The 10 Best Shoulder Exercises for Muscle & Strength

If you want to build strong, muscular shoulders, incorporating the right shoulder exercises into your workout routine is essential.

Not only do well-developed shoulders improve your physique, but they also play a crucial role in upper body strength and overall athletic performance.

But with so many shoulder exercises out there, it can be overwhelming to know which ones to prioritize.

That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best shoulder exercises for muscle and strength.

We’ll list exercises for every muscle surrounding your shoulder joint: your front, side, and rear deltoids. Some exercises will have more muscle-building focus, while others will focus more on strength and power.

Whether you’re a beginner or advanced lifter, these exercises will help you pack on muscle and increase your shoulder strength quickly.

Before we get into the exercises, let’s take a quick look at your shoulder muscles.

Shoulder Muscle Anatomy

Your shoulder muscles, or deltoids, consist of three distinct sets of muscle fibers: the front delts, lateral delts, and rear delts.

Deltoid shoulder muscle anatomy
The three sets of muscle fibers in the deltoid muscle. Front deltoids in red, lateral deltoids in green, and rear deltoids in blue. © The Database Center for Life Science.
  • The front delts (anterior deltoids) sit on the front of your shoulder. Their main function is to move your arm forward.
  • The side delts (lateral deltoids) sit on the outside of your shoulders. Their main function is to lift your arms out to the sides.
  • The rear delts (posterior deltoids) is located on the back of your shoulders. Their main function is to move your arm back.

In addition to the functions above, the different deltoid heads aid in rotating your upper arm, and supporting your shoulder joint when you are carrying things.

For complete shoulder training, you should incorporate exercises in which you:

  • Bring your arms forward
  • Bring your arms out to your sides
  • Bring your arm backward

Perform exercises that involve these three movement directions, and you will have worked all parts of your deltoid muscles.

Now, let’s get into the best shoulder exercises to accomplish this.

1. Overhead Press

The overhead press is as old as the barbell itself, and is possibly the best shoulder exercise of all.

This exercise will primarily work your front delts, with your triceps and side delts as secondarily working muscles. In addition, you will use your core, hips, and rotator cuff as stabilizing musculature throughout the exercise.

If you should only do one shoulder exercise, the overhead press is a great choice, which is why it is included in many of our shoulder workouts.

How to Do The Overhead Press

  1. Place a barbell in a rack at about chest height.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and step close to it.
  3. Inhale, lightly brace your core, and unrack the bar.
  4. Let the bar rest against your front delts while you step back from the rack and place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  5. Press the bar up to straight arms while exhaling.
  6. Inhale at the top or while lowering the bar with control back to your shoulders.
  7. Repeat for reps.

2. Push Press

The push press is a variation of the overhead press, where you use your legs to help push the bar up.

When you use your legs correctly and forcefully, you will be able to lift much heavier weights than in the strict press, turning this into an amazing full-body pushing movement for strength and power.

The push press is a great addition to any push-day workout when you want to incorporate a bit more power and athleticism.

How to Push Press

  1. Clean a bar to your shoulders, or lift it out from a rack.
  2. Let the bar rest against the front of your shoulders, with your grip slightly outside your shoulders.
  3. Inhale and lightly brace your core.
  4. Bend your knees, and then forcefully push yourself and the bar upwards using your legs.
  5. When your legs are extended, immediately start pressing the bar with your arms, until your arms are fully extended.
  6. With control, lower the bar back to your shoulders.

3. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

If the push press is more of an athletic power exercise, the seated dumbbell press is more of a bodybuilding exercise.

The stability of the bench will let you focus on your front and side delts without worrying as much about balance, although the dumbbells will challenge and develop your shoulder stability.

Since this exercise only requires a pair of dumbbells and something sturdy to sit on, it is a great exercise for doing shoulder workouts at home.

How to Do The Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

  1. Sit down on a bench with a raised backrest.
  2. Grab a pair of dumbbells and lift them to the starting position at your shoulders.
  3. Inhale and lightly brace your core.
  4. Press the dumbbells up to straight arms while exhaling.
  5. Inhale at the top or while lowering the dumbbells with control back to your shoulders.
  6. Repeat for reps.

4. Barbell Front Raise

Finally, the last exercise for your front delts. The front raise is an anterior deltoid isolation exercise, and you can perform it with a barbell, dumbbells, or even just a weight plate.

If you already do a lot of pressing exercises, you might already work your front delts sufficiently, in which case you can save your isolation work for the next exercise.

How to Do Barbell Front Raises

  1. Hold a barbell in straight arms, in front of your body.
  2. With control, lift the barbell forward with straight arms, until the bar is at shoulder height.
  3. Reverse the movement and lower the bar with control.

5. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Let’s move from the front of your shoulders to the sides. Like the name hints, the dumbbell lateral raise works your lateral deltoids.

This is another bodybuilding staple for building boulder shoulders, and it is also a great exercise for your rotator cuffs.

The key to doing lateral raises with good form and actually hitting your lateral deltoid is to begin with a really light weight and focus on muscle contact. Squeeze the muscles and work up a burn!

How to Do Dumbbell Lateral Raises

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells in almost straight arms hanging by your sides.
  2. With control, lift the dumbbells out to your sides until your upper arms are horizontal.
  3. Lower the dumbbells with control.
  4. Repeat for reps.

6. Behind the Neck Press

Moving back to a compound exercise, the behind-the-neck press is a variation of the standard overhead press.

