Our shoulders have an incredible range of motion, allowing us to rotate our arms in almost any way we want. We use them all the time in our daily lives, from making our bed to storing our groceries, and they also take part in almost every upper body exercise, such as deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups, rows... Because of this, they are probably the easiest muscle to get injured.
The shoulder is a sensitive joint that is supported by connective tissue and muscle, specifically the rotator cuff, which is a group of muscles and tendons that help stabilize and allow your shoulders to have that wide range of motion, and the deltoid muscle, which is a triangular muscle that surrounds your shoulder and gives it the strength and mobility that you need to perform almost all of your arm movements. The deltoid is composed of three heads: the anterior, lateral, and posterior heads, covering the front, side, and back of your shoulder, respectively, and when working out you need to hit all three heads with proper form and appropriate weights in order to really tone your shoulders without any risk of injury.
So, there’s a lot of small muscles in your shoulders to train, but you must do it carefully in order to minimize injuring them. To ensure you work out your shoulders safely and properly we’ve gathered the best tips and exercises to help you shape and define your shoulders in order to keep them strong enough for your workouts and daily life!
Tips for a safer shoulder workout
We have compiled a few tips for you so that you can train your shoulders safely in order to really reap the benefits of each exercise and avoid any risk of injury! Make sure to keep these in mind next time you’re working out your upper body if you want to get strong shoulders:
- Choose an appropriate weight:
You’ll want to choose a weight that is challenging, but not too heavy for you and your shoulders. Ideally, you will start lifting with good form and have a little bit of difficulty finishing the last reps. If you finish your reps easily, you can move on to heavier weights, but if you have trouble lifting since the beginning then go for a light weight to avoid any unwanted injuries!
- Finish your workout with isolated exercises:
Compound movements are perfect to start off your workout, and they will engage your shoulders for support throughout most of the movements, but make sure to finish your workout with a good isolated shoulder exercise to really target those muscles without the assistance of other muscle groups. Doing this will help you develop shoulder strength, which will be useful to make progress in your workouts in a safe manner since they help support the majority of your upper-body movements.
- Avoid full elbow extension:
When doing shoulder exercises that involve extending your elbows, make sure that you don’t lock the elbow in the extended position, but instead maintain a slight bend in order to ensure that the only joint in motion is your shoulder joint. This way you make sure that you’re working the muscle that you’re targeting, which is your shoulder, instead of involving the triceps in the equation by locking your elbow and also avoiding any possible injuries.
- Limit your overhead presses:
While overhead pressing is a great compound exercise for your shoulders, it’s also a demanding movement for your joints, and including more than one overhead press in your workout could lead to inflammation and shoulder pain that could seriously hinder your shoulder performance next time you’re lifting. So try limiting your overhead pressing to one per shoulder workout!
- Have a good warm-up:
A lot of people forget about warm-ups and their importance for a good workout, but we’re here to remind you! Warm-ups are essential before any exercise or physical activity in order to really activate and prepare your muscles before you start working them out. Warming up will increase your shoulder flexibility, range of motion, blood flow, and overall performance, and helps you avoid the risk of straining your deltoid muscles.
- Implement a proper training split:
This is probably the most important tip of all… Plan your shoulder workouts accordingly. Aside from your shoulders being involved in everyday activities, they are also involved in almost every upper body exercise and even some lower body exercises! Having a properly set up training split is crucial to ensure you don’t overwork your shoulder muscles. An optimal split will include at least two days of rest in between shoulder workouts, and preferably a push/pull split. Since pushing movements, chest and tricep exercises, engage the shoulders it’s best to do a bulk of your shoulder workouts on your push day. We say, ‘a bulk’ because the rear delts are actually engaged during rowing movements, so when you’re training your back you can focus on isolating your rear delts, and the rest of the shoulder muscles on your push day. But if you're not training your chest, triceps, and shoulders on the same day then train shoulders at least two days before or after to ensure they're not being overworked. If you do train them on the same day then start with the chest, shoulders, then triceps.
How to warm-up for your shoulder workout
Warming up is the first step to a great shoulder workout, so you have to make sure to do it properly and for at least 10 minutes before you begin your workout. A good warm-up for your shoulders should activate your deltoid muscles as well as the rotator cuff muscles, and you can achieve this with a combination of dynamic and static stretches as well as movements that mimic the actual workouts that you will be doing, minus the weights.
One of the exercises that we’ll show you in the next section is the dumbbell shrug, which you can mimic as a warm-up by shrugging your shoulders up and down to prepare them for the actual exercise, which involves weights and is therefore more demanding for your shoulders. Another good example of a shoulder warm-up is the alternating chest hug, in which you open your arms wide at your sides and start hugging your body with both arms repetitively, alternating which arm goes up and down each time. This dynamic stretch helps ease your shoulders for movements that involve wide ranges of motion, so try it out next time!
Best shoulder exercises
Here are a few of our favorite multi-joint and single-joint strength training exercises that you can try on your next shoulder workout and even add to your regular workout routine. You only need a pair of dumbbells and a resistance band to do most of them, which is perfect for those who prefer to work out from home or just can’t go to the gym right now!
This is a great warm-up exercise with a resistance band. Start by standing firmly with your feet slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Grab a long resistance band with both hands at each end in front of you in an overhand grip, with your arms fully extended forward and shoulder-width apart. Begin the movement by pulling the band apart to the sides, rotating your shoulders externally, and squeezing your shoulder blades together until your arms are aligned with your shoulders. Hold for a second, then pull back to the starting position and repeat.
Tips: Remember to maintain your core engaged for stability to keep the movement controlled, and don’t let your arms swing with the band when pulling back!
