Top 10 Shoulder Exercises

Top 10 Shoulder Exercises

The shoulders are, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the muscle groups that most attracts attention, especially if you come face to face with someone showing off those famous “3D shoulders”

This name refers to the degree of development of the main areas or heads that form the shoulder, giving a truly three-dimensional look.

Anatomy of the shoulder muscles

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the human body, due to its nature allowing a large number of isolated or combined upper limb movements such as flexion/extension, internal/external rotation, adduction/abduction, and circumduction.

It’s important to keep in mind that said flexibility makes this area of the body more prone to dysfunctions and/or injuries than other joints.

Shoulder muscles

Taking a closer look at the specific anatomy of the shoulders, we can break this area down into several muscle groups according to their depth:

Rotator cuff

They are found on a deeper plane and aid the stabilising of the joint in general and are in charge of providing and assisting this rotation function, in both internal and external terms.

This area is made up of four distinct muscles:

  • Supraspinatus: originates in the supraspinatus fossa of the scapula and connects to the greater tubercle of the humerus. Performs the first 15 to 20 degrees of arm abduction
  • Infraspinatus: originates in the infraspinatus fossa of the scapula and connects to the greater tubercle of the humerus. Carries out the external rotation of the arm
  • Subscapularis: originates in the subscapularis fossa of the scapula, it connects to the minor tubercle of the humerus. Carries out the internal rotation of the arm
  • Teres minor: originates at the lateral edge of the scapula and joins to the greater tubercle of the humerus. Also enables the arm’s external rotation
Click here for more information about how to strengthen your shoulders (rotator cuff)

Deltoid muscle

This muscle is located on the most superficial plane.

It originates from both the spine of the scapula and the clavicle, however, all the fibers come together in a single tendon that goes into the deltoid tubercle, located on the lateral of the humerus shaft.

Although it is considered a single muscle, three distinct parts can be identified: anterior, medial and posterior . Regarding function, it mainly aids the lateral abduction of the arm, although it also assists flexing/shoulder extension

How can I build bigger shoulders?

To make sure you achieve a balanced growth of your shoulder muscles, it is important to take onboard certain tips when doing our shoulder routine, in order to get maximum benefit

Taking into account the type of exercise and the degree of muscle involvement, we can highlight the following categories:

  • Strength Exercise, which acts as the «constructor» exercise itself, and is therefore essential as part of our shoulder routine
  • Isolation Exercises, are exercises to «shape or sculpt» the muscles, through exercises that focus on certain angles and end up improving more challenging areas of the shoulder
  • Pumping Exercises, which increase congestion, where you can also use the «finishers» (ending the shoulder routine), are based on performing with a very light weight, a high number of repetitions so that we maximize fatigue of the muscle fibers

Maximum hypertrophy

When we seek maximum hypertrophy we have to bear in mind the work using tension , that is, keeping the muscle fibers contracted long enough, and making a compromise between the number of repetitions and the load (intensity) used.

As for the number of repetitions and sets in order to maximise muscle mass gains, we should take into consideration the following recommendations:

For the most potent exercises, as is the case of the Military Press which we will look at below, we can vary the range of repetitions and series, bearing in mind that if we are looking for an increase in strength, it’s wise to base our exercise around a lower number of reps (less than 5 reps per series)

Isolation exercises

When performing a variant, such as the seated Military Press with dumbbells, or the rear press with the objective of hypertrophy, the repetitions are increased, in ranges of 6-8 per series, with a sufficient load to almost complete “to failure” in the last set.

Exercise Insulation

In the case of isolation exercises, the load tends to be lighter, when using machine, bar or dumbbells, the number of reps tends to be high, reaching 12-15 per set.

At the same time, employing other advanced techniques, such as supersets, compound sets, drop sets..., tend to be highly effective as well as substantially developing muscle growth in the shoulders

Shoulder exercises

Military Press

From my point of view, this is an excellent shoulder exercise, working as the main builder of both strength and muscle growth. If this exercise isn’t part of your shoulder routine, then something is going very wrong.

  • It can be done standing with a barbell, or, in the vast majority of cases, seated using dumbbells.

How to do Military Press?

