For bodybuilders, powerlifters, athletes, and all other fitness buffs in between, wide shoulders will make you look tall, broad, and powerful so that you can be the one defending geeks from sand kicking bullies and they can help you throw the ball hard enough to win the game. Flabby or narrow shoulders lend absolutely nothing to your physique.
Everyone needs to train their shoulders.
Strong shoulders help with every other exercise from bench press to pull ups, and for all you boxers and MMA guys, well conditioned shoulders will help you to win a fight.
It is also very important to have a strong shoulder girdle, including the rotator cuff area, to prevent injuries from sports and heavy lifting.
How to Get Strong Shoulders
Firstly, chest and back are two muscle groups that are important to train, when training for stronger shoulders. As a unit, the chest, shoulders, and back form the core of your upper body strength. Once you’ve read this article you can move on to the top 5 best chest exercises and the top 5 best back exercises.
Secondly, no one developed great shoulders by focusing on dumbbell side raises or shoulder pressing on machines. The compound exercises that involve your whole body will be most effective at building big, strong shoulders. Isolation exercises will be necessary, but only for developing super strong rotator cuffs.
We should have a working knowledge of how the shoulder is put together, to better understand how to train them effectively.
Anatomy of the Shoulders
Your shoulders are constructed as a ball and socket joint, and is one of the most unstable joints in the body but is also the joint with the largest range of motion (ROM). The shoulder socket is called a glenoid, while the ball of the joint is actually the head of the humerus, your upper arm bone.
The acromion sits on top of the ball and socket, next to the acromioclavicular joint (AC Joint), which is the most common place for shoulder separations. Incidentally, I separated my shoulder playing football and it took me 3 months of recovery before I could bench 200 lbs again. Treat your shoulders with care!
Your shoulders can abduct 150 degrees, flex forward 180 degrees, extend 45 degrees, rotate externally 90 degrees, and rotate internally 90 degrees. That is a pretty significant ROM, but also opens you up to a huge potential for injury.
You need to take a second to examine the most frequently injured area of the shoulders: the rotator cuff. The muscles that make up the rotator cuff are small, and can be strained easily. Injuries result from overuse, underuse, relative weakness, or muscular imbalance.
Before reading any further, you must check out this link about how to avoid rotator cuff injury.
Functions of the Shoulder
The shoulders, or deltoids (derived from the Greek word delta, or triangle), are triangular in shape, and have 3 distinct heads.
The front head of the shoulder flexes and rotates the arm inward. The anterior delts play a major role in bench pressing, other chest training, and usually get stimulated from triceps and biceps training. This is typically one of the most overdeveloped muscles for traditional weight lifters, which often develops into a muscular imbalance that can lead to injury and posture problems.
The side head of the shoulder abducts the arm, which means it brings the arms out and away from the midline of the body. This muscle is activated more by isolated shoulder abduction movements, such as dumbbell side raises, than by anything else.
The rear head of the shoulder extends and rotates the arm outward. Back training such as rows, chin ups, and pull ups involve the rear delts more than most other exercises. Reverse flyes are considered an isolation movement for the rear delts.
One more time, be sure to read up on how to strengthen the rotator cuff if you haven’t already.
Always remember to refuel before you train, unless of course you prefer fasted training. If you are starting to feel a bit lethargic midway through your training drink energy drinks to refuel all your electrolytes. A lack of energy during a workout will stop your gains short.
The Top 5 Best Shoulder Exercises
- Hang Clean & Press
This is the ultimate shoulder exercise if you ask me. The hang clean resembles a high pull (a powerful exercise that is similar to the upright row) and if you press without hesitation you can utilize the momentum and the stretch reflex to press more weight than you could from a dead stop. However, when using momentum like this, the press tends to turn into more of a push (using the legs and other joints to generate momentum).
This is not an exercise designed for any specific kind of training. The hang clean and press mixes Olympic lifting with standard weightlifting and can be used with heavy weight to develop strength or light weight to develop speed and power. This is not a standard bodybuilding exercise, but can be used to build muscle as well.
To set up: you will want to load a standard Olympic barbell with some weight, or if you are female you might consider one of the small pre-built barbells that are sometimes setup on weight trees in the free weight area of your gym.
Position your feet on the ground and your hands on the bar, both just outside shoulder width. Keeping your back flat and chin up, deadlift the weight into a standing position with the bar resting against your thighs. This is the starting position.
To hang clean & press: from the starting position you should lower the bar down to just above your knees bending at the knees and waist. From this position you will perform a hang clean to get the bar up to your shoulders.
When you execute a hang clean you want to extend your ankles, flex your knees, flex your traps, and execute something that resembles a 3/4 upright row in order to bring the bar up in a straight line in front of your body until it reaches your shoulders.
