The following exercises show examples of moves targeting the shoulders—the front, middle, and rear deltoids as well as the rotator cuff muscles.
Choose a variety of exercises to target each part of the shoulders for a well-rounded routine.
How to Set Up a Shoulder Routine
- Beginners: Choose 1-2 exercises, 1-2 sets of 12-16 reps
- Inter/Adv: Choose an exercise from each group – An overhead press, a rotation exercise, a lateral raise and a front raise to hit all muscle groups. Go for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps, resting between sets
- Use enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired number of reps
An overhead press with a barbell is probably one of the hardest shoulder exercises you can do. When you lift anything overhead, it’s tough, but using a barbell, you can really lift heavy. Just make sure you keep your back straight. If you have to arch it to get the weight up, it’s too heavy.
What we love about the overhead dumbbell press is that it allows you to work each arm individually. When you use a barbell, as in the previous exercise, your stronger arm may do more of the work. Having a weight in each hand forces each shoulder to work on its own.
The Arnold press doesn’t look like a big deal, but adding that rotation involves the front delt a bit more than a regular overhead press. You start with the palms facing in and then, as you press the arms up, your rotate the hands so that they’re facing out. It’s tougher than it looks.
When you do one arm at a time, you not only challenge your shoulder, you challenge your core. Sit on a ball and you add even more instability, which helps you work on balance, stability, core, and shoulder strength all at the same time.
Another variation on the overhead press is to alternate arms. This adds some variety and you focus on keeping the core strong as you slowly alternate sides. This can really change how the exercise feels.
Band Overhead Press
We love the band for the overhead press because you get more time under tension. The band makes your muscles work on the way up and on the way down, unlike dumbbells. You’ll want a light band for this one or just do one arm at a time.
The front raise, of course, works the front of the deltoids and, because the arms are straight and coming up to the front of the body, you’ll want to keep the weight right here. You’ll also feel your core work as you lift the weights up.
Incline Front Raise
Take the front raise up a notch in intensity by getting into an incline position on the ball. You’ll really feel gravity working against you here, and you’ll feel your lower body kick into gear. Be sure to lift only to shoulder level and don’t swing the weights, but lift them slowly.
Lateral raises are a classic shoulder exercise, targeting the front and mid deltoids. This long lever move has your arms almost straight (your elbows should be slightly bent) which means you typically stick with a lighter weight for this exercise.
Bent Arm Lateral Raise
This takes the typical lateral raise and shortens the lever with arms bent at 90 degrees. This allows you to lift a little heavier weight than you probably would with lateral raises. Just another variation to fire your muscle fibers in a different way.
One Arm Lateral Raise on the Ball
If you want to add intensity and a balance challenge, prop one side of the body on the ball at an angle and lift a light weight just to shoulder level. With gravity working against you, you’ll really work your deltoids.
Now we move to the back of the shoulders, the rear delts as well as the upper back. For this move, you want a slight bend in the elbows and make sure you lead with the elbows. You want a light weight here so you don’t have to heave to lift the weights up. They should only go to shoulder level.
One Arm Band Rear Fly
This move targets both the rear delt as well as the upper back. Because you’re on your hands and knees, you can really focus on the working arm. The idea is to keep your elbow slightly bend and to lead with that elbow when lifting the arm up.
Crossover Rear Delt Fly With Band
We love this move because you’re standing, which means you’re involving the entire body, and you’re using a band, which always adds some intensity. The idea is to stand on the band and bring the opposite arm across the body, focusing on the rear delt and the upper back.
Incline Rear Fly on the Ball
We love this version of the rear fly. The ball give you support while also adding a little instability. You’re at the perfect angle to lift the weights up to torso level. The elbows are bent here, so you’re squeezing the shoulder blades and working the shoulders as well as the upper back.
Band Rear Delt Squeeze
This exercise is a great warm up for the arms and the upper back. You need to keep your hands the right distance apart to keep tension on the band when your arms come together and with you squeeze them apart. This, again, works the shoulders and the upper back.
External Shoulder Rotation With Band
Your rotators are the smallest muscles of the shoulder, but the most prone to injury. For this move, you want to keep the elbow next to the body as you open the arm up, taking it as far back as your flexibility allows.
Internal Shoulder Rotation With Bands
This move is the opposite move from the external rotation above. Now you’re rotating the arm and shoulder inward, working the rotators in a different way. You’ll probably need more tension on the band for this exercise.
Upright rows are another great move for the shoulders, but you want to make sure you do it right. You want to slowly pull the weights up, keeping them very close to your body, and take the elbows just a bit higher than the shoulders.
If you really want a tough exercise, this is it. It’s like a pushup for your shoulders. We show this on the ball, which is even harder. I would start on the floor or a chair before trying the ball. Basically, you’re in a pike position doing pushups. Crazy!