Best Shoulder Exercises

Best Shoulder Exercises

Getty Images/John Fedele

If your shoulders could talk, what would they say to you right now?  Yes, that sounds like a cheesy interview question ("What kitchen utensil would you be?"), but think about it.  Your shoulder contains one of the most complex muscle systems in the body and, while we all want great looking shoulders, it's even more important to keep them healthy and strong.  The key is to work each area of the muscle - The posterior, middle and anterior muscles with a variety of exercises, since no one exercise will target all three with the same level of intensity.

With all the shoulder exercises out there, which ones should you be doing to get the most out of your shoulder work?  Luckily, you don't have to guess anymore because ACE 's stellar team of researchers has figured out the best shoulder exercises you can do to look good and stay strong.

Overhead Dumbbell Press

Overhead Press
Paige Waehner

The Overhead Press is the bread and butter of almost any shoulder routine, the go-to exercise for working the delts.  What makes this one of the best shoulder moves is that it works both the middle and front deltoids, so you get a little more bang for your buck.

Make It Work

It's easy to zone out on this one and let your elbows fall way below the shoulders.  Instead:

  • Your arms should look like goal posts at the beginning of the exercise, elbows bent at about 90-degree angles and weights at about ear-level.
  • Press the weights up and, when you come back down, come back to that goal-post position.
  • Use as much weight as you can, but keep the core braced to avoid arching the back.

Overhead Press Variations

Front Raise for the Shoulders

Paige Waehner

The front raise is another classic shoulder exercise, with a major focus on the anterior deltoid, or the front of the shoulder.  The standout feature of this exercise is just how hard it is to lift a weight straight up in front of you, which is one reason you'll use less weight for this exercise than for other shoulder exercises.

Make it Work

  • Start in a strong stance with feet about hip-width apart and brace the abs so you don't swing the weights up.
  • Lift the weights just to shoulder level, keeping the arms straight, but the elbows soft.
  • If your hips move during this exercise, you might need to reduce your weight or stand with one foot back to keep the torso straight.


Battling Ropes for the Shoulders

Getty Images/MichaelSvoboda

If you've never heard of these, you're probably not alone.  Battling ropes are one of the latest trends for working the body with unusual equipment to get a more functional workout.  The idea is that two large ropes are attached to a (very) stable column and you wave them up and down.

What's great about this exercise is that it really targets the front of the shoulders and, not only that, but you got lots of great core work with this one as well. How hard this move is really depends on how heavy and long the ropes are. 

Make it Work

The basic exercise with battling ropes are called Waves.

  1. Hold the ropes in each hand at arm's length in front of you.
  2. Your feet are about shoulder-width apart, knees bent and body braced.
  3. Start by raising one rope in an explosive movement, then switch to the other arm, going as quickly as you can.
  4. Repeat for 60 or more seconds.

You can do a variety of other exercises, lifting both ropes at the same time, for example, or crossing them over at different angles, making this a total body exercise.

You may find these at your local gym or maybe a local CrossFit studio.  If you can't find them, don't worry...there are plenty of other shoulder exercises to keep you busy.

Pushups for the Shoulders

Getty Images/Blend Images - Erik Isakson

Ah, the dreaded pushup.  We often focus on this move as more of a chest exercise, but the shoulders are heavily involved in this move, particularly the anterior deltoid.  It pays to strengthen the front of the deltoids with moves like front raises so that you're stronger for pushups.

The great thing about pushups is that there are so many versions, almost anyone can find one that works for them.

Make it Work

The key to a perfect pushup is in your body position.

  1. Your hands should be about shoulder-width apart and right next to the shoulders. 
  2. Whether you're on your knees or on your toes, your back should be flat and your head should be in alignment with your spine.
  3. When you go into your pushup, don't drop the head or sag in the middle.  Keep everything straight and lower as far as you can, taking the chin to the mat if you can.
  4. When you push back up, don't lock the elbows or pause, but go right into your next pushup.  

You can also try these pushup variations, modifications or, if you want a challenge, try this Pushup Fitness Test.

Diagonal Lateral Raise for the Shoulders

Paige Waehner

If you really want to target the middle of the shoulders, the cable lateral raise does the trick.  You can easily use a resistance band for this move, as shown, if you don't have a cable machine or if you're traveling.