A muscle activation study found that doing barbell presses behind the neck increases the middle deltoid and posterior deltoid activation compared to pressing in front of the neck.1

I should note that pressing behind your neck requires a fair amount of shoulder mobility in order to be performed safely, but conversely, it can also be used to increase or maintain your shoulder mobility.2

Just make sure to start with light weights and gradually increase your range of motion.

How to Do Behind the Neck Press

  1. Grab a bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and duck under it so that it is resting against the base of your neck.
  2. Take a breath, lightly brace your core, and unrack the bar. Take a step back.
  3. Press the bar up until your arms are straight, while exhaling.
  4. Inhale at the top, or while lowering the bar with control back to the base of your neck.
  5. Repeat for reps.

7. Barbell Upright Row

The upright row is a barbell exercise that works not only your side delts, but also your upper trapezius.

This exercise has a bad rep for causing shoulder pain from impinging your shoulders at the top of the movement. However, you can mitigate the risk of shoulder pain by starting with light weights and a low number of sets, and by avoiding elevating your upper arms above shoulder height at the top of the movement.3

If the exercise still feels uncomfortable, or you are looking for an alternative, you should check out the monkey row.

How to Do The Barbell Upright Row

  1. Grip the bar with an overhand grip, slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pull the bar close to your body, straight up until it is at the level of your chin.
  3. With control, lower the bar back to the starting position.

8. Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

With the front and side delts taken care of, it’s time to turn our attention to the rear delts.

The rear delt, or posterior deltoid, resides on the back of your shoulder, and its main function is to move your arm back.

That means it’s worked to some degree in rowing exercises like the bent-over row, but you can target it even further with exercises like the reverse dumbbell fly, pictured above.

The reverse fly is a great rear delt exercise that also works the muscles in your upper back that pull your shoulder blades together.

How to Do Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells, lean forward, and let your arms hang towards the floor.
  2. With almost straight arms (just a slight bend at the elbow), slowly lift the dumbbells by raising your arms out to the sides.
  3. Reverse the movement and lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.

9. Face Pull

The face pull is another popular exercise for your posterior deltoids and rotator cuff muscles.

Like many of the other shoulder exercises, the key to proper form in this exercise is to start with a really light weight and focus on the muscles working.

Notice that the face pull involves a bit of external rotation of your arms at the end of the movement, in contrast to the cable rear delt row, which is more of a straight pull.

How to Do Face Pulls

  1. Fasten a rope handle in a high position on a cable pulley. Grip the ropes with an overhand grip, and take a step or two back.
  2. With elbows held high, pull the rope towards you by letting your upper arms move straight out towards your sides, while simultaneously rotating your forearms up.
  3. Return with control to the starting position, by letting your arms move forward again.

10. Barbell Rear Delt Row

Today’s last shoulder exercise on our list is another back barbell exercise: the rear delt row.

The barbell rear delt row works the back of your shoulder and mid trapezius.

Focus on rowing your upper arms straight out to the sides, and squeezing your shoulder blades back and together in the top of the movement.

Avoid using momentum or swinging the weight up using your hips, as that will take away work from the intended working muscles.

How to Do The Barbell Rear Delt Row

  1. Grip the bar with a wide overhand grip, and lean forward with the bar hanging from straight arms.
  2. Inhale and pull the bar high on your chest.
  3. With control, lower the bar back to the starting position.

There you have it – some of the best exercises for building bigger, stronger shoulders!

How Many Shoulder Exercises Should You Do?

Normally, we recommend doing a few good exercises per muscle group. But in the case of the shoulder muscles, we are essentially looking at three different muscles in one.

Therefore, we recommend that you pick one or two exercises per deltoid head (front, side, and rear) to work your shoulder muscles thoroughly, as we do in our shoulder workout routine.

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do of Each Shoulder Exercise?

While you can build muscle using a wide rep range, we generally recommend doing about 8–15 reps per set for muscle growth.

For strength gains, you can go lower than this and use heavier weights; about 1–5 reps per set is probably the most effective for strength.

If you want to gain both muscle and strength, you can do a little bit of both: begin the workout with low reps and heavy weights in the compound shoulder exercises, and finish up with high reps and light weights in the isolation shoulder exercises.

Again, this is how we’ve designed our shoulder workout.

Regarding the number of sets, research has found that more sets lead to greater muscle growth up to a point of about ten sets per muscle per week.4

This is based mostly on studies with previously untrained participants, and it is likely that you will require slightly higher training volumes to keep growing as you get more trained.

In addition, you should consider the fact that different parts of your shoulder muscles are worked in different exercises, meaning that you will probably need to do more than ten sets of shoulder exercises in total to work all heads of the deltoid with enough volume.

A Shoulder Workout for Muscle & Strength Gains

Don’t want to design your own shoulder workout?

Then follow ours!

Our shoulder workout is designed to add muscle mass to all sides of your shoulders and utilizes both low and high-rep sets to maximize strength and muscle growth.

It is available for free in our workout tracker app, which you can download with the links below.

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
Download StrengthLog Workout Log on Google Play Store

I hope you learned something from list of the best shoulder exercises, and wish you good luck with your shoulder training!


  1. Front vs Back and Barbell vs Machine Overhead Press: An Electromyographic Analysis and Implications For Resistance Training. Front Physiol. 2022 Jul 22;13:825880.
  2. Overhead shoulder press – In-front of the head or behind the head? Journal of Sport and Health Science. Volume 4, Issue 3, September 2015, Pages 250-257.
  3. Strength and Conditioning Journal 33(5):p 25-28, October 2011. The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement.
  4. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.