Your shoulder muscles are among the largest muscles in your upper body. They are essential for building an impressive and balanced physique and are crucial for functional strength.
Strong shoulders enhance your performance in many sports and daily activities, providing power and stability in a wide range of motions.
This article contains an effective shoulder workout for building bigger, stronger shoulders that move well and pain-free.
We will cover the anatomy of the shoulder muscles and the most effective exercises and training principles to help you achieve your fitness goals.
This shoulder workout is one of many free workouts in our workout app, which you can download for free using the buttons below.
Table of Contents
Anatomy of Your Shoulder Muscles
Your shoulder muscles are also known as the deltoids, and they are what make up the rounded shape of your shoulders.
Many people think of the deltoid muscle as a rather small muscle compared to, say, your pecs or lats. But in reality, your deltoids are among the largest muscle groups in your upper body.
Your deltoid muscles consist of three distinct sections of muscle fibers: the anterior deltoid, the lateral deltoid, and the posterior deltoid. Or, in simpler terms: your front delts, your side delts, and your rear delts.
Each section can be more or less isolated using different exercises targeting each one, and the best shoulder workouts work all three parts of your deltoid equally.
- Your front delts’ primary function is to bring your arm forward and rotate it internally. It is worked effectively in exercises like the bench press, push-up, and all forms of overhead shoulder presses.
- Your side delts lift your arms out to your sides and stabilize your shoulders when you are carrying stuff. While your middle deltoid is involved to some extent in various shoulder presses, it is worked most efficiently in exercises like the dumbbell lateral raise.
- Finally, your rear delts bring your arm back and rotate it externally. The rear delt is worked in different rowing exercises like the barbell row, but even more so in high rowing motions like the rear delt row or face pull.
It should be noted that these are not distinct segments but rather a continuous arrangement of muscle fibers that all converge into the same tendon, inserting on the outside of your upper arm bone.
Finally, we should mention the rotator cuff.
The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles located underneath and partly covered by your deltoid muscles.
The rotator cuff is a group of shoulder muscles originating from your shoulder blade that inserts into the head of your upper arm bone. They aid in stabilizing the head of the upper arm bone as well as rotating it.
In healthy shoulders, the rotator cuffs are active (and worked) in all normal shoulder exercises. They often work in the opposite direction of your larger muscles, pulling on the humeral head to keep you shoulder joint in place throughout the movement.1 2
Structuring a Shoulder Workout
A good shoulder workout should consist of two distinct parts:
- Main workout
The warm-up is important for letting your body prepare for the workout to come. When you warm up, your muscles become warmer, stronger, and more flexible, and you increase your focus and performance in general.
Often, starting very light and gradually adding weight in your first exercise of the day can serve as a warm-up.
If you want to warm up a little more thoroughly, you can do something like this:
- 5–10 minutes of light cardio activity. Preferably something involving your upper body, like rowing or using a cross-trainer.
- 10–20 big arm circles (forward and backward), repeated two to three times.
- 10–20 band pull-aparts with a resistance band, repeated two to three times.
While not a necessity, doing a simple warm-up like the above can help increase your flexibility and range of motion in your shoulders and improve your chances of a good workout.
When it comes to the main workout part, we generally recommend that you start with the big, heavy compound exercises, and end your workout with the smaller isolation exercises.
Just like in the workout we’re about to get into.
Shoulder Workout for Muscle Growth & Strength: 5 Exercises
In this section, I’ll outline a shoulder workout that works all parts of your shoulder muscles: the front, side, and rear delts.
The exercise selection and combination of sets and reps make this an effective workout for increasing your shoulder strength and adding muscle mass to your shoulders.
Let’s begin with an overview of the workout, then go through the exercises and why they are included.
StrengthLog’s Shoulder Workout
- Overhead Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Upright Row: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Barbell Front Raise: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Reverse Dumbbell Flyes: 3 sets x 12 reps
This shoulder workout is available for free in our workout tracker app, which you can download for free using the buttons below.
1. Overhead Press
This shoulder workout begins with three sets of five reps of the overhead press, and these heavy sets will serve as the strength foundation of your shoulder training.
Your primary aim for these sets should be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying, ”Try to lift more weight for the same number of reps in the next workout.”