At this point you want to rotate your elbows under the bar, catching it on the front of your shoulders, chest, and upward-facing palms. Bend at the knees slightly to assist with the catch.
Immediately press the bar up to full extension. Lower the bar back to your shoulders and drop it back down to your thighs to complete the rep.
The hang clean is not a reverse curl. The movement itself is a combination of a quarter squat, a calf raise, a shrug, and a 3/4 upright row. It is a power movement and should be explosive.
Variations: clean and press, hang clean and push, clean and push.
This is the best hang clean and press video that I could find on YouTube. Her form is pretty good, especially considering she is doing high reps. Each rep is quick. I’d prefer for Olympic lifts not to be executed in sets of more than 5, or maybe 10 at the most. It is such a complex exercise that you can easily lose your form once you start to fatigue, and you don’t want to train your CNS to perform this exercise incorrectly.
- Standing Overhead Press / Military Press
The military press is in league with squats, deadlifts, and bench presses as one of the mandatory exercises for all serious weight lifter. If you are not overhead pressing you are not really lifting. This is the ultimate compound pressing exercise for your shoulders.
To set up: either set the bar up in a power rack or squat rack, or you will have to clean the weight up to your shoulders to start the exercise. This is usually what I do since my gym lacks a decent rack of any sort. Grip the bar 2-3 inches outside of shoulder width.
To press: starting with the weight resting on your upper chest and shoulders, press the bar up in front of your face, extending the elbows just short of lockout. Return the weight under control to your upper chest to complete the rep.
Like the guy in the video below, you can take advantage of the stretch reflex by not pausing at the bottom.
Do not bounce, use your legs, or use your hips to get the weight up, as this would be a push press. Push presses are really great too, but we are talking about plain old military presses right now.
Variations: standing, seated, push press, dumbbell press, adding chains and bands.
Bonus Tip – The Push Press: similar in all ways to the military press except one – you should use a quarter squat and ankle extention to generate additional momentum, which will help you get the bar past the mid-way sticking point and then all you have to do is continue pushing through to lockout.
This is a great Olympic exercise that will build power and strength in the shoulders, but is not often used for bodybuilding. Due to the added momentum, you should be able to use more weight on the push press than on the standing military press.
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press (3 variations)
In this case I have to point out 3 important variations of the dumbbell shoulder press, all of which I think are important in different scenarios.
- Standing One Arm Dumbbell Press
I chose this exercise because sometimes you can lift more when you alternate sides in rapid succession.
To set up: while standing, clean both dumbbells up to shoulder level or have someone hand them too you if you are a wuss.
To press: lift one dumbbell straight up while resting the other on the opposite shoulder. As you return the first dumbbell to your shoulder, the second dumbbell should already be moving. There should not be any rest between reps.
Variations: seated one arm dumbbell shoulder press.
I could only find a seated version of this exercise with someone doing it the way I would do it.
- Seated Dumbbell Press
Because you are seated, you are able to drive more with your legs and press back against the bench for added strength and stability.
To set up: while seated, rest the dumbbells on each respective knee. When you are ready, use your legs to pop each dumbbell up to your shoulders. You will most likely have to pop up one at a time or have someone hand them to you if you are a wuss.
To press: keeping your feet flat on the floor and your back straight against the bench, press both dumbbells up simultaneously, stopping just short of full lockout. Return the dumbbells to your shoulders to complete the rep.
Variations: standing dumbbell shoulder press – this is one of the few exercises that I find to be awkward, which probably means I should do it every workout until it becomes habit. The standing alternating one arm version is much less awkward in my opinion and I can lift more weight when I alternate.
In the following video Scott Herman mentions bringing the dumbbell down to where the shoulders are at 90 degree. I disagree with that statement. But then Scott proceeds to go beyond 90 degrees and instead uses a full range of motion, which I do agree with. Therefore, DO ignore his advice about 90 degrees, but DON’T ignore his form – these are good presses.
- Seated Arnold Shoulder Press
This is a slightly awkward exercise that is very beneficial because it hits the front and side heads of your delts. Don’t plan on using super heavy weight though, as this is a more difficult exercise than regular dumbbell or barbell presses.
To set up: start just like a seated dumbbell press, but start with the dumbbells in front of your face, palms facing towards you, the sides of the dumbbells will probably be touching.
To press: rotate the dumbbells externally and press them up at the same time. By the time you reach full extension your palms should be facing away from you and you will have rotated the dumbbells 180 degrees. Return the weights to the front of your face to complete the rep.
Variations: standing Arnold shoulder presses are awkward. I don’t like to do them standing, which again probably means I should.
