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The 15 Best Compound Shoulder Exercises

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Every gym goer wants big shoulders because they help to create that classic V-shape torso. Great exercises like presses and raises are going to help you get them. But if you’re only doing presses and raises, you could be missing out on potential muscle gains. Shoulders work across many different angles which is why we recommend mixing different compound shoulder exercises from one workout to the next.

Taking familiar exercises, changing the angle, and finding new ways to work are key to big shoulder muscles. So, here are our 15 best compound shoulder exercises you can use for a more effective shoulder workout.

A man performing compound shoulder exercises with a machine
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Compound and Isolation Exercises

Compound exercises are exercises that work multiple muscles and joints through one movement. On the opposite side, isolation exercises target one particular muscle or joint.

Hypertrophy may be achieved using both forms of exercise. Compound and isolation movements have their own unique advantages and disadvantages.

Muscles may be taken through different ranges of motion with different exercises whether they are compound or isolated. Some compound exercises take muscles through a greater range of motion than isolation exercises.

Compound exercises may be used to make up the bulk of a hypertrophy program. These exercises seem to be a more efficient way of training but may not fully train all muscles. Therefore, to maximize muscle growth, we recommend you use isolation exercises as well. They can provide additional volume to muscles that may not have been fully exhausted with the compound exercises.

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Benefits of Shoulder Compound Exercises

1. Time Saver

Isolation movements take a little bit more time to get enough training volume for your entire body. But if you perform a compound movement that engages multiple body parts, you’re going to get more muscle hypertrophy and burn more calories per time. It’s a great time saver.

2. Better Balance

Compound exercises improve your coordination and your movement patterns; whereas you’re not going to get a lot of coordination involved when you’re just doing an isolation exercise.

3. Cardiovascular Training

Due to using more than one muscle group at a time, compound exercises increase cardiovascular output so you can get a higher heart rate. So, if you want to burn the most calories, this is where you can actually use compound movements to increase your heart rate throughout training.

4. Ability to Use Heavy Weights

The biggest benefit of compound exercises is that you’re able to use heavier weights. Higher weight totals are going to overload the muscles better. And when you use those higher weight totals, you’re going to see benefits for the whole body. So, you’re able to overload the shoulders because you are using multiple muscles.

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Muscles Worked by Compound Shoulder Exercises

To build large shoulders, you don’t need to know physiology and anatomy. However, a basic knowledge of how the shoulders work can help you choose the best exercises for your fitness goals. 

Many muscles are involved in the movement and support of the shoulder. The main group of muscles is the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff contributes to the external and internal rotation of the upper arm. 

The rotator cuff consists of the four muscles: the infraspinatus, the teres minor, the supraspinatus, and the subscapularis. The main function of this group of muscles is to stabilize the shoulder joint. In addition, the muscles tighten the joint capsule to prevent a pinch during shoulder movements. 

Around the rotator cuff are many muscles that contribute to shoulder movement. The deltoid, superior to the shoulder joint, forms the shape of the superior aspect of the shoulder and works with the supraspinatus to abduct the arm. 

The deltoid muscle is divided into three main parts: the anterior head (front delt), the lateral head (middle delt), and the posterior head (rear delt). All three deltoid heads are activated to an extent during compound shoulder exercises. However, using specific exercises can help you emphasize each head.

Anteriorly, the coracobrachialis, serratus anterior, pectoralis major, and pectoralis minor work together to flex and adduct the scapula and humerus. The latissimus dorsi and teres major lie posteriorly and adduct the arm towards the back. 

The trapezius, rhomboid major, and levator scapula muscles elevate the scapula to cause shrugging of the shoulders and the movement of the scapula to the posterior deltoids.

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The 15 Best Compound Shoulder Exercises

1. Arnold Press

It’s a shoulder exercise named for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is one of his best compound shoulder exercises. This excellent exercise is basically a variation of an overhead shoulder press with dumbbells but with a little twist.

How to Perform the Arnold Press

developpe arnold exercice musculation
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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

You’re going to set up with your dumbbells in a seated position. However, you can do it standing as well. 

Instead of starting in a regular starting position for your overhead press, you’re actually going to start basically at the top of a curl. So, you’re going to bring the dumbbells up. Your palms are going to be facing toward your shoulders and set up out to the side. Then as you go for your overhead press, you’re going to rotate your palm.

As you come back down to the starting position, you’re going to rotate the same way that you came from. 

