How to Train Your Shoulder Muscles: Exercises & Workout

“I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”

Your shoulder muscles can make for a striking appearance. Wide shoulders are eye-catching symbols of health and strength, and an important feature for creating a V-shaped torso.

Athletically, your shoulders are the foundation for every action your arms take. Whether you’re pushing, pulling, or simply carrying something by your side, your shoulders take the brunt of the work.

In this article, you will learn how to train your shoulders effectively. From shoulder muscle anatomy and function, to the exercises that are most effective for making them bigger and stronger. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective shoulder workout.

Shoulder Muscle Anatomy

Your shoulder muscles, or deltoids, consist of three distinct sets of muscle fibers: 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.

Your front delts originate from the outer third of your clavicles, adjacent to the clavicular part of your pectoralis major. It inserts on the front of your humerus (your upper arm bone). The main function of your front delts is to flex your shoulder (= bring your arm forward) such as in pressing movements or front raises.

Your lateral delts originate from your acromion – the bony process of your shoulder blade that forms the “roof” of your shoulder joint. The fibers then passes over your shoulder joint, and inserts on the outside of your humerus. The main function of your lateral deltoid is to abduct your shoulder. That is, to lift your arm out to your side, like in a lateral raise. It can also transversally abduct your arm (like in a reverse dumbbell fly) if your arm is externally rotated. Lastly, your lateral deltoid keeps your arm in place when you are carrying or lifting things.

Your rear delts originate from the spine of your shoulder blade, partially covering your infraspinatus and teres minor, two muscles of your rotator cuff. It inserts on the outside of your humerus, and it can both extend your shoulder (= bring your arm back, like in a row) and externally rotate it. It is a synergist to your lats in shoulder extension, and a synergist to infraspinatus and teres minor in external shoulder rotation. The upper parts of your rear delts also abduct your arm.

Other groups of muscles that cross your shoulder joint are your chest, lats, and rotator cuff. Your trapezius muscle doesn’t cross your shoulder joint but attaches to your shoulder blade, which makes up the base of your shoulder joint.

Anterior muscles of your shoulder.
Back of shoulder muscles anatomy
Posterior muscles of your shoulder.

For complete shoulder training, you should be looking for exercises that:

  • Flexes your shoulder (brings your arm forward)
  • Abducts your shoulder (brings your arm out to your side)
  • Extends your shoulder (brings your arm backward)

If you cover these three movements, you will have trained most of your shoulder muscle fibers.

Shoulder Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Shoulder Muscles

In this section, we’ll take a look at five different shoulder exercises that complement each other in terms of what parts of your shoulder muscle they target. By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great shoulder workout.

1. Overhead Press

Overhead press exercise

The classic overhead press is as close to a panacea as you get when it comes to shoulder training, and it hits both your front and lateral delts well.1 It works them through a long range of motion, and at a great angle.

Whether you sit or stand, use a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells, doesn’t make too much of a difference when it comes to your shoulder development, so stick with whatever feels best for you. However, if you choose to stand on your feet and use free weights, then you will get free stability training for your core and shoulders.

Besides from your shoulders, the overhead press trains your triceps and trapezius.

Possible substitutes:

2. Incline Dumbbell Press

Incline Dumbbell Press

The incline dumbbell press emphasizes your front delts, making sure that they are thoroughly trained. And it doesn’t only work your front delts, but your upper chest as well. A recent study showed that pressing at an incline leads to greater upper chest growth than flat bench pressing does.2

For many people, dumbbells are preferable to a barbell in this exercise. Not only because it might be easier to get into position with them, but also because they might allow a longer range of motion, which is likely positive for your muscle growth. As a bonus, the dumbbells might help you even out any side to side strength imbalances.

Possible substitutes:

3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

The dumbbell lateral raise focuses more on your lateral delts. However, the uppermost fibers of your front and rear delts are also contributing to the abduction. Additionally, to counter your shoulder muscles that pull your humerus up, your rotator cuff pulls your humeral head down to keep it in your shoulder socket.

Use light weights in this exercise, and focus on technique and muscle contact with your delts.

Possible substitutes:

4. Reverse Dumbbell Fly

Reverse dumbbell fly exercise

The reverse dumbbell fly focuses on your rear delts, although it will train your middle traps and part of your lateral delts as well.

Go very light and focus on form in this exercise. If you’re swinging the weights up by using your hip, it means that you’ve taken work away from your rear delts.

Possible substitutes:

5. Face Pull

Face Pull exercise technique

Finally, the face pull will provide a last finishing touch for your rear delts. This exercise incorporates both horizontal shoulder abduction (pulling your arms back) and external rotation as you twist your forearms up during the exercise.

Other muscle groups that are joining in on the work are your rotator cuff and trapezius, as well as the more posterior parts of your lateral delts.

Shoulder Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength

So what does a good shoulder workout look like?

Building on the exercises above, we can construct an example workout that will work all parts of your shoulder muscles, and that will be effective for both strength increases and muscle growth.

Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.

StrengthLog’s Shoulder Workout

  1. Overhead Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets x 8 reps
  3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets x 10 reps
  4. Reverse Dumbbell Flyes: 3 sets x 12 reps
  5. Face Pull: 3 sets x 15 reps

This shoulder workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.

This shoulder workout begins with three working sets of the overhead press. These heavy sets will serve as the strength-foundation of your shoulder training, and your primary aim for these sets will be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying: ”try to lift more weight for the same number of reps.”

If you hit three sets of five reps, you increase the weight for the next workout and stick with that until you can once again make 3 x 5.

You will not be able to increase the weight each week, but keep at it, and try to increase by a rep here and there (for example getting 5, 4, 4 instead of 5, 4, 3 last time) until you get all 3 x 5. Use our workout log to keep track of your performance.

With much of your strength and power training taken care of in the overhead press, take the opportunity to focus even more on technique and muscle contact in the remaining four exercises, thus striking a balance between chasing strength and muscle hypertrophy. Of course, you should still strive to improve your performance (weight or reps) each workout.

The incline dumbbell press will provide additional training for your front delts, as well as your upper chest. While still being an exercise where you can use fairly heavy weight, do focus on muscle contact throughout the entire range of motion.

After the incline presses, you’ll move on to targeting your lateral delts, with the dumbbell lateral raise. This is an exercise where it is very easy to pick a weight that is too heavy, which will only lead to you cheating on your form. Start off very light, and chase muscle contact rather than weights and reps.

Lastly, you’ll finish up with two exercises targeting your rear delts as well as the posterior muscle fibers of your lateral delts. The reverse dumbbell fly and face pull both target these muscles, in addition to working your trapezius and rotator cuffs. Once again, these are exercises where it is easy to pick too heavy weights, with the only result that other muscles will take over. Such as your hips, if you start swinging the weights. Muscle contact and pump should be your first priority and improving your performance (weight or reps) should come second.

How often can you train 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 can 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 and helping your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden.

Wrapping Up

And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your shoulder muscle anatomy, what some effective shoulder exercises are, and how you can combine them into one great shoulder workout.

Please feel free to download the StrengthLog workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.

Want more?

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get notified of new articles, and get weekly training tips!

Do you want to read more of our muscle group training guides? You find them all here.

References

  1. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Oct; 75: 5–14. Different Shoulder Exercises Affect the Activation of Deltoid Portions in Resistance-Trained Individuals.
  2. Int J Exerc Sci. 2020 Aug 1;13(6):859-872. Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men.