simple. Because of that, it gets disrespected.

First, don’t go too fast. Keep a steady pace the entire time, roughly 1-2 seconds pulling apart and 1-2 seconds on the negative or eccentric phase of the rep.

When you’re going through the negative part of the rep (meaning your hands are getting closer together), keep tension on the band. Don’t bring your hands all the way together and create slack in the band.

During the pull apart, as the band approaches touching your chest, you don’t need to pull apart as far as possible.

Also, don’t pinch the shoulder blades together. Rather, think about pulling the band apart and reaching outward to the side.

Pass Through

Grab the band just a little wider than shoulder width, palms facing down.

Slightly pull the band apart and then raise the band overhead, continuing backward until the band touches the backside of your body.

Then return the band up overhead to the starting position.

There should be no pain with this movement. If there is, either take it out of the routine, take a wider grip, or try to shrug up more at the top of the movement

Dumbbell Rotation

the single arm dumbbell rotation. All you need to perform this exercise is a 5-10lb dumbbell.

You don’t want to go too heavy with this movement. Doing so will place too much tension on the shoulder joint which can result in more harm than good.

To perform the exercise, lie down on your back and bring your elbow to a 90 degree angle. As you perform this exercise, you will rotate your arm up and down while keeping your shoulder on the floor.

Shoulder exercises to correct your posture

As I’ve said earlier in this article training too much chest can result in rounded shoulders and incorrect posture. Training too much chest results in an overdeveloped front delt. The fix is actually quite simple and that is to train your rear delt more.

Exercises that are very helpful and easy to keep your form correct are:

Rear Delt Fly (machine)

  • Rear delt fly (machine) – Important with rear delt exercises is that you keep your shoulders down and keep the weight low to perform the exercise the right way and really contract the muscle. What you’re doing with this exercise is that you’re making the muscle in the back of your shoulders stronger so you bring the balance back between your front delt and rear delts.

Dumbbell Flat Pull

The second exercise I don’t know the name of so I can only explain it. Again an excellent exercise for the rear deltoids.
Grab dumbbells of only 2-4 kgs and lay on the bench with your chest down and feet up and completely stretch your arm forwards. The next thing you’re going to do is pull your elbows in until they touch your back then fully stretch your arms again, make the movement slow and controlled. Do this for 12-15 reps.

Less or less heavy chest training

Look, I get it you want a big chest, but overtraining chest will most of the time lead to bad posture. Depending on how many times a week you train I suggest reducing chest training to once a week and increase rear delt training to a couple of light exercises every time you train.

Exercises that can cause Shoulder injuries

All exercises are effective and beneficial if done in the correct way, but some exercises are just uncomfortable and unnatural. 

  • Behind the head shoulder press (Smith Machine)
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  • Behind the head Lat pull down
  • Barbell and dubblell upright row (only with incorrect form)

Please leave a comment if you enjoyed this article or if I missed something that I should have coverd.

Vincent Sorel

Vincent Sorel

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