Make it Work

The key to making this an effective exercise is:

  1. Keep your elbow slightly bent throughout the movement.  You don't want it locked, nor do you want 'floppy dead bird' - or loose wrists.
  2. As you lift the weight up, lift just to shoulder level.
  3. Try to keep enough tension on the band that, when you lower your arm, there's still some resistance in the band.


Dips for the Shoulders

Getty Images/Christopher Futcher

While dips are an amazing exercise for the triceps, you may not know that they're also a killer move for the shoulders.  Dips target the front of the shoulder more than the middle or the posterior delts, but you'll want to work your way up to these.  You might start with dips using a bench or chair to build strength and endurance.  If you have shoulder problems, I would avoid dips like the plague.

Make it Work

The real concern with dips is to protect your body from injury.  They're great for the shoulders and triceps but, do them wrong, and you actually risk injuring  your shoulders.

  1. Keep your core braced throughout the exercise and squeeze the shoulder blades together to keep your shoulder girdle strong and stable throughout the exercise.
  2. Keep a slight forward lean to avoid putting too much stress on the shoulder joints.
  3. Only dip to the point where you feel a slight stretch.  Any lower and you risk injury.


Upright Row for the Shoulders

Upright Row
Paige Waehner

Upright rows sometimes get a bad rap in the exercise world because some people think they can actually be bad for the shoulders.  ACE's research study found that upright rows are actually great for working the middle deltoids, but only if you do them the right way.

Make it Work

 It's easy to use the wrong position, putting your shoulders at risk with this exercise.  You can avoid injury by using good form.

  • Holding a barbell or dumbbells, begin with feet shoulder-width apart, abs braced.
  • Bend the elbows and bring the weight up towards the chest, almost skimming the body.
  • Only bring the elbows level with the shoulders.  Too often, people jerk the weight up to get the elbows up, but shoulder level is the perfect way to activate the middle deltoids.

If you have any shoulder problems, I would definitely avoid this exercise and go to the next one, Bent Arm Lateral Raises.

Bent Arm Lateral Raises for the Shoulders

Bent Arm Lateral Raise
Paige Waehner

Bent arm lateral raises are one of the best moves for working the middle deltoids, even better than the previous upright rows.  This is a classic move that's safe for almost everyone and having bent arms allows you to use a heavier weight.

Make it Work

 The key to this move, as with any shoulder exercise, is in using perfect form to trigger all the right muscle fibers and protect you from injury.

  • Keep the elbows bent at 90 degrees throughout the exercise.
  • Your shoulders should act as a hinge, lifting the arms out to the sides and only to shoulder level.
  • Keep the wrists straight and fixed throughout the movement.
  • If you have to jerk the weights up, your weight is probably too heavy.


Incline Row for the Shoulders

Paige Waehner

One area we often forget to focus on is the posterior shoulder, or the rear part of the delts.  As a result, this is often a weaker area of the shoulder, leaving us vulnerable to injury.  The incline row is perfect for activating the rear shoulders, making this a must for any well-rounded shoulder workout.

Make it Work

 One mistake I often see with this exercise is people trying to jerk the weights up, taking the elbows past the torso.  This is not only not the most effective way to do this exercise, it also puts you at risk for injury.  Using the right form will give you the best results.

  • Get into an incline position, either on the ball, as shown, or use a bench set at 45 degrees.
  • Squeeze the shoulder blades together as you bend the elbows and pull them only up to shoulder level.
  • Keeps the wrists straight and the head in alignment throughout the exercise.

You'll probably use less weight with this exercise than with other shoulder moves.


Rear Delt Flies for the Shoulders

Rear Fly
Paige Waehner

Rear Delt Flies, or sometimes called Reverse Flies, are a great exercise for targeting the rear of the shoulders and, as a bonus, you also work the upper back.

Make it Work

The key with this move is not to jerk the weights up too high but, instead, lift them slowly up and only to shoulder level.  People often feel that they need to take the elbows way past the torso for an effective exercise, but the range of motion is usually smaller.

  • Keep the elbows just slightly bent throughout the exercise, rather than locked.
  • Try leading with the elbows and squeezing the shoulder blades together as you lift the arms.
  • Keep the head in alignment with the body and the back straight throughout the exercise.


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