The Ultimate Shoulder Workout to Build Strength and Size

Written by:

Julien Raby

Last updated:

A woman doing a shoulder workout at the gym

The shoulder muscles are a bit of a tricky muscle group, because they’re small and often come into play as an accessory muscle during workouts. This means they tend to grow fairly quickly, but without a focused shoulder workout that makes sure you’re hitting every spot, you can easily build a bit of an unbalanced set of shoulder muscles.

But there is good news. Whether you’ve been gymming for years or you’re just starting your fitness journey, you can start building a great set of shoulders with just a few tweaks to your gym routine. The shoulders are also often one of the first places that fat comes off during a cut, so with some dedicated effort, you’ll see results in a short period of time.

Ready to supercharge your shoulder workouts? Here’s everything you need to know about the muscle group and how to train it most effectively for that “boulder shoulder” look!

Is It Hard to Build Muscle in the Shoulders?

The shoulders can grow nicely if you work them properly and consistently. But if you aren’t doing it right, it can be quite tricky to build a great set of muscular, strong shoulders quickly.

One of the good things about shoulders is that they don’t usually have a lot of fat on them. So if you’re cutting, you should be able to strip the fat away fast, making them more visible. But if you’re bulking, putting on hefty shoulder mass can be tough.

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Small Muscle Group

The shoulders are a relatively small muscle group. While you can still build good size and strength, it takes more work than it would for larger muscles like quads and lats.

Because they’re small and consist of 3 separate muscles, it can also be hard to really get that mind-muscle connection working on them. You’re also utilizing a bunch of other muscles in each movement in a shoulder workout, which means it’s easy to accidentally focus in on the wrong muscles.

A man doing shoulder workout with a cable machine

One of the Most Complex Joints

The shoulder joint is complex. That means that even small changes in your joint placement or range of motion can have big effects. It’s easy to reduce the effectiveness of your shoulder exercises without even noticing, just because you moved your arm a little too much!

This also makes it easier to injure, unfortunately. So if you aren’t completely sure of your form, what weight to use, or which movements to mix together, you might not see great shoulder gains and your risk of injury could be higher than you expect.

Often Neglected in Workouts

Shoulders are easy to neglect. In some cases, it just comes down to actually not training them often enough, because they’re small and need a lot of work.

In other cases, especially when you need to fit all your muscle groups into a limited number of gym sessions per week, they just tend to fall behind everything else in terms of priority.

Working major muscle groups is necessary, for both strength and calorie burn. So if you have a limited amount of time, most people will opt to train legs and back, for example, rather than shoulders.

Easy to Become Unbalanced

The front delts get worked a LOT. These delt heads get action during chest exercises and some back exercises, so they tend to get worked out a lot more than the other deltoids.

So if you aren’t making up for it by making sure your other delts get the same amount of work, it’s extremely easy for your shoulder muscles to become unbalanced. This is one of the most common mistakes when building the deltoid muscles!

It might look like you’re building good shoulders when you look in the mirror. But if you’re neglecting the other muscles of the shoulder, not only will you look unbalanced to others, but there’s a chance of creating an instability in the joint.

What Muscles Are In the Shoulder?

The shoulder is made up of four specific muscles: the anterior deltoid, the lateral deltoid, the rear deltoid, and the rotator cuff. To get a well-rounded shoulder workout and build decent shoulder strength, you need to hit every deltoid head.

It’s also worth noting that although the rhomboids and the trapezius are often grouped in with the shoulder muscles, they’re technically upper back muscles. While your shoulder exercises often hit these muscles, they don’t count as part of the shoulders.

Anterior Deltoid

Also called the front deltoids, these muscles help to move your arms forward and upwards. A classic exercise that activates these muscles is the front raise—it’s the exact movement that shows what function these muscles perform.

They’re found on the front of your shoulder joint, next to the collarbone. As mentioned above, the front delts are often accidentally overworked. As a result, they may become overdeveloped in comparison to the other shoulder muscles.

Lateral Deltoid

The lateral deltoid (side deltoid or middle deltoid) is the muscle on the outside of the shoulder. When you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone, these muscles are the ones touching!

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When you move your arms out the side and up or down (think jumping jack motion), the lateral delts are activated. Lateral raises are the ideal exercise to show the movement these muscles facilitate.

Posterior Deltoid

This one is also known as the rear deltoid, and its function is to help you move your arm backwards. Rear delts are connected to the flat surface on your scapula.

Posterior delts are often the most neglected of the shoulder muscles. They’re activated to an extent in pulling movements like rows, but not to the same extent as the front delts are engaged in multiple other exercises.