Single-arm landmine press
To start, adopt a staggered position for stability or and hold the free end of the landmine over your right shoulder with your right hand. Begin by pushing the landmine away from you in front of your body, keeping a slight bend on your elbow, and feeling that stretch on your shoulder. Hold for a second, lower the landmine back to your shoulder in a controlled position and repeat, then switch to the other side.
Tips: Make sure the lower end of the landmine is properly secured with a landmine machine or press it against a corner for stability. You don’t want it to slip in the middle of your workout!
Dumbbell front raises
This movement will work your front deltoids, as well as your core. Start by grabbing two dumbbells in both hands, and place the dumbbells in front of your upper legs with your elbows slightly bent. Begin the movement by rotating your shoulders forward, raising the dumbbells upward in front of you until your arms are above horizontal. Hold for a moment, then lower the dumbbells back to your sides and repeat the movement.
Tips: You can also perform this exercise with a long resistance band! Just place the band under your feet and grab the other end with both hands, performing the up-and-down movement just as you would with the dumbbells.
Dumbbell lateral raises
Similar to the dumbbell front raises, the lateral raises will work your lateral deltoids. Grab two dumbbells on each hand and let your arms rest on each side of your body. Begin the movement by raising your arms to the side until they’re parallel to the floor, keeping a slight bend on the elbows. Hold for a second, then lower the dumbbells to the starting position and repeat.
Tips: Don’t let the weights drop to your sides when you’re going back down, return them to the starting position slowly!
Face pull with cable machine
First, attach a double-rope to a high pulley on a cable machine and grab it tightly with both hands. Your arms should be straight in front of you with a slight inclination upwards. Start by pulling the weight towards the sides of your face using your shoulders, making sure you’re not moving your head forward when pulling. Let your shoulders do the work of bringing the rope to you, not the other way around. Hold for a second, and then go back to the starting position and repeat.
Tips: You can try this exercise at home with a long resistance band! Just attach it somewhere high, grab the other end of the band with both hands and perform the pulling movement.
Seated bent-over lateral rear delt raises
This exercise, as the name indicates, primarily works your rear delts. First, sit on the edge of a bench with a pair of dumbbells on each hand down at your sides, and lean forward slightly. Begin the movement by raising the dumbbells slowly to the sides, contracting the rear delts throughout the movement, until your arms are almost aligned with your shoulders. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, hold the position for a moment and then lower the weights and repeat.
Tips: Keep your torso still during the whole movement, leaving only the motion to your shoulders, and avoid leaning down when raising the dumbbells.
Seated dumbbell shoulder press
First, grab a pair of dumbbells in each hand and sit on a bench. Hold both dumbbells at your sides at shoulder-height and your palms facing forward. Begin by pressing the weights up over your head, until your arms are fully extended and the weights almost touch above your head. Make sure not to lock your elbows during this movement. Hold for a moment, then lower the dumbbells to the starting position and repeat.
Tips: Make sure your bench has an upright backrest in order to get complete support for your movement, which will also help you lift heavier than the standing version of this exercise!
For this exercise, grab a set of dumbbells and stand with the weights placed in front of your thighs. Begin by rowing the dumbbells up in front of your shoulders, squeezing your shoulder blades together throughout the movement. Your elbows should be up at your sides and slightly above shoulder level. Hold the position for a second, then lower the weights and repeat.
Tips: In order to perform this movement correctly, keep your hands separated about shoulder-width apart so that in the upper part of the movement the weights end up exactly in front of each shoulder instead of in the middle of your chest.
For this exercise, stand upright with your feet slightly further than shoulder-width apart and grab a pair of dumbbells in each hand down at your sides. Begin by shrugging your shoulders straight up, without rolling them. Hold for a second, then lower your shoulders straight down to the starting position and repeat the movement.
Tips: For a more challenging exercise, try doing it with a barbell! Instead of keeping your hands at your sides, you will have them in front of you at each side of your hips while you hold the barbell.
For this exercise, you will need a pair of kettlebells. Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell in each hand, with your upper arms tucked to your sides and the weights straight up at shoulder-level. Begin the movement by pressing the weights up until your arms are extended over your head, forming a straight line with the rest of your body. Hold for a second, then lower the weights back down and repeat.
Tips: If you only have one kettlebell, you can perform this exercise one arm at a time, just press the kettlebell with your right hand while you keep your left hand down at the other side for stability, and then switch sides. If you want more of a challenge, grab the kettlebell upside down so that the weight is facing up!
This is a great bodyweight exercise. Start by getting into a push-up position, then walk your feet closer to your hands so that your shoulders are above your hands and your glutes are up high, forming a triangle with your body and the floor. Keeping your back and legs straight, begin the movement by doing a push-up, lowering your body with your arms while you rotate your shoulders so that your head is almost touching the floor. Hold for a second, come back up to the starting position, and repeat.
Tips: Keep your core tight and engaged throughout the whole movement. To make this more challenging, keep your elbows close to your sides as you perform the exercise!
These are the best shoulder exercises that will help you really develop the strength and resistance of your shoulder muscles in a safe manner. Don’t forget to keep our tips in mind and modify the exercises given as you start making progress and improving your fitness!
We hope our tips and tricks will help make your next shoulder workout the best and safest one yet! And in case you’re looking for someone to actually plan your workouts, meaning with a proper training split and with a fitness goal in mind, then try your first workout on the Fit With Iulia app for free! You can try the first workout of any goal for free, no subscription required, just download the Fit With Iulia app, select Goals & Workout, and the first workout for any goal you select will be unlocked for you to try today!