If you manage to do three sets of five reps at a given weight, you increase the weight by a small amount (2.5 kg or 5 lb) for the next workout and try to do three sets of five reps with that new weight.
If you can’t get all three sets of five reps, stick with that same weight for every consecutive workout until you can. You can use our workout log to keep track of your performance.
Muscles Worked in the Overhead Press
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
How to Overhead Press with Proper Form
- First, place a barbell in a rack at about chest height.
- Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and step close to it.
- Inhale, lightly brace your core, and unrack the bar.
- Let the bar rest against your front delts while you step back from the rack and place your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Press the bar up to straight arms while exhaling.
- Inhale at the top or while lowering the bar with control back to your shoulders.
- Repeat for reps.
2. Upright Row
With much of your strength and power training taken care of in the overhead press, you’ll move on to more muscle growth-focused training in the last four exercises.
The upright row is a classic barbell exercise for your side delts, but it also works your front delts and upper trapezius to some extent.
Use light weights and increase the number of reps to around ten reps per set, and focus on muscle contact and form in this exercise.
If this exercise feels uncomfortable in your shoulders, it can help to avoid elevating your upper arms above shoulder height at the top of the movement.4
If it still feels uncomfortable, you could try the dumbbell monkey row instead.
Muscles Worked in Barbell Upright Row
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
How to Do Barbell Upright Row
- Grip the bar with an overhand grip, slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
- Pull the bar straight up until it is at the level of your chin.
- With control, lower the bar back to the starting position.
3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
The dumbbell lateral raise is another classic shoulder exercise and one of the best exercises for focusing on the side delts.
While the dumbbell lateral raise primarily works your lateral delts, the uppermost fibers of your front and rear delts also contribute to bringing your arms out to the sides (abduction). Additionally, to counter your shoulder muscles pulling your humerus up, your rotator cuff pulls your humeral head down to keep it in your shoulder socket.
To make the most of this exercise, begin with lighter weights and focus on form. The idea is to lift the weights by contracting your shoulder muscles, not swinging them up using momentum from your hips or back.
Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Lateral Raises
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
How to Do Dumbbell Lateral Raises
- Hold a pair of dumbbells in almost straight arms hanging by your sides.
- With control, lift the dumbbells out to your sides until your upper arms are horizontal.
- Lower the dumbbells with control.
- Repeat for reps.
4. Barbell Front Raise
After two exercises targeting your middle deltoids in a row, let’s add the finishing touch on your front delts by performing an isolation exercise for them.
If you already do a lot of pressing exercises (like bench pressing), your anterior deltoids are probably already being worked quite a lot. But if you don’t, then performing this isolation exercise for them can help pack on some extra muscle on the front of your shoulders.
Like many other shoulder exercises, it is deceptively easy to use too heavy weights in this exercise, leading to form breakdown where you use your back for momentum instead of powering the movement from your shoulder muscles.
The solution is the same for this exercise as for the others: begin with light weights, nail the form, and then gradually increase the weights as you become stronger and more proficient.
Muscles Worked in Barbell Front Raises
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
How to Do Barbell Front Raises
- Hold a barbell in straight arms, in front of your body.
- With control, lift the barbell forward with straight arms, until the bar is at shoulder height.
- Reverse the movement and lower the bar with control.
5. Reverse Dumbbell Fly
The last exercise in this shoulder workout is an isolation exercise for the back of your shoulders: your rear delts and rotator cuffs. It also works your middle traps and the posterior muscle fibers of your side delts.
Pick a weight light enough to be able to perform the exercise correctly and with control; no swinging from the hips!
Muscles Worked in Reverse Dumbbell Flyes
Primary muscles worked:
Secondary muscles worked:
How to Do Reverse Dumbbell Flyes
- Hold a pair of dumbbells, lean forward, and let your arms hang towards the floor.
- With almost straight arms (just a slight bend at the elbow), slowly lift the dumbbells by raising your arms out to the sides.
- Reverse the movement and lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
That was the workout. As previously mentioned, you can find and follow this shoulder workout for free in our workout log, which you can download with the links below.
Key Principles for Shoulder Training
Lifting heavy stuff is only half the battle (OK, maybe slightly more than half). Knowing when and how to lift is the other half.
Let’s go over some of the most important principles of strength training in general, and shoulder training in particular.
