Ever wondered what the best shoulder exercises are? We’re here to help you out.

The shoulder muscles, also known as the “Deltoids” are located at the upper portion of the torso and are one of the muscle groups that either make or breaks your physique.

Properly developed, round shoulders will not only make you look bigger, but they will make your V-Frame stand out even more, creating the illusion of a smaller waist.

When it comes to the fundamentals of aesthetics, nothing beats a shoulder:waist width ratio that is in favor of the shoulders.

Now, though many “Gym bros” focus primarily on the back and the chest musculature, developing solid shoulders is not just important for the vision of your physique, but for its functionality as well.

As you should know, the shoulders are highly involved in pushing movements, which means that if you neglect them and they remain a weak point, injury might occur.

Now before we dive into the exercises, let’s examine the different zones of the deltoids and their functions.

Shoulder anatomy

Now, though you all probably want to hear how to develop those superficial front, side and rear deltoids, we’ll make another important mention here.

That is namely the fact that the shoulder line is not built up of just those superficial, aesthetic muscles, but also a lot of stabilizing and balancing muscles underneath.

The rotator cuff

shoulder exercises for the rotator cuff

You might have heard the term “Rotator cuff”.

Essentially, the rotator cuff is responsible for the rotation & stabilization of the shoulders and it is made up of the following muscles:

  1. Supraspinatus
  2. Infraspinatus
  3. Subscapularis
  4. Teres major
  5. Teres minor

Now, from a purely bodybuilding standpoint, working on those muscles will not make a visual difference, as they are underneath the superficial deltoid.

However, using resistance bands to go through all rotations of the shoulder joint, prior to a heavy pushing workout will massively decrease the risk of injury and strengthen the cuff.

A stronger cuff means more balance and stabilization on the heavy compound pushing movements, which ultimately makes up for healthier movement patterns.

The deltoids

Deltoid anatomy

The deltoids surround the shoulder joint from pretty much all sides, which is why we can separate it into 3 different zones:

1. Front deltoids (Pars Clavicularis)

2. Side deltoids (Pars Acromialis)

3. Rear deltoids (Pars Spinata)

Each of the 3 has different functions of movement, which is why including different exercises, done under a variety of angles is a must.

That is, if you want to achieve good overall development with the ultimate goal of aesthetics.

Front deltoids

The anterior part of the deltoids, also known as “Pars Clavicularis” gives the shoulders a rounded look from the front.

Its main function is lifting the arm up in front and overhead and also, internally rotating it.

Side deltoids

The side part of the deltoids, also known as “Pars Acromialis” makes the shoulders wider and it is often what makes or breaks the look of your upper body.

Specifically in bodybuilding, developing this zone of the deltoids is of prime importance, as it is vital to the V-Shaped frame & overall shoulder roundness.

The main function of the side deltoids is lifting the arm up laterally (abduction).

Rear deltoids

Last but not least, we have the rear deltoids, also known as “Pars Spinata”, which give the back side of the shoulders a well-rounded look, if properly developed.

This part of the deltoid musculature is responsible for pulling movements, back from the shoulder joint.

It is important to note that the rear deltoids often get activated during rowing movements that target the back musculature.

Creating the 3D look

A goal for many trainees is debveloping that “3D boulder shoulders” look.

It appears that the muscles at the upper portion of the torso just make or break the physique.

Those are the upper pecs, the deltoids & the traps.

Creating the 3D look in the shoulder line is done by properly devleoping all 3 sides of the deltoid musculature.

Targeting each portion of the deltoid muscles requires different exercises, done under different angles

On this page, we’ll give you the best picks for front, side and rear deltoids, as well as recommended rep ranges & thorough explenation of each exercise.

Let’s get to it.

Front delt exercises

As we already learned, the front part of the deltoids is what gives that solid look from the front.

In back poses like back double biceps, it will also give you a rounded shoulder look up on top.