Rotator Cuff

The rotator cuff is a group of small muscles that help to stabilize the shoulder joint. Because the joint is complex, it can be easy to injure. This is why the rotator cuff is such an important set of muscles—it protects the joint during movement. It’s made up of the:

  • Subscapularis
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres minor
  • Supraspinatus

Technically, you don’t build your rotator cuff muscles during a shoulder workout, because it’s impossible to isolate them during movement.

It’s in your best interest to do stretching and strengthening exercises for your rotator cuff apart from your regular shoulder exercises.

A woman doing shoulder workout with dumbbells

Best Exercises for Building Shoulder Muscles

Ready to start building a dynamite set of shoulders? Here are the best exercises for building muscle and strength. Pick and choose from these to build the ultimate shoulder workout routine… But make sure you’re hitting every muscle and not overdoing the front delts!

Note that most of these exercises are very adaptable to the equipment you’ve got. You can build great shoulder workouts with dumbbells or kettlebells if you don’t have a barbell at home.

1. Landmine Shoulder Press

The landmine shoulder press exercise might be a more unusual one, but it’s an excellent exercise for building all 3 important S’s: size, strength, and stability.

Its unique range of motion and unilateral nature make it both a safe choice for the joints and an effective option for muscle growth.

How to Do It

In the gym, you’ll do this using a barbell and the landmine base. If you’re doing it at home, you can use the corner of the wall to wedge the barbell in, but you’ll need to be a bit more careful.

Load the other end of the barbell with weight plates. Choose a weight that you can lift with excellent form for 4 to 6 reps, and 3 to 5 sets. Rest as needed in between—1 to 2 minutes should be good.

To perform this exercise, kneel on the floor with the same knee as your pressing arm. If you’re pressing with your right hand, your right knee will be on the floor, and your left foot will be planted on the floor so you’re kneeling with one knee.

Grab the end of the barbell and lift it to shoulder height. If you need to, adjust your legs so you’re in a comfortable position and the barbell isn’t too far forward or too close to your body.

You want a slight forward lean. Tighten your core to maintain your posture and position, keep your back straight, and press. Notice that the barbell is pressed at a slight angle, not straight upwards.

Hold it for a second in a soft lock-out position, before lowering it again in a gentle, controlled movement. Perform your reps on one side and then switch positions to do the other side.

2. Barbell Overhead Press

One of the staples of shoulder workouts, the barbell overhead press (also called military press or strict press) builds the front and lateral delts. This means if you do it right and often, you can expect bigger and wider shoulders, aesthetically.

It’s one of the “Big 5” exercises for muscle growth, so this one should be a definite yes in your arsenal. Be aware that this movement is a compound exercise, so your triceps, traps, lats, and entire core will get a workout too.

How to Do It

You’ll begin by standing with your feet about shoulder width apart. The barbell should be held at chest height—you can either clean it up there or start with it racked on a squat rack.

Once you’re holding the barbell, you want to make sure your body is in a straight line. Tighten your core and your glutes and have a slight bend in your knees. Inhale and press the barbell up above your head.

Take note that you’ll need to move your head a little backwards when you press, to avoid smacking yourself in the chin or the face. As the barbell clears your head, you want to bring it back forward so your upper body remains in a straight line. Keep your core tight and you won’t lose your form.

Hold for a second up top and then bring it back down in a slow, controlled movement. Don’t drop the barbell down, or you’ll risk hurting your shoulder or collarbone.

Also, note that this is different from the push press, which is a military press that uses momentum to get the weight up. You’ll do a ¼-squat and push the weight as you come up, which has less shoulder activation.

We recommend choosing a strict press instead, and lowering the weight if you find it hard to lift the barbell above your head.

3. Face Pulls

This is a great exercise to target the rear delts. When you do them right, they’re also great for rotator cuff strength, so they’re well worth adding to your shoulder workout.

How to Do It

You’ll need a cable machine for this one, although you can make a plan with a resistance band if you’re working out at home. Set it at around chin height and use the rope attachment if you’re on the cable—you want to be able to grab one end in each hand.

The best way to hold the rope is to grab each one with an overhand grip above the plastic end piece. This means stretching out your arm, facing your palms outwards (as if you’re going to put them against a wall), and turning your hands inwards so your fingers are pointing towards each other. Grab the rope like this.

This grip allows for improved external rotation, which is easier on the rotator cuff and gives you an extended range of motion. From there, you’ll take a step back so your arms are outstretched, holding the rope.

Tense your core and pull the ends of the rope past your ears. Hold it for a second and release it back to the original position in a controlled way.

4. Arnold Press

The Arnold press is an excellent movement because it works all three deltoid muscles. You get a lot of bang for your buck with this one! If you’ve ever seen Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shoulders, you’ll know why this is such a great movement.

How to Do It

You can do the Arnold press in a seated position or in a standing position. Either way, make sure you’re stabilizing yourself by tightening your core (and glutes, if you’re standing).

