The Beginner’s Guide to the Best Shoulder Workout Plan

by P S | Reviewed by Advisory Board

Best shoulder workout: Man lifting dumbbells

If you hit the gym often but can't get the V-shape you want, you're probably not paying enough attention to your shoulder muscles. And that's why it's crucial to select the best shoulder workout to fit your goals.

But exercise plans for these muscles should be about more than aesthetics. Shoulders are delicate and complex joints that are incredibly hard to target. That's why when you start lifting, there's a high risk of enduring shoulder joint problems. 

If you don't really know where to start to strengthen these upper-body muscles and joints, this guide will be a great help to kick-start your shoulder workout routine.

You'll learn the basics of shoulder anatomy and what to look for when you're selecting your shoulder workout. We'll also explore six of the best shoulder exercises and their variations so you can safely and successfully develop strong, broad shoulders.

What Makes a Good Shoulder Workout Routine

From fitness magazines to YouTube channels, blogs, personal trainers, and veteran bodybuilding athletes, everyone has an opinion on what makes the best workout plans, including those for shoulders.

While there are many different options out there, the best shoulder workouts share two common elements: a proper warm-up and a balance of exercises.

How to Warm-up the Shoulders

If you're a regular gym-goer, you know warming up is crucial. It may not be the most exciting part of your fitness plan, but it's an important one.

Warm-ups and stretching before exercise helps prepare the nervous system and muscle tissue for the physical activity you're about to perform. 

Warming up loosens your joints and improves blood flow to the muscles. This leads to a lower risk of muscle tears or strains, thus preventing pain and injuries [1].

Good shoulder warm-up exercises include:

A thorough shoulder warm-up is around 10-15 minutes. Prioritize exercises that use your body weight instead of dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells, as these may be too hard on your muscles when they're still "cold."

Exercises that Target the Rotator Cuff and Deltoid Muscles

Best shoulder workout: Back muscles

The best shoulder workout will strengthen the rotator cuff, as this muscle group is one of the most prone to injuries.

The same goes for your deltoids. If you’re planning to lift more, strengthening these muscles is vital to add those extra weights and avoid harmful shoulder injuries.

You may be surprised to find out that your shoulder muscles (i.e., deltoid) are, in fact, comprised of three "heads”:

  • The anterior head, anterior delts, or front deltoid — located at the front of your shoulder muscle
  • The lateral head, middle delt, or medial deltoid — found at the center of the shoulder muscle
  • The posterior head, posterior deltoid, or rear deltoid — located at the back of the shoulder muscle

From all three, the rear delt is the one least used during everyday activities, so you need shoulder exercises that activate this particular area.

Surrounding your shoulder joint, you will find your rotator cuff. This is a group of muscles and tendons whose function is to keep the head of your humerus bone connected to your shoulder socket. Rotator cuff muscles allow you to do things like raise your arms over your head and rotate your shoulders internally and externally. 

If your goal is to start lifting heavier weights, you'll want to engage and strengthen all the muscles of your shoulder. This will allow you to perform muscle-building weight training safely. 

In the list below, you'll learn about key exercises to include in the best shoulder workouts and which muscles they activate.

6 Basic Shoulder Exercises for Muscle Growth

When it comes to shoulder muscles, a little goes a long way. Look for quality over quantity. 

Err on the side of caution and start with light weights. Once you become stronger and more comfortable with exercise technique, add more weight. If you're a beginner, it's best to focus more on form and less on intensity. 

Make sure you perform the exercises using a full range of motion. You likely engage more muscle fibers when you complete exercises this way than when you only do partial repetitions [2]. This means that going slowly and doing the full exercises fatigues your muscles quicker, leading to more muscle growth.

The following muscle-building program has every shoulder muscle covered while working other muscle groups for a comprehensive upper-body workout.

1. Seated Arnold Press

Best shoulder workout: Man doing seated arnold press

The mythical Arnold Schwarzenegger created this classic shoulder exercise, hence the name.

If you want to get wide shoulders, this exercise is a must for the best shoulder workout — it engages both the medial and front delts.