Frontal lifts

  • We can use either a barbell or dumbbells, or even a disk.
  • Using dumbbells, we can opt for changing grip type (prone -> palm facing downwards, supine -> palm of hand facing upwards, or neutral. -> the palm of the hand facing inwards and the thumb facing upwards ). Let’s not forget that you can also modify it during your exercise (going from a neutral grip at the beginning to a prone grip at the end)
  • Regardless of the object we are using, the starting position is identical, standing and with the spread of feet approximately at the width of the shoulders. The bar, dumbbell or disc, should be in the starting position, against either the side of the thighs or in front of them.
  • The concentric phase revolves around the lift. If we use the dumbbells, we can either lift both at the same time or alternate. The lift should not exceed line of sight, holding the weight at maximum height for just a second.
  • The eccentric phase, back to the initial position, should be performed slowly.


Lateral Raise

  • We will use dumbbells. We can perform the exercise seated or standing, and with one hand, or both at the same time.
  • The movement begins, if we are standing, with the dumbbells positioned at the sides of our thighs. Keeping the elbows slightly flexed, we will begin to raise, until we reach a point located on the imaginary line level with our ears. In this range, we will hold the dumbbells for a moment before lowering them. Elbows should not be locked.
  • The return back to the starting position should be done slowly. During the raise, we can up the speed.

Lateral Raise

Iron Cross

  • We will perform this exercise with dumbbells. The exercise revolves around contraction while at the same time providing isometric stimulation.
  • Starting position: arms raised and extended, in the same way as in the lateral elevations seen before, but the key difference is that that the grip on the dumbbells should be neutral, that is, the thumbs facing upwards and the palms forwards. Think of the letter T to help you grip correctly.

Iron Cross

The movement revolves around bringing the dumbbells together, keeping them elevated at all times, until they are level with our eyes.

Rear Deltoids or Supine Birds

A truly excellent exercise to work the back of the shoulder or delts. In this case, light loads are usually used, and enable a good response to high numbers of reps. The exercise also allows for a large number of variants.

  • We can do it standing or seated. In the latter case, we sit on the edge of a bench.
  • Starting position: With the torso slightly leaning forward, the dumbbells are suspended below the thighs, and with a prone grip.
  • During the movement, we raise both arms together, noting how the scapulae contract.


Push Press

This is a power exercise and can be done with dumbbells or a bar. If you choose the latter, a greater load can be added than for the Military Press. Although these two exercises have the same starting and finishing position, the difference is the support provided by our legs and hips which boost us during this exercise.

  • If we opt for dumbbells, we should let them rest on the shoulders, using a prone grip
  • On raising them, we perform a dip with our hips which boosts the quality of our push

push press

Arnold Press

This exercise is a shoulder press which won fame as a result of Arnold Schwarzenegger inventing it himself. It is done with dumbbells, in either a seated or standing position.

  • In the case of sitting on a bench, we start with the dumbbells in the military press position, with the palms facing forwards. We puff our chest out.
  • We raise the dumbbells above the head, until they almost touch.
  • When we return to the starting position, we rotate the shoulders inwards, so that the palms of our hands are facing us just above the face

arnold press

Bradford Press

This an exercise that is usually done with an unloaded bar, while doing a large number of reps. It helps improve shoulder mobility and can also be used as a finisher for our shoulder training session.

  • To perform the exercise, we start from the exact same position as the military press. The difference here is that once we raise the bar, it does not go above our head, but we pass it over and rest it on the back of our neck, as we would grip in the case of doing our squats
  • At this point, we perform the reverse operation, raising the bar, passing it over our head, and bringing it to the front, just as if it were doing our frontal squats.

Bradford Press

Shoulder curls

When performing this type of push-ups, we create a gap in the area where we place our feet, so that with each repetition, the weight is transferred to our shoulders, meaning that they support a large part of our own body weight during the exercise.

Another option is to keep our pelvis raised, applying the same principle:


Face Pull

This is an exercise rarely seen performed at gyms and it’s unusual to see it done correctly

Its benefits are, along with being an exercise to develop shoulder muscle mass, working the deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids and rotators, it is a great way to prevent shoulder-related injuries. It encourages us to take a better position and correct posture (shoulders dropped or inclined forwards), which reduces injuries to other muscle groups.

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About Javier Colomer
Javier Colomer
"Knowledge Makes Stronger", Javier Colomer's motto, sets out his clearest statement of intentions expressing his knowledge and fitness experience.
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