Progressive overload is a foundational principle in any effective workout program. The concept involves gradually increasing the stress on your muscles over time, forcing them to adapt and grow stronger.
Progressive overload can be achieved through various methods, such as:
- Increasing the weight. One of the most straightforward ways to apply progressive overload is by adding weight to your exercises. For example, if you are currently lifting 20 kg in a shoulder press, you can increase the weight by 2.5 kg once you can complete the desired number of reps with proper form. This increase in weight will challenge your shoulder muscles, promoting strength gains and muscle growth.
- Increasing repetitions. Another method of progressive overload is to perform more repetitions with the same weight. For instance, if you are doing lateral raises with 10 kg dumbbells for 3 sets of 10 reps, aim to achieve 3 sets of 12 reps before increasing the weight.
- Increasing training volume. You can also increase your training volume by adding more sets to your shoulder exercises. For example, if you are currently performing 3 sets of 8 repetitions for an overhead press, you can increase the volume by performing 4 sets of 8 repetitions. This increase in training volume will place additional stress on your shoulder muscles, leading to further adaptations and growth.
The way I recommend you begin, is that every time you can perform all reps as written in the program with good form, you increase the weight by a small amount.
With a barbell or on a machine, the smallest step is often 2.5 kg or 5 lb; with dumbbells, it is often similar or even smaller steps.
As soon as you can complete all sets and reps with the new weight and with good form, you increase the weight again. If you cannot get all sets and reps in at the new weight, you stick with that weight until you can.
Our workout tracker app was built for this purpose, and you can easily see what weights and reps you did in an exercise during your last workout.
By implementing progressive overload in your shoulder workouts, you will ensure continuous muscle growth and strength gains.
How often can you repeat this same shoulder workout?
For a workout with this volume and intensity, something like 1–2 times per week is probably enough.
Once a week will probably be plenty for many, but if you feel that you have recovered quicker and that you are ready to beat your previous weights, you could repeat it every 4–5 days.
An alternative is to do this workout once a week but do a lighter second workout in between each workout. In the lighter workout, you can reduce both volume and weights, so that you are refreshed for your next workout, and help your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden.
Exercise Selection and Variation
Do you have to change the exercises in this shoulder workout after a while to keep getting stronger and building muscle?
No, probably not.
The shoulder exercises in this workout will train all heads of your deltoids effectively, and there is no need to change exercises just for the sake of variation itself.
It is, however, more than fine to change exercises because you want to, or perhaps to avoid emerging shoulder injuries.
Just remember that every time you change exercises, you will need a few weeks to get acquainted with the new exercise, which is why I recommend you stick with a given exercise for at least six weeks at a time.
If you enjoy or don’t mind the exercises in this shoulder workout, I recommend you stick with them, as they will effectively work all parts of your shoulder muscles.
Mind-Muscle Connection & Proper Form
It is sometimes said that the difference between bodybuilding and strength training is that in bodybuilding you focus on the muscles worked but in training aimed at increasing your strength, you focus on getting the weight up.
Focusing on the muscles worked is sometimes referred to as mind-muscle connection, or having an internal focus.
This type of focus on the muscle worked can help you avoid cheating or using improper form, thereby recruiting or involving muscles that were not among the target muscles.
An example of this is the rear delt row. It is supposed to primarily work your posterior deltoids, but if you use too heavy weights, you might get tempted to create momentum using your hips and back, thus “cheating” a heavier weight up and robbing your rear deltoids of the training effect.
In most exercises where your goal is muscle hypertrophy, you should focus on the mind-muscle connection. This is perhaps especially important in shoulder training, where you must use light weights in many of the exercises because of the long lever arm caused by your extended arms, and thus might easily overestimate how heavy weights you can lift.
If there is one exercise in this shoulder workout where I think you can focus on getting the weight up instead of the muscles worked, it is the overhead press. While you should still practice proper form, it is more of a multi-joint, compound exercise that lends itself well to a performance-centric external focus instead of an internal one.
Nutrition and Recovery for Shoulder Muscle Growth
To maximize shoulder growth and strength, it is essential to fuel your body with the necessary nutrients and give it time to repair and recover.
Let’s briefly take a look at some of the most important nutrition and recovery variables.
Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair, and you must consume enough of it if you wish to maximize your strength training results.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2–1.7 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound, of body weight per day, for active individuals who want to increase muscle mass.5
However, a systematic review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine finds that 1.6–2.2 grams of protein per kg (0.7–1 gram per pound) of body weight per day optimize gains in muscle mass.6
You can use our protein calculator to calculate how much protein you need to maximize your muscle growth.
We recommend that you include high-quality protein sources like lean meats, fish, dairy, eggs, and plant-based options such as legumes and tofu in your diet.
Consuming a protein-rich meal or snack within a couple of hours after your shoulder workout can help maximize muscle protein synthesis and recovery.
Carbohydrate and Fat Intake
Carbohydrates provide the energy needed for your workouts and daily activities, while fats support hormone production, nutrient absorption, and overall health.
We generally recommend that you include a mix of complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as healthy fats from sources such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish in your diet.
A balanced macronutrient intake will ensure your body has the necessary fuel for optimal performance and recovery. While it is possible to build muscle on a ketogenic diet, it might not lead to optimal results.
While a well-balanced diet should provide most of the nutrients required for muscle growth and recovery, some supplements can help support your shoulder workouts.
Here are two of the ones we recommend:
- Whey protein. A convenient and high-quality protein source that can help meet your daily protein needs.
- Creatine. Supports muscle strength, power, and growth, making it beneficial for getting a little more out of your shoulder workouts.
Sleep and Rest
Sleep is crucial for muscle recovery and growth, not to mention overall health and well-being. Aim for 7–9 hours of quality sleep each night to ensure your body can effectively repair and grow.
Additionally, giving your shoulder muscles enough time to recover between workouts is vital. As mentioned earlier, you should probably not repeat this shoulder workout more often than twice per week. Somewhere between one and two of these shoulder workouts per week, or four to five days of rest between the workouts, is probably the sweet spot for most people.
Common Shoulder Training Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Here are some frequent shoulder training mistakes and how to prevent them to ensure you stay on track toward broad, powerful shoulders.
More is more – until it isn’t. While there is a dose-response relationship between how many sets you do and how much your muscles grow, there is also a risk of doing too much, too soon and getting injured or overtrained.
Increase your shoulder training volume gradually, and primarily focus on lifting heavier weights or doing more reps. Don’t increase your set volume until you feel like you have to in order to keep improving.
This shoulder workout has a moderate volume and should be tolerable for most people to get started with, especially if you start with light weights.
If you find that it is a little too much for your shoulders and you get nagging pains, try decreasing the set volume to just one or two light sets per exercise for a few weeks, and then gradually increase from there.
Poor Exercise Form
We’ve already been over this in the section about mind-muscle connection, but it bears repeating that proper form is important.
Study our exercise demonstrations (they’re available in the app) and practice until you get it right.
A great way to improve form is to set up your phone and record a video of yourself while you’re lifting. It can teach you a lot about how your form looks, and oftentimes it doesn’t look the way we think it does.
Imbalance Between Pressing and Pulling Movements
This workout balances the amount of pushing and pulling exercises you do for your shoulders and should lead to a well-rounded development of both your front, middle, and rear delts.
Neglecting Progressive Overload
You might do everything else right, but if you forget to progressively overload your muscles by increasing the number of reps, sets, or the weight you use, your results will soon cease to come.
Because this is so important, we developed a workout tracker to help track your workouts so you can see what you lifted last time and do more in your next workout.
Both the app and this shoulder workout are 100% free to download and use with the links below.
Good luck with your shoulder training, and don’t forget to continually try to add weight or reps!
- The 10 Best Shoulder Exercises for Muscle & Strength
- Chest and Shoulder Workout Routine (8 Exercises)
- Back and Shoulder Workout Routine (10 Exercises)
- J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2011 Dec;21(6):1041-9. Direction-specific recruitment of rotator cuff muscles during bench press and row.
- J Sci Med Sport. 2011 Sep;14(5):376-82. The rotator cuff muscles have a direction specific recruitment pattern during shoulder flexion and extension exercises.
- J Hum Kinet. 2020 Oct; 75: 5–14. Different Shoulder Exercises Affect the Activation of Deltoid Portions in Resistance-Trained Individuals.
- Strength and Conditioning Journal 33(5):p 25-28, October 2011. The Upright Row: Implications for Preventing Subacromial Impingement.
- ACSM Information on Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance.
- Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.