How to Sculpt Seriously Strong Shoulders With These 7 Exercises

The exercises and reps that you do, depend on your goals.
Image Credit: Mike Harrington/Photodisc/GettyImages

Your shoulders just might be the most overlooked muscles in your upper body workouts. But they do so much for you. They don't just support you as press off the ground during push-ups, they also stabilize your arms as grab something off a tall shelf or carry groceries in from the car.

While those might seem like simple tasks, performing daily chores like that without pain, stiffness or weakness goes a long way in providing you with the freedom, confidence and ability to live your life — especially as you get older.

To strengthen your shoulders (and improve the quality of your overall upper body workouts), it's vital to learn the correct form for shoulder exercises, as well as how many reps and sets work best for your goals and current fitness level.

Tip

The best exercises targeting your shoulders include lateral raises, front raises, shoulder presses, upright rows, plank taps and more. Each shoulder workout should include anywhere from 1 to 6 sets of 6 to 15 reps of each exercise.

Read more: Exercises That Could Hurt Your Shoulders (and What to Do Instead)

Structuring Your Shoulder Workouts

Technically, your shoulder joint is made up of three bones (humerus/upper arm, scapula/shoulder blade and clavicle/collarbone, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Those are held in place by the muscles of your rotator cuff — the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor. and subscapularis.

You also have your deltoids, which form a cap over your shoulder joint and are usually the muscles people talk about when they refer to shoulder workouts.

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the fastest way to increase build these muscles is to lift heavy dumbbells. Be mindful, though — the term "heavy" varies greatly from person to person.

Sets and Reps

As a general rule of thumb, select weights that cause you to reach fatigue after eight to 12 reps but still maintain good form (your last two reps should feel like a struggle but still doable). For the average person, this is typically anywhere from 8 to 30 pounds. If you're brand new to lifting, though, you may want to start with 5 pounds or body-weight exercises.

In general, you'll want to aim for 1 to two sets of 8 to 15 reps, according to ACE. But if you're an advanced lifter training for bulk, you'll want to do 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps. In general, the heavier your weights are, the fewer reps you'll include in a set, and the lighter they are, the more reps you can do.

Frequency

How often you work your shoulders also depends on your fitness level. Beginners should aim for two full-body strength-training sessions each week, according to the U.S. government's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

As you get stronger and more comfortable with lifting, though, you can work your shoulders for up to two to three sessions a week, as long as you give yourself one full recovery day in between.

Read more: Jillian Michaels Shares Her Go-To Shoulder Workouts

The Best Shoulder Exercises With Dumbbells

Even if you only have access to one set of dumbbells, there are plenty of great shoulder exercises you can do. The National Academy of Sports Medicine typically recommends three to five sets of each exercise, with a minute or two of rest in between for muscle and strength development.

Move 1: Overhead Press

The overhead press can be performed from a seated position, but many trainers teach it standing as well, which also recruits the muscles in your core.

  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, with a slight bend in your knees and one dumbbell in each hand.
  2. With your spine in alignment, curl the weights up to your shoulders. Exhale as you press the dumbbells overhead with your palms facing away from your body.
  3. Press up until your elbows are fully extended, but be mindful that you're not hyperextending your elbows or arching your lower back in the process.
  4. With your grip positioned the same way, bend your elbows to approximately 90 degrees (like a goal post) before pressing overhead again.
  5. Exhale up and inhale down. Repeat for 8 to 12 reps.

Move 2: Upright Row

The upright row is a great exercise to target the deltoid muscles).

  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees and a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Position your palms to face your body with your arms extended and your hands together.
  3. Allow your elbows to bend out to the sides as you lift the dumbbells directly upward (not outward) to the height of your chest. Do not flare your elbows up higher than the height of your shoulders.
  4. Lower down in the same fashion until your arms are fully extended at the bottom.
  5. Repeat for 8 to 12 reps.

Move 3: Lateral Raise

The lateral raise is one of the best shoulder exercises and one that may require slightly lighter dumbbells.

  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees and one dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Position your arms at the sides of your body with your palms facing your body.
  3. With a slight bend in your elbows, lift your arms up and out to the side as you lift your dumbbells. Aim to get your extended arms parallel to the ground, if possible, but don't lift higher than the height of your shoulders.
  4. Exhale up, inhale down and repeat for 8 to 12 reps.

Move 4: Front Raise

You may find that a front raise requires slightly lighter dumbbells, as well. Use your best judgement and remember that your goal should be eight to 12 reps, with good form, to reach fatigue.

  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees and one dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Position your arms down in front of you with your grip facing your body.
  3. With a slight bend in your elbows, lift your arms forward and up until your dumbbells reach shoulder height, way out in front of your body.
  4. Lower the weights down, with control, in the same fashion.
  5. Exhale up, inhale down and repeat for 8 to 12 reps.

Shoulder Exercises Using Just Your Body Weight

A good shoulder workout doesn't necessarily require weights. There are a few exercises that tone the shoulders — and all you need is your body weight.

Move 1: Plank Shoulder Taps

Plank shoulder taps don't require equipment and they're a great multitasking exercise, targeting your shoulders and core at the same time.

  1. Get into high plank position on your hands and toes with your wrists directly below your shoulders and your hips square to the ground. Avoid sagging or raising your midsection.
  2. Move your feet out a bit wider than hip-width apart so that your body has a stable base.
  3. Slowly lift your right hand off the ground and gently tap it to your left shoulder.
  4. Lower your right hand back into plank, then switch it for your left hand. Complete your shoulder tap on the other side. Try to keep your hips square to the ground throughout the entire exercise.
  5. Repeat, right hand and then left hand, until you reach fatigue. Beginners can try doing this for 30 seconds and working up to 60.

Tip

To modify your plank shoulder taps, drop down to your knees in plank. Just make sure you maintain a straight spine if you do the exercise on your knees rather than your toes.

Move 2: V Push-Ups

Though standard push-ups definitely require you to have strong shoulders, you can change your body angle with the V push-up variation to more directly target your deltoids.

  1. Start in a high plank on your hands and toes, then walk your feet in several inches and lift your hips so that you're in an inverted V position.
  2. Bend your elbows to lower your head toward the ground.
  3. Press back up to the start.

Move 3: Mummy Kicks

Mummy kicks are a great exercise because they tone your shoulders while adding a cardio component.

  1. From standing, raise your arms straight out in front of you. Hold them at shoulder height with your elbows straight and your shoulders pressed down, away from your ears.
  2. Cross your extended arms back and forth as you gently jump from one foot to the other while kicking your heel out and up slightly. These kicks are meant to be small (similar to jumping rope) rather than a full cardio kickboxing extension.
  3. Repeat until you reach fatigue. For beginners, try this exercise for 30 seconds and work your way up to 60.

Read more: 8 of the Best Body-Weight Shoulder Exercises

Try This 4-Move Dumbbell Shoulder Workout

Ready to put it all together? This shoulder workout was designed by Ovi Villanueva, certified group fitness instructor at Shred415 in Chicago.

Do: 10 to 12 repetitions of each exercise below and repeat for four sets. Rest 20 to 30 seconds between each set.

  • Overhead Press
  • Lateral Raise
  • Upright Row
  • Front Raise
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