Building strong shoulders should be an integral part of any strength training plan, because without them you’re going to come up short when attempting all sorts of lifts, especially during upper-body workouts. However, it’s essential to take care when training your shoulders, because it’s a delicate joint that’s not easy to target.
Shoulder exercises should be performed using relatively light weights, compared with what you’d use for arm exercises. It’s better to train smart with your shoulders, rather than just going for a huge weight that puts them under too much pressure and raises the risk of injury.
There are three heads in the shoulder—the anterior (front delt), medial (side delt) and posterior (rear delt)—and the best shoulder workouts target all three of them, as well as engaging the trapezius muscle in your upper back.
If planning a session to work all those muscles without placing undue pressure on your shoulders sounds like a lot of work, the good news is we’ve done that work for you. The shoulder workout routine below hits the three heads of the shoulders and your traps, and there’s also a shoulder-specific warm-up to reduce the risk of injury.
Bear in mind that this is a challenging session designed for people with extensive training experience who are looking to build serious size and strength in their shoulders. It also needs a range of equipment, including a barbell, dumbbell and weights bench. So if you don’t have access to a gym or would prefer an easier session, we’ve included a variety of other shoulder workouts below as well, so everyone can develop their deltoids, no matter their ability or equipment.
Shoulder Workout Instructions
The shoulder workout below has detailed instructions that you need to follow to get the most out of it.
The six exercises are broken down into a pair of tri-sets.That means you do a set of exercise 1, rest for 10 seconds as noted, move on to a set of exercise 2, rest for 10 seconds, do a set of exercise 3, then rest for 90 seconds. Then repeat that entire sequence again until all the sets are completed.
The tempo, or speed, at which you move the weight is specified by the four-digit code. The first number is the time in seconds you take to lower the weight; the second is the pause at the bottom; the third is the time you take to lift it; and the fourth is the pause at the top. The first movement of any pressing exercise is governed by the third number – so don’t get caught out! Taking two seconds to press a weight overhead is much, much harder than controlling the descent over two seconds.
Be cautious with the weight selection the first time you attempt this workout. Remember that tri-sets limit your rest periods to subject your muscles to accumulated fatigue, which will damage more tissue to elicit more growth. Do this workout twice a week for a month to gain mass, and performing it that many times means you can incrementally add weight to keep challenging yourself.
How To Warm Up For This Shoulder Workout
You should warm-up before every training session, but it’s particularly important with shoulder workouts. For one, the shoulder is a complex joint that can be susceptible to injuries like strains and dislocations. For two, shoulder injuries are a nightmare and often take longer than others to come back from.
The workout below works the muscles in the shoulders from all angles, and is a challenging session that uses a variety of heavy weights. As such, you need a shoulder warm-up that covers all the planes of motion you’re about to work your shoulders in, and we have just the thing for you. This shoulder warm-up is made up of eight exercises and uses a variety of equipment to ensure you are completely ready for the workout proper.
It does take a bit of time to complete the warm-up, but consider that time an investment in the health of your shoulders. It will allow you to perform at your best in the workout, as well as reducing the risk of an injury that could set you back a couple of months.
The Best Shoulder Workout Routine
Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2010 Rest 10sec
Stand tall with a barbell across the front of your shoulders. Brace your core, then press the bar directly overhead. Lower it slowly back to the start.
1B Push press
Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 20X0 Rest 10sec
Using the same weight as in move 1A, bend your knees to create power to press the bar overhead. Then lower it slowly under complete control.
Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 1111 Rest 90sec
Lower the bar to thigh level then, keeping your arms straight, shrug the bar up so that your shoulders reach your ears. Hold this top position for a second, then lower it back to the start.
2A Seated Arnold press
Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2111 Rest 10sec
Sit holding a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing you. Press them up overhead, rotating your wrists as you go, so you end with straight arms and palms facing away.
2B Seated lateral raise
Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2111 Rest 10sec
Switch to lighter dumbbells then, leaning forward slightly, raise them to shoulder height, leading with your elbows. Pause at the top, then lower back under control.
Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2111 Rest 90sec
Stand up and, using the same weights as 2B, bend forwards from your hips. Lead with your elbows to raise the weights to shoulder height. Pause, then lower back under control.
More Of The Best Shoulder Workouts
Beginner Shoulder Workout
Hoicking a barbell above your head dozens of times is not for beginners, and in fact it’s wise to avoid weights altogether until you’ve built up strength and mobility in your shoulders using just your bodyweight. That’s what this routine does, and it includes a resistance band routine to graduate to as well. Here’s the bodyweight routine.
- Incline push-up (Sets 2-3 Reps 8-12)
- Mountain climber (Sets 2-3 Reps 8-12)
- Plank to downward dog (Sets 2-3 Reps 8-12)
- Bent-over Y raise (Sets 2-3 Reps 8-12)
- Superman row (Sets 2-3 Reps 8-12)
See the beginner shoulder workout
Dumbbell Shoulder Workout
This three-move workout is designed to work your shoulders from multiple angles, and includes the exercises that helped Arnold Schwarzenegger put the finishing touches to his magnificent deltoids during his bodybuilding days. If it’s good enough for Arnie, it’s good enough for you.
