The Best Shoulder Workout Routine To Add Serious Size To Your Shoulders

Man prepares to press a barbell overhead as part of a shoulder workout
(Image credit: Getty Images / Johnny Greig)

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

The strain of a tough workout can increase the injury risk in every part of the body, but the shoulder joints are one area where you need to be especially careful. Prepare for every shoulder workout meticulously to reduce your risk of picking up a problem that could keep you out of the gym for weeks or months.

That prep starts with mobilising the shoulder joints. Before you touch a weight, spend five to 10 minutes working the joints to activate the rotator cuff muscles and allow you to increase your range of motion during the workout. Here are two suggestions for this part of the warm-up.

Woman performs shoulder dislocate

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Shoulder dislocates This warm-up drill is a particular favourite of Chinese Olympic weightlifter Lu Xiaojun, who places huge demands on his shoulder joints by performing elite-level clean and jerks. Hold a resistance band, broom handle or similar above your head using a wide grip. Lower the band or stick behind your body, keeping your palms facing outwards, aiming to bring your hands down in line with the hips (although this requires excellent shoulder mobility – don’t force it). This puts your shoulders in external rotation, which you should find extremely useful if you work at a desk or perform a lot of pressing exercises.

Cable rotator cuff extensions Set a cable pulley to chest height. Standing side-on to the machine, pull the cable outwards with your outside arm, keeping your elbow tucked in. This is an effective way to warm up your rotator cuff muscles, which can take a battering from excessive pressing movements.

For more options, refer to our guide to the best rotator cuff exercises.

This mobilisation is part of your warm-up, but not all of it. Before you start your shoulder workout proper you should do some high-rep sets of the exercise you are about to do using very light weights, or even no weights at all. This will get the shoulder used to the movements it is about to do with weights so you’re not starting your first set cold.

Then, once you’re into your shoulder workout, it’s vital not to push it too hard. If you start struggling with a weight, end your set or reduce the amount of weight you’re lifting. You might be accustomed to pushing yourself to the max to get through the final few reps of a set, but when training your shoulders it’s just not worth it. The benefits of forcing out those final reps are far outweighed by the risk of injury.

The Best Shoulder Workout Routine

1A Overhead press

Barbell overhead press

(Image credit: Glen Burrows)

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

Barbell push press

(Image credit: Glen Burrows)

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.

1C Barbell shrug

Barbell shrug

(Image credit: Glen Burrows)

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

Seated Arnold press

(Image credit: Glen Burrows)

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

Seated lateral raise

(Image credit: Glen Burrows)

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.

2C Bent-over reverse flye

Reverse flye

(Image credit: Glen Burrows)

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

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. 

  1. Band pull-apart (Reps 15)
  2. Band dislocate (Reps 15)
  3. 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. 

  1. Press-up pike (Sets 3 Reps 12)
  2. Press-up handstand (Sets 3 Reps 12)
  3. Spider walk (Sets 3 Reps 12)
  4. Plank shoulder tap (Sets 3 Reps 12)
  5. Rock the plank (Sets 3 Reps 12)
  6. 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.

  1. Front support (Sets 5 Reps 6)
  2. Pull-up (Sets 5 Reps 3)
  3. L-sit (Sets 3 Time 10sec)
  4. Dip (Sets 5 Reps 5)
  5. Inverted row (Sets 3 Reps 8)
  6. 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.

  1. Dumbbell thruster
  2. 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.

  1. Kettlebell swing
  2. Overhead press
  3. 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.

  1. Triceps extension (Sets 3 Reps 7)
  2. Front raise (Sets 3 Reps 7)
  3. Lateral raise (Sets 3 Reps 7)
  4. Biceps curl (Sets 3 Reps 7)
  5. Seated rear flye (Sets 3 Reps 7)

See the upper-body resistance bands workout

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.

  1. External cable rotation (Sets 3 Reps 12 each side)
  2. Internal cable rotation (Sets 3 Reps 12 each side)
  3. 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. 

See the 30-day press-up challenge workout

Sam Rider
Sam Rider

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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