- Standing One Arm Dumbbell Press
- Upright Barbell Rows
Some people seem to indicate that upright barbell rows are tough on the rotator cuffs, but I don’t find this to be true so long as you don’t attempt to rotate the bar higher once it has reached shoulder level. Rather, I believe upright rows are a great exercise for the medial or outside heads of the shoulders. Also choose High Pulls (explained after upright rows) as a power exercise for the shoulders.
To set up: you will have to choose between straight bar or ez curl bar, but I prefer ez curl. Standing, grab the bar roughly one inch inside of shoulder width.
To upright row: bring the bar straight up alongside the front of your body, bending only the elbows. Your elbows should end up point straight out to either side and the bar should end up just under chin-level.
Variations: two arm, one arm, wide grip, medium grip, close grip, high pulls, dumbbell cleans, barbell cleans, upright cable rows, upright dumbbell rows (slightly awkward).
Bonus Tip – The High Pull: to finish off your set of upright rows, or instead of upright rows, try the High Pull. Use the same sort of momentum you would use for a hang clean to pull the bar up to shoulder level. This momentum is generated by extending the ankles, shrugging the shoulders, and using a quarter squat to drive the bar – the same thing you would do for the first 1/2 of a hang clean. Don’t bother pausing at the top, as this is a power exercise not a bodybuilding exercise.
- Overhead Squat
This is a very awkward exercise that will build stability in your shoulders and the surrounding tissue. Despite the name, overhead squats are not particularly effective for the legs, as you typically use a load far lighter than you would use for working squat sets.
To set up: load up a barbell with some weight and set up for either a hang snatch, a power snatch, or a squat.
If you’d prefer to snatch the bar into position: using a snatch grip, which is a much wider grip than you would use for any other exercise (often 1.5 feet outside of shoulder width), bend down and grasp the bar in an ultra-wide deadlift position. Deadlift the bar to a hang position if you’d rather start the exercise with a hang snatch, or keep the bar on the floor if you are comfortable with power snatching it into position.
If you’d prefer to squat the bar into position: get the bar on your back for a barbell back squat using a partner, a squat rack, a power rack, or whatever else you use for a rack. Move your hands to a snatch grip position. Use a quarter squat to generate enough momentum to jerk the bar overhead and catch it in a snatch lockout.
To overhead squat: using whichever snatch method you choose, snatch the bar over your head and catch it in the standard snatch position – shoulder blades pinched together, bar directly over your head and ankles, pulling out slightly with both hands to keep your shoulders tight.
Now do a squat while keeping the bar in the same vertical line of motion. The bar will end up behind your head when you are in the hole, but keep those shoulder blades pinched and keep a slight but constant outward force with both hands to stabilize the bar. Stand up to complete one rep. Don’t you dare drop the bar until the set is finished.
- Lateral Dumbbell Side Raises
Note: This was originally #5 in my list of the top 5 best shoulder exercises, but it really doesn’t qualify. This move is best for people who are looking to fine-tune the structure of their shoulders, mostly by bodybuilders. Bodybuilders will tell you this exercise is great for shredding the delts and really putting “caps” on the shoulders. I’ll leave it on the list as #6.
Definitely not compound by any means, lateral dumbbell raises are the equivalent of dumbbell curls for the shoulders. I recommend this exercise more for bodybuilding than for powerlifting, strongman training, Olympic lifting, or martial arts.
To set up: standing up, hold a pair of dumbbells in your hands with your arms hanging straight down to the side.
To raise: using the medial delts (the side of the shoulders), raise the dumbbells straight up to the side until both arms are parallel to the floor. Bend your elbows as little as possible. Technically your arms should be straight the whole time.
Then lower the dumbbells back down, but not such that your arms or the weights touch your thighs, nor should your arms ever be perpendicular to the floor. You always want to keep tension on the shoulders.
Variations: one arm side raise, cable side raise.
Honorable mentions: internal rotations and external rotations for the rotator cuffs, bent over reverse dumbbell or cable flyes.
Full Body Workout
To integrate these exercises into a full body workout program, you should use a standing barbell press as your base shoulder exercise on the day when shoulders are trained first. On the days you train squats and deadlifts first, you should choose either heavy dumbbell shoulder presses or hang clean & press. The day that prioritizes chest should be the day you choose lateral side raises and/or upright rows.
Split Body Workout
To integrate these exercises into a training program that splits the body amongst different days, you can choose a press, upright rows, side lateral raises, and finish off with reverse dumbbell flyes on shoulder day. This will allow you to really fatigue the shoulders from all angles and forms of tension. A ‘shoulder day’ should also include some arms and abs training, if nothing else.
A Couple More Tips
Focusing too much on the shoulders could be a detriment to your chest training. Furthermore, focusing too much on the front delts, like if you just bench press all the time, could results in problems with your posture. Always remember to balance chest and shoulder training, and to hit your back (vertical and horizontal) just as hard as you hit your chest and shoulders combined.