By Laura Williams
If you spend all your time at the gym working your chest and back, and little time working your shoulders, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
The shoulder is a complex conjunction of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones that come together to form the most mobile (and thereby, least stable) joint in your entire body. This true ball-and-socket joint allows you to press, pull, rotate, adduct and abduct your arms, pretty much acting as a “helper” (if not the outright prime mover) for almost any sport or activity you perform. In other words, it’s important not to overlook it when strength training your upper body.
Of course, your “shoulders” don’t consist of a single muscle, or even a single group of muscles. Shoulder-specific musculature consists of the deltoids and the rotator cuffs, with the deltoids ranking as the larger muscle group that essentially wraps around your shoulder joint like an anatomical shoulder pad. The kicker here is that the deltoids aren’t a single muscle, but a group of muscles – the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid. A well-balanced shoulder routine targets all three heads of the deltoid muscle, and by default, will also target the smaller, supporting muscles of the rotator cuff. If you want to start a shoulder workout to develop strength and shape, consider adding the following exercises to your routine.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press is an excellent compound exercise that targets all three heads of the deltoid but hits the anterior and lateral deltoids to a greater extent. And according to 2014 study performed by the American Council on Exercise, the dumbbell shoulder press is actually the most effective exercise for targeting the anterior head of the delt.
The exercise can be performed seated or standing, although a 2013 study indicates that the standing dumbbell shoulder press stimulates greater overall neuromuscular activation and greater activation of the posterior head of the delt. On the flip side, it’s a more challenging variation, so it’s a good idea to start with less weight than when performing the seated version.
Sit or stand holding a dumbbell in each hand. Position the dumbbells at each shoulder, your palms facing away from you. As you exhale, press the dumbbells straight overhead, so they almost touch when your arms are extended. Lower them slowly back to the starting position, breathing in as you lower them.
Bent-Arm Lateral Raises
According to the ACE study, bent-arm lateral are one of the best exercises for targeting the lateral (or medial) head of your deltoid – the portion that runs directly over the top of your shoulder.
Stand tall, your feet shoulder-distance apart, your knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your upper arms fixed to your sides and your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle so the dumbbells are positioned in front of your torso, your palms facing inward. On an exhale, raise both arms up and out to the sides, keeping your elbows bent at 90-degrees, stopping when your elbows are aligned with your shoulders with your palms now facing the ground. Slowly reverse the movement, lowering your upper arms back to your sides as you inhale.
Seated Reverse Dumbbell Flys
To target the posterior head of the deltoid, seated reverse dumbbell flys are a good choice. Because the posterior delt is often overlooked, you may need to select a lighter dumbbell, especially as you learn the movement to ensure you master proper form.
Sit on the front of a bench or a sturdy chair with your feet flat on the ground roughly hip-distance apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides, your arms extended toward the ground. Keeping your torso straight, engage your core and tip forward from the hips until your torso is tilted at a roughly 45-degree angle. Allow your arms to hang straight down toward the floor from your shoulders with your palms rotated inward. Pull your shoulders back to engage your back and posterior delts. This is the starting position.
From this position, exhale and pull your arms directly out to the sides and upward, maintaining a slight bend in your elbows as you consciously draw your shoulder blades in toward your spine. When your hands are roughly aligned with your shoulders, forming a bent over “T” shape with your body, reverse the movement and inhale as you slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Incorporating Shoulder Exercises Into Your Program
When adding shoulder exercises to your routine, it’s a good idea to always start with the compound shoulder press before progressing to the isolation exercises. With the shoulder press, aim to perform two to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions, using a weight that’s challenging – you want the last one to two reps of every set to be difficult to complete while maintaining good form. It’s completely possible to experience muscle growth while lifting lighter weights, as long as you lift to failure, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research indicates that to develop greater strength, selecting heavier resistance is more beneficial.
After completing the shoulder presses, perform at least one isolation exercise, doing two to three sets of 12 to 15 reps. Again, select a weight that’s challenging, but not impossible, to perform with good form. And if you choose not to isolate each head of the deltoid during every workout, make sure you use a different isolation exercise each time you work your shoulders. It’s only through this well-balanced approach to training that you’ll develop the well-balanced shoulders you’re aiming for.
About the Author:
Laura Williams has a Master’s Degree in Exercise Science and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. After managing gyms for six years, she became a freelance fitness writer, currently writing for Verywell, Men’s Journal, Thrillist, The List, and Bodybuilding.com.
When she’s not busy writing content for other sites, she creates programs and workouts for her own website, Girls Gone Sporty.