The common mistake is splitting the arm movement into two parts, bringing the dumbbell out and then pressing. Instead, do one fluid motion. Twist the dumbbells as you are pressing upward.

2. Bench Press

The bench press is a great exercise to build your upper body but only if you do it right.

How to Perform the Bench Press

1. Find Your Ideal Grip

To do it, lay on the flat bench and pull your elbows back to 90 degrees. Your thumbs line up with your lower chest.

2. Stabilize Your Body

Spread your knees apart with your glutes and push your feet down with your quads to stabilize your body. To activate your lats, bring your shoulders down to your hips. Finally, create a slight arch in your upper back by extending your chest up.

3. Push the Bar Off

Stay tight and push the barbell up. Then pull the bar over your shoulders. You can also engage your lats by thinking about bending the barbell in half.

4. Pull the Bar Down

While tucking your elbows in towards your sides, pull the barbell down towards your lower chest. 

5. Push the Bar Up 

Pause for a moment on your chest. Then push the barbell up and back until your arms are straight.

Common mistakes:

  1. Keeping your upper back flat;
  2. Forcing your shoulders to do a lot of the work;
  3. Reducing chest activation.

3. Barbell Upright Row

The barbell upright row is an awesome compound exercise that is going to hit all three heads of the deltoids and give you those massive traps.

How to Perform the Barbell Upright Row

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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

You want to begin by using the barbell itself with no weight. As you get comfortable with this exercise, you can use the barbell loading it up with weight.

Step up to the bar, have your feet about shoulder width apart and put your grip anywhere from inside shoulder to outside. It’s going to vary on individual preference.

Keep in mind that one of the benefits of the wider grip is you’re going to be focusing a little bit more on the lateral head of the deltoids as you perform the exercise. With the narrower grip, you’re going to be focusing a little bit more on the traps and the anterior head. But anyway you’re going to be hitting all three heads no matter which grips you do.

Keeping that core nice and tight, begin the exercise by pulling those elbows up. You can bring it just above parallel. Squeeze and then you’re going to want to bring it back down. 

Common mistakes

1. Elbows are higher than your shoulders. It puts stress on the shoulder joints. Instead, pull to about shoulder height.

2. Grabbing too close. This is going to impinge your shoulders and it could lead to injury. Make sure that you’re doing it correctly. Use a wider grip and do more than 90 degree-angle. That’s going to help your shoulders from getting injured.

4. Barbell Deadlift Bent Row

Set up the bar so that it is centered over your feet in a hip-width stance. Bend at the hips and grip the bar using a double overhand grip. With your arms just outside of your knees and thighs, this will be your starting position. 

Keeping your chest up and your back straight, push through your heels to move the bar upward. Aggressively pull the barbell back into your body once it passes the knees. Drive your hips forward into the barbell and pull your shoulder blades together. 

By bending at the hips, lower the barbell. Instantly switch over into a barbell row position. Bending at the hips, keep your chest parallel to the ground. 

Keeping your core muscles tight and back straight, perform a barbell row by pulling the bar upwards to your sternum. By extending your arms, lower the barbell to the floor. This is one complete repetition.

5. Supported Incline Dumbbell Rows

This is one of the best builders you can use for your mid and upper back. You don’t need too much equipment. 

How to Perform The Incline Dumbbell Row

Set up an incline bench around 45 degrees. Puff your chest out. You have your arms hanging down low. This is the starting position.

If you want to target your rear delts, keep a 45-degree angle grip and pull toward your delts.

Let your arms and lats stretch out fully and then you are going to pull that dumbbell up and back to your hip. Squeeze and let it go down until it’s a big stretch at the bottom.

A common mistake is pulling the dumbbells straight up.

6. Seated Dumbbell Press

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Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

Kick the dumbbells up one at a time as you roll back to the bench. Plant your feet. Flex your abs. Roll your shoulders back away from your ears. Angle your elbow joints out a slight bit about 45 degrees. 

Stack the joints by making sure your fists, wrists, and elbows are under the weight. Deep breath in and press the weight overhead. Control the weight down for a 2 count. And take a deep breath in at the bottom.

Make sure when you’re coming down that your elbows stay stacked with joints.

7. Pike Push-ups

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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

This exercise is great for building shoulder endurance, stability, and strength. Without taking your full body weight, the pike push-up also targets the muscles involved in the vertical pressing pattern.

How to Perform the Pike Push-Up

Firstly, place a towel on the ground. With the shoulder-width distance, place your hands on either side. Line them up with your chest. With straight knees, flatten your lower back and drop your head between your arms. Your body should be in a nice A-frame position.