Let’s have a look at some of the best exercises to target the front delts.

#1 Barbell Overhead Press

Sets: 5

Reps: 15,12,10,10,8

Rest times: 60 seconds between first 2 sets, 90 seconds between last 3

In previous articles we’ve mentioned that doing compound movements should be your main priority when your goal is gaining muscle.

Compound movements engage more than 1 muscle group.

The more muscles engaged, the heavier we can lift. The heavier we lift, the bigger the growth stimulus.

This specific exercise is a classic one for the shoulders – It mostly engages the shoulders, but also involves its synergists – The triceps and the upper chest, though at a lesser extent.

Execution:

  1. Rack the bar at about shoulder height
  2. Grab the bar at shoulder width, lift your elbows up and below the bar for good support
  3. Un-rack the bar and take a couple steps back
  4. Place feet at about shoulder width, comfortably
  5. Keep torso straight and head looking slightly up
  6. Push the barbell up and over your head
  7. Contract the shoulders up top and keep that flexion for 1 second
  8. Let the bar go down slowly to its initial position

Note that if you are experiencing shoulder discomfort and/or pain, you should consider having the initial position be at about chin height – Don’t let the bar go all the way down.

#2 DB Alt Front Raise

Sets: 3

Reps: 10

Rest times: 75 seconds between sets

This next exercise is also a classic one when it comes to front delt development.

Though it is a mainstream exercise, it is highly effective due to the fact it executes one of the main functions of the front deltoid – Lifting the arm up.

Execution:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells
  2. Stand with your feet placed at about shoulder width
  3. Keep torso straight and keep the dumbbells in front of you (Palms facing torso)
  4. Bend elbows slightly out of lockout and maintain that static position
  5. Look forward
  6. Lift the left dumbbell up, contracting the deltoid when the arm is parallel to the ground
  7. Go back down slowly, maintaining tension on the deltoid
  8. Repeat the same on the opposite side and alternate between both arms

Note that using too much inertial movements here is not recommended – Maintain good tension on the shoulders.

#3 DB Alt Overhead Press

Sets: 3

Reps: 8-10 per arm

Rest times: 75 seconds between sets

Yes, barbell overhead presses are hella good! However, in most cases, everyone has a lacking side.

That is normal, nealry all human beings use one of their arms more than the other.

To even them out, specifically in the shoulder area, we can use alternating, uni-lateral exercises like this one.

Execution:

  1. Grab two dumbbells
  2. Stand up straight with feet at shoulder width and knees slightly bent
  3. Lift the dumbbells up to head level, where the upper arms are parallel to the ground or slightly lower
  4. With one arm, lift the dumbbell up and above your head
  5. Go down slowly to the initial position
  6. Repeat on the other side
  7. Alternate between arms

#4 DB Front Raise

Sets: 3

Reps: 12

Rest times: 60 seconds between sets

This next one has quite an interesting pattern – It is a dumbbell front raise, combined with a dumbbell overhead press.

The exercise is done with both arms simultaneously.

Execution:

  1. Grab a pair of relatively light dumbbells and stand up straight
  2. Hold the dumbbells with a neutral (hammer) grip by your sides
  3. Bend elbows slightly out of lockout and maintain that static position
  4. Keep torso straight
  5. Lift both dumbbells up like you would in a front raise
  6. When the arms are parallel to the ground, get into a dumbbell shoulder press position
  7. Lift the dumbbells up and above your head
  8. When the arms are straight above your head, start letting them go down slowly in the negative part of a front raise

Note that you should avoid using extremely heavy weights on this exercise. You have a long negative which is slow. Pick a relatively light weight and just focus on time under tension.

#5 Overhead Plate Raise Dropsets

Sets: 3

Reps: 10

Rest times: 60 seconds between sets

Above we mentioned that people with shoulder discomfort or pain might consider shortening the range of motion on overhead presses.

That implies keeping the arm parallel to the ground at the initial position.