- 1A Reverse flye (Sets 3 Reps 10)
- 1B Lateral raise (Sets 3 Reps 10)
- 1C Arnold press (Sets 3 Reps 10)
See the dumbbell shoulder workout
Resistance Band Shoulder Workout
Perform these three simple exercises a few times a week to reduce your risk of shoulder injuries, improve your posture and boost your range of movement. All you need is a long looped resistance band. The routine works well as a break from deskbound work.
- Band pull-apart (Reps 15)
- Band dislocate (Reps 15)
- Banded face pull (Reps 15)
See the resistance band shoulder workout
Bodyweight Workout From An Orthopaedic Surgeon
This bodyweight shoulder workout has been put together by shoulder specialist Carlos Cobiella, a London-based consultant orthopaedic surgeon, and will help you build strong, healthy shoulders.
- Press-up pike (Sets 3 Reps 12)
- Press-up handstand (Sets 3 Reps 12)
- Spider walk (Sets 3 Reps 12)
- Plank shoulder tap (Sets 3 Reps 12)
- Rock the plank (Sets 3 Reps 12)
- Walking plank (Sets 3 Reps 12 each side)
See the bodyweight shoulder workout
Home Shoulder Workout
You don’t need huge weights to build big shoulders. In fact, given that it’s an easy joint to overwork and injure, most of us could perhaps stand to use lighter weights in our shoulder workouts. You can do this effective session at home using just light dumbbells and it’ll help you fill out your T-shirts in no time.
- 1 30/30 push press (Sets 3 Time 2min)
- 2A Lateral raise (Sets 3 Reps 12)
- 2B Front raise (Sets 3 Reps 12)
- 2C Reverse flye (Sets 3 Reps 12)
See the home shoulder workout
Supersets Shoulder Workout
Perform this 45-minute workout if you’re chasing the broad, strong shoulders of a swimmer. You’ll need to hit the gym to do it because it requires a barbell, dumbbells and a cable machine. The workout consists of two straight sets and then two supersets that work the shoulders from all angles.
- 1 Push press (Sets 4 Reps 10)
- 2 Upright row (Sets 4 Reps 10)
- 3A Seated dumbbell overhead press (Sets 4 Reps 12)
- 3B Prone reverse dumbbell flye (Sets 4 Reps 12)
- 4A Standing dumbbell lateral raise (Sets 4 Reps 15)
- 4B Cable face pull (Sets 4 Reps 15)
See the superset shoulder workout
Gym Rings Shoulder Workout
Hit the rings for this bodyweight workout that will help you build stronger, more injury-resilient shoulders. Using rings also lessens the strain on your wrists in common moves like dips and pull-ups.
- Front support (Sets 5 Reps 6)
- Pull-up (Sets 5 Reps 3)
- L-sit (Sets 3 Time 10sec)
- Dip (Sets 5 Reps 5)
- Inverted row (Sets 3 Reps 8)
- Press-up (Sets 3 Reps 8)
See the gym rings shoulder workout
Dumbbell Ladder Workout
This simple routine consists of just two exercises, both of which work the shoulders among other muscles, and the ladder format means you’ll be improving your muscular endurance as well as your strength. Use lighter weights than you usually would for these movements given how many reps you’ll be doing. Start at five reps of each move, and keep adding one to each set until you can lift no more.
- Dumbbell thruster
- Dumbbell overhead lunge
See the dumbbell ladder workout
Pull-up Workout Plan For Beginners
This four-week training plan is designed to help you build the strength to complete a full set of perfect pull-ups. The pull-up is an exercise that it’s worth devoting time to perfecting, because as well as strengthening your shoulders it works most of the upper body and core muscles.
See the pull-up workout plan
Kettlebell Centurion Challenge
“Centurion” refers to the 100 kettlebell swings you complete during the workout, and that’s on top of the two other shoulder-focused exercises. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
- Kettlebell swing
- Overhead press
- Overhead hold
See the kettlebell challenge
Resistance Band Arms And Shoulder Workout
Grab a set of resistance bands and get ready to feel the burn in your upper arms and shoulders. This workout uses the 21s approach, in which you do 21 reps of each exercise—seven reps of the bottom half of the move, seven of the top half, and then seven of the full range.
- Triceps extension (Sets 3 Reps 7)
- Front raise (Sets 3 Reps 7)
- Lateral raise (Sets 3 Reps 7)
- Biceps curl (Sets 3 Reps 7)
- Seated rear flye (Sets 3 Reps 7)
Rotator Cuff Shoulder Workout
Increase the resilience of your shoulders with this session that focuses on the rotator cuff muscles. You’ll need access to a cable machine.
- External cable rotation (Sets 3 Reps 12 each side)
- Internal cable rotation (Sets 3 Reps 12 each side)
- Diagonal external cable rotation (Sets 3 Reps 12 each side)
See the rotator cuff shoulder workout
30-Day Press-Up Challenge
If you’re after something a little different to challenge your shoulders, then try our press-up challenge. You’ll be building up to completing 100 press-ups in one go, which will result in incredibly strong shoulders, as well as terrific triceps and popping pecs. It’s a good option for people without access to weights who just want to spend a few minutes working out each day, rather than committing to several long workouts each week.
Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.
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