Hold your dumbbells in front of your chest, with your palms facing your chest. Your elbows should be tucked in close to your sides. This is your starting position.

From there, you need to press the dumbbell up like you would a regular shoulder press. This means creating a rotational movement as you come up, turning your arm outward so you can press the weight up like normal.

As you bring it down again, you’ll rotate your hands again so they end up in front of your chest, palms facing inwards. Make sure not to arch your back at the top of the movement.

Keep the movement controlled and don’t swing your arm out to the side as you do it. You can do both arms at once, or go one arm at a time, depending on your preference.

5. Lateral Raises

These ones hit those middle delts, which will go a long way to creating that broad shoulders look. Begin with your arms at your sides, holding a pair of dumbbells. You may want to use light dumbbells to start and work your way up in weight.

How to Do It

Rotate your shoulders inwards slightly, so the dumbbells are sitting at a 45-degree angle just in front of your hips. Squeeze your glutes and tighten your core muscles to stabilize. It’s also a good idea to stabilize your upper body by squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling them downwards.

Lift the weight up to the side. Imagine driving your elbow upwards, but make sure to keep your elbows in line with your torso—they should not move forward or behind your body.

There’s no need to have the dumbbell in line with you—in fact, they should stay slightly ahead of your body, and you should keep a slight bend in your elbows. Lift until your arms are parallel to the floor and the dumbbells are at shoulder level, and then bring your arms down slowly.

6. Rear Delt Flyes

Another rear delt exercise, flyers are great for really targeting the muscle. You can do these standing or lying chest-down on an incline bench, but we like the seated version for ease and effectiveness. Start light so you can control the weight properly.

How to Do It

Begin by sitting on the end of a bench. Pick up your dumbbells and hinge at the waist until your upper body is at 45 degrees. Make sure you’re NOT hunching your back.

Similar to a lateral raise, you want to bring the weights out to your side. Make sure you’re keeping your arms in a straight line moving upwards. They should not move backwards at all, and the dumbbells should not move behind the line that forms between your shoulder and your knee/calf.

7. Rear Delt Row

Rows aren’t just for the back. Change up the angle slightly and use a wider grip, and you’ll hit those rear delts nicely. Keep in mind that you probably will get some back activation here, but this version will nail your shoulders.

How to Do It

Grab a barbell with a wide, overhand grip. With a slight bend in your knees, hinge at the hips until your torso is close to parallel to the ground. Your arms should hang in front of you, so make sure you’re using a weight you can do this with.

Lift the barbell up, towards your chest. You want to keep your elbows flared out, not close to your body. This is what takes this from a back exercise to a shoulder exercise!

8. Upright Row

The upright row is typically thought of as a trapezius muscle exercise. It definitely does target the traps, but you’ll also get some decent activation of the delt heads: mostly side delts, but also some front and rear delt engagement.

How to Do It

Grip the barbell with a close grip—your thumbs should be just touching if you extend them while you’re holding it. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, shoulders down, chest out, and your glutes and abs should be tight to help with stability.

Lift the barbell in front of your body, taking care not to use momentum to get it up. You want to lift until the bar is just underneath your chin. Exhale as you lift, and inhale on the way down.

9. Front Raise

As their name suggests, this movement targets the front deltoids. Because the front delts get worked so often in other movements, we recommend going light on this one and doing it less often than others.

How to Do It

Hold your dumbbells at your sides, resting next to your hips. Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart, and you’ll want to tighten your abs and glutes to stabilize. Exhale and lift the dumbbells in front of you, turning your hands to an overhand grip as you reach the top.

Make sure not to use your body to swing the weights up with momentum. You need to engage your delts to lift, and the rest of your body should be still and in a straight line. Bring the weights back down in a controlled manner. You can do both hands at once, or one at a time.

How Often Should You Work Out Your Shoulders?

In total, you should be working each deltoid for 8 to 12 sets a week. It’s up to you whether you split those shoulder sets into 2 or 3 sessions or do it all in one shoulder workout.

The latest research suggests that training shoulders twice a week is optimal, as long as there’s one or more rest days between each workout. But it’s different for everyone, and you can definitely still build great shoulders with just one session a week.

How Much Weight Should You Use When Working Out Your Shoulders?

You need to be careful when doing overhead movements. Holding weight that you might not be able to control above your head is dangerous, So although it might be tempting to go heavy, rather err on the side of caution and go lighter than you think you should at first.

The key is to use a weight that you can comfortably lift with perfect form for 4 to 6 reps (men) or 8 to 10 reps (ladies). Once you can reach the upper end of the range (6 or 10 reps), you can up the weight, as long as you can hit a minimum of 4 or 8 with proper form.