If that still gives you discomfort, try this exercise – It allows you to keep arms above parallel, taking a lot of stress off of the shoulder joint & its ligaments.

Execution:

  1. Grab a relatively heavy plate that will be of a challenging weight
  2. Hold it with both hands evenly on the sides
  3. Lift the plate above your head so that it barely touches it
  4. At a mildly explosive pace, lift the plate up, contracting the shoulders
  5. Go down slowly, until the plate lightly touches your head (Don’t rest it completely)
  6. After completing the first 10 repetitions, drop the weight 30% and do another set
  7. Rest for 60 seconds and do 2 more of these dropsets

#6 Machine Overhead Press

Sets: 3

Reps: 10

Rest times: 60-75 seconds between sets

In some instances, the development of your deltoids or the shoulder-stabilizing muscles may not be sufficient to do a good free-weight overhead press with a barbell or dumbbells.

If that is the case, using overhead press machines might turn out to be the best choice for you.

Execution:

  1. Sit down on the machine comfortably
  2. Rest your back and keep head looking forward
  3. Place feet comfortably
  4. Grab the handles with a hammer (neutral) grip
  5. Elevate the arms slightly, so that the weight is off of the rest of the weight stack (Delts tensed, this is initial position)
  6. Lift the weight up with a moderate pace
  7. Contract the shoulders up top
  8. Go down to the initial position slowly, maintaining tension on the deltoids

Note that you must not let the weight go all the way down – Constant tension should be maintained

#7 Iso DB Shoulder Press

Sets: 3

Reps: 10 per side

Rest times: 75 seconds

If an alternating overhead press is not sufficient for you to bring your lacking side up, then giving this a shot is definitely one of the best options.

This exercise implies completing the overhead pressing movement separately on both sides, while the opposite of the working side is under static tension.

On top of that we’re doing it seated, meaning that the balance will be far greater.

Execution:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and sit down on a 90-degree bench (Angle can be slightly lower if 90 degrees is not comfy)
  2. Lift both dumbbells up to head level – This is your initial position, where the arms are parallel to the ground or slightly lower
  3. From the initial position, lift the left dumbbell up and contracting the shoulde up top
  4. After briefly holding peak flexion, go down slowly to the initial position
  5. Repeat the motion with the same arm, until you get 10 repetitions
  6. After the 10th rep, do the same on the opposite side
  7. Drop the dumbbell from the side that worked first
  8. Hold the dumbbell in the initial position for the arm that worked second, for as long as it would take you to complete 10 reps (This is done to even out the static tension on both sides)

#8 DB Squeeze Press Incline + Decline

Sets: 2

Reps: 10 per exercise

Rest times: 75 seconds between sets

As you should know, the deltoids are synergistic to the chest and the triceps, being involved in most pushing movements.

In movements where we lay horizontally and push vertically, the front deltoids get engaged the most.

With this superset, you will give all the pushing muscle groups a good go (The upper & lower chest, the triceps and the deltoids).

Execution:

  1. Set up an incline bench to a 45-degree angle
  2. Grab a relatively light pair of dumbbells
  3. Lie down on the bench comfortably
  4. Rest your head back
  5. Keep the dumbbells above your chest, touching one another (Neutral/parallel grip)
  6. Bend elbow slightly
  7. Let the dumbbells go down slowly
  8. Once they touch the chest, push up, squeezing the chest, shoulders and triceps
  9. Superset with the same movement but done on a decline bench

#9 Incline EZ Bar Raise

Sets: 2

Reps: 10

Rest times: 75 seconds between set

Chest supported movements are one of the best ways to eliminate the likelihood of creating inertial movements and hence, create more healthy tension.

For shoulders and specifically the front deltoids, one of our favorite movements is the Incline EZ bar front raise.