  1. This exercise begins in a seated starting position, so find the nearest available bench with back support.
  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand, at shoulder level. Confirm that your palms face up and the elbows are bent. 
  3. Push up above your head and rotate the dumbbells once you reach the top. Make sure you twist your elbows so your palms face inwards. Stay there a few seconds.
  4. Do the reverse movement and lower the dumbbells back down to about ear height.  Repeat.

2. Upright Row

Upright rows are a functional workout that engages much more than just your shoulder muscles. When you perform this movement with proper form, you'll activate the front and middle delts as well as your trapezius and biceps.

  1. Start in a standing position, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grab a barbell or dumbbells with an overhand grip.
  2. Bend your elbows and pull the weights up until they are in line with your shoulders. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed — hold the position for a few seconds.
  3. Lower your arms with a controlled movement, and return to your starting position. Repeat.

3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Best shoulder workout: Man doing dumbbell lateral raise

Dumbbell lateral raises are the perfect exercise to activate the entire shoulder muscle group with a focus on the lateral delts. Keep your arms straight throughout the three steps.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding one dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should face your thighs. 
  2. Slowly raise your arms outwards to the sides until you reach shoulder height
  3. Hold the position for a few seconds and slowly lower the weights back to their original position. Repeat.

4. Face Pull

Face pulls are the best exercise to develop broader shoulders and achieve a V-shape. They activate your rear delts — the ones that need extra attention — and your rotator cuff muscles and tendons. For this exercise, keep your movements slow for more control.

  1. Start in front of the cable machine and grasp the handle with your palm facing the floor. Hold with your arms fully extended.
  2. Pull the handles towards your ears while keeping your upper arms parallel to the ground. Make sure the handles go either side of your face, and your palms face your ears. Hold for a few seconds.
  3. Return to the starting position. Repeat

If you don’t have access to a cable machine, you can use resistance bands to perform this exercise. 

  1. Connect your resistance band to a stable anchor point. 
  2. Since you cannot add or remove weight, add some difficulty to the exercise. With your feet firmly planted on the ground, pull your hands out to either side as you pull the band towards your face. This will activate both your upper back and shoulders muscles. 

5. Overhead Press

Man doing overhead press

Also known as the military press, this exercise is a weight training classic that should be a part of any good shoulder workout routine. Its focus is the anterior delt, but it also engages the lateral and posterior deltoids, as well as your core and triceps

The overhead press can be done using either a barbell or dumbbells and comes in many variations:

  1. Start in an upright standing position and grab a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand. 
  2. Bend your arms until your hands are at shoulder level with your palms facing each other.
  3. Push the dumbbells straight up and extend your arms as much as possible. Hold for a few seconds while you shrug your shoulders up.
  4. Lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position. Repeat.

If you're a beginner, try the overhead press variation called the push press. Follow the steps detailed above, but slightly bend the knees for some extra force.

For a seated version, try the seated dumbbell shoulder press. The only difference is that you'll do this exercise while sitting on an upright bench.

6. Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Fly

The reverse fly or rear delt fly is the best shoulder exercise for your rear delts. It's also an excellent way to strengthen your trapezius and engage your core.

  1. Start by sitting on a bench and leaning forward, keeping your back straight. 
  2. Hold one dumbbell in each hand and rest them above your feet.
  3. Raise your arms to the side until they reach shoulder level. Engage your core and squeeze your shoulder blades. Hold for a few seconds
  4. Lower the weights with a controlled movement. Repeat.

Choose the Best Shoulder Workout To Build Muscle and Achieve Your Fitness Goals

Shoulder work is an important part of your workout plan. This type of training helps shape your body, broaden your shoulders, and contribute to overall upper-body strength.

Besides that, shoulder injuries are common in people who lift, especially if they go for very heavy weights or don't focus on proper form. Adding these six simple exercises to your fitness routine can help you achieve your fitness goals and prevent painful situations.

If you're interested to learn more about exercises for specific muscle groups, consider checking out this comprehensive guide on back workouts or this article on growing your arms.


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