Start by bending both elbows and slowly reaching the towel with the top of your head. A common mistake is looking down at the ground in the end position. Just look through your legs. 

Make sure you keep your head between your arms when you push back up. This is key to improving your vertical pressing pattern.

8. Handstand Push-ups

handstand push up
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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

It’s one of the best exercises to build up big and strong shoulders. 

It might be too hard at first. Here are 3 steps you need to do handstand push-ups:

Step 1. Start with cinder blocks or parallette bars. Do a pike position with hips prone. Go all the way down and come back up. Perform up to 10 reps. 

Step 2. Raise your feet on an object (for example, a box). Progressively raise your feet higher to make the pike position harder. Perform up to 10 reps. 

Step 3. Kick up on a wall. Start with partial reps just down to 90 degrees and each week go a little lower until your hands are level with your ears. That’s a full range. Perform up to 15 reps. This helps your shoulders pop very well.

9. Regular Push-up 

This fundamental exercise targets nearly all of your upper body muscles evenly. It’s not a direct shoulder-focused exercise but still a very good compound movement to train your shoulders in combination with your chest and the triceps. 

Having the proper form is important because it is safe, you’re avoiding injuries and you’re getting the most out of this compound exercise.

How to Perform the Regular Push-up

You’re going to start in a plank position. Create a nice long line going all the way from your heels through the top of your head.

You’re also going to have your hands just slightly wider than your shoulder width apart. Then you’re going to have your eyes looking around 1-2 feet out in front of you. 

So, when you actually come in to do a push-up, what you want to think about is bringing your chest down between your thumbs rather than bringing your head down between your thumbs. 

And then finally you want to think about your elbows as well. When you come to the bottom of your push-up, you want your elbows to be around 45 degrees from your body.

Here are tips you need to know for perfect push-ups:

1. Your elbows are right over your wrists. Tuck them in to accomplish this.

2. Don’t forget to keep your core engaged throughout the entire movement.

3. It can be super tempting to have your eyes look straight down at your hands rather than just slightly in front of you. But if you focus on having them around 1-2 feet in front of you, the alignment will be a lot better.

Common Mistakes

A lot of people tend to feel it in their arms when they first are learning how to perform push-ups properly. They don’t feel it in their shoulders and chest very well. 

Also, a common mistake is tilting the forearms to the side during push-ups. This leads to shoulder and elbow injuries. Instead, keep your forearms vertically straight.

10. The Regular Dip

Similar to the regular push-up is the regular dip. But here you have to push your whole body weight without any foot support from the ground. Performing this compound exercise, you get a great mix between chest, triceps, and shoulder activity even if you target those muscles at a different angle and body position.

Our Tips

Firstly, if you can’t perform the regular dip with your full-body weight, begin with an elevated surface or the floor. Then go on to a stationary hold to get used to holding your body weight. Once that’s easy, perform a negative dip to learn how to fall with your body weight. Then do a band-supported dip to learn how to move with your body weight.

Lean forward to get more of your shoulders and chest involved. If your body is upright, you engage your triceps better.

When performing regular dips do not lock out your elbows fully, this will just take the stress off the muscle, which will result in less gains.

A Weighted Dip

The difference between a weighted dip and a body weight dip technique is crucial. Performing a weighted dip, you are bringing your upper body towards your pelvis as you’re doing a crunch. 

You want to focus on depressing your shoulder blades. You bring your shoulder blades down because you want to be as stable as possible when you’re moving weight.

11. T-bar Rows

developpe landmine
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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

T-bar rows are typically performed with a barbell and a handle affixed across it, hence T-bar row. We all know that rows, in their various forms, are excellent back builders. We’re going to be hitting traps, rhomboids, teres, and rear delt.

How to Perform the T-bar Row

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. 

The first thing is to line up your sternum with the top of the pad coming down directly and creating stability. You want to make sure that you place your body weight on your heels. If you don’t and you put the weight on your toes, this is going to pull you forward. Same as whenever you have your face down. Then grab the handles with an overhand grip. Head up, chin up, and chest up.

The first part of the movement is retracting, squeezing the upper back musculature, and then pulling the elbows back and down. 

Everything is nice and tight together, getting as short as you possibly can before you then go lengthening out. Then as you come back, you’re going to then transfer and pull the tension onto your lats. Coming back out, allowing slight protraction, lengthening, not loosening, and squeezing back muscles again.