Execution:

  1. Set up an incline bench to a 45-degree angle
  2. Grab an EZ bar and place it behind the bench
  3. Set yourself up on the bench – Chest on the upper portion of the back rest, legs placed comfortably, head above the back rest
  4. Reach down for the EZ bar, holding it at about shoulder width
  5. Engage the scapula (Don’t hunch your back) and let the bar hang freely
  6. Bend elbows slightly
  7. Lift the bar up, contracting the deltoids up top
  8. Hold the peak flexion briefly
  9. Let the bar go back down to its initial position slowly, maintaining constant tension on the deltoids

#10 Plate Raise Triple Drop

Sets: 3

Reps: 12

Rest times: 75 seconds between sets

Dropsets can be utilized as a blood-pumping method but they will also express a greater time under tension.

Ultimately, you can stay focused on heavy compounds if your main goal is muscle growth, but you can include this exercise towards the end of a workout.

Execution:

  1. Grab a relatively heavy plate
  2. Sit down on a bench with no back support
  3. Place your feet wide
  4. Keep torso straight
  5. Holding the plate with both hands symetrically on both sides, keep it between your legs
  6. Avoid hunching down – Keep torso straight and scapula engaged
  7. Lift the plate up with a moderate pace
  8. Contract the shoulders up top
  9. Hold peak contraction for a split second
  10. Go down slowly on the eccentric
  11. Once done, reduce weight with 30% and complete another set with no rest

Note that there is no rest whatsoever between the first set and the next one, following reduction in weight.

Again, the goal here is not to go extremely heavy but to rather maintain a good range of motion and constant tension.

Side delt exercises

As you already learned, the medial (side) head of the deltoids, will make you look WIDE!

Below are our top 7 exercises for the side deltoids, which will help you bring them up substantially.

#1 DB Lat Raise

Sets: 3

Reps: 8-10

Rest times: 75 seconds between sets

Many people would consider this wrong, but as a matter of fact, our man Troy here, is applying the principle called “Partial range of motion”.

By applying partial range of motion, we’re able to induce more tension on the side delts and also, lift a heavier weight.

Note however that too heavy of a weight may cause the traps to get significantly more engaged, which is not what we are looking for.

Exexcution:

  1. Grab a relatively heavy pair of dumbbells
  2. Stand up straight, holding the dumbbells by your sides
  3. Bend elbows slightly out of lockout – Maintain this static position
  4. Place feet comfortably and keep torso straight with head looking up
  5. Maintaining static elbow position, raise the dumbbells laterally, until they are slightly above the hips
  6. Go down slowly, maintaining tension on the delts

Note that you should not let the dumbbells rest at the bottom completely and the duration of the concentric & eccentric phase should be rather even.

#2 DB Seated Lat Raise

Sets: 3

Reps: 8-10

Rest times: 60 seconds

Seated and chest-supported movements are one of the best ways to induce more tension on the working muscle group & eliminate inertial movements.

For the side deltoids, the seated DB lateral raises are our top pick for a seated delt exercise.

Execution:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and sit down on the bench with no back support
  2. Keep feet close together
  3. Hold the dumbbells with a neutral grip under the seat
  4. Bend elbows slightly and keep the arms in that static position
  5. Slightly bend over
  6. As you extend the torso back up, lift the dumbbells laterally, rotating the wrists so that the palms face the ground at the top of the movement
  7. Contract the shoulders optimally, hold the contraction for a split second
  8. Let the dumbbells return down to the initial position slowly

#3 DB Alt Overhead Press Delt Shapers Superset

Sets: 3

Reps: 10-12 per exercise (Per arm for the first exercise)

Rest times: 60 seconds between sets

For this next exercise we have a nice superset of an overhead pressing movement and a lateral movement with an external rotation.

Note that this superset is not made for heavy weights, but rather light ones.

This means that the superset is best applied in the beginning of a workout, when the goal is engaging more muscle fibers and filling the deltoids with blood.