If you feel unstable or like there’s a chance of dropping the weight on your head… Then go lighter. You can build great shoulder muscle even with lighter weights, so if you need to start lighter, don’t worry about it. This is how progressive overload works!

A man doing shoulder workout with dumbbells

Example of a Shoulder Workout

It’s easy to put together your own effective shoulder exercise routine. Don’t forget to warm up first—the shoulder is a complex joint and can get injured easily, so spending 15 minutes or so on warming up is well worth it.


Nothing too strenuous, but a proper warm-up is essential. Opt for 5 to 10 minutes of light cardio to get the blood flow going. If you’ve got a resistance band or a cable machine, you can do some external and internal rotation exercises to get the rotator cuff working, but keep them light.

Finish your warm-up with some arm circles (forward and backward), shoulder shrugs, and front and lateral raises without the weights. Between 10 and 15 reps of each should be good.


Choose 4 to 5 shoulder exercises to do in one session. We’ve focused more on the lateral and rear delts, with less of a focus on the front delts, as they get a good bit of activation on chest days and back days.

Here’s an example of a well-rounded shoulder workout. You can chop and change exercises on shoulder day if you want to, but make sure you’re hitting all those delts.

  • Overhead press (front & lateral delts): 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps (men) or 8 to 10 reps (women).
  • Barbell delt row (rear delts): 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps (men) or 8 to 10 reps (women).
  • Lateral raise (lateral delts): 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps per arm (men) or 8 to 10 reps per arm (women).
  • Reverse fly (rear delts: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps per arm (men) or 8 to 10 reps per arm (women).

Rest between sets as needed. A minute to two minutes is a good rest time to allow your muscles enough time to lift effectively in the next set.


You can do some light cardio to help your muscles loosen up and flush out lactic acid. We also recommend 5 minutes or so of light stretching, especially of the shoulders, upper back, and neck.

A man suffering after doing mistakes during his shoulder workout

Shoulder Workout Mistakes to Avoid

Ready to start building a powerful set of shoulder muscles? Follow the workout advice above, and pay particular attention to these mistakes so you don’t ruin your own progress.

Overworking the Front Delts

This is the most common mistake when it comes to working the shoulders. Because they get engaged in so many other exercises, if you work them the same amount as the lateral and rear delts, chances are they’ll grow more.

The key is to go light on the front delts in your shoulder workouts and focus more on the lateral and rear deltoids. This will prevent your front delts from growing disproportionately to the others, so you can build a really aesthetic set of well-developed shoulders.

Going Too Heavy

Start with light weight. You can increase in weight if necessary based on the rep ranges specified above, but ONLY if you can do your maximum number of reps with perfect form.

Don’t be impatient here. Remember, it’s too easy to drop a weight on your head if your shoulder stability is weak, your muscles fatigue, your hands are a little too sweaty, or your grip fails! Be cautious… The potential dangers of lifting heavy weight overhead are too great to be lax here.

Using Momentum to Lift the Weight

If you’re swinging the weight up using momentum from your body, your shoulder muscles are missing out on a lot of activation. Keep your body as still as possible during the movement—you should be only moving your arms for pretty much all of these exercises.

If you can’t lift heavier weights without some momentum behind them, then you’re lifting too heavy. Lighten the weight and work on the movement until you build enough strength to lift heavier.

Not Tightening the Core

Failing to tighten the core means it’s much easier to lose your form. A weak core contributes to that swinging motion that ruins a good shoulder lift, so this is something you need to consciously do on every rep until it becomes a habit.

Lifting Through Shoulder Pain

Pain means something isn’t right. DOMS and muscle burning during your movement is normal, but if you feel a sharp pain or a dull ache in the joint, it’s a potential shoulder injury waiting to happen.

The first step is to lower the weight you’re using. If your shoulder pain goes away, then stick to the weight you’re at for a few weeks before trying to go up again.

But if you feel pain no matter what weight you’re using, or if your range of motion is impaired, it’s best to stop. You may want to get your shoulder checked out by a medical professional to make sure there’s no underlying problem.

If you’ve had a shoulder injury in the past, you may need to do some rehabilitation work before your shoulder is ready for heavy weights. Or, opt for a program that’s going to build strength in the shoulders as a foundation for heavier lifting.
We know it’s tempting to lift through the pain so you can build a dynamite set of shoulders, but remember, the shoulders are easily injured. Push too hard, and you could find yourself with a serious injury that keeps you out of the gym for weeks to months.

About Julien Raby

My name is Julien Raby and I’m one of the owner of BoxLife. Here’s my background on LinkedIn if you want more info. I’ve been active pretty much my whole life and I discovered Crossfit about 7 years ago. I want to help you improve your Crossfit performances by giving tips on specific movements, workouts and equipment. You have a question? Get in touch!