While relatively small, the shoulders (deltoids) are essential for our physical abilities and appearance. Solid and developed shoulders make us functional, athletic, and strong. Similarly, developing the muscle group contributes to our overall appearance and makes our arms, chest, and upper back appear more prominent.
The problem with shoulder training is that there are many exercises to pick from, so it isn’t always clear what activities to choose. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of eight of the best shoulder exercises for strength and muscle growth.
1. Standing Overhead Press
The standing overhead press is among the most functional gym exercises you could do. For one, the practice is great for strengthening your shoulders and forcing them to grow. Second, overhead pressing develops your triceps and upper chest. Third, performing the movement from a standing position makes balancing more challenging, forcing greater midsection activation.
Overhead presses are functional, develop a range of muscles in the body, and make trainees stronger. Plus, you can perform the movement with various types of equipment based on your preferences.
2. Seated Overhead Press
The seated overhead press is essentially the same as the standing version, apart from one significant difference:
Performing overhead presses from a seated position makes it easier to maintain your balance, reducing the tension on your midsection, glutes, and back. But, the good news is that you can lift slightly more weight and overload the prime movers more effectively.
Similar to the standing version, you can perform the exercise with a barbell or dumbbells – whichever you prefer. Both types of weights offer their unique benefits, and it mostly comes down to preference and goals.
3. Leaning Lateral Raises
Lateral raises are fantastic, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a regular gym-goer who doesn’t enjoy doing the exercise. But, despite its popularity, the classic lateral raise comes with some flaws, and many trainees struggle to perform it effectively.
Learning lateral raises are an effective variation that often allows trainees to isolate their deltoids better. The objective is to grab a dumbbell or kettlebell, grab onto something sturdy (for example, a squat rack), and lean to one side. Once in position, raise the weight from your side until your elbow is in line with your shoulder. Hold for a moment and release the weight to the starting position.
You can make leaning lateral raises more challenging by performing one-and-a-halfs. The idea is to lift the weight to the top, lower it halfway, raise it to the top again, and lower it to your side. This would be one repetition.
4. Front Raises
Like lateral raises, front raises are an isolation exercise for the shoulders. The movement primarily trains the anterior deltoid head, but it also involves the lateral head and your serratus anterior.
The objective is to hold a pair of dumbbells and raise them forward until your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in horizontal alignment. You can even grab a weight plate and hold it with both hands to perform the exercise.
Some people consider front raises unnecessary, but the movement effectively isolates the deltoid muscle group and possibly leads to more growth in the long run.
5. Rope Cable Face Pull
When most people think about shoulder training, they rarely consider the rear deltoids, which is a mistake. The posterior of our shoulders needs just as much attention as the middle and front.
First, training the rear deltoids leads to more balanced development, resulting in shoulders that appear rounder and more muscular. Second, training the rear deltoids is essential for counteracting the adverse effects of too much pressing (i.e., rounded shoulders; poor posture).
According to many experts, the face pull is among the most effective exercises we can do because, aside from training the rear deltoids, the movement also promotes shoulder health. Face pulls strengthen the rotator cuff muscles, improve stability, and reduce the risk of future issues.
6. Upright Rows (Wider Grip)
Upright rows have a mixed reputation among trainees, and not everyone deems them safe. The truth is, the movement can be dangerous but only for people with previous shoulder issues and those using a narrow grip. In those cases, the risk of impingement is slightly higher.
But, aside from that, upright rows are a fantastic exercise that overloads the deltoids, trapezius, and biceps. The movement also works your core muscles, which flex isometrically to offer torso support as you row.
We recommend using a wider grip because that’s been shown to feel more natural for the shoulders. You can go with a straight or EZ bar, depending on what you prefer. Trainees with wrist issues prefer an EZ bar because it allows for a more forgiving wrist angle.
7. Pike Push-Ups
Pike push-ups might not seem like a good shoulder exercise, and that’s true. They aren’t good; they are amazing. For one, the movement allows you to overload your shoulders, triceps, and upper chest well, even if you don’t have any weights around. Second, pike push-ups are functional because they involve your entire body, forcing you to brace effectively and work for your stability.
The pike push-up is also excellent because you can adjust the difficulty based on your strength level. For example, you can begin with pike push-ups on your knees and gradually work up to the classic exercise. As you get even stronger, you can start elevating your feet on sturdy objects to place more tension on your upper body musculature.
8. Machine Shoulder Press
Machine shoulder presses certainly aren’t as exciting as the standard overhead press, but the exercise offers some unique benefits. Most notably, performing shoulder presses on a machine allows you to overload your deltoids and triceps with more weight without worrying about your stability.
Plus, the variation tends to be safer because all you have to do is press the weight up and control it on the way down. There is no risk of losing control of the weight that can result in an injury.
Like any other overhead press, the machine version is excellent for building pressing strength, especially for newbies who don’t feel comfortable using free weights.