Execution:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells
  2. Stand up straight, stably
  3. Lift the dumbbells up to head level, so that the arms are parallel to the ground
  4. Slightly rotate the wrist inward so that the dumbbells are in a diagonal position
  5. Push the left dumbbell up over your head
  6. As you let it come back down in a moderate pace, push the right dumbbell up
  7. Repeat the motion pattern
  8. After completing the needed number of repetitions, transition with no rest to the next exercise

Execution #2:

  1. Keep the dumbbells in front of you with a bent elbow (Palms facing one another)
  2. Lift the dumbbells laterally, keeping the elbows static
  3. Apply a slight external rotation at the top
  4. Let the dumbbells return back down slowly, keeping the tension on the delts

Again – No need to go extra heavy, this superset was designed to prepare your shoulders for heavier work.

#4 DB Shapers Dropsets

Sets: 3 dropsets

Reps: 10

Rest times: 75 seconds between sets

Dropsets are one of the best ways to flush more blood into the working muscle and also, squeeze the last bits of energy.

We recommend you to do this exercise as a finisher for your lateral deltoids.

Execution:

  1. Take a pair of dumbbells
  2. Stand up straight and hold the dumbbells in front of you (Lower part of the dumbbells is at belly button level, elbows are bent and remain static in that position)
  3. Keep back flat, palms facing one another
  4. Lift the dumbbells up laterally
  5. Rotate the shoulders externally ever so slightly at the top
  6. Go down slowly on the eccentric

#5 DB Shrug Shapers

Sets: 3

Reps: 10

Rest times: 75 seconds between sets

As we already mentioned, the upper line of the torso is what makes or breaks your physique – Upper chest, deltoids & traps.

If you are familiar with basic biomechanics, you probably know that the traps are engaged in lateral shoulder movements.

With this specific exercise, we will target both the traps and the lateral deltoids.

Execution:

  1. Take a relatively heavy pair of dumbbells and hold them by your sides with a neutral (hammer) grip
  2. Bend elbows slightly out of lockout
  3. Keep torso straight and head looking forward
  4. Shrug the dumbbells up, contracting the traps
  5. Raise the dumbbells up laterally, contracting the shoulders up top
  6. Return down slowly and repeat the pattern – Shrug, lateral raise

#6 DB Side to Side Delt Raise

Sets: 3

Reps: 10 per side

Rest times: 60 seconds between sets

If you are tired of straight up overhead pressing and are looking for an exercise that has a similar movement pattern, but is more functional, then this is for you.

The similarities? Overhead pressing.

The differences? You hold the dumbbell with both hands and bring it from the side to an overhead position.

Let’s have a look

Execution:

  1. Take a dumbbell and stand on your knees
  2. Grab the dumbbell’s handle with both hands, comfortably
  3. Bring the dumbbell over to the right side
  4. Lift it up diagonally towards the upper, center part of your chest
  5. Press the dumbbell up and above your head
  6. Contract the shoulders up top and hold that flexion briefly
  7. Return down to the center part of the chest
  8. Bring the dumbbell to the left side
  9. Lift it up to the center of your chest, press over head, bring it down to the chest again and bring it down to the right side
  10. Repeat the motion pattern – Right side, center of chest, overhead, center of chest, left side, center of chest, overhead, center of chest, etc.

Rear delt exercises

Front and side deltoids are important- They make the shoulders round and wide.

However, especially on back poses like back double biceps, all 3 heads of the shoulders are visible.

This is exactly why we also need to pay attention to the rear delts.

Let’s have a look at our top 4 picks.

#1 DB Rear Delt Fly

Sets: 3

Reps: 10

Rest times: 60 seconds between sets

This first exercise is a classic one that has a similar motion pattern to lateral raises.

However, by bending over in a seated position, we manage to shift the tension from the lateral deltoids to the rear side.