You want to be creating as much external stability as you possibly can and not having to rely on internal stability in the erectors, hip musculature, and core. So often you’ll see people performing this exercise and taking quite a big degree of extension at the top. Don’t do this, just stay nice and tight, bracing hard into the pad and squeeze up. 

If your gym doesn’t have this particular chest support or T-bar row or any T-bar row for that matter, you can take these principles and apply them to not only a chest-supported rowing movement but any back movement. 

12. Barbell Overhead Press (Barbell Military Press)

developpe militaire exercice musculation
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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

This compound exercise trains the anterior, posterior, and medial deltoids. Abdominal and back muscles are engaged and loaded for the entire duration. This exercise also provides an excellent training stimulus for the triceps. It can be used as shoulder rehab and prehab. 

How to Perform the Barbell Overhead Press

You want to get under the bar and your elbows are slightly in front of your wrist. Your core is tight because you’re going to press the weight up above your head. Tuck your chin at the initiation of the press. 

You’re going to it overhead. Keep lats tight. Then you’re bringing this back down.  

Our Tip

For safety, keep your elbows slightly forward and not directly to the sides. 

Common Mistakes

A lot of people start performing this exercise wrong. The barbell is too high or too low. These positions are inefficient and can cause an injury.

A common mistake is keeping your head back during the entire movement. As a result, you don’t fully activate the lateral deltoid. Instead, move your head forward as you push the barbell up. 

13. Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Overhead Press 

How to Perform the Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Throughout the movement, your lower body should hold the ground with soft knees and an active stance. Use a thumb-side grip. Set the dumbbells just below your height with your wrists vertically over your elbows. Slightly shift your elbows forward. 

Your upper arms stay parallel to the floor. You’re forming a 90-degree angle with your upper arm. Your core is tight. 

To produce the movement, don’t push with your hands. Think of pulling your elbows towards your ears using your shoulders. Prevent locking out on top. Keep concentration on your shoulders.

As the weights go higher, the challenge to keep your posture increases. Keep your stance active and your ribs and hips connected with your core.

To safely return the dumbbells to your start position, think of pulling your elbows back down. Don’t rely on lowering your hands. This will not only make you stronger but will help to protect your shoulders. Don’t use the downward movement to spring into the next repetition.

14. Machine Shoulder Press

This exercise develops your shoulder mobility and strength. It targets not only the three deltoid heads but also the triceps, trapezius, and upper chest. 

How to Perform Machine Shoulder Press

First up, you need to adjust the seat height using the handle. You want the seat to be high enough so that when you’re sat down, your hands are slightly lower than your shoulders.

Up next, you need to select the weight using the pin. We recommend starting with lighter weights to focus on your form. 

So, sit back in the seat and keep your core tight. Grab the handles in either a wide or neutral grip position. Pull your shoulder blades down and back. You want to press the handles up above your head until your arms are near full extension – avoid locking out your elbows. 

Slowly return your arms back to starting position trying to keep the weight from touching the stack. This is one rep. Aim for three sets of 8-12 reps with the 60-second rest in between sets.

15. Kettlebell Windmill

This is one of the best compound shoulder exercises. The kettlebell windmill engages the shoulders, arms, core, and glutes.

How to Perform the Kettlebell Windmill

It can be done in a standing position. Start with your feet on either side of the kettlebell. Keep your back tight and your knees bent as you pick up the kettlebell and bring it to your shoulders.

Drive the kettlebell up into the air bracing your core and squeezing your glutes. 

Turn your toes 45 degrees to the left. Reach your left arm near your right foot as you keep your kettlebell straight up into the air. Watch the kettlebell out of the corner of your eye.

Drive back up keeping the core tight and the glute squeezed and repeat.

A common mistake is trying to lean sideways by ignoring your hip and bending your spine. Instead, you want to lean sideways by bending your hips and rotating your spine. 

Best Compound Shoulder Exercises: FAQs

What shoulder exercises work all 3 heads?

The barbell overhead press (also known as a military press) targets all three heads of the deltoid. The Arnold dumbbell press, side lateral to front raise, machine shoulder press, and dumbbell overhead press work three heads as well. 

Are shoulder presses compound exercises?

The shoulder press is a compound exercise that works several muscles such as the triceps, shoulders, back, and chest. 

How do I hit every muscle in my shoulder?

To hit every shoulder muscle of your body, perform the overhead press or Arnold dumbbell press. Also, you can use any of the best compound shoulder exercises in this article to reach your fitness goal.


Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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