Execution:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and sit down on the front part of a bench
  2. Keep your feet close
  3. Bend over substantially and keep the dumbbells under your legs
  4. Keep elbows slightly bent, out of lockout
  5. Maintaining that static position of the elbows, lift the dumbbells up laterally, pronating your wrist (Rotating it counter clockwise)
  6. Squeeze the rear delts up top and hold the flexion briefly
  7. Let the dumbbells go back down to the initial position, slowly

#2 Cable Rear Delt Fly

Sets: 3

Reps: 12

Rest times: 60 seconds between sets

If you’ve been in the game for some time, you’d know that cable exercises are good at isolating the worked muscle group.

This does not only go for chest & triceps exercises, but also the rear deltoids.

If your rear delts are lagging, consider adding this move to your arsenal.

Execution:

  1. Stand in front of the cable machine
  2. Grab the upper pulleys with a cross grip (Left arm on the right pulley, right arm on the left pulley)
  3. Slightly lift the weight off of the rest of the stack
  4. Keep arms in front of you, parallel to the ground, with elbows slightly bent
  5. Pull back, contracting the rear delts
  6. Hold the peak flexion briefly and return to the initial position slowly, without resting completely at the bottom

#3 Rear Delt Fly

Sets: 3

Reps: 8-10

Rest times: 50 seconds between sets

Execution:

  1. Set the fly machine’s levers to the furthest position in the back
  2. Get on the machine, setting yourself up with good chest support, leaning on the backrest rather than sitting
  3. Grab the inner handles with a grip, allowing the palms to face down
  4. Bend elbows slightly and look forward
  5. Keeping the elbows in that static position, open the arms back
  6. Contract the rear delts and hold peak flexion briefly
  7. Return down slowly, without resting completely at the bottom

#4 Seated Delt Row

Sets: 3

Reps: 8-10

Rest times: 60 seconds between sets

This is a variation of the DB rear delt fly with one difference – Less bending over + a slight rock back, which allows you to use more weight.

Execution:

  1. Take a pair of dumbbells and sit down on the front part of a bench
  2. Keep feet close and keep the dumbbells by your sides
  3. Bend elbows slightly out of lockout and keep them in that static position
  4. Look forward and bend over slightly (Half of what you would on the regular DB rear delt flys)
  5. Rock back slightly and raise the dumbbells up, focusing the tension on the back (No wrist rotation here, palms are facing each other)
  6. Go back down and repeat the motion with no pause whatsoever at the top or bottom

Isometric exercises

Most people think that good finishers are grueling, heavy sets.

Well, while those may be useful, it is certainly recommended to give most of your energy to them early on in the workout.

Towards the end, you want to focus on isometric movements which allow for a static contraction of the deltoids.

Here are the top two isometric movements we have for you.

#1 DB Farmers Walks

Sets: 3

Reps: 45 seconds time under tension

Rest: 45 seconds between sets

This exercise tenses pretty much the whole upper body, as well as the core.

However, by slightly lifting the arms laterally just an inch, we can bring more tension to the shoulders.

Execution:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and keep them by your sides so that the palms are facing the torso
  2. Bend elbows slightly out of lockout, keep scapula engaged
  3. Bring the dumbbells half an inch to the sides until you feel more tension in the deltoids
  4. Walk forward in normal steps, slowly

The goal here is to walk and maintain static tension for about 45 seconds.

#2 Delt ISO Pose

Sets: 3

Reps: 20 seconds time under tension

Rest: 45 seconds between sets

Execution:

  1. Grab your wrist with the opposite of the working arm
  2. Tense with the working hand against its opposite, towards the center of the body
  3. Keep that tension for ~20 seconds, then slowly release and repeat on the opposite side

Note that you can optionally flex the trapezius for a more prominent shoulder flexion.

Thought we were done? Check out THIS playlist, where we have 8 more videos, full of effective shoulder exercises!

If you liked this page, make sure to check our exercises directory page, where we have exercises for each and every muscle group.

 

 

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